The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"Great sights upon the water...": unexplained phenomena in early Boston

I hear you haue great sights upon the water seene betweene the Castle and the Towne: men walking on the water in the night euer since the shippe was blowen vp or fire in the shape of men. There are verie few do beleeue it yet here is a greate report of it, brought from thence the last day of the weeke.*

 

The above excerpt is from the letter shown, dated 29 January 1643/4, written from John Endecott in Salem to Governor John Winthrop in Boston. In the weeks preceding this letter, a series of strange occurrences took place in Boston, and Winthrop recorded the events in his journal. It seems that the entries were written after the fact since Winthrop relates a couple of happenings in the same entry. The first event, though, was said to have taken place on January 18th of that year.

About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away. They saw them about a quarter of an hour, being between the town and governour’s garden. The like was seen by many, a week after, arising about Castle Island and in one fifth of an hour came to John Gallop’s point.

 

Winthrop continues his entry recording matters pertaining to maintenance of Castle Island and defense of the town of Boston. But after just a paragraph, he returns to the topic of strange sights in the sky.

The 18th of this month two lights were seen near Boston, (as is before mentioned,) and a week after the like was seen again. A light like the moon arose about the N.E. point in Boston, and met the former at Nottles Island, and there they closed in one, and the parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many. About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times. It was heard by divers godly persons. About 14 days after, the same voice in the same dreadful manner was heard by others on the other side of the town towards Nottles Island.

 

Writing after the facts, Winthrop made very little attempt at providing explanations for these occurrences. In the immediate journal entries there was only one bit that gave anything in the way of reasoning for what people saw:

These prodigies having some reference to the place where Captain Chaddock’s pinnace was blown up a little before, gave occasion of speech of that man who was the cause of it, who professed himself to have skill in necromancy, and to hav done some strange things in his way from Virginia hither, and was suspected to have murdered his master there; but the magistrates here had no notice of him till after he was blown up. This is to be observed that his fellows were all found, and others who were blown up in the former ship were also found, and others also who have miscarried by drowning, etc., have usually been found, but this man was never found.

 

Interested in finding out more? Consider visiting the MHS Library to work with the sources cited, or see the suggestions below for further reading. 

 

*The transcriptions of the documents in this post appear as they do in the published volumes cited below, typically with original spelling and punctuation intact.

 


 

Sources

Endicott family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Winthrop, John, The journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, Cambridge, Mass.: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Winthrop papers, vol. IV, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1944.

 

Further Reading

Hall, David D., "A World of Wonders: The Mentality of the Supernatural in Seventeenth-Century New England," Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 63 (1984), pp.239-274.

McKeown, Adam N., "Light Apparitions and the Shaping of Community in Winthrop's 'History of New England'," Early American Literature, Vol. 47, No. 2, BETWEEN LITERATURE AND HISTORY (2012), pp.293-319.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 January, 2019, 8:00 AM

This Week @MHS

Please note that the Society is CLOSED on Monday, 21 Janaury. Normal hours resume on Tuesday. Here are the programs on the schedule for coming week:

- Tuesday, 22 January, 5:30 PM: How to Be an American Housewife: American Red Cross “Bride Schools” in Japan in the Cold War Era with Sonia Gomez, University of Chicago, and comment by Arissa Oh, Boston College. In 1951, the American Red Cross in Japan began offering “schools for brides,” to prepare Japanese women married to American servicemen for successful entry into the United States. This paper argues that bride schools measured Japanese women’s ability to be good wives and mothers because their immigration to the US depended on their labor within the home as well as their reproductive value in the family. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 24 January, 5:30 PM: Writing Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom with David Blight, Yale University, and host Carol Bundy, author of The Nature of Sacrifice. Join us for a conversation with David Blight about the challenges of writing his biography of Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave who became America's greatest orator of the 19th century. Blight, a prolific author and winner of the Bancroft Prize among other awards, has spent a career preparing himself for this biography, which has been praised as “a stunning achievement,” “brilliant and compassionate,” and “incandescent.” Carol Bundy, author of The Nature of Sacrifice, will host. This is part of the New England Biography Seminar series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 21 January, 2019, 1:00 AM

Images of the 1925 bombing of Damascus

These images are part of a series of 24 photographs of the October 1925 bombing of Damascus found at the MHS in the papers of Sheldon Leavitt Crosby,* a professional American diplomat in the interwar period. He was chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Istanbul from 1924-1930 and Acting American High Commissioner in Turkey in 1925. It is very possible that he acquired this series of astonishing photos from Damascus while acting in this capacity.


