The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

Please note that the MHS is closed on Monday, 15 February, in observance of President's Day. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, 16 February.

Here's what we have on tap in this shortened week:

- Tuesday, 16 February, 6:00PM : "Politics of Modernism" is the third of four programs in the Modernism Series and centers on the arrival of Edward Logue as the head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The discussion featurs Liz Cohen of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, Elihu Rubin of Yale University, and Chris Grimley of AIA and Over,Under. There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. This event is open to the public, registration required. 

- Wednesday, 17 February, 9:00AM : "Adams, Jefferson, and Shakespeare" commemorates the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death by investigating his influence on America's Founding Mothers and Fathers. This full-day teacher workshop is open to educators and history enthusiasts with a fee of $25 per person (to cover materials and lunch). To register, complete this registration form, and for more information contact the education department at or 617-646-0557. 

- Saturday, 20 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 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

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

- Saturday, 20 February, 1:00PM : "'What News?': Communication in Early New England" is the latest installment of the "Begin at the Beginning: Boston's Founding Documents" series. Led by Katherine Grandjean of Wellesley College, this conversation looks at how news traveled in a time before postal service and newspapers. This program is open to the public at no cost, but registration is required. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 14 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

Math and Medicine: The Notebooks of Andrew Croswell

In the news recently there is a lot of coverage of the Zika virus and the late rise in outbreaks related to it. With that in mind I wanted to check our collections to see what the MHS holds relating to viruses. When I searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, using Virus as the subject term I came up with no results. Using a method I briefly described in my last post on the Beehive, I started clicking around to see what related terms there might be. Instead of Virus diseases, ABIGAIL pointed me to three narrower terms: Influenza, Measles, and Rabies. Not satisfied with these options and the results they yielded, I tried searching for simply Diseases instead. The first result I found with this search is what this post is all about. 

Andrew Croswell (1778-1858) was a student at Harvard University in the late 1790s. He later studied medicine in Plymouth, MA, and practiced there and in Fayette and Mercer, ME. In the collections here we hold two notebooks that were kept by Croswell. The first is a mathematical notebook which contains definitions and problems in geometry, trigonometry, and surveying. The second is a physician's notebook that contains notes on the treatment of diseases and injuries, as well as the use of some medicines. 

The second notebook, relating to various diseases and treatments, is text-heavy in its content. Croswell - who had very nice, neat, and even handwriting - copied observations from published medical texts, especially the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush. 

Observations on the cholera infantum

Rush's observations vol 1 p159


Also, Croswell includes illustrations of a few little villages in Maine where he practiced medicine.

Mercer Village, ME 1805


While it was the search for disease that exposed me to Mr. Croswell, it was his non-medical notebook that really captured my attention. Given my aversion to math in my educational career, this was an accomplishment. Croswell's mathematical notebook, kept while a student at Harvard, was impressive not only in its order, clarity, and neatness, but in the embellishments that he included. The title page gives us a very good idea of what to expect in terms of content before we get into the notebook:


The first section of notebook deals with geometry. Croswell started by writing out definitions of terms relating to the subject and then goes on to tackling geometric problems. It is here that the notebook becomes, to me, much more visually striking as he starts to include geometric figures alongside the various problems. Generally, the figures start out fairly simple and then get more complex.


After his work on geometry, Croswell moves into the field of surveying and problems of trigonometry. Again, he steps-up his detail and the intricacy of his illustrations, adding color and tables as he solves problems relating to land area:


He then proceeds to "Mensuration of Heights and Distances" through the use of trigonometric functions. Again, Croswell takes his illustrations up another level, this time depicting full scenes which represent the mathematical problems at hand. The problems contain variables such as whether a location is accessible to people and the situation of the ground from which observations are made.

PROB. 1. _ To take the height of an accessible object by one observation.


PROB 4th. To take the distance of any inaccessible object. | PROB 5th. Upon a place of known height determine the distance betwee two objects, lying in the same direction.


The last section of this mathematical notebook concerns itself with matters of maritime navigation. 


Again, Croswell draws out intricate geometric designs to illustrate the problems of navigation and sailing. He even includes a hand-drawn and colored map of the Atlantic Ocean (the judges deduct one point on this for his representation of the North American coastline). 


