The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

It's time, once again, to see what public programs are coming in the week ahead here at the MHS:

- Monday, 29 January, 6:00PM : Martha McNamara of Wellesley College and Karan Sheldon of Northeast Historic Film discuss the selection of essays they recently edited titled Amateur Movie Making: Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960, which illustrates how early twentieth-century amateur filmmaking produced irreplaceable records of peoples' lives and beloved places. In this converation, McNamara and Sheldon highlight three examples: the comedies of landscape architect Sidney N. Shurcliff, depictions of pastoral family life by Elizabeth Woodman Wright, and the chronicles of Anna B. Harris, an African American resident of Manchester, Vermont. This talk is open to the public, though registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members/Fellows or EBT Cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM.

- Tuesday, 30 January, 5:15PM : The seminar this week comes from the Modern American Society and Culture series, and features the work of Anne Gray Fischer of Brown University, with Brandeis University's Michael Willrich providing comment. "'Momentum Toward Evil Is Strong': Poor Women, Moral Panics, and the Rise of Crime-Fighting Policing in Depression-Era America" explores the dramatic shift in public perception of American law enforcement between Prohibition and World War II by studying the changing practices of Depression-era morality policing in boston and Los Angeles -- specifically, the police enforcement of moral misdemeanors, including vagrancy, disorderly conduct, lewdness, and prostitution, which disproportionately targeted poor women on city streets. 

Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP, e-mail or call (617) 646-0579.

- Wednesday, 31 January, 12:00PM : Stop by at noon for a Brown Bag talk with short-term research fellow Angela Hudson of Texas A&M University. "Indian Doctresses: Race, Labor, and Medicine in the 19th-century United States" focuses on women who worked as Indian doctresses and the clients who sought their care. They study strives to more fully integrate indigeneity into fields of study from which it is often absent, most notably labor history and the history of medicine. This talk is free and open to the public 

- Saturday, 3 February, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute, docent-led walk through the public spaces of the Society's home at 1154 Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals and small groups. Those wishing ot bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance 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, 28 January, 2018, 12:00 AM

Charles Cornish Pearson and the Great War, Part III

This is the third post in a series about the wartime experience of Charles Cornish Pearson. Go back and read Part I and Part II for the full story.


Today we return to the letters of Charles Cornish Pearson, a young man who served during World War I with the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, 26th Division, American Expeditionary Forces. If you want to catch up on the story, see Part I and Part II.

When we left him, Charles had been a soldier for about nine months and had seen his first direct fighting in the trenches of France’s Chemin des Dames sector. On 18 March 1918, his battalion pulled up stakes and began the two-week journey via train and automobile southeast to the Toul sector. The weather was beautiful, the country picturesque, and the troops enjoyed the welcome respite. This part of France was mostly untouched by the war. Charles wrote to his mother en route and described a typical French village.

It is all very peaceful and so different from what we have experienced lately. Here War seems to have affected the village in the lack of men, hardly any being about except those past the age limit, and of course there are a few deserted houses and the others not kept up quite as well as in peace times I imagine. Picture on the other hand a village without any civilian population not a habitable house & even the church in ruins, with the military forces quartered in dugouts or cellars of the ruins of the old houses. It is an awful contrast I can tell you, still you quickly get hardened to it all, and take it all as part of the days work.



The 101st arrived at their destination on 1 April 1918, and Charles’ platoon was stationed at Mandres-aux-Quatre-Tours. He was promoted from corporal to sergeant that same day. The following day, coincidentally, was his 28th birthday.

Charles’ letters, originally chatty and carefree, had become a little more subdued as he experienced the realities of war first-hand. He described bursts of chaotic activity followed by periods of anxious waiting and uncertainty. The battalion never knew when it might be called into action at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, regular gas alarms and barrages of shells frayed everyone’s nerves. (“They usually tune up about night fall,” Charles wrote to his sister, “so as to disturb our sleep I guess. These Boche certainly have a mean disposition that way, but suppose our gunners treat them the same way.”) Charles also told harrowing stories—for example, the day his detail dragged two dead mules and a wagon out of an exposed road, narrowly avoiding the German bombs dropped on the spot immediately after. All this kept him keyed up most of the time, he admitted.

