Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner

If asked to name the first southern novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize, most Americans might guess William Faulkner or Margaret Mitchell.  The honor actually belongs to Julia Peterkin (1880-1961), a largely forgotten, self-styled plantation mistress from South Carolina whose meteoric career rendered her name and novels household words for the better part of three decades.  Peterkin’s best-selling 1929 Pulitzer-prizewinner, Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), tells the story of Mary Pinesett, a spirited and rebellious—some said promiscuous—black woman who, having been abandoned by July, her “heart-love” husband, determines to have the family of her dreams—but on her own terms.  With the aid of a love charm, Mary lures unnamed partners into assignations, bears nine children of different paternity, and, by reveling in the arrival of each baby, spurns the condemnation of her tight knit community at Blue Brook Plantation.  Modernist critics greeted Scarlet Sister Mary as a masterpiece:  Lionel Trilling remarked on its “strength and dignity,” while Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, perceived in Peterkin’s “banishment of propaganda” a “new attitude of the literary South toward Negro life.”  Conversely, the mainstream American media found the Pulitzer selection disturbing.  The Chicago Journal of Commerce declared, “[A] promiscuous Negress with seven [sic] illegitimate children can hardly be regarded as falling under the ‘highest standards’” synonymous with the award.  A Georgia editor derided the novel as “sex exploitation” while a Carnegie library in Peterkin’s home state banned Mary from the shelves. 


Life out of Darkness: The Recovery of Julia Peterkin, Forgotten Pulitzer Prize Winner


The Female Marine

In 1814, Boston printer Nathaniel Coverly Jr. published a pamphlet entitled An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker, which became an immediate bestseller in New England. It is an autobiography in which Miss Baker relates the story of her journey from idyllic rural Massachusetts to the depths of urban degradation in Boston to military glory on the deck of a Navy frigate during the War of 1812. She served as a seaman in the American Navy, dressed as a man for three years, never revealing her secret.

 From Early American Imprints, Series II

The notion of the “female warrior,” a woman fighting in the army or navy dressed in men’s attire was not new to popular literature. The ballad “Mary Ambree,” in which the heroine disguises herself as a man and goes to war to avenge her lover’s death, was first published as a broadside in London around 1600 and presumably had an oral tradition even older. “Mary Ambree” was the first of hundreds of ballads published before 1800 involving women dressing as men and distinguishing themselves in battle. The genre was as popular in America as it was in England, and some well-known female warrior songs such as “Jack Monroe” and “The Cruel War” were sung in rural Appalachia into the twentieth century.

The Female Marine


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


The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest

Click to viewThe first Egyptian mummy to be exhibited commercially in America was a stonecutter from Thebes named Padihershef. This ancient gentleman arrived in Boston in early May 1823 and was exhibited up and down the East Coast, visiting twelve different cities in 1823 and 1824. By the end of 1824 several more mummies had arrived, museum proprietors having determined that a mummy was a great money-making attraction, even at the small admission charge of “twenty-five cents; children half-price.”

On 15 February 1826 an article appeared in the New York Commercial Advertiser announcing the arrival of two Egyptian mummies, aboard the ship Hannibal, consigned to George Barclay of that city. They had been sent from Trieste by consul John Kearney, and were guaranteed to be genuine. Shortly after their arrival, they were bought by Rubens Peale for his New York Museum for the sum of about $2,000. Although Peale had previously made a profit of almost $750 exhibiting Padihershef for six weeks, his father, Charles Willson Peale, thought he had made a bad bargain, believing these new mummies would not draw enough interest to offset their cost. But Peale needed a spectacular attraction to compete with John Scudder’s American Museum, which had an Egyptian mummy of its own.

The American Peregrinations of a Blockhead Mummy: A Not So Eternal Rest


Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press

As a superstar athlete in the most popular sport of his era, 1899 world bicycling champion Major Taylor saw his racing victories well chronicled in mainstream newspapers as well as cycling publications. But it was the African American press, less concerned with the play by play, which revealed a more layered portrait of the black rider balancing on the knife edge of Jim Crow racial segregation.

Born in 1878 in Indiana, Marshall W. “Major” Taylor moved as a teenager to Worcester, Massachusetts, with his cycling mentor and employer, who was opening a bicycle factory there. Although “whites only” policies kept Taylor off certain racetracks and hindered him while traveling on the national circuit—he couldn’t always get a hotel room or a meal—“the Worcester whirlwind” was popular with spectators, and promoters cashed in on his box-office draw.

The 1890s bicycle boom preceded the advent of automobiles and airplanes, and sports fans were thrilled by the sheer speed of cyclists. Hostility toward Taylor from some white riders—dirty and dangerous tactics, threats, and even physical assault—only heightened the drama.

