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Mysterious, Gruesome, and Spooky Aspects of History

This time of year often sparks an interest in the mysterious, gruesome, and spooky aspects of history. New Englanders often flock to Salem and other “haunted” spots with a keen interest in connecting with the people and the events that had transpired long ago. Within the walls of the MHS, you will find a few intriguing items that might even be considered “spooky.” But for those of us who spend our days delighting in the words, thoughts, and mementos of our forefathers and foremothers, these are fascinating pieces of history. Alas, as it is All Hollow’s Eve, I thought I might share a few of the more spooky items with you!

First up is the Salem Witch Bureau.

This rather unassuming bureau greets you on the way into our reading room. In actuality, it has a dark past. Supposedly, the bureau was evidence used in the Salem Witch Trails in 1692! In his will, Gen. William H. Sumner described this chest of drawers as "the Witch Bureau, from the middle drawer of which one of the Witches jumped out who was hung on Gallows Hill, in Salem.” So the next time you walk into the reading room, take a moment to ponder from which drawer the specter had jumped forth. 

While on the topic of the Salem Witch Trials, the MHS houses the papers of Judge Samuel Sewall, one of the Judges who presided over the trials. Sewall kept a diary from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730.

Perhaps most notable is his diary entry for 19 September 1692. He records:

“Monday; Sept-19th 1692. Abt noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressed to death for standing mute Much pains was used with him two days one after another by ye court & Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been his acquaintance: but all in vain. 20 Now I hear from Salem that abt 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stamped and pressed a man to Death. But was cleared. twas not remembered till Ann Putnam was told of it by G Corey’s Specter ye Sabbath-Day night before ye Execution.”

Sewall later repented for his involvement and gained notoriety for his firm antislavery stance when he published The Selling of Joseph in 1700.

The MHS also has an item described as a “Piece of wood from a tree, place unidentified, reported to have been used for hanging witches in the 17th century.” 

And here is a fascinating, yet eerie tidbit: not only do we have the letters, diaries and artifacts of those long departed, we also have pieces of them! (Oh, but yes indeed!) We have a surprisingly large collection of human hair, mostly given as pieces of mourning Jewelry and keepsakes to remember loved ones. Locks of hair would be cut from the deceased and kept, often intricately incorporated into a piece of jewelry, such as a ring or a broach. To learn more about pieces in our collection that contain human hair, visit our “Jewelry Containing Hair” page that is part of our Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, 17th to 19th Centuries online display.

We currently have hair from both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington on display as a part of our Hamilton at the MHS display. Be sure to stop by before 15 November to see it and check out other Hamilton artifacts online at www.masshist.org/hamilton.

Next, I would like to share a nifty hook with you! Not very spooky you say? What if I told you it was carved from human bone?

This fascinating artifact is a hook from the Sandwich Islands, supposedly made from a bone of Capt. James Cook. It is bone carved into a hook with a thin cord wound closely around the top of the shank and extending onto a wrapped and twisted section tied in a slip knot.

Well, enough about human remains! We also have a warbler preserved in arsenic, a death mask, and dolls. One such example is a doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families. "Rebeccah Codman Butterfield" is a very well preserved doll with an exceptional past.

According to a note penned by the donor's mother, Ellis Phinney Taylor, and pinned to the doll's petticoat, Rebeccah's life began long ago but not too far away:

“My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne--no wonder I look a bit cracked!”

Read more about Rebeccah and the Codman and Butterfield families here.

Having worked at the MHS for a number of years, I must admit that we get all sorts of questions! I still recall welcoming a researcher to the reading room on a dark and gloomy December morning who looked at me with delight and asked “Do they talk to you?” I was unsure who she was referring to so she clarified and said “Ghosts! Are you ever approached by ghosts? You must have so many here!” While many hours are spent in the stacks, I am not aware of any archivist or librarian who has encountered a ghost. Though I must profess, the Society is not free from strange occurrences. In the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Third Series, Vol. 72  p.417), there is one account from the Annual Meeting in 1957 which has always struck me:

“We have had our trials and tribulations. The janitor on duty when your Director took office lost his mind in this building, here, before our very faces, and had to be locked up until he died;” 

Hmm . . . not what you would expect to find while reading Annual Meeting notes. It continues:

“his very good successor died of a heart attack overnight; his brother and successor suddenly developed a strange illness and had to be relieved; the present janitor lost his wife and sole companion last June and is now desperately ill.” 

The list of interesting artifacts found within our walls goes on and on, and so could I. But I leave you to  browse our online—and fully searchable—catalog, Abigail, for "cool" and "creepy" items that intrigue you from the comfort of your living room . . . or crypt! 

And with that, we wish you a safe, yet slightly-spooky, Halloween night!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

“As Drowning Men Catch at Straws”: William H. Simpkins and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment

I have now to tell you of a pretty important step that I have just taken. I have given my name to be forwarded to Massachusetts for a commission in the 54th (negro) Regt. Coln. Shaw.

