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Rachel Wall's Confession, the words of a Pirate?

For Talk Like a Pirate Day we bring you the words of a Pirate!

The MHS holds an interesting broadside featuring Massachusetts' only female Pirate: Life, last words and dying confession, of Rachel Wall : who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for high-way robbery

Arrested and convicted of highway robbery, Rachel Wall was the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hung on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet. 

The broadside features a fascinating woodcut illustration of three criminals being hung on Boston Common. The middle figure is depicted as a woman wearing a dress. But this confession serves a much greater purpose as it is the autobiography of a very unique woman. Although Rachel’s crimes were dreadful, her life is an undeniable part of Massachusetts history.  A criminal master mind? Perhaps. Ruthless and Vicious?  Certainly. The perfect Halloween Costume? Definitely!

Who was Rachel Wall?

Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, to a good family, by her own description. After running away from home, she met and married George Wall, with whom she moved to Boston. George left Rachel and went off to sea, only to return one day to reunite with Rachel and coax her into being a pirate. In her confession Rachel says, “for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service, and take to bad company, from which I might date my ruin.” Supposedly, they attacked ships off the Isles of the Shoals, on the coast of New Hampshire although we do not have actual evidence and this is not mentioned in the Confession. It is believed that after storms, Rachel would stand on the deck of their ship pretending to be distressed and would scream for help; when sailors came to her rescue, George and his men would kill them and plunder their ships. In her confession, Rachel states that she does not know the whereabouts of her husband, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” It is believed that George and his crew were washed out to sea. George Wall might have been a privateer during the Revolution, acquiring a taste for plundering ships.

Rachel returned to Boston and worked as a maid but could never fully become a law-abiding citizen. She continued to ‘plunder’ by sneaking aboard docked ships and grabbing what she could. She describes one excursion on Long Wharf in Boston, "On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself." (Does anyone else hear Pirate-speak?) 

Rachel was eventually convicted of highway robbery. Supposedly, she saw a lovely bonnet that she simply couldn’t resist and attacked 17-year-old Margret Bender, the woman wearing the bonnet. Having already been convicted of two counts of robbery, this, the third count, was punishable by death. She could not deny her proven past, so in her confession she lists many petty crimes, carefully avoiding the mention of any that might be a felony. She was wise enough to know that she could not convince people that she was innocent, so instead choose to portray herself as under the influence of her dreadful husband. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine requested “that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the prisoner at the bar” and Governor John Hancock signed the order of execution. One could perhaps speculate that she was being sentenced for crimes far greater than the attempted robbery of a bonnet, tried as a thief, but executed for piracy?

Unfortunate for her, Rachel's crime came at the height of turmoil for the new Nation, and the courts--which traditionally gave women lesser punishments than men--tried her as an equal sentencing her to hang with two other men also accused of highway robbery. Six years later un-armed burglary was no longer punished by death; the three were the last to be executed in Massachusetts for robbery. If there were ever a spirit to haunt the streets of Boston, It would certainly be Rachel Wall, executed on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet at 29 years of age.



Massachusetts Historical Society. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: The Society 1905) Volume 39, March 1905 p.178-190

Rachel Wall, Pirate by the National Park Service (Accessed September 19, 2018) (Accessed September 19, 2018)

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:00 PM

Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, September 1918

Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:


January | February | March | April

May | June | July | August

September | October | November | December


As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life -- going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members -- in the words she wrote a century ago. Here is Barbara’s September, day by day.


* * *

SUN. 1                                    SEPTEMBER

Boys came to church. Park in afternoon. Boys to supper

MON. 2                       LABOR DAY

Went up river with boys. Down to Spuds. K’s in evening.


In town. Went to Keith’s with the gang. Up to farm with [Spud].

WED. 4

Hung around K’s for lunch. Wendell took us to Revere. Park in evening


Peg’s for tennis. In town. Babe went home. Hospital with Dr. G-

FRI. 6

Peg came over. Pete is going to Lasell. Hurrah! Sick?

SAT. 7

Hung around. Felt rotten. Saw [Eli].

SUN. 8

Cousin Mildred to dinner. Over to Peg’s for supper. Ben is home.

MON. 9

School. Mrs. Reed’s

TUES. 10

School. Mrs. Reeds

WED. 11

School. In town

THUR. 12

School. Mrs. Reed’s. Played tennis.

