The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Untangling North Atlantic Fishing, 1764-1910, Part 3: The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854

As discussed in a prior post, Great Britain and the United States negotiated fishing rights throughout the early 19th century. One of the important agreements made between the British North American colonies and the United States regarding trade, tariffs, and fishing was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854. Under this agreement, negotiated by British North American Governor General Lord James Bruce Elgin and Secretary of State William L. Marcy, the provinces offered the right to coastal and inshore fisheries and the use of the St. Lawrence River to the United States. In exchange, the United States established free trade with the provinces by removing tariffs from natural products including grain, meats, produce, coal, timber, and lumber.

Reciprocity, by definition, is the exchange of privileges with others for mutual benefit. Free trade meant that the United States’ markets faced an exponential flood of British North American products without any protective tariffs to secure the national, regional, and local markets. Additionally, many Americans did not view the treaty favorably because the rights to coastal fishing in Canada had previously been theirs in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While the American agricultural markets faced market saturation, the Reciprocity Treaty favored New England and New York fishing industries due to Secretary of State William L. Marcy’s negotiations. Born in Southbridge, Mass., and residing in Albany, New York, Americans accused Marcy of sectionalism, referring to the Reciprocity Treaty contemptuously as “Mr. Marcy’s treaty.”

An author using the nom de plume “Middle State Farmer” raised several objections to the agreement in his pamphlet The Agriculture Interest in 1854:

But we have thrown our markets as wide open as though these British provinces were States of this Union – markets which they will seek to sell in, receiving only in payment our precious metals, or exchange on England, to pay for the goods they buy of her. Everything they can grow on soil, produce from their forests or their mines, we shall have to take on these terms.

What do they give us in return besides their river to navigate, which they can’t navigate much themselves – being frozen tight six months in the year, and a hazardous navigation the other six – and a right to catch fish where we had always caught them before? What real reciprocity can they offer us in the way of markets?

The reciprocity agreement met increasing disapproval over the following decade. American protectionism, exemplified here in the Middle State Farmer’s argument, led to the abrogation of the treaty by the United States in 1866.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 April, 2015, 12:00 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Aysut to Asswan

Image: Watercolor from A Nile Journal by Emily Horby (1908)


In the previous installment of An American Woman in Egypt, we left our narrator journeying south from Aysut by steamer. During the first week of December, the travelers continue down the Nile stopping at a number of archeological sites and luxury tourist resorts along the way. In this post, I have interleaved our anonymous diarist’s narrative with excerpts from a contemporary travel guide and published memoir describing the same locations.

Dec. 1. Had early breakfast, reached Denderah & went ashore there at 8.30. Took donkies [sic] & rode to Denderah Temple in 2 hours. Temple of Hathor.  Great vestibule of Pharaohs 24 columns with heads of Hathor. Went up on the roof for view. Got back for lunch. Just at tea time reached Luxor. Miss Goeller & we two went ashore with Dr. Hodson who took us over the Winter Palace Hotel & gardens. Then we walked out to Luxor temple & looked at ships.

Dec. 2. Started on donkies at 9.30 & rode to Karnak. Very hot day. Saw temple of Kurnah then rode dromedaries little way to temple of Ammon. Finally went on top for view and got home just before one p.m. Very warm & slept after lunch; had tea at 4 & then went out to see Luxor temple. A beautiful sunset & we stayed behind to see the color on the water then went to Winter Palace & P.O.

 A short distance from the river, on the west bank, a little to the north of the village of Denderah, stands the Temple of Denderah, which marks the site of the classical Tentyra or Tentyris ... where the goddess Hathor was worshipped. ... The wonderfully preserved Temple now standing there is probably not older than the beginning of our era; ...hence it must be considered as the architectural product of a time when the ancient Egyptian traditions of sculpture were already dead and nearly forgotten. It is, however, a majestic monument worthy of careful examination.
--The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt, 9th edition (London: Thos. Cook & Son, 1905).

Dec. 3. Breakfast at 7.30, left at 8.30 & sailed across to W. bank where we took donkies & road to mortuary chapel of Sethos I. Then rode on to tombs of Kings & reached 4 -- Ramses IX - Ramses VI - Sethor I - Amenophis II - then walked up over hill for view & down to rest-house for lunch. At 2 walked to temple of Darr El-Bahre of Queen Hatsh[epsut]. Then rode back to river & took boats home in time for tea. After it went to buy cards.

Dec. 4 - Early breakfast at 7.30. Left at 8 & rode first to ruins of Rames great temple of Ramses Srenk II, then road to temples of Derr-El-Medenah, judgement halls of Osiris, & temple of Ramses III. … finest in Egypt. Passed Colosses of Memmon (Amenophsis III) on way back to boat. Got back to steamer just for lunch. P.M. took pad[dle] on Nile for 1 hr with Miss Phelps & Miss Marell, mailed my Christmas cards after tea went to Hotel [illegible phrase] walked along shore to see sunset, then went into shops.