Pretty cool, right? To think, that from hearing about a modern medical issue in the news, I ended up with such a meticulously written and illustrated mathematical guide to solving problems of navigation! Now it's your turn. Pick a starting point in ABIGAIL and see how far afield you find yourself after just a few minutes. Then visit the library and check out what you discover!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 12 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

Immigrants Needing Protection from Themselves? The Padrone System in Boston’s North End

In the late nineteenth century the Reverend Gaetano Conte created a scrapbook about the founding of the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. The scrapbook, titled Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants: documents and illustrations, 1894-1906,  is a unique collection of notes, letters, newspaper clippings, annual reports, and photographs kept by Conte during his years in Boston and through his return home to Italy.

Interestingly this organization was not formed with the intention of protecting the newly arriving Italian Immigrants from Americans or other immigrants, but from fellow Italian immigrants! Why was there such a need as described by the Reverend and the inhabitants of Boston’s North End? What were the Italian Immigrants exposed to that other immigrants were not? What was it that put fear and anger in the hearts of families and young men when they arrived on American shores? The answer to each question is the same: The Padrone.

The Padrone System was a network that began in the towns of Italy and spread to the cities and towns of America. The Padrone -from the Italian word for manager or boss- were labor brokers. These were men who victimized their fellow countrymen as they arrived lost and alone in a foreign land. The new immigrants were in need of guidance, guidance that the Padrones would provide…at a price. The Padrone would offer employment opportunities to young men in Italy, often promising them safe passage and housing. The Padrone also offered banking for the immigrants; providing them with a “safe” place to save the money they earned and a way to “send” money home to Italy. Other Padrone would simply solicit Italian men who were already in America with the prospect of a “great” new job; all they had to do was agree to go to Maine for a year…

The degree of corruption varied, but the Padrone always profited from the relationship. Passage from Italy was on ships owned by companies with whom they had contracts. Housing was poor tenement apartments shared among many immigrants in sub-human standards.  The jobs they offered in America were often extremely hard with very little pay. The Padrone “banks” would often make large portions of the immigrant’s savings disappear for various fees. The money the immigrants would try to send home to their families in Italy would often never arrive. And the “great” new jobs would often be far from their new homes in Boston, such as in the woods of Maine where they would labor endlessly under the Padrone, often without seeing the wages they had been promised. The Italian immigrants often found themselves lost and confused in this new country; they couldn’t speak the language, they didn’t understand the customs and they were often uneducated. So the services of the Padrone seemed the only choice they had to survive; they felt they had no one else to help them.

The Immigration Act of 1864, supposedly to encourage immigration, created the opportunity for Padrones in America; it allowed manufacturers to bring in a cheap foreign labor force under contract, hence needing a middleman or labor broker to negotiate between the laborers and the employers. Although largely unheard of, the Padrone Act of 1874 tried to stop the padrone system to protect immigrants from “involuntary servitude.”  

Rev. Conte came to the United States in 1893 to help his fellow Italians who had moved to America. Upon arriving in America and beginning his work here, the Reverend began to keep records of the social situation of the Italian immigrants. He found the Italian immigrants needed more than just their souls saved, and the Reverend was not going to allow his people to suffer. He became the superintendent of the Boston Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. He was also involved in the North End Italian Mission, the Association for Protecting Italian Workmen, and the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants.

Rev. Conte’s work with Italian Immigrants in Massachusetts was pioneering and heroic. His notes are aptly named after the Society that he created. The revered was not only interested in protecting Italians from the Padrone; he also sought to improve schooling, housing and health care.  The collection here at the MHS covers many aspects of the immigrants’ lives, social, political, religious and moral. It illustrates elements of the social aspects of immigration and life in the North End along with observations of religious, moral and ethical issues. It also contains photographs, illustrations and legal records, annual reports and statistical information. Finally the collection has many newspaper clippings from both American and Italian immigrants portraying the victimization by the Padrone and the actions of the Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants.


Also in the collection are two versions of a memoir written by Conte and focusing on issues of Italian emigration to North American at the turn of the 20th century. There is a 1903 Italian-language printing, Dieci anni in America: impressioni e ricordi, and a 1976 translation titled Ten Years in America: impressions and recollections…  

Interested in U.S. immigration over the years? Try searching our catalog, ABIGAIL, for subject terms like United States Emigration and immigration


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 11:52 AM

This Week @ MHS

On the calendar this week we have a pair of seminars, a pair of public programs, and a free tour. Here's how it all shakes out:

- Tuesday, 9 February, 5:15PM : Join us for an Environmental History seminar discussion with presenter Laura J. Martin of Harvard University, and commentor Brian Payne of Bridgewater State University. The talk focuses on Martin's paper, "The History of Ecological Restoration: From Bombs to Bac-O-Bits," which explores the intellectual and cultural history of ecological restoration from 1945 to 1965. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Thursday, 11 February, 5:30PM : Laura Briggs of UMass-Amherst presents "All Politics are Reproductive Politics: Welfare, Immigration, Gay Marriage, Foreclosure" as part of the History of Women and Gender seminar series. The project looks at the collision of two forces - increasing unpaid care burdens, and ever more need for wage labor - and how they have radically reconfigured both families and political common sense in particularly racialized ways over the last forty years. Suzanna Danuta Walters of Northeastern University provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. This event takes place at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard.