Philip S. Wainwright, in his History of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, confirms that Charles’ platoon at Mandres “had its share of shelling every night.” (p. 33) Of course, Charles described things to his parents is his usual wry, understated way.

Up to the present time cann’t [sic] say that it has been especially tranquil. However we have gotten over the newness of it now and can listen to a big gun without shaking too much. […] Even at the present writing the Boche are sending a few shells over, but way over so don’t have to worry much. Funny how you can get to tell pretty well if they are coming near you by their whistle. At times that whistle gets on ones nerves but you can usually figure they are trying to locate a battery and not worrying about small fry such as yours truly.


April 19 was his parents’ anniversary, and he sent a telegram to mark the occasion. The following day, in the early morning hours, the Germans launched a surprise attack, and Charles found himself right in the middle of the Battle of Seicheprey. It was the largest American battle up to that point and certainly the worst fighting Charles had seen, but the Americans (mostly Connecticut men) held their own against the larger and more experienced German army and forced “the Hun” back.


According to Wainwright, “During the intense bombardment of high explosive and gas which preceded the attack,” Charles’ platoon “suffered the first real casualties that occurred in the Battalion.” (p. 34) The first man of the 101st to be killed was Private Giuseppe “Joe” Molinari. Charles wrote to his parents in the aftermath of the battle and, without going into detail, called the past hours “H–l rippers” and “heartbreakers.” After his platoon was relieved, he reflected on his recent experiences in a letter to his brother.

We are supposed to be trained soldiers now so we get our full share of excitement that is going on. It sure is a plenty I can tell you. No use describing things over here as it [is] beyond my power any way. You have a nice explosive gas shell land in the story over your head during a general bombardment in the night and you have to get up half asleep & put on a gas mask and then wonder what your chances are of making a dugout. Take a hike up a road that is called Dead Mans Curve and pull a couple of dead mules off the road and with your detail grab hold of the wagon & pull it back for about ½ mile so it wont impede traffic, wondering all the time when they will harass the road again. You can write these things down but the reader doesn’t get any idea of what one is thinking of when said things are happening.


To his parents that same day, he wrote a letter just two pages long, closing with: “Don’t feel much in the mood for letter writing today, will try to do better next time.”

Hope you’ll join me for the next installment of Charles’ story.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 26 January, 2018, 1:40 PM

Reference Collection Book Review: Boston’s South End

In Boston’s South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood Shawmut Peninsula Press, 2015), Russ Lopez constructs an engaging historical account of the South End from before the start of its development as a neighborhood in the 1850s through the time of his writing (22). Lopez, who lives in the South End, teaches in the School of Public Health at Boston University and has written books and articles on topics relating to urban environments (285). This background is on display in his writing as he integrates a variety of social developments and changes in the neighborhood over time into a coherent, highly-readable work.

“HEADQUARTERS, 20 Union Park,” from South End House: Longer and Shorter Retrospects 1891-1911 by the South End House ([Boston, 1912]).


Lopez challenges a widely-held narrative of glorious early years, decades of decline and squalor, and later resurgence in the South End, and sheds light on “a much more nuanced history” (xi). He does so utilizing “public records, newspaper articles, older books, published reports, and the personal papers of past and current residents” (ix). Beginning in the Ice Age, Lopez discusses the Indigenous populations of the area, the early settlement of Boston by Europeans, and the development of the neighborhood in the 19th century. He then looks at the various populations that have inhabited and worked in the South End over the years, including Irish and Jewish immigrants; Black, Latino, and gay and lesbian communities; and, more recently, the wealthy white people who have come to dominate the neighborhood.* He also documents the churches, housing, social and cultural organizations, forms of work, customs, and other aspects of life that these residents have created, participated in, and used to shape the neighborhood.

