The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Charles Cornish Pearson and the Great War, Part I

I’d like to introduce Charles Cornish Pearson, a young man who served during World War I in the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, 26th Division, American Expeditionary Forces. The MHS acquired his papers a few months ago, but as I looked at them more closely, I realized there was so much good material that I’m going to stretch his story out over several posts. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. The collection also came to us with 32 terrific photographs, undated and mostly unidentified, some of which I’ll be using as illustrations.


Charles C. Pearson was born on 2 April 1890, the son of Charles H. and Gertrude (Cornish) Pearson. He grew up in Arlington, Mass. with his older brother Bill and younger sister Jean. He graduated from Somerville Latin High School in 1908 and Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1912. The MAC yearbook described him like this:

This is little “Napoleon.” When he came here, he hit the studies hard and now he doesn’t have to plug, because the “Profs.” pass him on general principles. He holds the reputation of being one of the really good-looking men in the class who doesn’t fuss. “Connie” had an awful time electing his courses. He wanted to take everything, but of course they wouldn’t let him. We shouldn’t be a bit surprised to see him a member of Phi Kappa Phi.

Charles worked as a salesman after college, specifically as manager of the Hartford, Conn. office of E. Naumburg & Co. The U.S. entered World War I on 6 April 1917, Charles enlisted 12 June, was appointed corporal 1 July, and shipped out to France in early October. His letters at the MHS were written primarily to his mother Gertrude, his father Charles, his aunt Florence, and his brother and sister. He signed his correspondence variously as Charles, Cornish, C.C.P., and most often as “Buster,” but I’ll just call him Charles for simplicity’s sake.

Philip S. Wainwright’s History of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, published in 1922, is a great resource for all things 101st. I’ll be using Wainwright’s text to add some details, but I want to focus primarily on Charles’ letters, his personal reaction to events, and his evolution over the course of the war.

Spirits were high as the men of the 101st embarked for Europe, and Charles’ first letters home were sent from “a little village in France” in November 1917. He wasn’t allowed to reveal his exact location, but I learned from Wainwright that Charles was stationed in Mont-lès-Neufchâteau in the northeastern part of the country. He was cheerful, except when it came to the weather, which was too wet and muddy for his liking. (A recurring motif.) He urged his family to write often and requested a number of items from home, including clothes, toiletries, cigarettes, and especially reading material. He also reassured them.

Believe me you & Dad and the rest of the family are constantly in my mind, and for your part don’t worry about me, have been in fine health ever since I left Niantic and believe I will keep so, and as regards getting into actual fighting why that is too far off to start worrying about.

Things had been fairly quiet for Charles so far. The training was rigorous, but he suffered few hardships, except monotony. He also liked the locals, despite the language barrier.

The French people here in the village are an interesting lot. Understand practically no English & as most of us are lacking in French, we don’t make much head way. However they all seem only too glad to do what they can for us & jabber away in French just as though we could understand every word they said.


The men of the battalion were “looking forward to when we begin to do our bit” and working hard to master their weapons and other equipment. Two days before Christmas, Charles wrote to his mother about some of this training.

Had my first experience with gas today. Tried out a couple of the masks we have issued to us. We non-coms had the pleasure of going into what they call a gas chamber (which in truth was a well built cattle shed) put on our masks & let them turn the gas on. Nothing very exciting happened if you did things as directed but if not well you would be lucky if you got away with slight sickness. […] However we have to get used to them, learning how to put them on quickly, test for gas etc, so that when we get up against the real thing why we will know what to do.



The 101st Machine Gun Battalion celebrated Christmas 1917 with the French villagers of Mont-lès-Neufchâteau. Many soldiers received care packages from home, and Charles described the meal and entertainment. The holiday was “complete except for being away from our families and believe me you could notice a far away look in the boys faces as they opened their packages and thought of the folks at home.”


Join me in a few weeks when I pick up the story of Charles Cornish Pearson in his new year and ours.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 8 December, 2017, 12:00 AM

Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, December 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 | October | November


It is the final month of 2017 and 1917 as well; Gertrude Carter left scant record behind as the Carter family’s year ended in news of the death of Gertrude’s grown stepson, Otho, when his ship was torpedoed on November 28th. News reached his father on December 4th, the final page of the diary. The only items left in the journal are pasted in, a photograph, cryptically captioned “the Prophets of Ruby Bay,” and a sketch of a room -- “Black & white room” -- with Gertrude’s design notations penciled in -- “Writing table here” and “Beam 1 foot deep”.

It seems fitting that we let Gertrude’s work as an artist and architect close out our year with her. Thank you for joining us on our journey with Gertrude Codman Carter through 1917! In January we will be introducing our diarist from 1918, a Newton (Mass.) teenager named Barbara Hillard Smith.


* * *

Dec 1.

Tea at the [illegible] Yearwoods.


Dec 2.

A very jolly [illegible] party. The Hancocks, Carpenters, Mrs. Smith [illegible], Laddie, Mr. Fell, Mrs. Da Costa. We sang & danced & had a generally jolly time of it.