Cycling Champion Major Taylor and the African American Press


Loving the "City of Homes" and its Historical Newspaper Archives

Many years ago my first drive through the residential neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts, hooked me into a lifelong passion to know more of her and her people. From viewing the 1870’s brick row houses on Mattoon Street to the gilded age mansions of Ridgewood and Maple Hill, it did not take a lot of imagination to conjure up a vision of the city’s glory days. The architecture and beauty of the homes spoke clearly. My research began.


Court Square, c. 1910, the downtown heart of the City of Homes

The Registry of Deeds launched my exploration with a legal skeleton of house information: names, dates and land descriptions. The local history room at the Carnegie-built public library offered a variety of volumes, but, best of all, scrapbooks. History buffs and library staff over the decades had filled un-indexed volumes with clippings from newspapers. Browsing through the random pages, I became acquainted with the individuals that gave the city life. Microfiche of newspapers were then available on bulky readers, and occasionally I stumbled upon specific information I sought, but Lady Luck played a large role in such fortuitous events. Eventually the computer age came to the rescue with digitized records, search engines and printing capabilities.

Loving the


Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty

Click for more info on Dennis' bookI never read murder and mayhem stories in the newspaper. Such sensationalist accounts have been a mainstay of the U.S. popular press since it was invented in the early American republic, and they remain a prominent feature today. But the tawdry details of homicidal doings, breathlessly recounted, hold little appeal for me. And yet a few years ago one such story caught my eye and drew me in, sending me on my own investigative journey.

I read of the nefarious deed, not surprisingly, in the New York Post. Actually, the story appeared in the New-York Evening Post, not the well-known contemporary Gotham tabloid, and it recounted an event that had occurred nearly two hundred years ago, in western New York. (The Evening Post’s story was reprinted from Buffalo’s Niagara Journal of May 8, 1821.) The “crime” reported was murder, allegedly committed by a Seneca Indian man, Soonong-gize, commonly known as Tommy Jemmy. Death, even violent death, was not uncommon on the frontiers of the early republic, and Buffalo in 1821 was a frontier town. But the snippet account revealed this to be no ordinary homicide, nor was the case a simple whodunit. Tommy Jemmy never denied taking the life of the victim (a Seneca woman identified elsewhere as Kauquatau), but his defense would center on a surprising claim—that the act was not in fact “murder.”

Murder! Or the Remarkable Trial of Tommy Jemmy, 19th-Century Seneca Witch-Hunter and Defender of Indian Sovereignty


The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert

The ability to access newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers has revolutionized research in the history and culture of chess. Some aspects of this research require detailed chess knowledge; for example, finding specific games of old masters or tracking changes in chess styles over the years. Other aspects of chess research require no specialized knowledge to appreciate: the atmosphere of chess clubs; rivalries between players, nationalities, and ethnic groups; and the often peculiar personalities of individual players.

Some interesting traits of individual chess players fit with common stereotypes; great masters frequently combine brilliance and unworldliness in a fascinating mixture. As James Mortimer, a 19th-century chess writer, said: "It will be cheering to know that many people are skillful chess players, though in many instances their brains, in a general way, compare unfavourably with the cognitive facilities of a rabbit." Thus, it is said (I believe apocryphally) that world champion Emanuel Lasker's attempt to run a poultry farm failed because he did not realize that this required animals of both sexes.

With access to America’s Historical Newspapers, I sought to learn about chess players who made news in areas ignored by the chess press. Chess was popular in the 19th century, but there were few opportunities for players from different parts of the United States to compete against each other. It was believed that except for a handful of players who would visit the East Coast, all the best players lived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Players occasionally found surprisingly strong opponents in Chicago, New Orleans, and St Louis, but these were considered exceptions.

The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert


The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38

Click for more info on bookThe German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, is conventionally regarded as the starting point of World War II. However, war broke out much earlier in Asia. On July 7, 1937, after claiming that one of its soldiers was missing, the Japanese launched attacks at the Chinese positions near the Marco Polo Bridge in a Beijing southwestern suburb. During the following weeks, the Japanese continued with their attacks in North China, capturing Beijing, Tianjin, and other cities in the region.

While Japanese forces were engaged in conquering warfare in North China, tension built up down south in the Shanghai area. Shots were fired on August 9, 1937, in a clash in which two Japanese marines and one member of the Chinese Peace Preservation Corps were killed near the entrance to the Hongqiao Airfield in a Shanghai suburb. After rounds of unsuccessful negotiation, the clash led to the outbreak of hostilities in Shanghai on August 13. Street fighting soon escalated to ferocious urban battles when both sides rushed in divisions of reinforcements.

With heavy casualties inflicted on both sides, the war continued for three months before Shanghai fell to the Japanese on November 12, 1937. Even though Chinese troops fought persistently for months in and around Shanghai, they failed to put up effective resistance west of Shanghai, due to a chaotic and hasty evacuation. Taking advantage of the situation, the Japanese swiftly chased fleeing Chinese troops westward, reaching the city gates of China’s capital, Nanjing, on December 9.

The Nanjing Atrocities Reported in the U.S. Newspapers, 1937-38


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


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