Guide to the Collection

Restrictions on Access

Two cartons of rescue and case reports, 1980-1995, are stored offsite and are closed to researchers until January 1, 2020.

Collection Summary


This collection consists of the records of the Humane Society of Massachusetts kept from 1786-2004, including meeting minutes, rules, bylaws, membership lists, treasurer reports, account books, bills, estate inventories, lifesaving and rescue case reports, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. The Humane Society is a charitable organization founded in 1786 to rescue the survivors of shipwrecks and ships in distress.

Historical Sketch

The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was established in 1786 to rescue the survivors of shipwrecks and ships in distress. The Society maintained lifeboats and rescue stations along the Massachusetts seashore and provided instruction in lifesaving. It is widely considered the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Society later expanded its efforts, supporting the Asylum for the Insane and the Boston Lying-In Hospital and rewarding individuals for heroic personal rescues with medals and monetary awards. The Society remains in existence today.

Collection Description

The records of the Humane Society of Massachusetts from 1786-2004 consist of meeting minutes, rules, bylaws, membership lists, treasurer reports, account books, bills, estate inventories, lifesaving and rescue case reports, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. Lifesaving and rescue case reports make up the bulk of the collection, with references to the reports found in numerous parts of the collection. The case reports include detailed information regarding rescue attempts, victims' names, and medals awarded. Society correspondence consists of letterbooks and loose correspondence relating to all aspects of the Society and its business, including rescue cases, medals awarded, and supplies purchased. Correspondence includes letters written mostly by the recording secretary and other members, such as Robert Bennet Forbes, B. W. Crowninshield, Thomas Motley, Jr., Edward H. Faucon, and Sidney W. Burgess.

The administrative records include the Society rules and bylaws that have changed over the years, the act of incorporation, monthly and annual meeting minutes, and membership lists. The financial records of the Society include treasurer reports, account books and records, property information and records, bills and vouchers, and audited financial statements, including records of the Society's endowment and investments. Newspaper clippings and publicity reports consist of articles of shipwrecks, rescue attempts, medal recipients, and publicity of members of the Society.

Acquisition Information

The bulk of the early material was given to the MHS as a gift by William Caleb Loring in March 1914, including early rescue case reports from 1899-1909 and most of the 18th- and 19th-century materials. The majority of the 20th-century materials were deposited by the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in December 1996 and January 2007.

Restrictions on Access

Two cartons of rescue and case reports, 1980-1995, are stored offsite and are closed to researchers until January 1, 2020.

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Administrative records, 1786-2002

A. Rules and bylaws, 1791-1902

First published in 1788 and later adopted in 1791, the rules, bylaws, and act of incorporation of the Massachusetts Humane Society are located in three folders. The rules, bylaws, and act of incorporation of the Humane Society establish the number of trustees and officers that are allowed to serve, responsibilities of the trustees and officers, frequency of Society meetings, monetary awards and medals given to rescuers, and other important aspects of the Society. The rules and bylaws have been amended over the course of the Society's existence.

Box 1Folders 1-3

B. Meeting minutes, 1857-2002

Eleven volumes of minutes contain records for monthly and annual meetings of the Humane Society of Massachusetts held in Boston, Mass., usually at a board member's house. Monthly meetings recorded attendance, presentations of rescue cases, and votes on awarding medals or money. Annual meeting minutes recorded the election of officers and trustees and discussions about the budget.

Vol. 1
Meeting minutes, 1857-1874

Use photostat (1857-1876) or manuscript (1857-1874) copies (vols. 1A and 1B).

Vol. 1A
Meeting minutes, 1857-1876Photostats
Vol. 1B
Meeting minutes, 1857-1874Manuscript copies
Vol. 2
Meeting minutes, 1876-1888

Use photostat copies (vol. 2A).

Vol. 2A
Meeting minutes, 1876-1888Photostats
Vol. 3
Meeting minutes, 1888-1903

Use photostat copies (vol. 3A).

Vol. 3A
Meeting minutes, 1888-1903Photostats
Vol. 4
Meeting minutes, 1903-1917

Use photostat copies (vol 4A).

Vol. 4A
Meeting minutes, 1903-1917Photostats
Vol. 5
Meeting minutes, 1917-1930
Vol. 6
Meeting minutes, 1930-1941
Vol. 7
Meeting minutes, 1942-1956
Vol. 8
Meeting minutes, 1956-1973
Vol. 9
Meeting minutes, 1973-1985
Vol. 10
Meeting minutes, 1986-1998
Vol. 11
Meeting minutes, 1998-2002

C. Membership, 1786-1838

Membership-related records include a list of member names, some noting their place of residence, from 1786 to 1838, and a list of men who delivered the annual discourse to the Society from 1787 to 1817.

