Get thee to the waters

In the mid-nineteenth century, “taking the waters,” or hydropathy, became a fashionable so-called natural therapy. It was first promoted in Europe by Austrian Vincenz Priessnitz after he claimed to have mended his broken ribs in the spring waters of Grafenberg, Silesia.  His spa attracted crowds, including royalty. Joel Shew, a physician from New York, became an immediate advocate of the system and is reputed to have introduced hydropathy to America in 1844.  Interest spread rapidly and water cure emerged as a popular alternative to the standard remedies of bleeding, purging, and puking advocated by most physicians.536057_0017

A recently processed collection pertaining to John Hero, M.D., provides a fascinating picture of the industry in general and his spa in particular.  Correspondence, handbills, and newspaper clippings about hydropathy document Dr. Hero’s path to the eventual establishment of his spa in Westboro, Massachusetts.

A stream of letters from Butler Wilmarth, M.D., to Hero beginning in 1849 traces the development of their eventual, if short-lived, partnership. At the start of their correspondence, Wilmarth noted that he would give a lecture on the water cure in Leverett. In subsequent letters, Wilmarth discussed his patients, his feelings about allopathic medicine, homeopathy, and the possible “indelicacy for a male practitioner” in treating female patients. It is evident that both men were treating patients but struggling to make ends meet. The letters reveal them as caring practitioners and as men who wanted to make money.

To improve their chances of launching a successful partnership, John Hero decided acquiring a medical degree at Syracuse would be “time and money well invested.” In one letter during this period, Wilmarth reported sending Hero a skeleton which he had prepared in lye. While Hero pursued his education, Wilmarth was employed at various institutions, including New Graefenberg Hydropathic and Kinesipathic Establishment and the New Lebanon Springs. His letters included thoughts about their future practice, including sitz baths, douches, exercise, “motorpathy” and electricity as possible therapies.

In 1854, shortly after their new venture, the New Malvern Water-Cure, opened in Westboro, Wilmarth was tragically killed in a train wreck, leaving Hero to make a success of the business.  It was not easy. In a letter from his wife Irene, then visiting her sister, she wrote, “If your ship has come in, I wish you would send me one dollar when you write.  How are money matters with you? I hope they will not have you in prison when I return.”

536057_0014 536057_0015

One piece of family correspondence especially enhances the collection. By using the back page of a brochure advertising his New Malvern Water-Cure to write his wife, Hero gave us both a printed record of his establishment and a hand-written summary of his work.  The printed pamphlet describes the history, activities, cost, and requirements of the Westboro water cure. The letter to Irene suggested a number of work-related errands for her to undertake and demonstrated that she was fully involved in the business. The pamphlet also displayed Dwight Russell as a partner.

Among the various papers is a remarkable handbill from Turkish Baths, Boston, which unfolds to four pages of information, including a floorplan of the baths. The collection also contains an 1879 handwritten legal document regarding the purchase  of the Charles Washburn Estate for $800, used as a Turkish Bath Establishment and called Dr. Hero’s Cure Corner, located on Arch and Summer Street in Worcester.

Hero seems to have advertised widely. Several letters in the collection, from as far away as South Carolina, solicit information from Hero about his cures. Despite all the early difficulties, the Heros clearly established successful water cure establishments in Westboro and Worcester.


Newest Issue of the Almanac Features Some Big News about AAS

“This project will secure the base of collection and program management as AAS moves forward with strength and purpose into its third century.” – Bill Reese, AAS Councilor

Usually we plug new issues of the Almanac by talking about great recent acquisitions, upcoming programs, and spotlights on AAS history and new projects. This is no different for the most recent issue, but what we’re really excited about is announcing the Society’s plans for the construction of a three-story, 7,000-square-foot addition to Antiquarian Hall that will strengthen our ability  to preserve and to share the multitude of American stories documented in the printed record of our nation’s past.


The addition will feature a mechanical room to house a modern HVAC system, ensuring high-quality climate control for collection preservation; a flexible multipurpose room for programming; and a state-of-the-art conservation lab. The façade of the addition will present a welcoming face to the community, literally opening up a portion of the historic library to view through a glass and patinated-copper façade facing onto Park Avenue, one of Worcester’s busiest thoroughfares.

We’re bursting with pride and excitement as we share this news, and we’re looking forward to providing updates as the project progresses. In the meantime, you can get more details about the planned addition in this issue of the Almanac, right alongside all of the AAS newsletter staples. We hope you enjoy reading all about it!   

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

AAS recently collaborated with the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery to create our latest exhibition, Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination.

A man who has been immortalized as a hero and condemned as a charlatan, mourned as a victim and reviled as a traitor, Nat Turner lives in myriad formats and genres in the historical record. In August 1831, he led a group of some fifty enslaved men in Southampton County to attack four plantations, killing any man, woman, or child they encountered, and the effort to define his legacy has been ongoing ever since. No uncontested records of Turner’s own voice remain, and so journalists, polemicists, novelists, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers have imagined Nat Turners that reflect as much what we know about the man as they do about the zeitgeist in which they were created.

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination

In the AAS collections, we found Nat Turner in imprints, from contemporaneous pamphlets to antebellum novels to commemorative histories. We also found him in newspapers, where there was an abundance of mentions, from full articles to small references. Because of the scope of AAS collections, we were limited to nineteenth-century depictions of Turner but we knew that some of the most controversial depictions of Turner can be found in twentieth-century collections.

The response to Styron's novel (1968)

The response to Styron’s novel (1968)

Styron's controversial novel (1967)

Styron’s controversial novel (1967)

To capture the Nat Turner of the twentieth century, we turned to one of the foremost collections of African American history and culture: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Sylviane A. Diouf, preeminent scholar of the African Diaspora and Director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, agreed to collaborate with us.

Most of the materials she chose are from the John Henrik Clarke Papers. A Pan-Africanist actively engaged in the rewriting of African and African American history, Clarke organized the response among black intellectuals and activists to William Styron’s highly controversial depiction of Turner in his 1967 novel. These papers not only reveal the staunch support Clarke found when he reached out to like-minded individuals to contribute to William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), but also the opposition encountered, most notably in an unanswered letter to James Baldwin. Perhaps most germane responses to Nat Parker’s controversial depiction of Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (2016) is the documentation of an effort to thwart the making of a film based on Styron’s depiction because, according to the Black Anti-Defamation Association, the novel “contain[s] serious historical distortions and defames black people.”