Came to a lovely grove of palm trees, where we lunched. Donkeys arrived...and we had a very pleasant ride on to Karnak, a good way further. Pigeons flying in clouds over fields. Must be very destructive, but picturesque. Soon the obelisk was seen in the distance, and at last we came to the avenue of the sphinxes, which has only been lately thoroughly uncovered. Enormous creatures, each with a little figure on their knees.
--A Nile Journal by E. H. [Emily Hornby] (Liverpool: J.A. Thompson, 1908)

Dec. 5. Sailed very early from Luxor & about 10 arrived at Esna after going thro’ a lock. Walked to the temple, as it was very near. Temple of Khnum goat-headed local deity. Pronave 24 columns in 6 rows with different floral capitals - similar to  of temple Hathor at Denderah. From there sailed on & reached Edfou about 3, took donkeys & some walked to the temple of Horus, best preserved ancient temple in the world. A great [?] & we went to top up a dark stairway for view 242 steps. Crest surrounded on 3 sides by colonnade of 32 columns in the different floral (^ & palm) capitals [illegible phrase] wall also decorated. In evening we had a lecture on the Nile by the doctor. Got back from temple for tea.

Side-by-side it is possible to see how the genre of travel writing, published and unpublished, often contains strikingly similar observations, despite differences in tone (the Cook’s authoritative, the Hornby self-consciously poetic in her descriptions). It is likely that our diarist would have read one or more commercially-published travel guide before or during her tour, and it is clear that Dr. Hodson, mentioned in the December 5 entry above, mediates her interpretation of the archeological sites the group encounters. 

In two weeks we will continue our journey down the Nile. In the meantime, I encourage you to explore the lavish watercolor illustrations and personable narration of Emily Hornby’s Nile Journal at Internet Archive.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 1:00 AM

“The Long Agony Is Over”: The Trial of John White Webster

With all the coverage of the Tsarnaev trial here in Boston, I’m reminded of another case that rocked the city 165 years ago: the murder of George Parkman in Nov. 1849. Harvard Medical College lecturer John White Webster, who owed Parkman a significant sum of money, was accused of killing him and attempting to destroy his body by burning it in a furnace. Webster was convicted on 30 Mar. 1850 and sentenced to execution by hanging. The gruesome nature of the crime and the high social standing of both men meant that not just all of Boston, but the entire country, was riveted. 

The story has been covered so well and so thoroughly by others that I won’t go into the details of the case, but I was curious about contemporary reactions to the crime and the trial. Manuscript collections at the MHS give us a nice cross-section of opinions. For example, the day after the verdict came down, a young woman named Harriet Hayward wrote in her diary:

Has been a dismal day. Poor Dr Webster is pronounced guilty; the verdict was brought in last night, and we heard of it this morning. I have felt fairly sick today, and totally unfit to take charge of a class at Sunday school. What a barbarous and wicked law! A man taken from his wife and children to be put in prison for a short time, and afterwards hung [sic], while the family is made wretched. When a poor man is once fairly shut up in prison, and not able to say a word for himself, all kinds of stories are circulated about him, that have no foundation. If I were a person of some importance and could say or do any thing to save his life I would do it, but I feel my own insignificance now more than ever. I hope mercy will be shown him in another world.

It’s unclear to me what Hayward thought of Webster’s guilt or innocence, but she certainly objected to the sentence of death, and her reaction was not atypical. Letters started pouring into Massachusetts Governor George N. Briggs’ office from all over the country petitioning for clemency for Webster. Some argued he was innocent, that he had not received a fair trial, or that the evidence against him was circumstantial. (One anonymous letter claims Webster couldn’t possibly have committed the crime because the writer did it himself!) Others accepted his guilt but opposed capital punishment on religious or moral grounds. Many called the murder unpremeditated and believed Webster was sincerely penitent.


The prosecutor in the case, John H. Clifford, was exhausted after the trial. He wrote in a letter on 2 Apr. 1850, “The long agony is over, and I am once more by my own hearth stone, trying to restore the equilibrium which two weeks straining of my entire being has deranged & disturbed. […] I cannot help feeling this trial to have been a great crisis in my life.” He called Webster “almost soulless” and was satisfied with the outcome, but pitied the man’s family.

Webster’s wife Harriet and their four daughters steadfastly maintained his innocence and banished any who doubted it from their Cambridge home, but some extended family members were unconvinced. Harriet’s sister Amelia (Hickling) Chambers Nye had no trouble believing Webster guilty. In letters written between June 1850 and Feb. 1851, Nye made her case against her brother-in-law. In fact, she had suspected him all along: 

Is it not strange that when Eliza and I saw the first advertisement about Dr. P’s disappearance and Dr. Webster being the last person who saw him the thought struck us both that he knew more of his disappearance. The same thing struck both sister Prescott and Susan and Emma so that every one who knew him best, suspected him first. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving he went to Mrs. Cunningham’s to a party, a lady said to him so Dr. you were the last person who saw Dr. Parkman what if you should be suspected. He immediately replied, “what do you think I look like a murderer?” and went on talking about something else.