Damaged building in Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925


Smoke rises over Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

Historians have recently begun to discuss the “greater war,” positing that the period of the First World War extended beyond 1914-1918. Indeed, after the Ottoman armistice, conflict and occupation continued in the Ottoman provinces well into the 1920s. In Damascus, the famous Emir Faisal (in fact, a general military governor appointed by the British) could not stop local notables and his own soldiers from proclaiming an independent kingdom with Faisal as king in March 1920. This desperate move was a pre-emptive strike against the implementation of the League of Nations mandates handed down at the San Remo conference in April of 1920, which gave France the mandate over Syria. It also came just a few weeks after the still-existing Ottoman assembly proclaimed their National Pact in Istanbul. Despite negotiations, the French government decided to put an end to the Syrian kingdom, and French soldiers occupied Damascus and other inland cities in July of 1920. Faisal was expelled from Syria and departed for the United Kingdom. But the Syrians stayed. From 1920 on, small groups engaged in guerilla actions and rebellions throughout the region.

In the summer of 1925, the series of events known as “The Great Revolt” in English scholarship and “The Great Syrian Revolution” in Arabic took place. In July, the mountain Druze population revolted against the French troops. Next, Damascus and Hama rose up against the French. There was also internal pillage and cross-ethnic-religious violence. On 18 October, the French army deployed tanks and airplanes around Damascus in retaliation. From six in the evening until noon the next day the French intermittently shelled the city. They did not warn the civilian population. The exact number of casualties is still debated but several hundreds died, including women and children. Although resistance continued in Ghouta (interestingly, also the last rebel-held location around Damascus in 2018) and the north, the massacre caused the recall of the French general in charge and a new Civil High Commissioner arrived to finally create a civil government.

Street scene in Damascus
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925


Rubble in Damascus street
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925

The photographs collected by Sheldon Crosby depict the destruction and casualties in Damascus and were taken by Luigi Stironi, an Italian in residence in Damascus active between 1921 and 1933. Some of these photos are clearly intended to evoke horror in the viewer and many were published in European newspapers and distributed as private propaganda. The American businessman Charles Richard Crane describes in his diary how a friend showed him very similar (if not the very same) images in Jerusalem in 1926. According to Daniel Neep’s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate, Stironi claimed in 1926 that his images were bought by an American diplomat. Although many of these photographs are well-known, it is rare to find such a comprehensive set among private papers. Is it possible that Crosby was the American diplomat to whom Stironi referred?  


Soldiers in front of the Pharmacy building
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925


Soldiers in front of the French Bank of Syria
Photograph by Luigi Stironi, circa 1925


Selected literature:

Gelvin, James L. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920-1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Neep, Daniel. Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: Insurgency, Space and State Formation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Provence, Michael. The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates. London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

 

MHS catalog records:

*The photographs were removed from the Sheldon Leavitt Crosby papers, and are now shelved and cataloged as the Sheldon Leavitt Crosby photographs.

Sheldon Leavitt Crosby photographs

Sheldon Leavitt Crosby papers

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 18 January, 2019, 1:00 AM

“Light, airy, and genteel”: Abigail Adams on French Women

When Abigail Adams arrived in France in August 1784, she must have felt like she had just landed on the moon. In all 39 years of her life, Abigail had never been south of Plymouth, north of Haverhill, west of Worcester, or east of Massachusetts Bay.

Twelve years earlier, Abigail wrote a letter to her cousin Isaac Smith Jr., who was traveling in London. She wanted to ask him “ten thousand Questions” about Europe. “Had nature formed me of the other Sex, I should certainly have been a rover,” she told him. Abigail explained to Isaac that it was too dangerous for a woman to travel alone and that by the time a woman has a husband with whom to travel, she also has a house to maintain and children to raise, creating “obstacles sufficent to prevent their Roving.” Already a mother of a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and an 11-month-old, Abigail believed she had missed her chance to travel. “Instead of visiting other Countries; [women] are obliged to content themselves with seeing but a very small part of their own.” For these reasons, she told Isaac, “to your Sex we are most of us indebted for all the knowledg we acquire of Distant lands.”

One can’t help but wonder if Abigail remembered writing those words as her carriage bounced through the French countryside en route to her new residence in Auteuil, just outside of Paris. Whether or not she remembered that specific letter, she remembered the feeling of being stuck at home while her male relations traveled. She determined to write long, detailed letters to her female acquaintances, especially her nieces Elizabeth and Lucy Cranch, in an attempt to expand their worldview and to provide them with a female’s perspective of Europe.