The many faces of Nat Turner

The many faces of Nat Turner

The 1831 rebellion and the response to Styron’s novel bookend Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination.Portrayals” is the organizing principle for the newspaper clippings, pamphlets, novels, poems, plays, and historical accounts that were published in the 136 years between the rebellion and Styron’s novel. In these works, Turner can be victimized or dehumanized, he can be a religious leader or a false prophet, he can be an abolitionist or a military leader. We had trouble narrowing down the many characterizations to these six archetypes, but we found that these were the prevailing portrayals we most consistently encountered as we read Nat Turner across time and place. As any student of literature knows, a work can contain its own contradictions, and so within a given selection, Turner can be classified as an inspired leader and a bloodthirsty animal. The cross-indexing that digital platforms enable allowed us to capture this multiplicity and, we hope, will facilitate navigation of the site. As the “browse” tab will reveal, there are other ways to search the site—by format or simply by perusing each item.

It is our hope that students and scholars of history as well as of popular culture will make use of this exhibition to reflect on the relationship between race, the historical record, and the American story.



Isaiah Thomas Is Going Digital

img_1861On a beautiful sunny day in June, AAS Director of Outreach Jim Moran and I headed out to Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts to meet up with a film crew from Northern Light Productions. Surrounded by the dark wood and heavy equipment of the Wilson Printing Office, it wasn’t difficult to set the stage for a young Isaiah Thomas to enter into his apprenticeship with Zechariah Fowle in 1756 Boston. For that’s exactly what we were trying to do. In a 5-minute film, we were looking to make Isaiah’s story about his earliest years—the abandonment of his father, the destitution of his mother, and his subsequent placement with Fowle by the Overseers of the Poor—come to life.

The film is part of a larger project, which we have taken to calling Digital Isaiah, to create an interactive educational website inspired by the one-man theater performance Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer that AAS has been touring periodically for seventeen years. The play, which was written by Jim Moran, has and will continue to serve us well on a local level, but we also wanted to bring Isaiah’s story to a national audience. With themes of literacy, artisanship, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, and preservation, Isaiah’s story is full of relevance for today’s students.

20160624_163713With a generous grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, we set out to create a prototype of just one segment of the site, focused on Isaiah’s apprenticeship and the legal indenture document that bound him to Zechariah Fowle. The short film introduces the document and explains the story behind it. (A sneak-peek at the prototype itself will be coming in another blog post soon.)

Creating the film was a particularly fun part of the prototype process, for it made historic people that we talk about all the time here at AAS real. Here was a very young Isaiah in Fowle’s printing shop, asking what his apprenticeship meant and learning to read by setting type and studying a dictionary and Bible, just as he tells us he did in autobiographical manuscripts he left behind. Young Isaiah is played by William Hood, the son of Nan Wolverton, the director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) here at AAS, and we were even more pleased that she agreed to play Fidelia Thomas, Isaiah’s mother!

Filming adult Isaiah in his 1812 study.

Filming adult Isaiah in his 1812 study, which was set up in the Council Room at AAS.

The scene in Fowle’s shop is set up by an adult Isaiah, sitting in his study in 1812. We have long thought that Neil Gustafson, the professional actor who has played Isaiah all these years, looks remarkably like the man himself. We were able to take full advantage of this in the introductory shot to the video, which fades Isaiah’s portrait into Neil. And although it is often hard to capture the power of a live performance on film, with Jim Moran once again writing the script and Neil applying all of his experience as Isaiah, there was a strong foundation to build upon.

We’re now setting out to raise funds to turn the prototype into a full website. But in the meantime, we’re excited to give a glimpse into what that may look like by sharing this first short film about Isaiah’s indenture. We would love to hear what you think!

Reading the Apocalypse

Claire Jones, a summer intern from Princeton University, has previously posted about her project centered on Judaica at AAS. This is the next installment in her findings.

When I started working on the Judaica collection, I’ll admit I didn’t exactly have a clear idea of what I was expecting to find. I think I was envisioning a lot of Hebrew; other than that, I’m not too sure. What I definitely wasn’t expecting—though in hindsight, I probably should have guessed—was that a significant portion of AAS’s Judaica holdings would be authored by Christians and deeply religious in subject and tone. Of course, it all makes sense to me now: the majority of my time period falls either during or just on the heels of the Second Great Awakening, when Americans really seized Christianity and ran with it in all different directions. Most discussions of Christianity will inevitably involve Jews as well, especially when discussing the Bible or biblical history, something a great deal of these nineteenth-century authors did.

A “Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel & John” showing the creator’s interpretation of the prophecies and setting 1843 as the date of the apocalypse.

A “Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel & John” showing the creator’s interpretation of the prophecies and setting 1843 as the date of the apocalypse.

A lot of these religious works start to seem pretty similar after a while—most of them just rehash the same stories and history over and over again. There is one strain of thought, though, that is endlessly fascinating to me, so fascinating that even though there are probably fifty books dealing with it in the collection, I would read them all cover to cover if I could. These are the millenarian works, all those tracts and pamphlets that try to let the God-fearing know when and how the Second Coming of Christ will occur, and I love them.

I think one of the reasons the End Times works always get me is because of how learned so many of them are. These aren’t kooky end-of-the-world predictions scribbled out by lunatic cult leaders; instead, they are, for the most part, detailed dissections of the prophecies from the Books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Revelations, and more, all cross-referenced (or at least attempted to) with what the authors knew from Persian and Greek histories of the region. After focusing on the U.S. for so long, it’s kind of fun to jet off to ancient Babylon or Jerusalem for a while. The calculations of when the Apocalypse is supposed to happen are also fascinating, as these authors try to reconcile half a dozen different prophecies into a single figure that, of course, conveniently always ends up being sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century.


Some of David Pae’s calculations from The Coming Struggle Among the Nations of the Earth, 1853.

Most of these books are classified as Judaica because they talk about the restoration of the Jews to their biblical home, something that the Bible says has to happen to set the End Times in motion. Some of the authors dispute that this is a real requirement—one of my favorites is Josiah Litch, a member of the Millerite movement, the leader of which, William Miller, convinced so many people to sell all their possessions and prepare for Christ’s return that, when the world didn’t end in 1843, thousands of them were left destitute in what later became known as the Great Disappointment. But it’s far more entertaining when a writer tries to predict how exactly the restoration will happen and what will come next. And no one does this better than David Pae.


