The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Bring Your Students to MHS!

December is knockingon the door which means that the Center for the Teaching of History at the MHS is wrapping-up its inaugural semester of class visits! This fall, the MHS hosted a number of programs for middle school, high school, and college students who want to learn about primary sources and experience the work of historians first-hand.

Students getting up close and personal with MHS documents.


Our collection of Revolutionary War-era material is popular with middle and high school classes who come to MHS to learn about the real people behind Boston’s Freedom Trail. For example, Cohasset-based Chris Luvisi’s AP US History class examined artifacts and documents related to the Boston boycott of British goods in the 1760s and 1770s, including the 1767 “Address to the Ladies” which encouraged Boston women to forgo imported British luxuries in order to appear “Fair, charming, true, lovely, and cleaver” to young men. After taking on identities of Boston craft workers, merchants, shopkeepers, and domestic housewives, students voted on whether to support or ignore the nonimportation agreement. While most students supported the boycott in theory, a number of them admitted that they would likely keep buying their imported tea under the table!

Students were excited to get a close look at a bottle of tea leaves collected from Dorchester Neck the morning after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.


Vincent Bradley’s AP US History class from Catholic Memorial School also engaged with the history of the Revolution, this time through the perspective of John Adams. Students explored how Adams’ views on protest and dissent changed over time by looking at his opinions on the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Bradley’s class also saw historians in action while participating in one of MHS’ Brown Bag Lunches, where they heard Kabria Baumgartner from the University of New Hampshire speak about her current research on Black girlhood and the desegregation of Massachusetts public schools. Catholic Memorial students asked Professor Baumgartner questions about her work and listened as she workshopped her research with other local historians and visitors.

Students deciphered John Adams's notes from the Boston Massacre trials to learn about his motivation for defending British soldiers. 


As the state coordinators for Massachusetts History Day, the Center for the Teaching of History (CTH) also helps many students learn research strategies for their upcoming projects. Megan Brady’s eighth grade history club from the John F. Kennedy School in Somerville came in on a Saturday so that they could learn about the collections at MHS and practice working with primary sources. Her students, whose National History Day interests range from early Pilgrim-Wampanoag relations to LGBTQ History in the 1920s, posed thoughtful questions to Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey while looking at Sarah Gooll Putnam’s Civil War-era childhood diary and a daguerreotype of author and reformer Annie Fields, who lived in a “Boston marriage” with her partner Sarah Orne Jewett for decades. You can learn more about National History Day and find inspiration for your own projects at the Massachusetts History Day website, the National History Day site, or at our own Center webpage.

Sarah Gooll Putnam's diary entry on 14 April 1865. The young artist drew her own expression at hearing of President Lincoln's asssassination to illustrate how she felt at the news.


The Center sometimes partners with Library Reader Services to help host college visits as well, which gives the perfect excuse to explore more specific and unusual themes in the MHS collections. Erika Boeckeler brought two of her Northeastern University classes this fall to explore Children’s Literature and Shakespeare in America, leading to rediscovery of gems in our stacks such as a homemade morality tale titled “Adventures of a ruffle” that was written by Anne Harrod Adams, John and Abigail’s daughter-in-law! On another day, Cathy McCarron’s class joined us from Middlesex Community College to explore Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker’s court petitions for manumission and their leadership in ending slavery in Massachusetts. We discussed the different types of primary sources that illustrate the lives of individuals who previously lacked a voice in traditional historical narratives.

If you would like to bring students to visit us, or have the Center for the Teaching of History come to you, please contact the Center for the Teaching of History at kmelchior@masshist.org. All of our student programs are free of charge, and we would love to work with you to create a memorable program with your class!  For more information on our programming, visit the Center at http://www.masshist.org/teaching-history

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

After a nice long holiday weekend it's time to put down the turkey legs and get back to the business of history. Here are the programs on-tap in the week ahead:

- Monday, 27 November, 6:00PM : Join us for an author talk with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Maria Tatar, both of Harvard University, as they discuss their new book, The Annotated African American Folktales. This new publication presents nearly 150 African American stories, among them familiar Brer Rabbit classics, but also stories like “The Talking Skull” and “Witches Who Ride,” as well as out-of-print tales from the 1890s’ Southern Workman. Arguing for the value of these stories as part of a sophisticated, complex, and heterogeneous cultural heritage, Gates and Tatar show how these stories deserve a place alongside the classic works of African American literature and American literature more broadly. This talk is open to the public. Registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). The talk begins at 6:00PM and is preceded by a reception at 5:30PM. 

