The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From the Reading Room

The Joy of Discoveries: Answering a Visitor's Question

It is always fun to make a connections in surprising places.  It is even more fun when those connections are made as a result of a question asked by a visitor to the MHS.

Last week, a visitor to our current exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, asked a simple question that I could not answer.  The question, was Stephen Perkins -- a soldier featured in the exhibition -- related to the Perkins that was the namesake of the Perkins School for the Blind

Unable to answer the questions off the cuff, I promised to research the relationship and provide an answer via email. This lead me on a serendipidious mission.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) -- one of Boston's most successfull China trade merchants -- was an early benefactor of the the school, selling his own home (which had housed the school for a year) and donating the funds so that the school could be moved to a larger location as enrollment grew. The MHS holds a large collection of Perkins' personal and business papers (see a guide to the collection here), which is where I started my search. But I was unable to determine a clear familial connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen Perkins there.  So I changed my search strategy and turned to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, for assistance. 

Through ABIGAIL I discovered that the photograph of Stephen Perkins featured in our exhibtion was the only item we held credited to Perkins himself. So I kept digging through the entries for the various Perkins family members until discovering the generic subject heading "Perkins Family" which brought me to a catalog record for an item that seemed to have promise in terms of revealing a clear answer to the question at hand: a large broadside title The Perkins Family of Boston.  Dashing to the stacks to view the broadside, I was delighted to see that it  was a large genealogical chart which revealed there was a connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen G. Perkins, killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in the Civil War. 

Looking at the chart I could see that Thomas had a brother named Samuel, who was born in 1767. Samuel had a son, who he named Stephen, in 1804.  That Stephen also had a son named Stephen, born in 1835.  That Stephen, the grandson of Thomas Handasyd Perkins' brother Samuel, was the Stephen pictured in our exhibition. 

I was happy to be able to reveal the answer to the exhibition visitor as well as to build for myself a little extra knowledge to share with future visitor to the MHS. 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 January, 2012, 12:09 PM

The Darian Expedition

Welcome to a new Beehive series, “Readers Relate,” in which we hope to bring you a variety of examples of the type of research being done here in the MHS library by researchers who visit in person, and also by researchers who contact us from across the globe.

We developed a set of five questions for our researchers to respond to via email and will forward the questionnaire to researchers nominated by members of the MHS staff. If you are yourself a researcher and are interested in participating, please contact me at acook@masshist.org and I will be happy to forward the questionnaire to you.

Our first response comes from Julie Orr, a Colorado native who recently spent some time at the MHS on her way home from a year in residence at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

Can you briefly describe the research project that brought you to the Massachusetts Historical Society? 

The research seeks to expand the multinational historiography surrounding the attempt by the Company of Scotland to establish a colony on the isthmus of Panama in 1698-1700.

What specific material in our collections made coming to the MHS important to your research?

The Francis Russell Hart Collection contains his notes, transcriptions and translations of varied documents addressing the Spanish perspective of the Scottish initiative.

 While you were working here, was there something you examined that surprised you?

Hart´s material contained the first documentation of both torture of prisoners and the reaction of the general population of Spanish America to the Scottish incursion.

Is there a particular quote (or visual image) from the material that you consulted that stands out for you?

The visual image of masses being celebrated in response to the Scottish capitulation.

If you brought a visitor to the MHS and you had a chance to show them ONE item from our collections, what item would it be? 

Hart´s translation of the interrogation of the translator for the expedition, who was abandoned on Cuba.

Orr writes of her work, “Following a career with the U.S. Public Health Service in environmental health, I have returned an academic setting to further my education in history, specifically to examine and expand the story of the Darien Expedition and its impact not only in Europe but also in the Americas.”  We wish her good fortune with her project, and thank her for taking the time to answer our questions.

 

 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 23 September, 2011, 12:00 AM

“Houses of Ill Fame” in Boston, 1907-1910: A Police Report

A graduate student doing research on early social work and “delinquent” girls recently reviewed a publication in our collection titled A Record of the Enforcement of the Laws Against Sexual Immorality Since December 1, 1907 as Contained in the Information relating thereto Embodied in the Reports to the Governor of Massachusetts made Annually by the Police Commissioner for the City of Boston (City of Boston: Printing Department, [1910?]). The report compiles data on police activity between 1907 and 1910 to contain “public and semipublic sexual immorality” in the city of Boston.  “Total extinction” of immorality “cannot be hoped for, can hardly be imagined; but effectual restraint can be applied,” wrote Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara in his introduction to the report.