Pae was an Englishman writing in the early 1850s who predicted that 1866 would be the year of the Apocalypse. What makes Pae’s book, The Coming Struggle Among the Nations of the Earth, spectacular, though, is his weaving of biblical prophecy together with contemporary politics to create what, to the twenty-first-century eye, comes off as some of the most intriguing alternative history I’ve ever read. Pae’s overall vision of the Second Coming happens in a number of different stages, namely: 1.) France and Austria will go to war, with the papacy caught in the crossfire and destroyed. 2.) Russia will then invade and conquer the rest of Continental Europe, leaving Britain the only free European nation (if you’re getting some World-War-II-mixed-with-Brexit vibes here, you’re not alone). 3.) Britain will have to establish a Jewish colony in Palestine as a buffer between the Russian Mediterranean and their holdings in Africa. 4.) The East India Company, filling the role of some “merchants of Tarshish, with all the young lions thereof,” will inform the London government of Russia’s moves against Egypt and Ethiopia, prompting 5.) A massive battle taking place outside of Jerusalem, with the British joining up with the Americans, Australians, and Jews to take on the Russians, when 6.) God comes down from Heaven to smite the Czar as the personification of Gog, ushering in a new age of peace and harmony led by the Anglo-Saxon peoples, with the Jews as their helpers.

As if all this wasn’t enough, it turns out that Pae wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. In 1845, M. M. Noah, a prominent Jewish figure in literature and politics, published a Discourse Concerning the Restoration of the Jews that urged Christians to support a Jewish state in Palestine in order to hasten the Second Coming that they all wanted so badly. Noah’s predictions for the restoration and its aftermath at points look incredibly similar to Pae’s—Russia, Jerusalem, even the East India Company’s involvement—all made more complicated by coming from the perspective a Jew who, presumably, would have no personal stake in figuring out when Jesus’s return would happen. The real angle on his work is respect for the Jews as the forerunners of Christianity and their right to a home in the Holy Land, but the fact that he’s couching all these appeals in apocalyptic language is significant, and the similarities to Pae’s work are doubly fascinating.

So was Pae’s vision of the Apocalypse really not so unique? Did he lift some ideas from Noah’s earlier publication? Or is it all a big coincidence? I’m honestly not sure at this point. If I have the time, maybe I’ll find out—and, come to think of it, doing that would probably give me a reason to read through the rest of these Apocalypse works. So maybe I’ll just have to make time.

New Online Exhibition: The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865

During the summer of 2015, AAS hosted a two-week National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for School Teachers, during which twenty-five K-12 teachers from all over the country convened for an intensive institute that featured lectures and discussions with scholars, field trips, and many hands-on workshops with original material from the Society’s collections. That institute, called The News Media and the Making of America, 1730-1865, is now the base of our newest online exhibition.

news-media-landing-pageCodirected by David Paul Nord, professor emeritus at Indiana University, and James David Moran, director of outreach at AAS, the institute sought to explore the function of news and public information in the community life of America, from the colonial period through the Civil War. This included a variety of community types, as well as the diverse and changing milieu of communication forms and technologies: sermons and lectures, books and pamphlets, magazines and newspapers, photographs and illustrations, letters and word-of-mouth. The aim was to understand the role of communication, especially print media, in the political, social, and cultural life of the American people in an era of rapid change in politics, business, and technology.

Those same topics are examined in the online exhibition, using many of the collection materials participants worked with in the archival workshops during the institute.


Browse collection items by tags.

The exhibition is organized both chronologically and thematically, but the online platform also allows users to explore the site in their own ways. Extensive use of tagging, for example, groups collection items together by people, topics, events, and item type. Furthermore, the brief, contextual essays include hyperlinks to connect ideas and items throughout the site. Users can also decide how deeply they want to dive into the collections: in addition to the image and background information accompanying each item, many of the newspaper issues have been digitized in full and can be browsed through a flipbook application, the manuscripts include transcriptions, and some items are linked out to other related images in our digital asset management system.

This broadside covering the hanging of Hugh Henderson in Boston in November 1737 is one item representing the news milieu of Boston in that year.

This broadside covering the 1737 hanging of Hugh Henderson in Boston is one item that represents the colonial news network.

With so much to choose from, the selection of collection materials was one of the biggest challenges of turning the institute into an exhibition. Like the institute itself, the exhibition does not offer comprehensive coverage of the news media in America from 1730 to 1865, but rather it provides a broad overview of trends and developments and a sampling of historic materials representative of such from the AAS collections. The “Boston 1737: A Local News Network Case Study” section, for example, looks deeply at the news coverage in Boston for just one year to suggest links between events in a colonial city and the uses that people made of those events in verbal, handwritten, and printed communication systems.

If document selection was one of the toughest parts of the creation of the exhibition, one of the most rewarding was that the production was truly collaborative. It was curated by David Nord, James Moran, and me, and it features the work of several institute participants who completed projects during the institute. In this way, the exhibition captures the collaborative energy that made the institute such a success, as well as the exchanges of knowledge and perspectives that are a part of every Society program.

So go ahead and dive into the complicated and fascinating world of the early American news media!

An Odd Fellow

Claire Jones, a summer intern from Princeton University, has previously posted about her project centered on Judaica at AAS. This is the next installment in her findings.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve made plenty of mistakes while searching AAS’s online catalog, especially during my first few weeks here, when I was checking dozens or hundreds of entries a day from Singerman’s bibliography against the collection. There’s a definite knack to figuring out what combination of search terms will lead most directly to what I’m looking for—if it’s even there to find—and to deciphering the jumble of terms and abbreviations that make up a catalog record. I thought when I finished compiling my spreadsheet of titles from 1841 to 1876 that it would more or less stay the way it was; really, there’s been quite a bit of deleting entries that I thought were in the catalog when I’d just misread something, or—more exciting—adding new titles when I’d thought something was missing from AAS’s collection when really I just wasn’t looking for it in the right place.

Luckily, the latter happened to me earlier this week. I managed to track down a few presumed-missing works, all of them from an annual—kind of a yearly literary magazine, with poetry, short stories, and illustrations—with the curious title of The Odd-Fellows’ Offering. I’d run into the Odd Fellows briefly during my Judaica work, so I figured that now was the time to start doing a little digging and figure out exactly who these people were.

As it turns out, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows is probably the most delightfully named fraternal order in American history. With members like Ulysses S. Grant and Wyatt Earp, they had a setup along the lines of the Freemasons, but were notable in that they allowed each (male) member to be inducted into the order along with a woman in his family—usually his wife, mother, or daughter—and in 1851 the Odd Fellows actually created an all-female parallel organization called the Rebekahs.

All of this was definitely interesting, but what exactly did it have to do with Judaica? Well, initially it seemed like not much: the Offerings for 1846 and 1848 both contained poems narrating different events in the life of Moses by a brother called Franklin Joseph Otterson, while the 1851 edition featured a story called “The Iberian Exodus.” Nice, but not exactly groundbreaking.