Dec 3.

Met Mr. Eustace at L. Challum’s office. The [boots?] departed for the front.


Dec 4.

Poor G. came back from the town with a cable which had been handed him as he passed through. The cable was from Evelyn & said, “Otho lost at sea.” At first we could not grasp it for we had imagined him still in Africa -- however when our letters came we found alas~ That he had been invalided home & they were expecting him shortly. G. went to the [illegible] who kindly cabled to the Colonial office & received the official confirmation that the “Apapa” had been torpedoed & sunk with severe loss of life & Otho amongst the lost.



"Prophets of Ruby Bay"


 Black and White Room

* * *

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: Wednesday, 6 December, 2017, 12:00 AM

The “industrious Citizen’s” guide to preparing for cold season

With flu season fast approaching and many coworkers and peers already succumbing to illness, the time has come to consider our health and safety for the wintry months ahead. What can we, “the enterprising Mariner—the hardy Soldier—the industrious Citizen,” do to mitigate “the direful consequences of infection?” William Burrell, a late-1700s seller of special medicine chests designed for sailors, collaborated with several physicians to create a pamphlet designed to adapt his sailors’ medicine chests for use by the common citizen. It contains page upon page of useful advice on treating anything from the common cold to gunshot wounds. Note that while William Burrell may not have been an actual doctor, his expertise in preparing medicine chests was definitely enough to qualify him to publish medical advice.


Published in 1798, Medical advice; chiefly for the consideration of seamen: and adapted for the use of travellers, or domestic life can be found within the MHS’ Evans microfiche collection of Early American Imprints. Within this pamphlet Mr. Burrell describes dozens of maladies common during the late 18th century with an eye toward prevention and quick recovery via home remedy. Burrell acknowledges that, shy of “devising and applying means to destroy the Fons et origo mali, (fountain and origin of evil,) and restore the purity of the atmosphere in which the patient breathes,” the best practice for combating illness is to keep the patient clean and comfortable. Most of this is achieved by way of steam, hot water, and a combination of chemicals. Although it is unlikely that Burrell’s medicine chests are still on the market today, the pamphlet fortunately includes a compilation of names and suggested doses for most of the medicines mentioned. Simply visit your local pharmacy for everything listed except, perhaps, tinctures of opium.


In general, Burrell warns that cold climates as well as rapid changes in temperature can predispose one to sickness. The same is true for excessive drinking of beer and spirits, so take care to stay sober during any upcoming holiday parties. Should you find yourself becoming ill, restrict your diet to bland foods such as gruel, pasta, oysters, and boiled meat. Those who remain healthy should bolster their diets with “sallads,” which are “saponaceous, detergent, cooling, and antiseptic,” as well as “opening and diuretic.” However, Burrell warns that salads should be avoided if one feels cold or nervous.

Lithograph showing a phlebotomy, London 1804, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology


In terms of cold symptoms, Burrell’s advice varies according to diagnosis and outside conditions. Most of it, however, involves bloodletting. Bloodletting (or bleeding) was a popular method of treatment for a wide range of ailments from the 1600s into the 1800s, after which it slowly declined in popularity. According to Burrell, bloodletting is an especially necessary step when the climate is cold. For fevers, intersperse repeated bleedings with induced vomiting. For coughs, bleeding and periodic doses of tincture of opium are recommended. In order to prevent malaria while vacationing in warmer areas, remove a pint of blood to account for the change in temperature and allow yourself to sweat freely.

Bear in mind, however, that a footnote to Burrell’s pamphlet warns against the dangers of excessive bloodletting:

it is of the utmost importance not to reduce the system by bleeding or any other evacuation whatever, below the ordinary healthy standard, as a firm constitution and a chearful and fearless mind, most powerfully resist the sedative action of pestilential contagion.


“Life of George Washington: The Christian,” lithograph by Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853. Washington Library, Mount Vernon, VA.


Recall, for instance, the circumstances under which George Washington died. In December of 1799, after spending most of the day supervising his Mount Vernon farm in freezing rain and snow, the former president refused to remove his wet clothing for dinner. Naturally, the next day he developed a sore throat. Spending another full day outside in three inches of snow only made his sore throat worse, and by the following morning he was terribly ill and having trouble breathing. Attended by three physicians and his wife, Washington was given a mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter to soothe his throat. A firm believer in the healing power of bloodletting, he also asked that half a pint of blood be removed from his arm while refusing other medicines and treatments. “You know I never take anything for a cold,” he said. “Let it go as it came.” As his condition worsened over the next ten hours, an estimated total of two and a half quarts of blood were removed from Washington’s body, amounting to over half of the blood in his body. He passed away at 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 17, 1799. Take care to remember this story while treating your own cold-weather ailments using bloodletting.