FRI. 13

No school. It rained. Movies [+ overnight with] Lane’s. Babe + Mother went

SAT. 14

Took flowers up to Bil Sybil + saw Bob. That boy was awfully sick

SUN. 15

Church and Sunday School. Went up to see Bob with K. Spud to supper

MON. 16

School. Staid at home and studied.

TUES. 17

School. Peg and I went to see Bob.

WED. 18

School. Went over to Pegs. Rained hard

THUR. 19

School. Went to Surgical Dressings.

FRI. 20

School. Went down to Connies. Night at Pegs

SAT. 21

Down at station at 5:45. In town. Pegs for a dance

SUN. 22

Sunday School. Came down with influenza.

MON. 23

In bed. Dr. G- came. Mother came home.

TUES. 24

In bed. Feel rotten. School closed till Monday.

WED. 25

Got up and went out. Felt rotten.

THUR. 26

Went over to Pegs. Hung around. Sick?

FRI. 27

Tenn Went over to Pegs

SAT. 28

Tennis at Pegs

SUN. 29

Church. No Sunday School. Over to Pegs in afternoon

MON. 30

In town. Surgical Dressings. Spud very sick

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person 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.


 *Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 12:00 AM

John Quincy Adams and the Allens


In October 1837, John Quincy Adams was reading the newspaper, when he came across an advertisement for a slave sale. 

There was in the National Intelligencer this morning an advertisement, signed James H. Birch ... headed Sale of Slaves—A sale at public auction at 4 O’Clock this afternoon, of Dorcas Allen, and her two surviving children aged about 7. and 9. years (the other two having been killed by said Dorcas in a fit of insanity as found by the jury who lately acquitted her)... (23 October 1837)


Dorcas Allen was promised her freedom multiple times by her owners, the Davises. Though informally released from slavery, after multiple deaths and remarriages in the Davis family, Allen was left without the papers she needed to legally secure her freedom. Allen and her four children were taken from the District of Columbia to a slave prison in Alexandria, Virginia; there Allen killed her two youngest children and attempted unsuccessfully to commit suicide. She was put on trial for murder but acquitted on grounds of insanity.

This story deeply affected John Quincy. In his later years, he began taking more of an active stance against slavery. He presented dozens of antislavery petitions to an unresponsive House of Representatives, leading to the establishment of the House’s “gag” rule, where all petitions relating to slavery were laid aside without discussion.

His succeeding diary entries talk about visiting the auction house where Dorcas was to be sold in order to discover more information. He met with Nathan Allen, Dorcas’s husband, who was trying to raise enough money to purchase his wife and the two children from Birch. He also met with Dorcas, who came with her husband to ask for the $50 that John Quincy promised to contribute toward her purchase.

After that meeting, Dorcas and Nathan Allen and their children disappear. John Quincy seems to have never met with them again. We don’t know what happened to Dorcas and her children, yet these brief moments in Adams’s voluminous diary offer small glimpses into the parallel worlds of the black and white communities of Washington, D.C.

Over the summer that I’ve transcribed John Quincy’s diary, I’ve watched many seemingly random people show up in his parlor: a Quaker woman who gave a sermon and advised him to maintain a steady course in the House of Representatives; men visiting “out of curiosity”; a Scottish silkworm breeder who spoke so long about his worms that John Quincy didn’t have time to write letters of introduction for an earlier visitor. You never know who’s going to show up, and these meetings always struck me as odd. How do you just show up at the home of the former President of the United States? Do you just knock on the front door?

But a story like the Allens’s in particular struck me: what was that meeting like? How did Dorcas and Nathan feel? And what happened to their family afterward?

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 September, 2018, 12:00 AM

Brief Trip to Revere Beach

Last summer, I wrote a post for the Beehive based on my exploration of MHS materials relating to Lynn Woods, an outdoor public space I’ve enjoyed in my lifetime that I wanted to look at through a different lens. I decided to continue with that theme this summer by looking at another North Shore recreational area, Revere Beach. The MHS holds a handful of materials relating to the beach, including some of the Arthur Goss photographs. These photos, taken in 1912, provide brief but interesting snapshots of the Revere Beach landscape of the time.

"Revere Beach," from the Arthur Goss photographs, 1912.


When I looked through these photos, I was struck by the number of rides and attractions that lined the road along the beach. One photo includes the sign for a merry-go-round, and multiple photos include a ride of some sort that looks like a miniature mountain. In Boulevard Landmarks: America’s First Public Beach, a book of postcards edited by Peter McCauley and the Revere Society for Cultural and Historical Preservation ([Revere, Mass.?: s.n., 1996]), this ride is referred to as the Thompson Scenic Mountain Railway.