It was another work, this one from the 1852 Offering, that caught my attention and eventually made the whole search about the Odd Fellows worth it. This was the last entry in Singerman’s bibliography from the Odd-Fellows’ Offering, and I was all ready to check it off the list of Judaica titles and move on when I noticed the author of this particular contribution. It was a name that had become a familiar one during my weeks at AAS: Mordecai Manuel Noah.

Fig. 1: Mordecai Manuel Noah, from a miniature in oil by the elder Jarvis, 1840, found in Simon Wolf, Mordecai Manuael Noah: A Biographical Sketch, 1897

Mordecai Manuel Noah, from a miniature in oil by the elder Jarvis, 1840, found in Simon Wolf, Mordecai Manuael Noah: A Biographical Sketch, 1897

Truthfully, Noah has been giving me a few problems throughout this whole process. He just doesn’t fit neatly into any one category of writer: most of the Jewish authors I’ve encountered are rabbis or scholars who tend to stay focused on religious material, while Noah’s literary claims to fame are his plays and the newspapers he edited in New York. That wasn’t the most interesting part of his life, though: he was really one of America’s first prominent Jewish public figures. He served in the diplomatic corps under President Madison—apparently his firing under shady circumstances kicked off a firestorm about religious discrimination—and corresponded about Jewish toleration with Presidents Jefferson and Adams. He was also one of the early nineteenth-century proto-Zionists who advocated for a Jewish state in Palestine (more about those views in my post “Reading the Apocalypse”), and, in probably his best-known exploit, he led a group of recently immigrated Jews to establish a colony on Grand Island in the Niagara River in the 1820s. The project was a spectacular failure, but it did give Noah the chance to dress up like Richard III for the ceremony of laying the cornerstone for a never-built settlement.

M. Noah, by all accounts, was certainly an odd fellow. But was he an Odd Fellow? The Offering advertised itself as being made up of works “chiefly contributed by members of the order, their wives and sisters,” which would seem to indicate that Noah did belong to the order, but I couldn’t be sure by this one appearance alone. He was quite a popular writer, after all; maybe they just liked one of his stories. The Odd Fellows also had a whites-only clause in their constitution until the 1970s and boasted members like William Marsh Rice (who founded what’s now Rice University in my hometown of Houston with the stipulation that tuition would be free for all students as long as the school didn’t integrate—lovely, right?), so it didn’t seem terribly likely that they would have welcomed a Jewish member into their midst.

The illustration “Joyous Procession of the Law” from the Offering for 1851

The illustration “Joyous Procession of the Law” from the Offering for 1851

Unsure of what I might find, I searched the catalog for any other work that might connect Noah to the Odd Fellows or the Offering. After a few keywords turned up nothing, I finally found a graphic arts piece called “Joyous Procession of the Law.” I clicked to see the digitized image, and what should fill my screen but a view of the inside of a synagogue, full of activity, with an old man in black in the center carrying what could only be a Torah scroll. This print, the catalog informed me, was from the Offering for 1851—the same issue that contained “The Iberian Exodus”—and illustrated the story “The Joy of the Law” by M. M. Noah.

I had it, then. Not proof, but certainly strong evidence that Noah was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. It seems only fitting for such a colorful and fascinating figure, and it also sheds a little more light on fraternal orders, an oft-forgotten part of American culture and social history—a history that, as I’m starting to see more fully, includes Jews along with Christians.

It started with a passport and ended with a duel…

Early in the summer, AAS received a generous donation of graphic arts materials from one of the Society’s members, Jim Heald, via the Worcester Art Museum. Among these items nestled on the acquisitions table was a mid-nineteenth-century passport, which stood out for two reasons. Primarily, until that moment, it had not occurred to me that official government passports existed so early in American history. Secondly, the passport holder seemed to be the most “ordinary” gentleman according to the exceedingly vague description gracing the left-hand side of the document (as can be seen in the accompanying image and transcription below.)

536099_0001Age ___34___

Stature _5___ Feet __8___ Inches

Forehead ___ordinary___

Eyes __hazel___

Nose ___ ordinary__

Mouth ___ ordinary____

Chin ______

Hair ___brown__

Complexion ___rather dark___

Face ___oval___

How could this document be used as a means of identifying anyone if they were all completed in such a non-descript fashion? This man doesn’t even appear to have a chin! (I later found a picture of the passport subject (below right) and he was sporting a full beard, which perhaps contributed to the jawline mystery.) One of our summer interns further pointed out that the term “ordinary” is not self-explanatory. It feels safe to assume “ordinary” meant “European” but beyond that, who is to say. I wondered how many run-of-the-mill men were walking around with interchangeable passports, so I took to the collection (and the internet) to do some comparison work. It would seem that the majority of mid-nineteenth-century passports readily available are more descriptive than the one we received. Although descriptions appear on passports in the early nineteenth century, it was not until the addition of photographs circa 1914 that the manuscript document moved from a letter of introduction to a document of identity. Early on, Americans needed to reapply for a new passport every six months, which may explain the lack of care taken with regard to adjectives. By the late 1870s that renewal timespan had increased to two years, which is still a short duration by today’s standards.

84943_0001-cropThroughout my study into the history of passports, my mind kept wandering to the generic man named in the document we acquired. This is where the rabbit hole of research led me to an entirely different blog post than the one I set out to write. I could tell you that France was the passport pioneer in Europe and that from the late-eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century British passports were often written in French. I could tell you that passports were not required for entry to the United States until after World War II, with the exception of war times (Civil and the first World War), even though American passports have been issued since around the time of the French Revolution. The list of things I could tell you—such as women and servants being listed as unnamed parties on the husband’s passport until the late 1800s, when they could apply for passports in their own names—goes on and on. Still, I kept returning to the subject of our passport. I set out simply looking for a picture and in doing so discovered the sordid life story of a seedy Confederate politician in Missouri, remembered for duels and deceit and whose life tragically ended at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

Thomas C. Reynolds.

The passport newly in our possession harkens back to a time when Mr. Reynolds was on the cusp of infamy. In 1855 he was a young United States Attorney in Missouri. He had a wife and political prospects and was in the middle of a dispute with a newspaper editor by the name of Benjamin Gratz Brown. Reynolds felt something published in Brown’s paper had been an attack on his character and he held Brown accountable. Did I mention Reynolds was a pro-slavery Democrat? He was. 1855 was also the year that this clash with Brown, which began in 1854, escalated to the proposition of a duel. By 1855 duels had largely fallen out of popularity. By 1859 they would be illegal in eighteen states. There were added restrictions for elected officials and lawyers risked being disbarred by engaging in such activities. Regardless, Reynolds challenged Brown to a duel.