- Thursday, 11 February, 6:00PM : "Culture of Modernism" is the second of a four-part series on the topic of Modernism. This talk features author Alexandra Lange; Jane Thompson of the Thompson Design Group; and Michael Kubo of Collective-LOK. There will be a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM. Registration is required for this program. This program takes place at the Concord Museum.

- Friday, 12 February, 2:00PM : "Jefferson's Journey to Massachusetts: The Origin of the Coolidge Collection at the MHS" is a free gallery talk focused on our current exhibition, The Private Jefferson. Stephen T. Riley Librarian, Peter Drummey, explains the provenance of this collection and how the largest collection of this Virginian's private papers arrived at the MHS. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Saturday, 13 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 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.orgWhile you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 7 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

Curiosities and Monstrosities

As I sat trying to think of ideas for this post, I opened our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to brainstorm and see if I could think of any odd subject headings I wanted to explore. There, in that sentence, lay the answer. I typed in "oddities" to see what we might have in our holdings with that tag. The number of results I got with that search was a big fat goose egg. Thankfully, ABIGAIL, though often cruel in her adherence to a controlled vocabulary, offered me a bit of help and gave me another term that I should look into: "Curiosities and Wonders." 

And so I was off, looking into what curious and wondrous items the MHS holds. There are 33 titles associated with that subject heading in the catalog, with further subdivisions pointing to specific geographic locations (Lawrence and Boston, MA; NY, NY; Great Britain), photographs, even juvenile literature. Confining myself to the original 33, I started browsing the titles for common themes or links among them. It was soon apparent that we had a decent little number of items relating to the grotesque, freakish, and monstrous. 



Opened by Daniel Bowen in 1795, the Columbian Museum showcased a broad range of curiosities: waxen figures of John Adams; larger-than-life depictions of Scriptural scenes, like David and Goliath; and exhibitions of various animals. "A procupine, a bear, a raccoon, and a rabbit were announced by their proprietor as 'very great curiosities.' There was an elephant which, in conformity with the habits of the day, drank 'all kinds of spirituous liquors;' and the public were assured that 'thirty bottles of porter, of which he draws the corks himself, is not an uncommon allowance.'... spectators were informed that 'he will probably live between two and three hundred years,' -- an announcement which shows that the effect of alcohol upon animal tissue was not then so well understood as it is thought to be at present."1 The Columbian Museum operated until 1825 when the collections were acquired by Ethan Allen Greenwood for his New England Museum.



This broadside relates a piece of correspondence written by Samuel Hanson to his brother. Hanson, along with two other soldiers, is ordered to travel from Louisville, KY, to New Orleans in order to assist General Jackson there. Along the way, the three men stop for a night in the town of Versailles, KY, on the Ohio River. They are told tales of an enormous serpent that has been menacing the town and eating livestock. With all the able-bodied men of the town already off in New Orleans to join in the fighting, the townspeople aske these three soldiers to help them get rid of the threat. They agree and, the next day head out with their two dogs to search for the beast in the woods. After some time, they finally find "a monster, of the serpent kind, full twenty-two feet length, and the thickest part of his body of the size of the thigh of one our largest men! his eye sparkling like fire, and venomously shooting forth his forked tongue..." The men eventually succeeded in killing the beast and taking its head. 



Finally, this broadside caught my eye mainly because of the image that dominates the center. However, after a closer look, it is the feature at the bottom that really stands out. Upon closer reading, we find that the audience has the opportunity to see a living man who, early in life, promised to be a robust man later on. However, due to some unexplained circumstance, the man lost all flesh and was, seemingly, a living skeleton, and one that could play the violin, to boot!

Clicking through ABIGAIL with little direction can yield some interesting and entertaining items. Take a trip down the rabbit hole, see what you find, and then visit the library!


1. Winsor, Justin, The Memorial History of Boston : including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Boston: Osgood, 1881


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 5 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

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