Box 1Folders 4-5

D. Establishment of the Asylum for the Insane, 1816

This folder contains the history of the establishment of the Asylum for the Insane, an agreement made between the Humane Society of Massachusetts and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Box 1Folder 6

II. Financial records, 1786-2004

A. Treasurer reports, 1791-1990

Seven volumes of treasurer reports record payments for materials and supplies, employee salaries, upkeep of lifesaving stations, lists of property including real estate, stocks, bonds, investments, and names of subscribers and annual subscriptions paid to the Society. Also included is an account book kept by Charles Amory, the Society's treasurer, from 1849 to 1864. Amory's entries include travel reimbursements for members, payments for silver and gold medals, rewards for lifesaving heroics, materials and supplies, and returns on investments and stocks.

Vol. 12
Annual subscribers, 1791-1813

Use photostat copies (vol. 12A).

Vol. 12A
Annual subscribers, 1791-1813Photostats
Vol. 13
Annual subscribers, 1804-1813; treasurer reports, 1805-1818
Vol. 14
Annual subscribers, 1818-1838; treasurer reports, 1818-1826
Vol. 15
Treasurer reports, 1831-1881
Vol. 16
Treasurer reports, 1881-1908
Vol. 17
Treasurer reports, 1908-1926
Vol. 18
Treasurer reports, 1926-1990
Box 1Folder 7
Charles Amory's treasurer accounts, 1849-1864

B. Account books, 1919-1937

Three account books of the Humane Society record payments to companies for work performed at lifesaving stations, materials, supplies, outstanding bills, and employee salaries.

Vol. 19
Account book, 1919-1925
Vol. 20
Account book, 1925-1932
Vol. 21
Account book, 1932-1937

C. Bills and vouchers, 1848-1849

One volume of bills and vouchers of the Humane Society kept from 1848 to 1849 records supplies such as lumber for building boats and lifesaving stations, cordage for ropes, and copper for boat hulls. Entries were made at various locations in Massachusetts. including Boston, New Bedford, Chatham, Hull, Edgartown, and Kingston.

Vol. 22

D. Property, 1786-1916

In one folder containing valuation lists of property owned by the Humane Society of Massachusetts from 1786 to 1916, one list records the total value each year, and the other records property values in ten-year intervals. Also included is the name of the Humane Society treasurer and the years served.

Box 1Folder 8

E. Estates inventories, wills, and probate records, 1791-1928

Arranged chronologically

Estate inventories, wills, and probate records consist of monetary gifts given to the Humane Society upon the death of the donor. Many of these donations became the backbone of the Society's endowment. See treasurer reports for the performance of the gifts.

Box 2

F. Audited financial reports, 1969-2004

Arranged chronologically

Audited financial reports of the Humane Society from 1969 to 2004 record income gained from investments in stocks, bonds, and securities.

Box 3

G. Report on restricted funds, 1939

A 1939 report on restricted funds belonging to the Humane Society sought to document whether or not the restricted funds were being used in accordance with the original wishes of the donor. These funds include legacies, wills, and donations.

Box 1Folder 9

III. Lifesaving and rescue records, 1849-1995

A. Rescue and case reports, 1899-1909, 1980-1995 (closed to researchers)

Arranged chronologically by case number.

Lifesaving rescue and case reports record the location of an accident, names and addresses of person or people who made the rescue, names of people saved or lost, witness names and addresses, cause of the accident, correspondence related to the case, and any newspaper clippings regarding the case.

Box 4
Rescue and case reports 594-634, July 1899-Aug. 1901
Box 5
Rescue and case reports 635-677, Sep. 1901-July 1902
Box 6
Rescue and case reports 678-715, Aug. 1902-June 1903
Box 7
Rescue and case reports 734-777, Aug. 1903-July 1904
Box 8
Rescue and case reports 778-824, Aug. 1904-May 1905
Box 9
Rescue and case reports 825-868, June 1905-Dec. 1905
Box 10
Rescue and case reports 869-910, Jan. 1906-Aug. 1906
Box 11
Rescue and case reports 911-956, Sep. 1906-Oct. 1907
Box 12
Rescue and case reports 957-991, Nov. 1907-June 1908
Box 13
Rescue and case reports 992-1029, July 1908-Jan. 1909
Box 14
Rescue and case reports 1030-1070, Feb.-Dec. 1909
Carton 1
Rescue and case reports, 1980-1995

Closed to researchers until Jan. 1, 2020.

Barcode # SH0584

Carton 2
Rescue and case reports, 1980-1995

Closed to researchers until Jan. 1, 2020.

Barcode # SH0581

B. Lifesaving stations, 1849-1910

Three volumes recording the location of sixty-eight lifesaving stations and lighthouses located on the Massachusetts shore consist of detailed lists of the amount of equipment kept at each station, including oars, sails, life-belts, buckets, blankets, etc.; the condition of the equipment; the name of the keeper and active captain of each station; structures located on the property of the lifesaving station, including boathouses and houses, what condition the structure was in, and the year it was built and painted. Also included are the dimensions of the lifesaving stations, boathouses, and boats located at each station.

