Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Verses from Beyond the Grave

Thomas W. Piper was executed in Boston on May 26, 1876, concluding one of the city’s most sensational murder cases—the murder of five-year-old Mabel Young in the belfry of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church. It was the sort of dramatic story that had always inspired the poetry of Byron DeWolfe, who penned ballads on several New England murders. But DeWolfe died in 1873, two years before Mabel Young’s murder was committed, so it came as a bit of a shock when a poem written by Byron DeWolfe entitled “Verses Composed on the Confession and Execution of Thomas W. Piper, The Convicted Belfry Murderer” was published after the execution.

George Gordon Byron DeWolfe was known as “The Wandering Poet of New Hampshire.” Though he was born in Nova Scotia and spent much of his time traveling from state to state, DeWolfe called Nashua, New Hampshire, home. He wrote topical poetry about contemporary events and there was no subject too big or too small for Byron DeWolfe. His poems, printed in Boston as one-page broadsides and sold to the public, commemorated everything from a New Hampshire clambake to the assassination of President Lincoln. DeWolfe was also known as the “Steam-machine Poet” for the rapidity with which he wrote. Sometimes he would include the time it took to write the poem as all or part of the title, for example, “Verses, Given in Twenty Minutes,” and “The Great Eastern’s Coming. Composed in Forty-three Minutes.”

Verses from Beyond the Grave


“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics

Click for larger imageOne hundred and one years ago this past summer, American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe was acclaimed around the world for winning, by huge margins, both the classic pentathlon and the decathlon at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm. The King of Sweden famously declared him “the most wonderful athlete in the world.”

Six months later, on January 22, 1913, a newspaper scoop in The Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts revealed that Thorpe had played minor league professional baseball in 1909 and 1910. Back then, “professional” was a dirty word because it meant money had changed hands. Only “simon-pure” amateurs were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. Thorpe had signed the official International Olympic Committee (IOC) Entry Form, attesting that he had never played any sport for money and therefore qualified as an amateur.

At a time when so many organized sports were in their infancy, the ensuing reaction and repercussions, worldwide, would cause the Thorpe revelation to be dubbed the mother of all sports scandals. The modern Olympic movement was brand new; its first Olympiad had been in 1896. The identity and credibility of the struggling IOC as an amateur organization were seen to be at stake.

“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics


The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success

Over the years, the Cardiff Giant has been called America's greatest hoax as well as the world's most successful scientific hoax. England's Piltdown Man—a purported evolutionary missing link—also lays claim to the latter distinction, but, really, in a head-to-head match, who's not going with a 10-foot, 3,000-pound giant?

Here's the story: In 1867, George Hull, a small-time rogue and avowed atheist from Binghamton, New York, got in a heated argument with a Methodist preacher, who maintained that every word in the Bible was literally true. Hull subsequently came up with a scheme to make pious Americans look like fools—and perhaps make himself some money along the way. Drawing inspiration from the passage in Genesis that “there were giants in the earth in those days,” Hull and his collaborators sculpted a giant out of a block of gypsum and staged its discovery on a relative's farm in Cardiff, New York.

 

(Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success


Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice

When researching a topic such as the history of eighteenth-century hymnbooks, databases such as America’s Historical Imprints can greatly enhance access to rare materials, but I recently found that research questions also lurk in the digital archive.  Out of curiosity, I did a search for materials listing Isaac Watts (the century’s most popular hymn writer, starting in 1707) as an author in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, to see how early an American edition of Watts would be available in images.  The literature on American hymnody had led me to expect one or two printings in the 1720s, a few more in the 1730s, and an explosion in the 1740s in the wake of the Great Awakening.  My search, however, returned hits going back into the 1710s—with Cotton Mather listed as the author!  I was prepared for the bibliographies to miss a few titles, but how could the database think that Mather had written Watts’s hymns?  By the time I had answered this question, I was well on my way to an article.[i]

Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice


The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers

Visiting archives to view old documents can stir strange emotions. Handling manuscripts, the historian sees not only the private words of someone else but even a physical presence: the quiver of an elderly hand, the smudge of a young thumb, the jagged strokes of impatient fingers flying across a page during a few minutes of leisure. Reading old books, likewise, the historian sees not just printed words but also their readers, folding down page corners or arguing in the margins—or, in one case I found, pressing maple leaves in the fashion pages of Harper’s Magazine. This intimacy is unpredictable, like contact with living people.

Digitized sources, on the other hand, are uniquely democratic. They are available to researchers working from far away, and they lower barriers in other ways—allowing a scholar, for example, to quickly search mountains of text for a particular phrase, reducing the advantage of veterans who have spent years studying the same documents. The ease of manipulating digital sources makes it possible to study large subject populations and great periods of time. For this, we owe digital repositories a great debt. But it sometimes can be harder to feel the life in digital sources. They do not necessarily make it easy to understand the text as something fashioned and received by living people.

Fortunately, however, technological power also makes it easier to study the lives of particular individuals, including people who were obscure. It can let scholars discover unexpected sources and follow narrow trails through vast quantities of information. If digitized sources are less tangible, in other words, they can also be more biographical.