This excerpt comes from a letter written by Civil War soldier William Harris Simpkins on 26 February 1863. Harris was serving with the 44th Massachusetts Infantry at New Bern, N.C. and had been recommended for a post in the new 54th Regiment, the first African-American regiment raised in the North. Simpkins decided to accept and, in this letter to his father, preemptively defended his decision and discussed the possibilities of the regiment.

William Harris Simpkins (1839-1863)

Simpkins was born in Boston, Mass. on 6 Aug. 1839 and worked as a clerk before enlisting in the Union Army. When he got word from Col. Francis L. Lee that he had the chance at a commission with the 54th under the command of Capt. Robert Gould Shaw, he was cautiously optimistic. He recognized the significance of the move and acknowledged what he might be giving up. Portions of his letter have been printed in histories of the regiment, but I think it’s worth quoting at length.

This is no hasty conclusion, no blind leap of an enthusiast, but the result of a considerable hard thinking.

It will not at first, and probably will not be for a long time, an agreeable position for many reasons too evident to state, and the man who goes into it resigns all chances in the new white Regiments, that must be raised; […] and there can be no dispute as to, among which color, the most comfortable & pleasurable position will be.

Simpkins’ friend Cabot Jackson Russel saw things in a similar light. The 18-year-old Russel served with Simpkins in the 44th and was also commissioned a captain of the 54th. Just one day before Simpkins, on 25 Feb. 1863, Russel wrote home to say that he had “given up everything” and was “going under Bob Shaw, as it seems so important to put this measure through.” (Russel’s letters can be found in the Patrick Tracy Jackson and Loring-Jackson-Noble family papers.)

Cabot Jackson Russel (1844-1863)

Despite the risks and the uncertainty, Simpkins still believed in the project. His letter continues:

Then it is nothing but an experiment after all. But it is an experiment, that I think it high time we should try; an experiment, that if successful, will be productive of much good; […] an experiment, which the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of a false hope.

Some publications stop quoting him there, but I found the next paragraph particularly moving.

There will probably be some trouble with the white troops in the field, arising from a traditional sence [sic] of honor, too nice for me to understand, which distinguishes between fighting behind earth-works thrown up by black laborers, and allowing a negro soldier to stand in the next field to fire his gun at the common enemy; but once prove the efficacy of black troops and I think they will hail them, as drowning men catch at straws.

To make the test you must have men who are willing for the trial. It is of especial importance, of course, in order to win the people to this movement, that it should be undertaken by the right sort of men, and that the first black Regt. should have everything done for it in the way of officers &c that would tend to make it efficient. If I am one of the persons selected, why should I refuse? I came out here, not from any fancied fondness of a military life, but to do what I could to help along the good cause. Why should I not stretch my patriotism a little further and accept a commission in a Negro Regt?

Simpkins was killed on 18 July 1863 during the assault at Fort Wagner as he kneeled next to his injured friend Russel. The 1864 memorial to Robert Gould Shaw includes a detailed description of Simpkins’ death, which was witnessed and recounted by Sgt. Stephen A. Swails.

Stephen Atkins Swails (1832-1900)

Simpkins, Russel, Shaw, and the black soldiers killed in the battle were buried together in a mass grave.

Simpkins’ letter forms part of the Hooper family papers here at the MHS—his aunt married into the Hooper family, and his cousin Henry Northey Hooper also served as a captain in the 54th Regiment. Unfortunately the document we have is only a copy written by someone else, and the location of the original is unknown. However, the Hooper collection does contain two original letters by Simpkins, written to his mother before he enlisted.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has many resources related to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, both online and in our library, including manuscript collections, photograph collections, and print material. You’ll find a handy introduction here.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 26 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

"Splendid Flowering Bulbs": Washburn & Co.'s 1865 Autumn Catalog

As we near the end of October here in Boston the trees are starting to turn vibrant yellows and oranges while the morning air is crisp with overnight frost. While many gardeners are digging up gardens and bringing plants indoors out of the cold for the winter ahead, it’s also time to think ahead to spring! Now is the season to plant tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and other flowering bulbs to rest through the winter months and flower with the return of light and warmth to the northern hemisphere. 


In the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection of trade catalogs is an autumn catalog for 1865 from Washburn & Co. for Splendid Flowering Bulbs and Other Flowering Roots with Full Instructions for Cultivation. Inside are twenty-four pages of dense description and product listings by type: crocus, cyclamen, hyacinth, lilies, snowdrops, tulips, and more. Each price list is preceded by lush description: “The tulip,” offers the catalog, “of all bulbous flowers, is the most celebrated, popular, brilliant, and beautiful . . . easy of culture both in the conservatory or parlor and the open garden.” The Japanese lily, for which Washburn & Co. was lately rewarded with a silver medal by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, is given pride of place as an illustration inside the front of the catalog. 