Vol. 23
Lifesaving stations, 1849-1910
Vol. 24
Lifesaving stations, 1856-1909
Vol. 25
Lifesaving stations, 1855-1893

C. Logbook, 1877-1889

One logbook kept by the recording secretary includes daily entries listing medals awarded, improvements needed at stations, supplies ordered and received, sale of stations, and transfers of supplies and materials between stations.

Vol. 26

D. Lifebuoy reports, 1950-1961

One folder containing reports of the lifebuoy service provided by the Humane Society from 1950 to 1961 record the location of the buoys, number present, condition, date last replaced, number of buoys sent, and the person responsible for the buoys.

Box 1Folder 10

IV. Correspondence, 1854-1969

A. Letterbooks, 1854-1910

Nineteen letterbooks of retained copies of outgoing correspondence include letters written by Robert Bennet Forbes, Benjamin W. Crowninshield, and Sidney W. Burgess regarding all aspects of the Humane Society, including outfitting lifesaving stations with new equipment and supplies, sale of old boats, lifesaving boat construction and design, condolence letters to families of accident victims, payroll numbers, and money and medals awarded.

Vol. 27
Letterbook, 6 Feb. 1854-20 May 1857
Vol. 28
Letterbook, 8 July 1857-24 Aug. 1861
Vol. 29
Letterbook, 2 Sep. 1861-21 June 1863
Vol. 30
Letterbook, 27 July 1866-15 Sep. 1870
Vol. 31
Letterbook, 15 Sep. 1870-6 Apr. 1872
Vol. 32
Letterbook, 13 Dec. 1871-4 Mar. 1882
Vol. 33
Letterbook, 10 Apr. 1872-10 Dec. 1873
Vol. 34
Letterbook, 15 Dec. 1873-18 Mar. 1875
Vol. 35
Letterbook, 18 Mar. 1875-25 Jan. 1876
Vol. 36
Letterbook, 25 Jan. 1876-25 Sep. 1876
Vol. 37
Letterbook, 25 Sep. 1876-8 Jan. 1877
Vol. 38
Letterbook, 22 Mar. 1877-3 June 1877
Vol. 39
Letterbook, 27 June 1888-13 May 1889
Vol. 40
Letterbook, 13 May 1889-13 Apr. 1889
Vol. 41
Letterbook, 13 Apr. 1891-6 Mar. 1894
Vol. 42
Letterbook, 7 Mar. 1894-28 Oct. 1899
Vol. 43
Letterbook, 20 Oct. 1899-25 June 1902
Vol. 44
Letterbook, 20 Oct. 1903-25 June 1908
Vol. 45
Letterbook, 8 June 1905-28 Feb. 1910
Vol. 46
Benjamin William Crowninshield's personal letterbook, 9 Aug. 1907-28 Feb. 1910

The personal letterbook of Benjamin William Crowninshield contains outgoing copies of letters sent to friends and business acquaintances regarding daily activities, real estate, finances, and other business matters.

B. Loose correspondence, 1875-1878; 1950-1969

Arranged chronologically

Papers relating to the affairs of the Humane Society of Massachusetts include correspondence written by Thomas Motley, Jr., James F. Alcorn, and Benjamin W. Crowninshield. Also included is a folder of letters and the deposition of James F. Alcorn concerning the wreck of the brig Metropolis and subsequent rescue efforts of the Humane Society. Other loose correspondence from 1950 to 1961 includes letters written to and from Alexander Houston, secretary of the standing committee, regarding the lifebuoy program initiated by the Humane Society, and correspondence from 1950 to 1969 between the Humane Society and the United Fund of Massachusetts regarding donations and contributions made by the Humane Society.

Box 15

V. Newspaper clippings and publicity reports, 1959-1965

Publicity reports consist of newspaper clippings and letters regarding Humane Society award winners, articles about people who have saved lives, and members of the Humane Society.

Box 16

Items Removed from the Collection

Photographs and other visual materials have been removed to the MHS Photo. Archives.

Printed materials have been removed and cataloged in ABIGAIL.

Medals have been removed and have been cataloged in ABIGAIL individually.

Preferred Citation

Humane Society of Massachusetts records, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Access Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.


Asylum for the Insane (Boston, Mass.).
Boston Lying-In Hospital (Boston, Mass.).
Metropolis (Hermaphrodite brig).


Burgess, Sidney W., 1854-1914.
Crowninshield, Benjamin W. (Benjamin William), 1837-1892.
Faucon, Edward Horatio, 1806-1894.
Forbes, R. B. (Robert Bennet), 1804-1889.
Motley, Thomas, Jr.


Account books--1804-1926.
Charities--Massachusetts--Societies, etc.
Lifesaving--Equipment and supplies.
Lifesaving stations--Massachusetts.