Now, when I have tried explaining the events surrounding the eventual duel, more than one person asked me for a chart to help keep it all straight. I like to think this is more of a reflection on the duel than my story-telling abilities, but the following breakdown should provide an abridged but clear illustration of what transpired.


I’m going to pause here a moment and let that last bit sink in. Take a minute to imagine how uncomfortable and tense that boat ride must have been with Brown, Reynolds, their seconds and their witnesses sailing over to a proper dueling spot. Awkward. Okay, now back to the duel.


Both men would go on to have political careers in Missouri and serve in the Civil War (though on opposite sides). Overall it appears that Brown ended up being the more successful of the two. But that is unsurprising when one discovers that Reynolds feigned allegiance to the Union to get himself elected lieutenant governor of Missouri and then argued for secession the minute he was in office.

In spite of this political deceit, it seems that Reynolds remained concerned with the public perception of his character throughout his entire life and attempted to defend it, even in death. In 1887, Thomas C. Reynolds fell down an elevator shaft, ending his own life. Before he died, he had written a note indicating that, while he felt sane and lucid at the moment, he was frequently plagued by hallucinations and insomnia and if he were to do anything “rash,” it was a result of this temporary insanity and his wife should receive the sympathy she was due. The late 1800s were a time of shifting attitudes regarding suicide. It was starting to be viewed less in a religious context, indicative of lacking moral fiber, and more as a social or psychological construct. It seems that in leaving behind this note, Reynolds intended to reaffirm the burgeoning psychological theory.

What began as an inquiry into early American travel documents ultimately became an illustration of the unexpected twists and turns that accompany primary source material.

Stevens, Walter B., and William K. Bixby. The Brown-Reynolds Duel; a Complete Documentary Chronicle of the Last Bloodshed under the Code between St. Louisans, from the Manuscript Collection of William K. Bixby, Ed. St. Louis: Franklin Club of St. Louis, 1911.

Now In Print from the AAS Community

Every quarter at AAS we release a listserver of recent publications by those who have researched at the library as fellows, members, or readers. To see this list please visit our recent scholarship page on the AAS website. If your book, article, or other achievement is not included, just let us know if you’d like to see it there!


Clapp, Elizabeth J. A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Crain, Patricia. Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. (Hiatt Fellow, 1992-93; ASECS Fellow, 1997-98; AAS-NEH Fellow, 2005-06; AAS member)

Breen, T.H. George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. (AAS member)

Haynes, April. Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. (Hench Fellow, 2009-10)

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution. New York: Viking, 2016. (AAS member)

Yeager, Jonathan. Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. (Reese Fellow, 2014-15)


Bellion, Wendy. ” ‘Here Trust Your Eyes’: Vision and Illusion at the Chestnut Street Theatre.” Early American Literature 51.2 (2016): 333-366. (CHAViC Fellow, 2011-12; AAS member)

Castiglia, Christopher. “Revolution is a Fiction: The Way We Read (Early American Fiction) Now.” Early American Literature 51.2 (2016): 397-418. (Mellon Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, 2012-13; AAS member)

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “Atlantic Aesthesis: Books and Sensus Communis in the New World. Early American Literature 51.2 (2016): 367-396. (AAS-NEH Fellow, 2010-11; AAS member)

Fischer, Kirsten. “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic.” William and Mary Quarterly 73.3 (2016): 501-530. (Peterson Fellow, 2016-17)

Fraser, Gordon. “Emancipatory Cosmology: Freedom’s Journal, The Rights of All, and the Revolutionary Movements of Black Print Culture.” American Quarterly 68.2 (2016): 263-286. (CHAViC Fellow, 2013-14)

Price, Hunter  “The Traveling Life of John Littlejohn: Methodism, Mobility, and Social Exchange from Revolutionary Virginia to Early Republican Kentucky.” Journal of Southern History 82.2 (2016): 237-268. (Reese Fellow, 2015-16)

Pryor, Elizabeth Stordeur. “The Etymology of Nigger: Resistance, Language, and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North.” Journal of the Early Republic 36.2 (2016): 203-246. (Peterson Fellow, 2010-11)


Jen Manion was awarded the inaugural Mary Kelley Book Price (SHEAR) for her book Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America. (AAS-NEH Fellow, 2012-13)

April Haynes was awarded the James Broussard Best First Book Prize (SHEAR) for her book Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. (Hench Fellow, 2009-10)


New Illustrated Inventory: B. T. Hill’s Photographs of the New England Fair

Hill - PerformersAs we draw towards the end of summer, we can now look forward to fair season! Town, county, and state fairs are happening around the country and are filled with plenty of food and entertainment. Luckily, our newest illustrated inventory looks at the New England Fair here in Worcester during the early 1920s through the eyes of amateur photographer Benjamin T. Hill.

Hill was a lawyer in Worcester for over thirty years. He was interested in photography and created manuscript books in his free time. He also served as the auditor here at AAS for twenty-three years. His personal collection of papers, books, and photographs are within the Society’s collections.

Hill-Horse-jumpingThese photographs document the New England Fair, put on by the Worcester County Agricultural Society and the New England Agricultural Society, at the third and last location of the fairgrounds, in Worcester’s Greendale neighborhood. The property was sold to the Norton Company in the 1940s. The buildings of Norton Company are seen in many of the photographs. Hill focused many of his images on the horse-jumping competitions, which were a major draw for spectators. His photographic technique in creating these images has been critiqued in a previous blog post.

Hill-Aerial viewAlong with horse-jumping, there are many other scenes of the fair that don’t vary much from what we see today, though most fairgoers today do not dress in suits and long dresses in the August heat! Somehow, Hill was able to take aerial views of the fairgrounds, giving the viewer the opportunity to see the games and attractions offered. In the view seen here, a man is seen playing a ring-toss game, while many other people are lined around a small bowl-shaped track to see a motorcyclist on the “steepest motor cycle track.” A tent showcasing a male and female wrestler and a vendor selling parasols and Worcester pennants are also seen amongst the crowds. Any of these vignettes could be their own image, and being able to zoom in on them is such an amusing experience. We hope you will take a look through these charming scenes of an early county fair, and then head out to one yourself!

Duval and the Dime Novel; or, Adventures of a Gentleman Highwayman

I have spent just about two years working with our dime novel collection and bringing it under some semblance of bibliographic control. I have encountered poor writing, improbable plots, novels without covers, novels without title pages, and all manner of literary and bibliographic eccentricities and annoyances. But as I reach the end of my work cataloging the collection, it’s hard not to think about some of my favorite parts of the process. In previous blog posts, I’ve discussed the general challenges of cataloging dime novels, as well as exciting discoveries I’ve made in the collection. But this post focuses not on any particular novel or series, but on one particular character: the dashing gentleman highwayman Claude Duval.