Attempts at such “restraint” are what the report documents. For example, the report offers a table showing the number of “houses of ill fame” against which charges were brought (between 1879 and 1908, the number fluctuated from a low of 19 to a high of 114 annually) and enumerates how the “keepers” of these houses were punished. Most common was a fine of $50.00; two, however, were imprisoned and seven sent to a “house of correction” for one year.

“Night walkers” (women who sold sex on the street) were similarly rounded up and fined or confined in prisons or correction facilities. Notable for historians is the data on the sex workers that the author of the report believed was relevant to include. They provided tables showing the birthplace and age of women who had been found in brothels and who had been found working on the street, as well as detailing the punishments meted out. Specifically, they seem interested in noting the number of women who are native U.S. rather than foreign-born residents. Of the 375 women and girls arrested on the street (no mention is made of male prostitutes), 266 were from the United States while the remaining 109 had been born 14 other nations, all European countries with the exception of Canada and Russia. Their age ranged from sixteen to “above 40.” In addition, the police also arrested 46 women and girls who, “though conducting themselves in an immoral manner on the streets, were in most cases hardly more than delinquent or wayward children,” most often returned to their parents or placed on probation.

The report also includes a section on public fears surrounding “white slavery,” cautioning that “the transition from a virtuous life to a life devoted wholly or in part to mercenary immorality … is rarely sudden.” Women and girls, rather than being coerced, instead found themselves lured into “mercenary immorality” for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of religious training to poverty to exposure to “flashy public entertainments and reading matter which rouse their bad instincts.” (Probably reading this report is bad for me!)

This report is an intriguing example of the intersection of law enforcement and the emerging fields of social work in the early 1900s. The report, and other early 20th century publications on similar topics, can be viewed in our library during our business hours.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 8:00 AM

Researcher Hopes to Write the Autobiography John Quincy Adams “Never had Time to Write.”

For the past six weeks, one of the digital microfilm readers in our library has been occupied by a researcher working his way through the microfilm edition of the Adams Family Papers. He is painstakingly transcribing passages from the handwritten correspondence of John Quincy Adams (JQA) in preparation for an intellectual biography of the man who witnessed two generations worth of political events play out on a world stage.

As the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter project highlights, John Quincy Adams was an obsessive chronicler of events in his own life and the global political networks in which he moved. Our dedicated researcher has set out to document JQA’s life as an observer of the world. De-centering the biographical subject, he hopes to write an outward-looking biography, “the autobiography [JQA] never had time to write” because he was so busy keeping diaries, writing letters, and otherwise documenting the events and interactions he took part in.

When asked for some of his initial observations, our dedicated researcher points to JQA’s antislavery agitation, which made him an outlier in his generation of Americans. The biographer suggests, echoing JQA’s own penchant for Biblical metaphors, that John Quincy Adams was a “John the Baptist,” helping prepare the way for the abolition of slavery decades after his death in 1848.

We wish our researcher the best of luck with his work and look forward to the biographical study to come.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 10:00 AM

Two New Volunteers Join the Reader Services Team

In May two volunteers, Beth Hirsch & Liz Francis, joined the library reader services team.  The two women, both currently students at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, will assist with the selection of documents to be featured in Looking at the Civil War: Massachusetts Finds Her Voice on the MHS website. The web-presentation features one document per month selected from the MHS' own collections & written 150 years prior by a Massachusetts resident reflecting on some facet of the Civil War.  For more information about the overall project, click here.

Beth's first assignment is to canvas a variety of collections looking for a document to be featured in June 2011 -- meaning the document must have been written in June 1861.  We are hoping to find a document that allows for a woman's voice to be heard.  Right now we are looking at a number of likely candidates.  Once the final selection is made Beth will complete a transcription of the document and research & write a contextual essay to accompany the digitized images of the document on our website (see our April document for an example of what this looks like).  After completing her work with the June document, Beth will likely dive right into collections containing letters written by Massachusetts soldiers who participated in the Battle of Bull Run in search of an item to feature in July. 

Liz's first task is to complete a survey of a body of letters written by Hannah Elizabeth Stevenson contained in the larger Curtis-Stevenson Family Papers.  Hannah served as a nurse in various Union hospitals in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington from July 1861 through October 1862. Liz is challenged to identify and summarize all letters of particular interest, which may be used in a number of different MHS projects over the course of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and also to select one single letter from the collection to be featured in Massachusetts Finds Her Voice in the coming months.  Again, once a selection is made Liz will be working on the transcription and contextual essay to support the document when it is added to the web-presentation. 

While our summer spots filled up fast, there will likely be additional opportunities for volunteers in the fall.  Please contact Elaine Grublin if you would like further information about volunteering for this project.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 May, 2011, 8:00 AM

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