- Tuesday, 28 November, 5:15PM : This week's seminar is part of the Modern American Society and Culture series. "Volunteerism and Civil Society in the Twentieth Century" is a panel discussion with K. Ian Shin of Bates College, and Chris Staysniak of Boston College, with Timothy Neary of Salve Regina University providing comment. This panel considers volunteerism as sponsored by ethnic and service organizations. Both essays challenge our notions of “belonging” in a civil society, including our understandings of assimilation, activism, and protest. Shin’s paper is “Masons, Scouts, and Legionnaires: Voluntary Associations and the Making of Chinese American Civil Society, 1864-1945.” Staysniak’s essay is “Poverty Warriors, Service Learners, and a Nationwide Movement: Youth Volunteer Service, 1964-1973.” Seminars are free and open to the public. To RSVP: email seminars@masshist.org or call (617) 646-0579. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Thursday, 30 November, 6:00PM : The second author talk of the week features Russell Shorto of the New York Times Magazine who will discuss his recent work Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom. With America’s founding principles being debated today as never before, Shorto looks back to the era in which those principles were forged. Drawing on new sources, he weaves the lives of six people into a seamless narrative that casts fresh light on the range of experience in colonial America on the cusp of revolution. While some of the protagonists play major roles, others struggle no less valiantly. Through these lives we understand that the Revolution was, indeed, fought over the meaning of individual freedom. This talk is open to the public. Registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception kicks-off at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

- Saturday, 2 December, 9:00AM : "The Political Lives of Historical Monuments and Memorials," is a teacher workshop hosted by the MHS. This workshop is now full. Please join us on March 17, 2018, for another workshop on the topic of Monuments and Historical Memory

There is no tour this Saturday, 2 December, but remember to come in and see the current exhibition, Yankees in the West, open to the public with no charge Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

John Quincy Adams’ Would-be Assassin: George P. Todsen

On November 30, 1826, President John Quincy Adams learned that Dr. George P. Todsen (Todson) wanted to assassinate him. A native of Denmark, Todsen immigrated to St. Louis in 1817 where he established a medical practice. In 1824 he became an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army but was cashiered out of service by sentence of a court martial in 1826 for embezzling public stores. Adams had reviewed the sentence and declined renominating Todsen for a military position.

Adams recorded in his diary that Dr. Henry Huntt “came very seriously to put me on my guard against” Todsen, who “had determined to murder me, for revenge.” Col. Thomas Randall, Todsen’s legal counsel, informed Adams that Todsen “had avowed to him his determination to assassinate me; and that he believed it was no idle menace— That the man was desperate, and upon this subject perfectly mad.” The news of Todsen’s hostility did not, however, impact the president’s daily schedule—Adams continued his solitary early morning walks around Washington, D.C.

The following month, on December 16, Todsen himself called at the White House. Adams recorded the visit in detail in his diary, noting that Todsen “demanded that I should nominate him for reappointment.” Adams informed Todsen that “there was no more painful duty within the compass of my service, than that of confirming a sentence of dismission; and it had been peculiarly painful to me in his case— But after the maturest consideration I had deemed it to be my duty, and I had seen no ground upon which I could retract that decision.” Adams stated he “was perfectly willing to consider the threats” of assassination “as the effect of a momentary alienation of mind,” and Todsen then “said he had given up the idea” since Adams “had expressed sentiments of compassion upon his case.”

George P. Todsen to John Quincy Adams, March 16, 1827, Adams Family Papers, microfilm edition, 608 reels (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society) reel 479.


On March 15, 1827, Todsen returned to ask for remission of a $47 payment from his court martial sentence, to which Adams assented; Todsen subsequently wrote Adams a letter of thanks. On June 2, Adams recommended Todsen to serve as doctor on an American vessel, and when Todsen came to thank Adams for the position, the president “observed to him that his future destiny would depend very much upon the propriety of his conduct under this appointment, and that I hoped it would be such as to justify the Government in appointing him, and as entirely to retrieve his character.” Even after Adams left the presidency the two men still kept in touch. As late as January 28, 1845, Todsen, then employed making translations for the U.S. State Department, visited congressman Adams in Washington, D.C.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, which means a shortened week here at the Society. 

- Monday, 20 November, 6:00PM : Join us for a conversation with author Richard Aldous of Bard College, with Fredrik Logevall of Harvard University, as they discuss Aldous's recent work Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. Drawing on oral histories, rarely seen archival documents, and the official Schlesinger papers, this biography crafts an invaluable portrait of a brilliant and controversial historian who framed America’s rise to global empire. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the architect of John F. Kennedy’s legacy, redefined the art of presidential biography. A Thousand Days, his best selling record of the Kennedy administration, remains immensely influential and cemented his place as one of the nation’s greatest political image makers.This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM.