Chemicals in the form of gargles, tinctures, and skin treatments are also popular cures in Burrell’s pamphlet. According to Burrell, most oils and tinctures work best when dissolved in plain water or “common nitrous drink,” which can be made by dissolving a few grains of nitre in water. Add citrus juice, molasses, or vinegar to aid in digestion and soothe the throat. Bodily aches and pains caused by influenza or infection can be remedied using a blister, a paste made from mashing a special type of “blister beetle,” to draw toxins to the surface of the skin. The blistering toxin found in blister beetles has been used medically as a vesicant- an agent that causes blistering - as well as an aphrodisiac since the 12th century BC. Use it well, but do not eat it—you will almost definitely die.

With Burrell’s expert and up-to-date advice in mind, venture forth into this year’s cold season without fear!




Burrell, William, Medical advice; chiefly for the consideration of seamen: and adapted for the use of travellers, or domestic life, (New York: Printed for the author by R. Wilson, 1798).

“The Death of George Washington,” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2017, accessed on 30 November 2017,

Vadakan, Vibul, MD, FAAP, “The Asphyxiating and Exsanguinating Death of President George Washington,” The Permanente Journal 8, No. 2, Spring 2004, accessed on 30 November 2017,

Schmidt, Justin, “Cantharidin and Meloids: a review of classical history, biosynthesis, and function,” 2002, accessed on 30 November 2017,



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 1 December, 2017, 12:00 AM

Bring Your Students to MHS!

December is knockingon the door which means that the Center for the Teaching of History at the MHS is wrapping-up its inaugural semester of class visits! This fall, the MHS hosted a number of programs for middle school, high school, and college students who want to learn about primary sources and experience the work of historians first-hand.

Students getting up close and personal with MHS documents.

Our collection of Revolutionary War-era material is popular with middle and high school classes who come to MHS to learn about the real people behind Boston’s Freedom Trail. For example, Cohasset-based Chris Luvisi’s AP US History class examined artifacts and documents related to the Boston boycott of British goods in the 1760s and 1770s, including the 1767 “Address to the Ladies” which encouraged Boston women to forgo imported British luxuries in order to appear “Fair, charming, true, lovely, and cleaver” to young men. After taking on identities of Boston craft workers, merchants, shopkeepers, and domestic housewives, students voted on whether to support or ignore the nonimportation agreement. While most students supported the boycott in theory, a number of them admitted that they would likely keep buying their imported tea under the table!

Students were excited to get a close look at a bottle of tea leaves collected from Dorchester Neck the morning after the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Vincent Bradley’s AP US History class from Catholic Memorial School also engaged with the history of the Revolution, this time through the perspective of John Adams. Students explored how Adams’ views on protest and dissent changed over time by looking at his opinions on the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Shay’s Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Bradley’s class also saw historians in action while participating in one of MHS’ Brown Bag Lunches, where they heard Kabria Baumgartner from the University of New Hampshire speak about her current research on Black girlhood and the desegregation of Massachusetts public schools. Catholic Memorial students asked Professor Baumgartner questions about her work and listened as she workshopped her research with other local historians and visitors.

Students deciphered John Adams's notes from the Boston Massacre trials to learn about his motivation for defending British soldiers. 

As the state coordinators for Massachusetts History Day, the Center for the Teaching of History (CTH) also helps many students learn research strategies for their upcoming projects. Megan Brady’s eighth grade history club from the John F. Kennedy School in Somerville came in on a Saturday so that they could learn about the collections at MHS and practice working with primary sources. Her students, whose National History Day interests range from early Pilgrim-Wampanoag relations to LGBTQ History in the 1920s, posed thoughtful questions to Stephen T. Riley Librarian Peter Drummey while looking at Sarah Gooll Putnam’s Civil War-era childhood diary and a daguerreotype of author and reformer Annie Fields, who lived in a “Boston marriage” with her partner Sarah Orne Jewett for decades. You can learn more about National History Day and find inspiration for your own projects at the Massachusetts History Day website, the National History Day site, or at our own Center webpage.

Sarah Gooll Putnam's diary entry on 14 April 1865. The young artist drew her own expression at hearing of President Lincoln's asssassination to illustrate how she felt at the news.

The Center sometimes partners with Library Reader Services to help host college visits as well, which gives the perfect excuse to explore more specific and unusual themes in the MHS collections. Erika Boeckeler brought two of her Northeastern University classes this fall to explore Children’s Literature and Shakespeare in America, leading to rediscovery of gems in our stacks such as a homemade morality tale titled “Adventures of a ruffle” that was written by Anne Harrod Adams, John and Abigail’s daughter-in-law! On another day, Cathy McCarron’s class joined us from Middlesex Community College to explore Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker’s court petitions for manumission and their leadership in ending slavery in Massachusetts. We discussed the different types of primary sources that illustrate the lives of individuals who previously lacked a voice in traditional historical narratives.

If you would like to bring students to visit us, or have the Center for the Teaching of History come to you, please contact the Center for the Teaching of History at All of our student programs are free of charge, and we would love to work with you to create a memorable program with your class!  For more information on our programming, visit the Center at

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 November, 2017, 12:00 AM

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

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