The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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

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

The End of Piracy: Pirates hanged in Boston 300 years ago


Today marks the 300th anniversary of the execution of the Whydah pirates in Boston, Massachusetts, marched from their Boston jail to the gallows and hanged for their crimes of piracy.

No less a person than Puritan minister Cotton Mather recorded the day of the execution in his diary:

 “15. G. D. There is good this Day to be done, on a very solemn Occasion. Six Pirates were this Day executed. I took a long and sad walk with them, from the Prison, to the Place of Execution. I successively bestowed the best Instructions I could, upon each of them. Arriving to the Tree of Death, I pray’d with them, and with the vast Assembly of Spectators, as pertinently and as profitably as I could.”


Not much is known about young Samuel Bellamy, also known as Black Bellamy, the captain of the Whydah. Bellamy and his crew captured the three hundred ton merchant slaver Whydah as it left Jamaica on route to London in late February or early March of 1717. The ship originally had 18 guns but the crew mounted an additional ten, making it a formidable sight for any vessel to which it gave chase. According to one of the pirates, John Brown, they had about 20,000 pounds in gold and silver aboard the Whydah from “a-pyrating.” Bellamy brought his fleet to the outer shores of Cape Cod, legend says, to see a beautiful young lady by the name of Maria Hallett, whom he fell in love with on the dunes of Eastham the year before. If Maria truly did exist, we do not have a historical record; but it is more likely that the pirates came north to trade their plunder (desirable illicit goods) with eager merchants in Newport, Connecticut, New York, and Boston.

The Whydah sank off the shore of Cape Cod the night of April 26th, 1717. When the storm rose up that caught the Whydah off the coast of the Cape, the ship was driven onto the shoals and it soon became apparent the Whydah would not survive. Thirty foot waves destroyed the ship and drowned almost all of the pirates and their prisoners. The next morning inhabitants of the nearby towns discovered on the beach the gruesome sight – countless gnarled bodies washed ashore by the tides along with wreckage from the ship – which would haunt them for years. At least 102 bodies washed up on shore.

This was the fate of Captain Bellamy and his pirate crew, except for seven survivors who were arrested and sent to Boston for trial. One of the seven, Thomas Davis, was found innocent and released, then disappears from record. The other six men were found guilty of piracy through trial: John Brown, Simon Van Vorst, Hendrick Quintor, Thomas Baker, Peter Hoof and John Shuan.



Cotton Mather went often to visit, study, instruct and ultimately try to provide salvation for the pirates in their Boston jail. It seems the good minister was thoroughly intrigued by these ‘sinners’, and to our great benefit, for without his writings about the fates of the Whydah pirates we would have little record.

After the execution, Mather wrote Instructions to the living, from the condition of the dead : A brief relation of remarkables in the shipwreck of above one hundred pirates, who were cast away in the ship Whido, on the coast of New-England, April 26. 1717. And in the death of six, who after a fair trial at Boston, were convicted & condemned, Octob. 22. And executed, Novemb. 15. 1717. With some account of the discourse had with them on the way to their execution. And a sermon preached on their occasion. [Boston, Printed by John Allen, for Nicholas Boone, at the sign of the Bible in Cornhill. 1717]


Thanks to this pamphlet – available here in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society – we have the conversations and words of the pirates themselves. Mather published his Instructions to the living, from the condition of the dead… a mere month after the execution, perhaps to appease the great curiosity the pirates had caused, while also using the event as an opportunity to teach his flock. Mather again revisited the subject in his sermon “Warnings to Them that Make Haste to be Rich” on 8 December 1717.

So why did Cotton Mather go to meet with these pirates and why did he put so much thought into their state? He was, for all intents and purposes, interviewing dead men tried, and as Mather clearly stated, “after a fair trial,” convicted and sentenced to death. So here he writes “What may be offere’d, is, A Recollection of Several Passages, which occurred in discourse with the prisoners, while they walked from the prison to the Place of Execution.”


Oh my, can you imagine walking to your execution, your last moments on this earth, while Cotton Mather asks you questions? Perhaps Mather saw this as an opportunity for himself; after all there was nothing more wretched in all the world than a pirate and if he, the great moral ballast of the colonies, could save their souls, well, there would certainly be Puritan brownie points to be earned!

Mather ends his account with “Behold, Reader, the End of Piracy!”


Most Bostonians today would be surprised to learn that a few hundred years ago Boston was known as a “Port Where Pirates Hang.” Even more surprising is how we got that reputation because, indeed, we hanged pirates, and yes, they were an actual problem! So the next time you watch Pirates of the Caribbean or celebrate “Talk like a Pirate Day,” think no further than the streets of Boston!


For more on Cotton Mather materials here at the MHS, start with this online collection guide for the Cotton Mather papers view our collection guide, then consider Visiting the Library!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 5:56 PM

This Week @ MHS

We are back from a long weekend for the only full November week this year. Here are the programs coming in the week ahead:

- Tuesday, 14 November, 5:15PM : The next installment of the Environemental History Seminar series is with Jacqueline Gonzales of Historical Research Associates. "Drafting the Cape Cod Formula" examines how citizens articulated their concerns when the National Park Service wanted to create a federal park on Cape Cod, and how their responses helped the NPS and Senators John F. Kennedy and Leverett Saltonstall to create a new acquisiiton and land management policy that would then be applied to other living landscapes. Steven Moga of Smith College is on-hand to provide comment. To RSVP: email or call 617-646-0579.

Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 15 November, 12:00PM : The Brown Bag talk this week is presented by Adrian Weimer of Providence College and is titled "The Roasting of Hugh Peter: Satire and Politics in Early America." Accused regicide and former pastor of Salem, Massachusetts, Hugh Peter was the target of colorful satirical ballads and mock-sermons in the mid-seventeenth century. This presentation will explore the ways Royalists attacked Peter as a way of mocking the culture of puritanism, expressing anxieties about the very existence of puritan colonies. This event is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 16 November, 6:00PM : Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty is the new work by John Boles of Rice University. This biography does not ignore aspects of Thomas Jefferson that trouble us today but strives to see him in full and understand him amid the sweeping upheaval of his times. From his inspiring defenses of political and religious liberty to his heterodox abridgment of Christian belief, this book explores Jefferson’s expansive intellectual life and the profound impact of his ideas on the world. This author talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM. 

- Saturday, 18 November, 10:00AM: The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour 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

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

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

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