One of our great joys working on the far side of the reference desk is when a reader comes up to the desk with the words we all love to hear: “Look what I found!” We always know we are in for a surprise and now we can share these treats with you. (Be sure to read this one through to its hilarious conclusion …)
Background: The American Antiquarian Society began as an institution created to “encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country.” “Antiquities” didn’t just mean books and paper, it also meant artifacts. The collecting focus of the library was revised by the early 20th century and the large, disjointed museum collection was donated to appropriate institutions. Here we have a reminder of just the sort of thing a 19th century researcher might have encountered in the old Antiquarian Hall.
Item: An 1817 letter from the first superintendent of the United States Patent Office, William Thornton, to American Antiquarian Society member, Benjamin Russell, editor of the Columbia Centinel.
Location: American Antiquarian Society Records, Correspondence 1812-1819, Box 2.
Patent Office Washington –April 30th—1817—
To the Honorable Benjamin Russell
Editor of the Columbian Centinel
You being one of the members of the Massachusetts Antiquarian Society, I have, not knowing the proper officer taken the liberty of doing myself the honor of forwarding to your care the celebrated courser’s head, one which, General Ross rode, and was killed at the capture of this City in 1814.—The first vessel that leaves Alexandria will convey it with this to you.
The Horse whose head this was, was the first blood in England, and highly prized by his master who had rode him during two campaigns in Spain, his color was of a glossy jet black, and he was of the finest form and [simeture]. But the manner of his death the time, the occasion and some other circumstances which I will relate, render in my opinion, his head a worthy trophy for the Antiquarian shelf.
After the American forces were routed and had fled in all directions, the enemy refreshed himself and then took up an unmolested march for the City.
The gallant Ross mounted on his charger with a few light troops (Riflemen) formed the advance, having arrived near to a brick house about an eighth of a mile from the Capital and being rashly one mile in advance from the main body of his army, he was shot at from the windows of the brick house by some sailors then belonging to Com. Barneys Flotilla.
His horse received two wounds thro’ the body and fell. Gen. Ross after ordering a part of his detachment to surround the house, seeing the wounds were mortal, gave orders to a platoon of his men to shoot the agonising animal, in order to curtail the period of his misery, which circumstances account for the five shot holes through the head, as you will perceive.—
The brave General was no less considerate for the mad tars who had shot in the first place, his valued beast. At first, considering how dastardly it was for three or four men to shoot at him from a house, he ordered his Soldiers to surround it and put them to death. But when he saw those men in the stair way gallantly defending themselves against numbers, he relented, and ordered them spared; adding that they were the only brave Yankees he had met with that day. His horses body was removed a few rods from the road where he fell to an adjoining field where the birds of prey and the elements soon left nothing but the bleached skeleton. — No notice was after taken of the remains, until on the fourth of March last, (the day of inauguration) when at the time the President was reading his speech, a bird called the Turkey Buzzard, after scaling round and over the throng of People that were collected, made a pitch towards the bones of this horse, and taking the top part of the head which I send you in his claws carried it nearly half a mile, when he let it fall on the Penn[sylvania] Avenue near the little bridge thrown over the insignificant stream, called the Tyber. – On the return of the President his horses took fright at it, and came very near baptising his new hatched dignity by running off the bridge and thereby emptying him into the stream.—
An event so novel, fastened my attention, having noticed the Buzzards taking it up, and letting it fall, with the fright of the Presidents horses I was led to examine it and on ascertaining it to be the head of Genl. Ross’s horse, I ordered it to be carried to my office where I kept it until a thought suggested itself to me of presenting it to your Society, the foregoing will add one conclusive proof to controvert the ridiculous assertions of some of our prints, wherein the bird in question has been represented as an Eagle, which kind of birds are never seen in this section of the U.S. excepting in print or paint—
Were I given to superstition I could we<<writing obscured>> an endless number of evil forebodings; at least it seems as if the English had left a kind of instinct behind them, when we see the harmless head of their General’s horse, the cause of throwing a new born Chief into a second panic. However I will abstain from any further remarks and leave you to please your fancy if you are disposed. Permit me to ask your pardon for the presumption of sending it to you as I have not the honor of being personally acquainted with any Gentlemen of your Institution.—
B. I amused myself occasionally by writing mottos upon it which I have left on.
Yours with high Consideration ,
Honorable Benjamin Russell.
(You are at liberty to make use of this communication as you think proper, however save my remarks on the P. if you attach my name.)