"Revere Beach   Bath House," from the Arthur Goss photographs, 1912


The Toronto Harbour Commissioners sent these photographs to the MHS in 1987. Their earlier provenance is not clear, but the Chief Engineer for the Harbour Commissioners, Edward L. Cousins, visited Massachusetts in 1912, the year in which the photos were taken. The waterfront development in Toronto was influenced by beach setups in Massachusetts, including Lynn Beach and Revere Beach.

From the cover of the “Wonderland” score, words and music by Thos. S. Allen (Boston, Mass.: Walter Jacobs, 1906)


Additionally, the Revere Beach area was once home to the Wonderland amusement park. The experience of a night at the park with a date was the subject of a 1906 waltz song by Thos. S. Allen. The cover of the published score includes an illustration of Wonderland, which is billed as “The Largest Amusement Park in the World.” 

"Revere Beach = (Rests)," from the Arthur Goss photographs, 1912


A 2003 MHS publication, Faces of Community: Immigrant Massachusetts, 1860-2000, edited by Reed Ueda and Conrad Edick Wright, includes a chapter about Revere Beach. In “Lines in the Sand: Ethnicity, Race, and Culture at Revere Beach,” Mark Herlihy chronicles the development of the Revere Beach Reservation as a public park in the 1890s by the Metropolitan Park Commission (MPC) and the rise of recreational amusements along the beach shortly thereafter. He then explores the dynamics of ethnicity and race over the years at the beach, including the strong roles played by immigrants (mainly Jewish and Italian) in the development and use of the beach environment in the early decades after its conversion into a public space, tensions between immigrants and longer-established residents as well as among different immigrant groups, racism at the beach (including racist attractions along the boardwalk and at Wonderland), and difficulties as well as successes Black beachgoers experienced as they began to use the beach in greater numbers after World War II.

From the Arthur Goss photographs, 1912


The MHS holds some other items relating to Revere Beach. Revere Beach Chips: Historical Background from the Revere Journal, compiled by McCauley (Revere, Mass.: Revere Society for Cultural and Historic Preservation, 1996), includes transcriptions of Revere Journal newspaper articles relating to Revere Beach, with the earliest article in the book being from 1881 and the latest being from 1974. “Revere Beach Reservation : bath-house, shelters and beach” ([Boston: Metropolitan Park Commission, 1898]), removed  from the Metropolitan Park Commission Report, January 1898, depicts a crowded beach scene (this item was recently featured in a Beehive post by Lindsay Bina and Anna Clutterbuck-Cook).

From the Arthur Goss photographs, 1912


If you would like to catch a glimpse of Revere Beach in earlier periods, these materials are available for research here in the MHS library

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 August, 2018, 12:00 AM

100 Years after the Influenza Pandemic

On this date a century ago, two sailors stationed in Boston went to the sickbay with flu-like symptoms; the next day eight more, the following day 58 more, and this was just the beginning. As we make plans for flu season this autumn, we should remember that this year marks the centennial of the deadliest epidemic of Influenza in modern history. The 1918-1919 influenza, or “Spanish flu,” pandemic killed upwards of fifty million people worldwide and five thousand people in Boston alone, numbers only surpassed by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The shocking morbidity pattern killed young, healthy people between 20-40 years of age at an alarming rate, with a rapid disease progression that could lead to multi-organ failure and death within twenty-four hours. The influenza strain was highly contagious and unfortunately spread at exponential rates. Although the origin of the outbreak is still debated, the Spanish media were the first to openly cover the outbreak because they were neutral in WWI. In part because of the war, the U.S. and non-Spanish European press were slow to report accurate information about the epidemic, and the high rate of casualties among military and civilian populations. Some lawmakers also suppressed coverage in an effort to reduce panic. 

At Camp Devens, an army training base for 45,000 soldiers just outside of Boston, the first soldier to come down with the flu was misdiagnosed with meningitis and influenza began spreading rapidly throughout the entire camp.  At the height of the crisis, 1,543 soldiers were reported ill on a single day. A poignant letter by Physician N. Roy Grist stationed at Camp Devens describes the scene in detail and can be read online:

The epidemic soon spread to the civilian population of Boston.

The MHS has a public notice issued by the city for the care and prevention of Influenza. This broadside is an example of the advice given to the people of Boston during the Influenza outbreak by William C. Woodward, the Health Commissioner of Boston from 1918 -1922.  