The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers


War of the Dictionaries

The Georgian brick building of the Merriam-Webster company on Federal Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is considered by some world headquarters of the English language.  Scholars, heads of state and judges alike often deem the Merriam-Webster dictionary the final authority in spelling, pronunciation and definition.  That standing is the outcome of winning a long-fought conflict over a century ago. The company’s founders were brothers George and Charles Merriam, young printers who settled in Springfield in 1831 to print and sell books.  Their shop specialized in school books, Bibles and, curiously, wall papers.  The second-floor presses produced titles stocked by stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

A short distance down the Connecticut River from Springfield, Noah Webster of Hartford, Connecticut, had published his American Dictionary of the English Language.  His unwieldy two-volume set was not well received; the figures of intellect in Boston balked at the author’s vision of an American representation of the English language.  With guarded optimism Webster tried a second edition, but found himself with a stack of unsold books and mounting debt.  After his death, his heirs sold the remaining copies and all rights to Webster’s white elephant.  The buyers, the savvy booksellers Merriam, promptly reduced the price.  The move was applauded by the Springfield Daily Republican on January 10, 1845:

War of the Dictionaries


Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar

As a librarian, I love to recommend the perfect Boolean search phrase to unearth the exact documents wanted, but as a writer who digs up stories from America’s criminal past, I generally find myself using simple search phrases. This search strategy, however, does not mean that I conduct simple searches.

In seeking primary source material, I inevitably find myself trying to answer one or a combination of four basic questions: who? what? where? and when? (“how” and “why” are more the province of secondary sources). By combining these basic questions with knowledge of the peculiarities of how information in eighteenth-century America was published and distributed, I have a better chance of finding the information I need.

Who? In writing about crime in early America, I am interested in the lives of criminals, especially if they have a compelling story to tell. But early American sources can be frustrating in their lack of detail. The Boston News-Letter reports that in New York on June 9, 1718, “Three men are condemned here for Burglary and Felony and are to be Executed on Saturday next.” That is all. No names. No details. I can waste a lot of time in an attempt to track down more news reports about this execution, but I will find no more information than what is offered in this one newspaper.

Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar


Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

What do you do when you can’t stop yourself from falling into a ditch?

In my case it was “Clinton’s Ditch”—better known as the Erie Canal, opened in 1825. It seemed that every time I went to America’s Historical Newspapers to research my dissertation—I write on the politics of early American trade with China—every query, no matter how carefully constructed, returned discussions of canals. With every “search” button clicked, I felt De Witt Clinton (he of “Ditch” fame) drag me a step more away from the salty tea-clippers at Canton, and further into the freshwater depths of the New York backcountry, yammering all the way about locks, average elevations, and the glorious future of the wheat flour trade.


De Witt Clinton, A Man with a Plan (for a Ditch)
(Source: Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 3/8, 1823, Wikimedia.org)

Clinton, a political impresario who served as a U.S. Senator, mayor of New York City, and Governor of New York State, was the chief force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, the new nation’s most ambitious and successful infrastructure project. In the early nineteenth century, waterways were the quickest and most reliable way to move freight. Unfortunately, nature did not always provide—but building canals to the hinterland, it was thought, would shrink the distance between pioneer farmers in the West and the hungry urban markets of the East. Boosters predicted that new canals would create a virtuous cycle of agricultural expansion, population growth, and increasing wealth—a recipe for national greatness.

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom


Preserving the Library in the Digital Age

Librarians, educators, journalists and others often rave about the potential and promise of electronic databases. Let's face it, I rave, too. For my previous book, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, and my current book on the Boston Tea Party, I have found Readex collections like America's Historical Newspapers and Early American Imprints invaluable for discovering new sources, learning more about eighteenth-century readers, confirming citations and drawing new comparisons.

I've had a lot of chances to reflect on how I gain access to sources. As a scholar whose sources are over 200 years old, it still amazes me how much I can read without ever leaving my study. Sometimes there are frustrating gaps in the available electronic databases, which can be unwieldy or misleading. Still, on occasions when I need to check a fact or a footnote without leaving my study, they're massively convenient.

Preserving the Library in the Digital Age


Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815

While the Revolution may have secured Americans their political independence, economic independence remained elusive. As early as 1783, Americans realized that they had not extricated themselves in any meaningful way from the mercantile system of the Atlantic world, still dominated by European imperial might. 1 This realization cut especially deep as the Napoleonic Wars escalated. By 1805 American sailors were at risk of impressment by the British navy. Worse still, maritime commerce came under attack, as the British outlawed America’s lucrative carrying trade. By 1806, President Thomas Jefferson was forced to concede that many of the economic problems that America had faced as a colony still plagued the newly formed nation.2

In response, Jefferson fell back on pre-Revolutionary tactics to assert his nation’s strength. Imposing a highly unpopular non-importation law on Americans in 1806, he attempted to fashion grassroots non-consumption into a federally administered campaign of commercial retribution against the British. The law required that merchants refuse to ship certain British and French goods into the country. Although nominally enforced by an under-developed customs-house and the undermanned Coast Guard, in practice it was a law that relied on the patriotism of merchants and consumers to refuse to consume imported wares.3 The legislation re-politicized the consumption of imported goods in America. Indeed, Jefferson’s legislation was fiercely opposed. Federalists were furious to find themselves subject to Jefferson’s demands. Old guard Republicans were appalled that Jefferson should attempt to re-instate a mercantilist economy, only decades after Americans had fought so hard for free trade. Thus, Jefferson re-ignited a debate over the connection between consumption and patriotism that would endure all the way through the War of 1812 and on into the late 1820s.

Ephemeral Loyalties? Consumption, Commerce and Jeffersonian Politics, 1806-1815


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