Illustrations from Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor.

Illustrations from “Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor.”

Claude Duval was a real person, once upon a time. He was born in Normandy, France, in 1643 and eventually moved to England, where he turned to highway robbery. He was known for not using violence in his robberies, and one popular tale had him agreeing to take only part of one gentleman’s belongings if that gentleman’s wife would agree to dance with him. Duval was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted, and he was hanged at Tyburn on January 21, 1670. Centuries later, he became a popular subject in British penny dreadfuls before being imported across the pond to our dime novels.

He was featured in multiple series of novels from several publishers, but the first series I encountered was De Witt’s Claude Duval series, begun by De Witt and Davenport, and later published by Robert M. De Witt alone when Davenport left the firm. In De Witt’s stories, Duval travels with his friends and fellow highwaymen Dick Turpin and John “Sixteen-String Jack” Rann. Duval and his friends are thrown into, and escape from, Newgate Prison more times than I felt like counting, and were constantly involved in daring escapades and romantic liaisons. But there were two aspects of De Witt’s Duval novels that made them particularly stand out. The first was their illustrations.  Your average dime novel will have an illustration as a frontispiece, if it has any illustrations at all. But De Witt’s novels generally featured a selection of illustrations throughout the text, in addition to an illustrated cover. The illustrations are not of the highest quality (and some are laughably bad), but they add to the experience of the novels.

Two different issues of Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor, the earlier one on the left, the later one on the right

Two different issues of “Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor,” the earlier one on the left, the later one on the right.

The second aspect was how many novels in the series AAS holds two copies of. In many instances, it is unnecessary to hold two copies of the same item, unless one is incomplete. However, in the instance of dime novels, these copies are different issues of the same novel published at different times, and they highlight the prevalence of reprinting in the world of dime novel publishing. A particularly striking example of this is in our two copies of Claude in his dungeon; or, Maggs the traitor. Unlike some novels, where separate issues are almost identical, these two novels look nothing alike. The wrapper of the earlier issue is light yellow, with the type and illustration printed in black. The later issue has a much more colorful wrapper, featuring dark gold, blue, and red. It also has a different cover illustration than the earlier printing. The novels lack dates (as do so many dime novels), but De Witt’s different addresses helped out in that regard. The earlier issue has an imprint of New York: R.M. De Witt (late of De Witt & Davenport), 160 & 162 Nassau St. Davenport left the firm in 1856, so the novel was likely published in that year or the next. The address on the later issue, however, is no. 33 Rose Street. Thanks to an afternoon spent deep in AAS’s directory collection, I know that De Witt was at Rose Street from 1870 to 1877, which means these two novels were published at least fourteen years apart (which I think is pretty cool!).

Luke, the swell. An exciting story of life, love and intrigue, no. 11 of the Ten cent Claude Duval novels published by Norman L. Munro

“Luke, the swell. An exciting story of life, love and intrigue,” no. 11 of the Ten cent Claude Duval novels published by Norman L. Munro.

Duval was also featured in another series from De Witt, De Witt’s nightshade series, as well as the Ten cent Claude Duval novels from Norman L. Munro. Munro’s novels were smaller and cheaper than the De Witt stories (which were large format and cost 25¢) but they also drew on British penny dreadfuls as their source materials, and they feature the same adventures in London and the British countryside as the De Witt novels. Now that our dime novel collection is cataloged and thus more visible and accessible, readers can enjoy access to these dashing tales of Claude Duval, as well as all the other heroes, heroines, and villains that populated the pages of dimes novels, introducing these works to a new generation of readers and scholars.

Perfect Shadows: An Illustrated Inventory of AAS Silhouettes

Stephen Salisbury II, ca. 1870

Stephen Salisbury II, ca. 1870

The American Antiquarian Society’s collection of just over two hundred American silhouettes has recently been cataloged and photographed and an inventory of these profile portraits is now available via a new digital resource.

Silhouettes were popular in the United States starting at the end of the eighteenth century. Profile drawings, profile miniatures, and silhouettes all benefited from the rise of the pseudo-sciences physiognomy and phrenology, which stated that head shape, profile, and facial features revealed basic elements of personality. The Swiss author Johann Kaspar Lavater issued a comprehensive, and widely read, multi-volume set of Essays on Physiognomy for the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind, which went through multiple editions in the United States between its release in 1775 and 1850. The market for silhouettes was robust in America right through the nineteenth century and continues in New England today.

profilesIn June of 1864, Godey’s Ladies Book included an article on the practice of making and collecting silhouettes, commenting on what was then considered a quaint reminder of times gone by: “Much pleasing speculation can be made on the mental capacity of the heads before you, or rather, of the owners of their originals. If you believe in the science of phrenology, you may compare your friend’s intellectual, moral, and animal ‘propensities’. If you do not, you may still read their characters in their features for we are all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, disciples of Lavater, and believe that the ‘human face divine’ is the index to the heart.” Although the popularity of silhouettes peaked in America in the 1820s, they hung on parlor walls, were cased in lockets, and were playfully made at parties and celebrations well into the 1870s and 1880s.

Timothy Newhall Wood silhouette

Timothy Newhall Wood by William Doyle, ca. 1810

Ten broadsides in the Society’s holdings advertise silhouette artists and can be considered complementary to the silhouette collection. Many of these date from the pre-1820 era, when silhouettes sold for 25 cents for two copies. Boston artist William Doyle cut silhouettes at his Columbian Museum on Tremont Street in 1808, stating “Perfect Shadows executed in a Correct Style” available from “7 o’clock in the morning until 10 in the evening” (see above left). The Society’s collection includes seven silhouettes cut by Doyle, including one of Timothy Newhall Wood of Charlestown, Massachusetts (left).

Eleanor Ann Page, cut at the Peale Museum, ca. 1806, possibly by Moses Williams

Eleanor Ann Page, cut at the Peale Museum, ca. 1806, possibly by Moses Williams

Other artists represented in the silhouette inventory include William King, also of Boston, Moses Williams, an African American indentured servant who cut thousands of silhouettes for visitors to Philadelphia’s Peale Museum, and Martha Ann Honeywell, who was born without arms and travelled New England cutting silhouettes by mouth. Over eighty hollow cut silhouettes (where the shape is cut from paper and the remaining hole is laid over black paper or fabric) by William Chamberlain of New Hampshire, made during his itinerant travels in New York and New England in the 1820s, were donated to AAS in 1916 by the artist’s granddaughter.