The second half of Lopez’s book largely covers the urban renewal period of the 1950s to 1970s and the developments in the decades that have followed. He explores the actions of city agencies and officials, as well as the drastic displacement and demographic changes that occurred beginning in the mid-20th century. The urban renewal period was very a challenging one in the South End, marked by tensions between the city and residents as well as turmoil along racial lines among residents. Lopez frames the second half of the 20th century to the present as a time of social and economic pressure for low-income people in the neighborhood, with gentrification and rising prices being a near-constant feature of South End life. However, he chronicles the community resistance of these decades, including various organizations that pushed back against economic violence and pursued their own plans, earning some successes such as the creation of the Villa Victoria housing development (168-170).


“WOMEN’S RESIDENCE, 43-47 East Canton Street,” South End House, from South End House: Longer and Shorter Retrospects 1891-1911 by the South End House ([Boston, 1912]).


Lopez in many ways provides an engaging social history of the neighborhood and its connections to the city of Boston as a whole. He successfully charts the developments and changes within the South End’s religious communities, documents the importance of the South End for decades as a center of Boston’s Black community (91-92), and chronicles the many implications of urban renewal on the neighborhood. Lopez not only challenges the established narrative, he redefines it. His emphasis on forms of housing, employment, recreation, and other aspects of life allows him to really explore the social and cultural fabric of the neighborhood over time. Furthermore, by noting the differences in housing types, income levels, and other demographic differences within various sections of the neighborhood, he is able to create an intricate view of the South End over time. His prose is complemented by a variety of photographs throughout the book.

While the depth of Lopez’s research and his emphasis on the geography of the neighborhood are impressive, he occasionally leaves a desire for a closer look at certain social and cultural developments and groups in the city, such as the briefly-mentioned Syrian population in the mid-20th century (69, 144). Additionally, some editorial decisions leave room for potential challenges. For example, while the book includes some maps, more of them could have been helpful for making sense of the close, detailed descriptions of the neighborhood offered by Lopez. In addition, Lopez cites some letters without providing collection or publication information, which could present difficulties for researchers who would like to track down those sources (40-41). Ultimately, these issues do not prevent Lopez from accomplishing his goal of writing a complex and illuminating story of the South End’s existence over time.


 Boston City Hospital, 1880s. Taken by Allen & Rowell. In Photographic Views of Boston, Mass., Box 3, #12.175.


This book may be of interest to historians of Boston’s neighborhoods; urban historians in general; historians of urban geography and the built environment; scholars of urban renewal; historians of race in Boston; and historians of Boston’s Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. There is much in this book for academic researchers and community historians alike; it is also a worthwhile and accessible text for a casual reader who is interested in learning a bit more about Boston’s history.


*In recent years, “Latinx” has gained popularity as a gender-neutral term. I use “Latino” in this paragraph to reflect the language used by the author in the book.


Related Materials

Manuscript Collections

Sarah Pananty Writings and Bibliographies, [193-]-1940.

South Congregational Church Records, 1828-1929.

Robert Treat Paine Papers II, 1733-1965; bulk: 1880-1949.

Henry Lee Shattuck Papers, 1870-1971.

Walter Muir Whitehill Papers, ca. 1941-1978.


Print Materials

Neighbors All: A Settlement Notebook by Esther G. Barrows (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929). 

Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development by Mel King (Boston: South End Press, 1981).

Report to the Massachusetts Legislature, by the Committee on Education : in favor of an appropriation of $5,000, to the Female Medical Education Society, together with the constitution, names of officers and members, and other information respecting the Society, and the Boston Female Medical School” by the Massachusetts General Court Joint Committee on Education (Boston: Female Medical Education Society, 1851).