Gardeners are able to order a range of bulbs for around $1.00 per bulb, or $4-8 per dozen, depending upon the variety. The catalog also offers gardening tools including flower pots, baskets (“a splendid assortment”), weather vanes, preserving jars, and flower arrangements for weddings and funerals. “Orders by Express or Telegraph will receive prompt attention”!

Interested in gardening in times past, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, or other aspects of flora and fauna in New England? Researchers are welcome to visit the library to consult this and other trade catalogs in our reading room. And don’t forget to venture out into this crisp autumn weather and enjoy the changing seasons in your own back yard. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

Hints to Soldiers on Health: 14 tips for those serving during the Civil War

In the Albert Gallatin Browne papers you will find a printed piece of paper entitled, "Hints to Soldiers on Health." These "Directions for Preservation of Health" give pointers to soldiers serving in the Union Army during the Civil War on how to keep themselves in tip-top shape while living through the worst of conditions and on the move. It includes my favorite tip, number 11, regarding bleeding to death:

If, from any wound, the blood spirts out in jets, instead of a steady
stream, you will die in a few minutes unless it is remedied; because an artery
has been divided and that takes the blood direct from the fountain of life . . .

Aren't those positive words? If your blood is spurting out, you will most likely die. Don’t forget to wear flannel!

The handout does mention the difference between blood spurting and blood flowing, and what to do in either situation. While it’s necessary to know these things when you are about to enter a battlefield, the rather blunt wording shook me, thinking of all those who did indeed bleed out over the course of the war on both sides.

Number 7 is also a good reminder:

Recollect that cold and dampness are great breeders of disease. Have a 
fire to sit around, whenever you can, especially in the evening and after rain; 
and take care to dry every thing in and about your persons and tents. 

Even in the warmest of climates, it seems like having a fire would still be necessary. As William H. Eastman, a member of the 2nd Battery (Nim's Battery) of Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery writes home to his mother from Bayou Boeuf, Louisiana, 8 May 1863:

. . . the flys are awful thick + as soon as the sun sets 
musquitoes “Oh Dear” tis no use for me to try +
give any idea of their number a swarm of Bees
is no comparison as soon as sundown we build large
fires of corn husks + keep them agoing all night
why if a man has occasion to do a job for himself
after dark he is obliged to take some husks out + build
a fire + sit in the smoke else his rear will be in rather 
a dilapidated condition rather a tough state of things
but such is the case. I am fortunately well off as
I have confiscated the Captains Bed and Musquito bar
that were among the stores but is rather hard for many 
of the poor fellows without bars ^who get up + walk around
half the night to pass the time away.

Well! Hopefully this post has made you feel a little more comfortable with your living conditions, and thankful winter will soon set in and erase mosquitoes from our lives for a short time. Remember, "if disease begins to prevail, wear a wide bandage of flannel around the bowels!"

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

New Transcriptions Released for John Quincy Adams' Diary

Amid his daily whirl of diplomatic duties, John Quincy Adams paused to reflect on his latest dispatch to President James Monroe. After several rewrites, Adams had drafted a course of action that would shape American foreign policy for more than a century, and he was proud of it. “I considered this as the most important paper that ever went from my hands,” John Quincy wrote of his role in formulating the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States called for European non-intervention in the western hemisphere and specifically in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American nations. This week, you can explore the Era of Good Feelings anew, thanks to our release of the next set of transcriptions on The John Quincy Adams Diary Digital Project covering March 1821 to February 1825 when he served as secretary of state for Monroe’s second presidential term. 

John Quincy also kept a close eye on the American political landscape during these years. Sectional divisions and the personal rivalries between the men seeking to succeed President Monroe made this a particularly contentious period. The campaign for the 1824 election began in 1821, and eventually four viable candidates emerged: Adams, Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford of Georgia, and General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Jackson led the popular as well as the electoral vote; however, no candidate obtained the majority of votes necessary for election. The vote then fell to the House of Representatives where each state, regardless of population, had one vote, and a majority of the states was necessary for election. John Quincy finally won the contest in February 1825.

Throughout this period, John Quincy’s family remained a significant private concern. His three sons—George Washington Adams, John Adams 2d, and Charles Francis Adams—struggled academically at Harvard, and his wife Louisa Catherine Adams suffered from bouts of poor health. He maintained his exercise regimen of swimming in the spring and summer and walking in the fall and winter. He also continued to faithfully keep his diary entries—a difficult task due to his busy work schedule and growing number of daily office visitors: “I never exclude any one. But necessary and important business suffers, by the unavoidable waste of time.” For an overview of John Quincy’s life during these years, read the headnotes for each chronological period or, navigate to the entries to begin reading the diary.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 12 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

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