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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

“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

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, November 1917

Today we return to the 1917 diary of Gertrude Codman Carter. You may read the previous entries here:

Introduction | January | February | March | April | May

June | July | August | September | November | December


We are nearing the end of Gertrude’s year as a featured diarist at The Beehive. While the month of November 1917 began with “great fun” and a whirl of social activities, it ended under a dark cloud as the Carters found out that one of Sir Gilbert Carter’s sons from his previous marriage was killed on November 28th, 1917 when a German submarine torpedoed a boat, the Apapa, on which he was traveling as a passenger. “Today should have alas had a dark cloud had I known it for the war was to cast yet another shadow on our lives,” writes Gertrude as she gathers her thoughts and fills in her diary pages.

In December, I will be closing out this year of reading alongside Gertrude Codman Carter as she chronicled her life as an upper-class white woman in British colonial Barbados one hundred years ago. Stay tuned for a new diary read-along in January 2018!


* * *

Nov. 1

Laddie took me out to Spion Kop to swim. Great fun & as always amusing. We went on to the Charles Sealys afterward & danced. [Illegible] haze of tobacco spoke & little Laurie John on the table as a center piece. “What use is water, when you’re dry - dry - dry -” An appalling but amusing ditty on the gramophone. And Nell Manning being pulled as she swam, by a boatman in a wherry.


Nov. 2

To Sweet Park to Help.


Nov. 3

Great Eastern fete. Huge success.

Lady Probyn gave a big dinner party & I gave a supper party.


Nov. 4


Nov. 5

To Park cleaning up.

To Charlie Hayes to sketch baby.


Nov. 6

Tea at St. Anne’s to meet the new Mrs Hancock.


Nov. 7

1. Help Society

Government House tennis tournament.


Nov. 22

Savannah Club meeting of [illegible].


Nov. 23

Burtons party to meet the Hancocks.


Nov. 24 [numbered but left blank]


[Nov. 25]

Chart of [illegible].


Nov. 26

To swim with L. at the Sealeys.


Today should have alas had a dark cloud had I known it for the war was to cast yet another shadow on our lives.


Nov. 29

[Illegible] all to tea with the [illegible] boat men. Most amusing.


Nov. 30

Church parade at St. Mary’s a depressing one.


* * *

As always, if you are interested in viewing the diary or letters yourself, in our library, or have other questions about the collection please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 10 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

"...a calm prophetic of, we knew not what." : Tornadoes in New England

Recently while in the stacks here at the MHS I happened upon a small collection of photographs that were in a folder labeled "Lawrence (Mass) tornado photographs, 1890." With only enough time to take a brief look, I made a mental note of the title so that I could find out more. 

I grew up in the Midwest - central Illinois, to be more precise - where the idea of a tornado popping-up is not an uncommon thought. In grade school, along with the normal fire drills we also participated in tornado drills; every first Tuesday morning a siren sounded, crescendoed to a wail for several minutes, then slowly subsided - the monthly test of the tornado siren; and we all learned about using roadside ditches and highway overpasses for cover if a twister appeared while traveling. I was never personally affected by a tornado during my years out in the middle, but there were numerous occasions when the white "W" on the TV screen would switch to yellow (from Watch to Warning), and then I and whomever else was in the house would head to the basement to wait for the storm to pass. As a college student in New Hampshire, my parents sent me photographs of the damage done by a tornado that cut a path across our town, even passing through the backyard of my childhood home. Thankfully, they already lived elsewhere, though only a half-mile down the road. 

Back to the present. After I spotted the photos of Lawrence, Mass. damaged by a tornado, I went to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what else we hold that is similar. Below are a few samples of the texts and images I found for some specific events. 


Providence, Rhode Island - 1815

Although referred to as a tornado in the broadside below, the Great September Gale of 1815 seems to have been a hurricane that made landfall in New York and proceeded north through New England. Rhode Island seems to be the area that received the brunt of this storm, though the eye is said to have passed straight through central Massachusetts and into New Hampshire.1

Oh wo, wo, desolation, lamentations, mourning and wo! Alas, alas!

What wrecks of ruins, what scenes of havoc and distress!

(Jenkins, J., "Description of the tornado, September 23, 1815 : dedicated to the inhabitants of the United States.")


Middlesex County, Massachusetts - 1851

Published in 1852, The Tornado of 1851, in Medford, West Cambridge and Waltham, Middlesex County, Mass. compiled anecdotal accounts to provide a picture of the course, speed, and power of this tornado. Also included are reports produced by various committees that estimated the cost of the damage. If you have ever been in an area where a tornado is imminent, then the description of this mid-19th-century event by Rev. Charles Brooks may seem familiar:

The state of the atmosphere from sunrise to the time of the tornado, on August 22d, was peculiar. Many spoke of a dead closeness, a remarkable want of elasticity in the air. Many complained of lassitude from this cause. Clouds gathered; and there were appearances of wind approaching; but it did not come. For an hour before the tornado, there was here almost a perfect calm; yet it was a calm prophetic of, we knew not what. An old sea-captain told his wife, at 4 o'clock, P.M., that "if he was at sea he should expect a waterspout." (p.5)


They, who, like us, were in it, and have seen its terrible ravages, need not be told that it exhibited a power in the elements never witnessed by the oldest inhabitant of this region. Houses strongly built were demolished, as if they had been made of paper. Oak and walnut and cedar trees, of the largest growth, were entirely uprooted, some of them snatched out of the ground and carried through long distances..." (p.12)


Lawrence, Massachusetts - 1890

The collection of photographs that prompted this blog post provide visual aid for the words of Charles Brooks. The images below show houses reduced to splinters, some with citizens viewing the damage. The last is a good illustration of the seeming randomness of a tornado, with a large crater in the foreground and yet, nearby in the background, houses standing intact. 






Worcester County, Massachusetts - 1953

More recently, a tornado swept through Worcester County, Mass. Following that event the Worcester Telegram and the Worcester Evening Gazette produced a special publication to detail the path of the storm, the damage done, and the efforts to clean up in the aftermath, called Tornado: a record in pictures of the catastrophe that struck Worcester and cetral Massachusetts, June 9, 1953




"Sen. John F. Kennedy from Washington is shown debris in Shrewsbury by two teenage residents."

To find out what else the MHS holds about natural disasters you can search our online catalog, ABIGAIL. If you want to come in and view these items or any others you find in the catalog, take a look at our website to learn more about Visiting the Library



1 "Hurricanes: Science and Society : 1815- the September Gale," University of Rhode Island, accessed 3 November 2017,


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 3 November, 2017, 4:49 PM

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