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 2:34 PM

Life in the Boarding House: Elizabeth Dorr’s Diaries

During a recent search in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, I came across two subject headings that caught my attention – “Single women” and “Boardinghouses—Massachusetts.” These struck me as familiar since during my first years in Boston as a single graduate student I lived in something similar to a boarding house just a few minutes’ walk from the MHS. Six floors of 160-square-foot rooms housed over one hundred single women, mainly students and young professionals, with the occasional resident who had lived there for decades. In my circle of friends, the building is commonly referred to as “the convent” – after all, that’s what it once was and retains traces of with its still-used chapel and a scattering of Catholic iconography, figurines, and crucifixes throughout. 

Like you might expect, living in the convent came with its fair share of rules – no visitors allowed beyond the first floor common areas, shared kitchens close at 10:00 PM, shared bathrooms must be kept tidy, no food allowed in certain areas, no alcohol, no candles, quiet hours must be respected, etc. Even with its rules, living in the convent was a privilege – central location, affordable rent, and—perhaps my favorite part of all—a community of fellow residents from a variety of backgrounds who held a range of unique interests and skills.

I was fascinated to read in Elizabeth Dorr’s 1845-55 and 1859 diaries (where the aforementioned subject headings of “Single women” and “Boardinghouses” led me) about the diarist’s day-to-day activities and interactions while living in a 19th-century boarding house. Elizabeth Dorr, who worked as a tutor and never married, first describes her Dorchester lodgings and fellow boarders in a diary entry on Saturday, 3 June 1854:

This day I arrived at Mr. Hiram Shephards, Winter St. to take up my abode for the present. MGL and I having a joint right in a very small bedroom and a not very large parlor with pleasant windows to the North, East, & South – two to each point. The family consists of mine host, his wife, a little son of five years rejoicing in the pretty name of Walter, a little motherless niece of Mrs. Shephard’s just three years old who answers to Alice and calls father & mother with Walter. Our fellow boarders are two German gentlemen named Ansorge. Charles the elder somewhere between thirty and forty. Organist at Mr. Hall’s and director of the music there on Sundays & teacher of German & Music. Alfred the younger brother may be about nineteen. Both speak English intelligently & the former is a man of evident culture & general knowledge which promises an agreeable prospect for our hours of eating – a serious consideration to a dyspeptic this pleasant chat at feeding times.



Elizabeth Dorr, [photograph] [19--]

Copy photograph of a daguerreotype of Elizabeth Dorr. Taken by an unidentified photographer.


While she doesn’t indicate any rules or conditions of occupying her rooms (of course, she wasn’t living in a convent), Elizabeth fills the pages with delicately transcribed accounts of social visits from friends, invitations to tea, and remarks on the weather. Some days are filled with three or four social visits (she could have friends over!) and outings to the Academy or a stop at Thornton’s for soda. Other entries reflect a different pace: Monday, 7 November 1859, “Too entirely exhausted to go to tea at Mrs. Rodman’s”; Sunday, 13 November 1859, “Dull. at home all day.” I learned from her 1854 diary that Friday, 21 July 1854, was “Too warm for action” and the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1859 was “almost summerish.”

The final page stood out from the rest as I read Elizabeth Dorr’s 1859 diary – the latest in the collection. She begins with one of those lines in a diary that transports a reader out of an individual’s personal life and solidly reminds one of the greater context in which this person lived – Friday, 2 December 1859, “Returned by Belleview road, bells ringing at the African church as we returned on account of John Brown’s execution.” The final lines of the diary, written two days later, absorb the reader back into Elizabeth’s daily routine of omnibus excursions and social visits, ending aptly with plans “to see a friend.”

If you are interested in viewing Elizabeth Dorr’s diaries yourself, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for assistance.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 January, 2018, 12:00 AM

No Mere 'Adventurer': P. T. Barnum, Iranistan, and the Swedish Nightingale

March 7 1882


I send Cards as you 
request. I am too full
of elephants to command
much sentiment. All my
thoughts & cares at present are
locked up in two trunks - one of
which belongs to Jumbo & the
other to Little "Bridgeport." 
If both trunks arrive in
New York and our citizens
possess the keys - a world
of treasure will be exposed
to public view.