In her long, somewhat rambling letters, Nye described the Websters’ financial problems, her brother-in-law’s “bad qualities,” and other heinous crimes she believed he’d committed years before. She thought Harriet and the children were deluded. Since they refused to read the papers, they were unaware that “one half the people in Boston believe it was a premeditated act.” Much of what Nye wrote was hearsay and rumor, but her animosity toward Webster is unmistakable. His penitence was feigned, she claimed. His family would be better off without him, and even execution would be preferable to the shame of life imprisonment, a fate she described as “a living death to all of them.” 

After his conviction, John White Webster confessed to killing George Parkman in a fit of rage over the debt. He also wrote to Francis Parkman, George’s brother, asking for forgiveness. Gov. Briggs, however, did not commute his sentence, and Webster was hanged on 30 Aug. 1850. Boston merchant Frederic Cunningham read a description of the execution in the newspaper and wrote about it in his diary, commending Webster’s self-possession: “He walked firmly to the scaffold & fell 8 feet.” According to Cunningham, the people of Boston were “better disposed towards him” after his death.

Though opinions were sharply divided, the case held an undeniable fascination. Three weeks after the trial, in spite of her horror at the verdict, young Harriet Hayward and some friends visited the Harvard Medical College laboratory where the crime had taken place. Amelia Nye’s friend Miss Jennison told her that “she never saw so many carriages in Cambridge before. They rode round the square purposely to look at the [Websters’] house.” As for Nye, she wrote of John White Webster, “I cannot help shuddering when I think of him.”


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 12:00 AM

Selections from MHS in the New "Remembering Lincoln" Digital Collection

On 14 April 1865, while attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.  The event was tragic and shocking. Lincoln died the next morning, 15 April, and people all over the country struggled to comprehend what had happened.

Ford's Theatre, a National Historic Site and a working theatre, has recently launched a new digital collection, Remembering Lincoln.  Two dozen institutions, including the Massachusetts Historical Society, have contributed digital images, metadata, and transcriptions of materials about the assassination of President Lincoln to this online collection. Researchers can read first-person accounts of the startling event, examine newspaper articles, explore printed documents and broadsides, and look at artifacts.

Several remarkable manuscripts from the collections of the MHS are included in the Remembering Lincoln collection.  Two letters were written by Augustus Clark, a War Department employee, who was one of the men who moved Lincoln after he was shot from Ford's Theatre to Petersen's boarding house.  One of Clark's letters (addressed to S. M. Allen) fully describes his impressions of the evening and the tragic event.  In the other letter, written to Massachusetts Governor John A.  Andrew, Clark mentions enclosing a piece of cloth with Lincoln's blood with the correspondence.  Both letters (letter to S. M. Allen and letter to Gov. Andrew) and also the towel fragment are viewable on the website. 

Another item featured in the digital collection is an excerpt from the young Boston diarist, Sarah Gooll Putnam.  Only 14 years old in April of 1865, her reaction was poignant.  She drew a shocked face on her diary page along with the following words:   

Now guess my feelings, when coming down to breakfast, at mother's saying "The president is killed!" I stared so [handwritten mark pointing to illustration] for a few minutes without speaking. I cannot realize it yet.  Poor, dear, old, Abe.

Please explore the whole Remembering Lincoln website:


A browse display of the items that MHS contributed to Remembering Lincoln is also available:



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 14 April, 2015, 1:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

On Tuesday, 14 April, there is an Environmental History seminar taking place at 5:15PM. Join us as Joel Tarr of Carnegie Mellon University presents "Legacy Pollution Issues in Energy Development: The Cases of Manufactured Gas and Natural Gas." Patrick Malong, Brown University, provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public, though RSVP is required. You can also subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. 

And on Wednesday, 15 April, there is a Brown Bag talk, starting at noon, in which Mary Draper of the University of Virginia presents "The Urban World of the Early Modern British Caribbean." Draper's project examines the history fo the early modern British Caribbean through its cities and urban residents. This event is free and open to the public. 

Also on Wednesday is the fourth installment of the Lincoln & the Legacy of Conflict series which features John Stauffer, Professor of English and African American Studies at Harvard University. "Mourning Lincoln & Racial Equality" explores the responses of Frederick Douglass and other black and white abolitionists to Lincoln's assassination and the degree to which it prompted Northerners to consider and accept full black citizenship. Registration is required for this event with a fee of $20 (no charge for Fellows and Members). Please RSVP. There will be a short reception beginning at 5:30PM with the program beginning at 6:00PM. 

Finally, on Saturday, 18 April, stop by the Society for a free tour. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led tour that explores all of the public spaces in the Society's building on Boylston Street, touching on the history, art, architecture, and collections of the MHS. The tour begins at 10:00AM and is open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals or small groups. If would like to bring a larger group (8 or more) please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or While you are here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, "God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill." 

Please note that the Society is closed on Monday, 20 April, in observance of Patriot's Day.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 12:21 PM

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