Unknown man silhouette

Unknown Man, hollow cut silhouette with pen additions by William Chamberlain, ca. 1825

Many of the silhouettes depict individuals represented in our manuscript collections, including members of the Foster, Paine, and Salisbury families. The Society also holds paintings of several of these individuals, allowing scholars to compare and contrast silhouette depictions with traditional formal portraiture. This pair of images of Rebecca Faulkner Foster is an example of the rich visual information available now—her miniature can be compared to her silhouette, creating a nearly three-dimensional sense of her physical form. A prolific letter writer, Rebecca’s numerous missives to her husband, who was often away from their Brookfield, Massachusetts, home, also provide her a voice. Taken together, these objects and words are invaluable pieces of one woman’s long life.

Rebecca Faulkner Foster, by Eliza Goodridge, watercolor on ivory, ca. 1830; Rebecca Faulkner Foster, by unknown artist, ca. 1825

Rebecca Faulkner Foster, by Eliza Goodridge, watercolor on ivory, ca. 1830; Rebecca Faulkner Foster, by unknown artist, ca. 1825

The new online silhouette inventory provides access to a portion of the Society’s outstanding portrait collection that heretofore has been available only by visiting the reading room in Worcester. We have already seen an increase in use of the silhouette collection because of this new access, with scholars interested in visual culture, hair styles, and work produced by African Americans and disabled artists all finding material of interest to their studies. This is our second online inventory of graphic collections using Omeka—the first documented a set of important photographs from the early years of the Tuskegee Institute—and more are on the way. Our visual materials cataloger is working with glass negatives, valentines, copy book covers, and more hidden collections, creating inventories and queuing up material for our photographer for documentation. Stay tuned!

The Acquisitions Table: Daguerreotype Apparatus

Daguerreotype Apparatus. Boston: H.P. Lewis, 1840.

Daguerreotype Apparatus broadsideThe technical elements of daguerreotypy were presented by Louis Daguerre to the world in Paris in August of 1839. By September, a technical manual, in French, was for sale on the streets of Paris and London. At the end of September 1839, an Englishman named D. W. Seager was in New York demonstrating the process, and he was soon followed by the Frenchman François Gouraud, who arrived in November and began giving lessons and selling apparatus built in France.

In early 1840, Gouraud traveled to Boston, where the city’s newspapers were already abuzz with the excitement of the new invention. The February 12, 1840, Columbian Centinel announced Gouraud’s pending arrival around February 20, stating that “Daguerreotype drawing is the wonder of the Age.” In June, Gouraud’s apparatus was still set up in S. G. Simpkin’s bookstore on Tremont Row, and the Frenchman was demonstrating daguerreotyping for Boston residents. One of those Bostonians was mechanic Ari Davis, who built and repaired scientific and nautical instruments on Cornhill. This broadside documents the fact that Davis was also building the three devices needed to make daguerreotypes: a fuming chamber, a camera, and a developing box. Davis moved from Boston to Lowell in early 1841, placing the date of this broadside firmly in the momentous year 1840.

On the broadside, Davis outlines the process and touts the advantages of his construction methods over those produced by others, stating that he “modified somewhat the apparatus, as described by Daguerre, and has rendered it more portable, lighter, and more elegant…” Davis writes glowingly of the process, calling the images “solar paintings” and declaring, “To those who have never seen the solar paintings, it may be proper to say, that no description can convey any idea of their beauty, accuracy, and wonderful minuteness.” The Society’s collection of 1839-1841 imprints on early American photography is outstanding, with important technical periodicals and early manuals already in our holdings. This broadside documenting Davis as a home-grown mechanic building cameras in 1840 Boston is an important addition to the evidence and documentation of the birth of photography.

Little Lamb, Big Story

Ali Phaneuf is a rising sophomore at Fairfield University and is currently a readers’ services summer page. As a journalism major and an art minor, Ali has always been an avid book reader, and her love of books and creativity was able to grow through her experience at AAS.

The story of “Mary had a Little Lamb” has been sung to children throughout the past two hundred years, and despite the countless times I have listened to this rhyme, it wasn’t until I overheard my sister singing it to my six-month-old niece that I began to wonder how Mary’s story came to be. During my time as an AAS summer intern, I was able to research the surprisingly extensive history of Mary and her lamb. Few people may realize that the popular tale derives from Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachusetts. When I discovered that the famous Mary lived in the town just next to my own I wanted to learn more about her and her renowned story.

A quick search in the AAS catalog led me to a book entitled Mary had a Little Lamb, The True Story by Fannie Dickerson, which was published in 1902, just three years following the death of Mary.  Not only does Dickerson explain the true story of Mary Sawyer, but she also includes a personal memoir of Mary within the text. Dickerson’s light-hearted book brings new light and meaning to my perception of what I once saw as a mere children’s tale.

The Birthplace of Mary's LambMary’s story begins circa 1816 when her family’s sheep gives birth to two baby sheep. Problems arise when the mother cares for only one of the two and neglects the other. Mary’s innocence and compassion for others is immediately evident when she finds the lamb the next morning and is distraught at the sight of the poor animal. After much coercing Mary is able to persuade her father to take the lamb inside their house; she gives it food, drink, and warm blankets and decides to sleep with it that night. When Mary wakes the next morning she is elated to see the lamb strong enough to stand on its own.

Mary later teaches her lamb to walk and brings it outside to interact with other animals. Dickerson explains that there are few girls who live near Mary, and so when Mary is not as school she spends most of her time at home with her animals. Due to Mary’s constant presence, her lamb becomes increasingly attached to her, and thus begins the story of the nursery rhyme we know today.

One day before school Mary forgets to say goodbye to her lamb and calls out to it. Mary’s brother Nate, who is constantly causing mischief, proposes to Mary that she take the lamb to school. Naive about the consequences that lay before her, Mary agrees to Nate’s proposal. Mary conceals the lamb beneath her coat and tells the lamb to remain under her desk throughout the day. Perhaps too trusting of the lamb’s obedience, Mary is horrified when she is called forward to recite lines and the little lamb follows her up to the front of the classroom. It comes as a shock to Mary when all of her schoolmates, including her teacher Miss Kimball, begin to laugh.

Statue of Mary's Little Lamb in Sterling, Massachusetts.

Statue of Mary’s Little Lamb in Sterling, Massachusetts.

Adding to the excitement of the day, there happened to be a special visitor at the schoolhouse, John Roulstone. Roulstone is described as a young man who is preparing for college by living with his uncle, Reverend Lemuel Capen. Dickerson explains that it was customary at this time for students to prepare for college by studying with ministers. John decided to visit the schoolhouse the day Mary brought her lamb and was consequently thrilled that he had gone. The next day John rode over to Mary and showed her a poem he had written about her and her lamb. The poem was comprised of three stanzas and was later completed and published in 1830 in the collection Poems for Children by Sarah Hale through the Boston publishing firm Marsh, Capen and Lyon. Hale’s published version of the poem included two additional stanzas following the original three. Dickerson explains to her readers that although Hale is commonly assumed to be the original author of “Mary had a Little Lamb”, this is not the case; she simply expanded upon the poem that had already been written by eyewitness John Roulstone.