The Society closes early at 3:00PM on Wednesday, 22 November.

The Society is CLOSED on Thursday, 23 November, for Thanksgiving.

The Library remains CLOSED on Friday, 24 November and Saturday, 25 November.

The Exhibition Galleries are OPEN on Friday, 24 November and Saturday, 25 November.

- Saturday, 25 November, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Yankees in the West.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

“The Happiest of the Happy”: An Expatriate in Italy

After you’ve processed several collections of papers here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, you start to see familiar names crop up. It’s not just the usual Cabots and Saltonstalls and Lowells, etc., or those famous Boston ministers, merchants, and abolitionists. There’s also Edward Atkinson, who seemed to know just about everybody. I find that reformer Dorothea Dix makes a fairly regular appearance. But there’s one correspondent I’ve come across a few times that intrigued me, not least because of her beautiful handwriting. She was known by various names: Esther Frances Alexander, Francesca Alexander, or just plain Fanny Alexander.

 

Fanny was an illustrator, author, folklorist, and translator. Her father was portrait painter Francis Alexander, and her mother Lucia (née Swett) was an etcher, author, and philanthropist. Fanny was their only child, born in Boston on 27 February 1837, although she spent most of her life in Italy. Fortunately for us, she kept up a correspondence with friends around the world. Her letters appear in a few different collections at the MHS, including the Bowditch-Codman-Balch and Fay-Mixter family papers. Her most substantial and personal letters here are the five she wrote to her friend Sally Hayward in the Joseph H. Hayward family papers.

Fanny wrote to Sally in great detail about her life in Italy and her artistic work. The letters typically run to at least four densely written pages and cover a variety of subjects. For example, on 28 February 1871, Fanny condoled with Sally on the death of her cousin, congratulated her on the imminent birth of a nephew, and recounted a story she’d read that inspired her latest sketch.

The story comforted me so much, that I could not resist turning it into a picture in pen and ink, which will be the first of my works ever offered for sale in Boston. […] I should like very much to have you see it, as it is a picture which I have put my whole heart into, as I have hardly ever done into any picture in my life.

 

She also described her painting studio “up under the roof.”

It is a pretty little room, and always full of flowers, so that it looks like a garden. […] I have a few little presents there, almost all from poor people; those which I receive from the rich are disposed of in the room down stairs, but my little painting room is the poor people’s room especially.

 

A few months later, Fanny wrote about another project she’d begun.

I am busy, among other things, in writing down a curious collection of legends and poetry, which I learnt long ago at Abetone, and which it seems a pity should be forgotten. I think that I shall have it printed some time, but how or where, I have not the least idea.

 

In 1882, legendary art critic John Ruskin was introduced to Fanny’s work, and he was impressed by her skill and simplicity. He went on to publish volumes of her art and stories and is usually credited with bringing her to the attention of the wider world. But Fanny would be remembered not only for her creative output, which inspired sonnets by James Russell Lowell and John Greenleaf Whittier, but also for her piety, her love of nature, and especially her charity. Many poor Italians considered her a saint.

She also lived in Florence during a time of great change. This passage from her letter of 12 December 1874 is particularly interesting.

Florence is now sadly changed since I first knew it; modern ideas have arrived even here, with the usual modern antipathy to everything venerable and beautiful; they have taken down our grand old walls, that were nearly six hundred years old, and have, for the sake of widening the business streets, and the bridges, destroyed some chapels, and other buildings, of great antiquity and beauty. All these things have grieved me more than I can tell you. […] However, there is no alternative but to die young, or to see changes.

 

Fanny lived a very sheltered life, with no formal education. In 1885, her eyesight began to fail, and she was all but blind by the end of her life. She had also broken her hip and walked with a crutch or cane. But on 22 August 1910, in a letter to Charles P. Bowditch, her mother Lucia described Fanny as busy and content.

Her room is full of the poor and the rich, who all make friends, and read the Bible, and eat bread and chocolate in company. Half blind and whole lame, she is the happiest of the happy.

 

Fanny’s father died in 1880. Fanny and Lucia lived together the rest of their lives, devoted to each other. According to Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (p. 35), “After the death of her mother in 1916 at the age of 102, Francesca took to her bed and remained there until her own death, at seventy-nine, the following January.” She is buried with her parents in Florence.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 November, 2017, 11:08 AM

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