In her letters to Elizabeth and Lucy, Abigail described the architecture of theatres, the designs of French gardens, and holiday customs. But John or John Quincy could have done that. That’s one of the things that makes Abigail’s letters remarkable—that she bothered to write to her nieces at all—something their uncle and cousin had largely neglected to do.

Left: Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius; Right: Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette

Travel books could describe architecture and provide maps, but there wasn’t one that provided a New England woman’s perception of French women. Though her correspondents entreated Abigail to divulge what French women were actually like, Abigail really only became acquainted with two women during her nine months in France—Dr. Franklin’s friend Madame Helvétius and the Marquise de Lafayette. The former “highly disgusted” her with her untidiness of dress and lewd manners; the latter charmed her immediately. When she arrived at the Lafayettes’ front door, “the Marquise. . .with the freedom of an old acquaintance and the Rapture peculiar to the Ladies of this Nation caught me by the hand and gave me a salute upon each cheek, most heartily rejoiced to see me. You would have supposed I had been some long absent Friend, whom she dearly loved.”

Unless she was with the Marquise, who spoke English well, Abigail felt isolated by her ignorance of the French language and took to observing rather than conversing. “It is from my observations of the French ladies at the theatres and public walks, that my chief knowledge of them is derived,” she explained to family friend Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer. She accordingly described what French women communicated beyond words: “The dress of the French ladies is, like their manners, light, airy, and genteel. They are easy in their deportment, eloquent in their speech, their voices soft and musical, and their attitude pleasing.”

She observed to her sister Mary that “Fashion is the Deity every one worships in this country and from the highest to the lowest you must submit.” During her stay in Europe, Abigail mailed fashion magazines and patterns home so her friends could see what was a la mode and included silk or ribbons whenever possible so they could try the designs for themselves. She gave strict instructions, such as that “the stomacher must be of the petticoat color” and “gowns and petticoats are worn without any trimming of any kind.” Abigail added that Marie Antoinette had set the trend of “dressing very plain. . .but caps, hats, and handkerchiefs are as various as ladies' and milliners' fancies can devise.”

Marie Antoinette en chemise, 1783 portrait by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Abigail never resigned herself to French attitudes towards sex and marriage, but she came to admire the easy elegance of French women and found herself missing them when she, John, and their daughter, Nabby, relocated to London in April 1785. She noticed that the English tried to copy French fashions but ended up “divest[ing] them both of taste and Elegance.” Abigail’s brush with European style convinced her that “our fair Country women would do well to establish fashions of their own; let Modesty be the first, ingredient, neatness the second and Economy the third. Then they cannot fail of being Lovely.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 January, 2019, 1:00 AM

This Week @MHS

We have two seminars and an evening talk scheduled at the MHS this week. 

- Tuesday, 15 January, 5:15 PM: Camp Benson & the “GAR Camps”: Recreational Landscapes of Civil War Memory in Maine, 1886-1910 with Ian Stevenson, Boston University, and comment by Ian Delahanty, Springfield College.This chapter examines sites where veterans transitioned the Civil War vacation toward a civilian audience: Camp Benson, where several Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) posts built a campground, and at the “GAR Camps” where a single veteran proprietor built rental cottages. The chapter asks why postwar civilians would want to mimic the veteran desire to associate healthful destinations with wartime memory. How do these outdoor landscapes explain the nation’s healing process from the Civil War? This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, 16 January,  6:00 PM: Breaking the Banks: Representations & Realities in New England Fisheries, 1866–1966 with Matthew McKenzie, University of Connecticut. Matthew McKenzie weaves together the industrial, cultural, political, and ecological history of New England’s fisheries through the story of how the Boston haddock fleet rose, flourished, and then fished itself into near oblivion before the arrival of foreign competition in 1961. This fleet also embodied the industry’s change during this period, as it shucked its sail-and-oar, hook-and-line origins to embrace mechanized power and propulsion,more sophisticated business practices, and political engagement. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

- Thursday, 17 January, 5:15 PM: Race, Empire, & the Erasure of African Identities in Harvard’s “National Skulls” with Christopher Willoughby, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, with comment by Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University. In 1847, John Collins Warren gave his anatomical collection to the Harvard medical school, including a collection of “national skulls.” This paper analyzes how skulls from the black Atlantic were collected and dubbed “African,” to show that medical schools were intimately connected to the violence of slavery and empire, and to posit a method for writing the history of racist museum exhibitions that does not continue the silencing of black voices at the heart of those exhibitions. This is part of the Boston Seminar on African American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Please note that the building will be closed on Monday, 21 January. Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 14 January, 2019, 1:00 AM

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