Portrait of Mary Sawyer "in her old age."

Portrait of Mary Sawyer “in her old age.”

Mary’s story is one that brings smiles to many children throughout the nation, yet her legacy doesn’t end with the conclusion of her nursery rhyme. One Thanksgiving morning years later, Mary’s lamb was gored by a family cow. Mary’s mother made two pairs of socks for Mary from the wool of the little lamb. These socks served a special role in history due to Mary’s decision to unweave them and sell strands of the wool accompanying her autograph in order to raise money to preserve Boston’s Old South Meeting House. The Old South Meeting House is home to many historical memories, including the 1773 meeting of seven thousand Boston citizens that resulted in the Boston Tea Party. Mary was able to earn one hundred dollars from her wool, equivalent to about three thousand dollars by today’s standards.

Mary and her little lamb serve not only as a childhood nursery rhyme, but they also serve as a statement regarding the importance of preserving American history. In Dickerson’s book there is a section where Mary tells her version of the story and admits that had she known taking her lamb to school would have brought about so much publicity, she isn’t sure she would have gone through with it. Mary’s tale demonstrates how a seemingly minute story can grow into something so much greater. It makes me wonder how many of these children’s tales developed from such intriguing backgrounds.

Working at AAS has been nothing short of inspiring. The dedication of the entire AAS staff has helped me to realize that information available on the Internet only scratches the surface of what one may discover from looking at original documents and books of historical people, places, and events. Interacting with so many incredibly intelligent people opened new doors to different ideas and options I have regarding my own path in life. This summer I was not only able to meet with scholars from across the country, but I also made relationships with other interns and finally got to conduct some of my own research as well; overall the self-satisfaction I received while at the AAS is truly immeasurable.

Finding John Levy

A couple of weeks ago, Claire Jones, an intern from Princeton University, posted about her project centered on Judaica at AAS. This is the next installment in her findings.

JohnLevy_0001From its cover, the book looked totally ordinary. I had picked the title—The Life and Adventures of John Levy—from my list of memoirs for a few reasons. First, if the author’s name was anything to go by, the book had been written by a Jew—something you can’t say about all the works in the Judaica collection, but a perspective that I’ve been trying to keep front and center in my work this summer. Second, AAS’s online catalog entry for the work was a bit curious: it listed the book as having to do with both African Americans and abolitionism. Intrigued and hoping to find something that might cross genres, I put in a request for the title and tracked it down in the stacks with Elizabeth, curator of books.

When I sat down after lunch to peruse the book, I knew from the first sentence that we’d stumbled on something great. Levy opened his memoir by revealing his birthplace as Nevis—an amazing stroke of luck, considering AAS’s interest in the Caribbean. Levy was probably a Sephardic Jew, part of the population that had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and rooted out over the years by the Inquisition. The Sephardim fled to other European countries—England and the Netherlands received large populations—as well as the relatively tolerant Ottoman Empire. The first Jews who settled in the United States in the seventeenth century arrived by way of the Caribbean, settling there on islands like Nevis before moving on to New York.

The island of Nevis is in the bottom right corner of this 1781 map published in London.

The island of Nevis is in the bottom right corner of this 1781 map published in London.

Hoping to find a portrait of Sephardic life in the Caribbean, I read on eagerly, finding out in the next few chapters that our hero spoke fluent Spanish (confirming his Sephardic heritage?) and growing more excited by the page. Levy threw a wrench into my plans, though, when not ten pages later, while describing the few years he spent in Liverpool, he tossed in a line about going to church on Sundays. Church? On Sundays? I started to get nervous. Was our perfect Caribbean Sephardim turning out to be something entirely different?

As it turned out, Levy never mentioned synagogue, or prayer, or Hebrew, or anything at all to do with Judaism in his memoir. Only the fact that his family was full of seemingly textbook Jewish names—his parents Daniel and Hannah, his sister Judith, his daughter Rachel—kept me going as I neared the end of Levy’s account. Fifteen pages from the end, though, there was another startling revelation. It turned out that the reason AAS had listed the book as African American literature was because Levy himself was a person of color. Such an important detail, dropped in rather unceremoniously just before Levy’s account of serving in the Civil War and the discrimination he faced in New England before and during the conflict, only left me even more confused about what exactly I had just read. I was dealing with a possibly Christian, probably black, Caribbean-born man with a Jewish name, and I needed help.

Luckily, Elizabeth knew just how to deal with the conundrum. We went straight to, entered Levy’s name, birthplace, and date of birth (all conveniently provided in the first sentence of his memoir) and, sure enough, he was the first result. Our search confirmed a good deal of the details in Levy’s memoir (though some, like his tale of seeing Napoleon sail past on his way to St. Helena, remain unconfirmed). Records confirmed that he was a well-off barber who was active in the New England abolition scene and married twice to mixed-race women, the first being the daughter of a slave. The census records didn’t quite seem to know what to do with Levy himself, though, with one listing him as “Black,” another as “Mixed,” and still another as “Mulatto”. Our confusion on this essential point was only deepening until we found a magic phrase, in his obituary of all places: “of Moorish origin.” That would explain so much, including the Spanish skills and the ambiguous ethnicity that confused U.S. census-takers. A possible new picture of Levy, this time the son of a Sephardic family that had lost its Jewish religion but maintained some of the old culture and traditions, began to emerge. And a last-minute search of Levy’s father Daniel gave us the best confirmation of all when he was linked to a fascinating article: “The Sefardim of the Island of Nevis.”

We had our Caribbean Sephardic Jew, then. Excellent. But we also had a successful businessperson of color making a living in New England and an active and dedicated abolitionist whose devotion to the cause was clearly personal. We followed John Levy’s story, going from utter confusion to rich clarity that afternoon, reminding ourselves that history is so much more complicated—and so much more rewarding—than the title of a book can suggest.


Obituary, March 27, 1879, Lawrence American, Lawrence, MA (“of Moorish origin”)

1850 United States Federal Census (“Black”)

New York State Census 1855 (“Mulatto”)

1870 United States Federal Census (“Black”)

Massachusetts Death Records, 1879 (“Mixed”)

John Levy’s first wife Sophia – 1850 United State Federal Census (living with “Minor Lewis”)

John Levy’s second wife Henrietta – 1850 United States Federal Census (“Mulatto”)