Influenza broadside

The epidemic took over the lives of all Bostonians. In mid-September, the Boston Globe reported on that the city planned to keep schools open, saying:

Neither Dr. William H. Devine, medical director of the schools, nor Dr. W. C. Woodward, City Health Commissioner, is in favor of closing Boston schools. They say that by remaining at their studies pupils are less likely to become affected, especially since teachers, school physicians and nurses are doing everything in their power to head off the epidemic.

But things turned for the worse very quickly, and people started to panic. No one understood why the disease was spreading so quickly or how to prevent it. Officials in Boston began forbidding public gatherings as they were desperate to try to control the spread of the disease. Finally, the schools were closed, as well as theatres, bars, and even churches were asked to hold not services. City hospitals were flooded with patients, there was an urgent need for doctors and nurses especially since so many were oversees helping the War effort, and, sadly, even coffins could not be supplied at the rate they were needed. 

The diaries of Edith Coffin (Colby) Mahoney, from the Colby-Mahoney Family Papers, provide a glimpse of life in Massachusetts during the Influenza Outbreak. The diary Edith keeps is full of descriptions of lovely Golf outings at the Club, picnics, shopping, and friends’ visits during the final days of August, and into September of 1918. But then her daily entries suddenly mention Influenza, and with it, death.

Edith diary 9-22 Edith diary 9-24 Edith diary 0-26

September 22 1918

"Fair & cold. Pa and Frank here to dinner just back from Jefferson Highlands. Rob played golf with Dr. Ferguson and Mr. Warren. Eugene F. went to the hospital Fri. with Spanish influenza. 1500 cases in Salem. Bradstreet Parker died of it yesterday. 21 yrs old."

September 24 1918

"Mr. Freeman here. Eugene has developed pneumonia from Spanish Influenza. Serious epidemic everywhere. Caned carrots. Went to 93 with children P.M. Myra and Ella go to Gray’s Inn tomorrow."

September 26 1918 

“Torrential rain for 24 hours beginning at 3am today, some thunder in the P.M.. Most depressing day after bad news from Eugene. He died at 6:40am. Several thousand cases in the city with a great shortage of nurses and doctors. Theatres, churches, gatherings of everykind stopped. Even 4th Liberty Loan drivers parade postponed.”

September 27 1918

“Fair part of day but cold. Had Elwood Noyes get boiler ready and start furnace fire. Out with kiddies in P.M. Called at Ma’s. Belle there with a hoarse cold. Pa here right from office the past three days. Harry at Nasson School to see Agnes who has influenza. Rob home from N. Y. at midnight. Came instead of tomorrow accnt of Eugene’s funeral.”

September 28, 1918

“Beautiful, mild day. Rob in bed all day with high fever, bound up head and aching eye balls, so could not be pall bearer at Eugene’s funeral at grace Church. Prompt measures with hot lemonade, castor oil, aspirin etc.induced god sweat by afternoon so he felt much better in evening. Phoned but did not call Dr. Sargent”

September 29, 1918

“Beautiful, mild day. Rob very much better. Husky throat the only symptom left. Up at noon. Dr. Sargent said to keep him in tomorrow. Met him as I was going to 93 with children in the P.M.. James Tierney died Fri of pneumonia (37yrs). Dr says there is no sign of epidemic abating.”

The MHS houses another diary kept by young Barbara Hillard Smith of Newton, MA, describing her experience during the Influenza epidemic.

Barbara diary

September 21, 1918

“Down at Station at 5:45. In town. Pegs for a dance.”

September 22, 1918

“Sunday School. Came down with Influenza.”

September 23, 1918

“In bed. Dr. G- came. Mother came home.”

September 24, 1918

“In bed. Felt rotten. School closed till Monday.”

September 25, 1918

“Got up and went out. Felt rotten.”

September 26, 1918

“Hung around. Sick.”

September 27, 1918

“Went over to Pegs”

September 29, 1918

“Church. No Sunday school. Over to Pegs in afternoon.”

October 2, 1918

“Over to Pegs. School still closed.”

Luckily, Barbara survived the influenza epidemic, and it seems the greater impact on her family was that of the school closure.

To learn more about the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, or more about diaries and letters from 1918 please visit the Library at the Massachusetts Historical Society. We welcome your questions and research queries at



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 27 August, 2018, 12:00 PM

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