Truly yours
P.T. Barnum


This letter by P. T. Barnum – showman, businessman, politician, and promoter extraordinaire - to an unidentified recipient illustrates the melding of his whimsical, magical world with the reality of his business and ventures.

As a forerunner of modern marketing, Phineas Taylor Barnum redefined what the world knew as entertainment. In an era when stars were born through broadsides, newspapers and posters, Barnum revamped the entertainment world with publicity campaigns that inundated the public, so much so that the audience already loved his performers before they ever graced the stage or entered the ring.

Such is the true story of Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale.” Considered by many to be the greatest singer of the 19th century, Lind toured the United States with Barnum in 1850.

Programme of Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s concert: with the words of the airs in Italian, German, Swedish and English. Tremont Temple, Boston, October 1850


Lind donated to charity her earnings from that tour. Mr. Barnum was less-known for his philanthropy and seemed more interested in the flow of money in the other direction, as one might surmise from the title of his book, How I made millions: the life of P. T. Barnum/written by himself; to which is added the art of money getting; or, golden rules for money making; nearly one hundred illustrations. Perhaps purposely titled to attract readers, the book is an anecdotal autobiography from which the reader learns little about the “art” of making money, but a great deal about Barnum’s life, experiences and thoughts. Included in the book is the story of Lind’s arrival in Boston, the subsequent performance, and just why she agreed to tour the country with P. T. Barnum:


The night after her arrival in Boston, a display of fireworks was given in her honor, in front of the Revere House, after which followed a beautiful torch-light procession by the Germans of that city.

On her return from Boston to New York, Jenny, her companion and Messrs. Benedict and Belletti, Stopped at Iranistan, my residence in Bridgeport, where they remained until the following day. The morning after her arrival, she took my arm and proposed a promenade through the grounds. She seemed much pleased and said “I am astonished that you should have left such a beautiful place for the sake of travelling through the country with me.”

The same day she told me in a playful mood, that she had heard the most extraordinary report. “I have heard that you and I are about to be married,” said she “now how could such an absurd report ever have originiated?”

“Probably from the fact that we are ‘engaged,’” I replied. She enjoyed a joke, and laughed heartily.

“Do you know Mr. Barnum, that if you had not built Iranistan, I should have never come to America for you?”

I expressed my surprise and asked her to explain.

“I had received several applications to visit the United States,” she continued “but I did not much like the appearance of the applicants nor did I relish the idea of crossing 3,000 miles of ocean; so I declined them all. But the first letter which Mr. Wilton, your agent, addressed me, was written upon a sheet of letter headed with a beautiful engraving of Iranistan. It attracted my attention. I said to myself, a gentleman who has been so successful in his business that as to be able to build and reside in such a palace cannot be a mere ‘adventurer’ So I wrote to your agent and consented to an interview, which I would have declined if I had not seen the picture of Iranistan!”


Iranistan, an oriental ville (near Bridgeport, Connecticut) [graphic]/Lith. Of Sarony and Major, N. Y.

Indeed Iranistan was impressive! Designed by Leopold Eidlitz in 1848 and called “the oriental Palace of America” by the New York Herald, Barnum’s dream mansion drew throngs of tourists daily and was beautiful enough to bring the greatest singer in the world to America. Sadly the mesmerizing palace succumbed to fire less than a decade later in 1857.

The 2017 movie The Greatest Showman by 20th Century Fox is putting the spotlight back on P. T. Barnum, the Father of the Circus, where he is portrayed as a singing, dancing dreamer; although the real Barnum is so much more fascinating! In addition to the items shown above, the MHS houses many additional items related to P. T. Barnum and his amusements, most of which have already been digitized and are available online, like our Object of the Month for May 2017, When the Circus came to Boston: in Honor of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Final Tour. To find more, take a look through our online catalog, ABIGAIL, then consider visiting the Library!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 11:49 AM

older posts