The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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

The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship

The Fay-Mixter family papers here at the MHS includes a folder of material related to the fascinating story of the Wanderer, a luxury yacht refitted as a slave ship in 1858 to engage in the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade. The importation of slaves to America was prohibited by the U.S. Congress fifty years before, but smuggling was common. Multiple sources cite the Wanderer as the last known ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.

By all accounts, the Wanderer was a very fast vessel, capable of sailing up to 20 knots. William C. Corrie of Charleston, S.C. purchased the yacht in early 1858. He and his business partner, Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar—cotton planter, radical Fire-Eater, pro-slavery secessionist—immediately began refitting the yacht for its nefarious purpose. Their work aroused the suspicions of officials in New York, who temporarily seized the ship for inspection. Newspaper articles speculated (rightly, it turned out) about the true reason for the modifications, excessive provisions, and foreign crew. But with no definite proof, the ship was released.

The ship sailed on 3 July 1858, arriving at the African coast in September. Corrie got past the British and American anti-slavery patrols stationed there, according to one account, primarily using a charm offensive—friendly dinner parties, etc. The crew of the Wanderer claimed to be on a pleasure cruise up the Congo River. They even sailed under the pennant of the New York Yacht Club. And it worked: the vessel was apparently never inspected.

The Wanderer returned to the U.S. on 28 Nov. 1858, landing at Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia with over 400 African captives. Dozens had died en route. The arrival of these new slaves, along with some questionable documentation, attracted the attention of the authorities, and the jig was up. The ship was seized and the conspirators arrested. In May 1860, Lamar, Corrie, and others were tried for piracy in federal court in Savannah…and acquitted. One of the judges in the case was Lamar’s father-in-law.

The Wanderer material forms part of the Fay-Mixter collection because James Story Fay held a bond of indemnity for the ship. The papers include twelve letters to Fay’s colleague E. D. Brigham in Boston, dated 5 Jan.-10 Apr. 1860, in the run-up to the trial. During this time, Charles Lamar regained possession of the ship and sent it to Havana, under the care of C. R. Moore, to be sold. Three of the letters were written by Moore in Havana, and these are, I think, the most interesting of the group.

Moore praised the speed and agility of the Wanderer, but not its mission: “She is one of the finest little vessels that it was ever my fortune to get on board of, and I wish she could be in some legitimate business, that I could sail her.” He had “fixed her up like a fiddle” and thought he could get $18,000-20,000.

Because of its history, the Wanderer held a certain fascination. Moore received many visitors onboard, including American tourists and British lords, all curious to see the famous ship. But selling proved difficult. The vessel was simply “to[o] expensive and to[o] notorious.” Moore felt the watchful eyes of the English and Spanish fleets and guessed that the English in particular resented the ship. He wrote: “I am asked all kinds of questions here and have to be carefull what I say.”

In his letters to Brigham, Moore discussed his future plans and weighed his options. More than once, he expressed a desire to captain the Wanderer, but he refused to resort to the slave trade, which was still legal in Cuba. He had received offers:

"There was some parties offered me $16,000 to go to the Coast [of Africa]. I refused. […] If I cannot get a livelihood without going in a Guineaman I will starve in the streets although I am no abolitionist. […] I will stay [in Havana] until I feel that its unhealthy for me to stay. You know I am fat and hot weather and musketoes operate bad on a fat man. […] I love the Wanderer but I cannot feel she will ever give me any permanent business."


In his third and longest letter, dated 10 Apr. 1860, Moore painted a broader picture of the slave trade in Havana:

"They prefer the old vessels here for the Coast and there are 7 or 8 fitting out here for the Coast. The ship Erie cleared yesterday, and everybody knows where she is bound. The Captain an American, Gordon his name, cleared before the Consul without difficulty. The Gov Gen is poor and winks at it. He gets $50 a head. I have had offers to go in this vessel, they would bye her for me, but I have tried to live an honest life so far and as long as I have sailed out of Boston. If the Merchants will not give me legitimate employment I will starve before I will go after blackbirds, although I do not think a negro as good as a white man, and am not an abolitionist. But when I coil my ropes up for the last time, I shall feel happyer if I have lived and practised the precepts that my parents taught me."

The more I researched the Wanderer and the people connected to it, the more interesting the story became. A biography of Charles Lamar, for example, could fill volumes. C. R. Moore described rumors of the firebrand’s colorful exploits: “What I can learn about the young man is not much to his credit […] They tell me here that he is a remarkable small man always carryes Revolvers in his belt has shot 1 or 2 men […]” The rumors were apparently well-founded; in the month of May 1860 alone, Lamar was not only tried for piracy, but also participated in a prison break and a duel!

The Wanderer was seized once more by the U.S. government in 1861 for use against the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, it passed into private hands and sailed commercially for a few years before sinking off the coast of Cuba. For more information, see The Slave Ship Wanderer by Tom Henderson Wells (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 1967) and The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails by Erik Calonius (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006).

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 3 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

At the top of the list this week is our recently unveiled exhbition! Come by anytime Mon-Sat, 10:00AM-4:00PM, to take a look at The Private Jefferson. The exhibit is free to the public and will remain on display through 20 May 2016. 

There are four other items on the calendar this week for public consumption:

- Tuesday, 2 February : There is an Early American History seminar beginning at 5:15PM. "Sound Believers: Rhyme and Right Belief" is presented by MHS-NEH long-term fellow Wendy Roberts, SUNY-Albany. Roberts' project examines the connection between poetry and evangelicalism in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Stephen A. Marini of Wellesley College provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 3 February : Starting at noon is a Brown Bag talk given by independent scholar Robert G. Mann. His work, "Making Another Massachusetts of South Carolina: Reconstruction in the Sea Islands," evaluates the achievements and disappointments of a unique, integrated community centered around Beaufort, South Carolina, in the years 1863-1880 through the intertwined stories of three Massachusetts men and one former slave. This talk is free and open to the public. 

- Wednesday, 3 February : Join us for the first of a four part series on Modernism, "Brutalism to Heroic." This conversation features Mark Pasnik, AIA, Over, Under; Chris Grimley, AIA, Over,Under; and Michael Kubo, Collectiove-LOK. There is a pre-talk reception that begins at 5:30PM with the talk beginning at 6:00PM. Registration is required for this event. 

- Saturday, 4 February : The History and Collection of the MHS is a docent-led tour that is free and open to the public. Spend about 45 minutes learning about the Society and touring the library area and then take the opportunity to visit our exhibition space. No need for reservations for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more should contact Curator of Art, Anne Bentley, in advance at or 617-646-0508.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 12:00 AM

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