Brian Benoit


About Author: 
Brian Benoit has indexed maps, newspapers, and government documents at Readex’s Chester, Vermont office since 2002. For five years he worked with rare performing arts material at Harvard College’s Houghton Library. He is author of the recently published Crustacean Vacation (Islandport Press, 2012).
Posts by this Author

White Plague, Black Death: Public Health as a Weapon in South Africa and the USSR

Nineteenth century European Romantic writers viewed tuberculosis as a fashionable disease. The slow but inexorable progression of the “white plague” (or consumption) and the austerity of the pale, emaciated (white) bodies of those suffering from it gave rise to pathos-infused works by Keats, Verdi, Dostoyevsky, and other notable writers, painters and composers.

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In the twentieth century, with a much greater concern for communist orthodoxy than aesthetics, the Soviet government made tuberculosis inevitable for its citizens, particularly those like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who served time in forced-labor camps. Similarly, in apartheid-era South Africa tuberculosis disproportionately afflicted disenfranchised blacks more than privileged whites. Government officials there also profited politically and financially off blacks relegated to work camps for the mentally ill.

Public health has not always been pursued in the public interest; sometimes it’s been used by elites as a tool for political repression and financial gain. Readex’s unique collection, Public Health: Global Origins of Modern Health Policy and Management, 1957-1995brings to light both the benefits and deficiencies of public health policy during the latter half of the twentieth century.

White Plague, Black Death: Public Health as a Weapon in South Africa and the USSR

The Mound Builders: America’s Indigenous Engineers

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There’s an entry in Readex’s Native American Indians, 1645-1819, from a book printed in Philadelphia in 1803 in which British topographical engineer Captain Thomas Hutchins described the “Kahokia tribe of Illinois Indians” as “having 50 houses and 300 inhabitants, possessing 80 Negroes.”

3. “Forty nine miles further northward of the Piorias’s village, and one mile from the Mississippi, on the southerly side of a small river,” he places the village Cahokia, so called “from the Cahokia tribe of Illinois Indians, having 50 houses and 300 inhabitants, possessing 80 Negroes.” The Kahokia tribe of Illinois Indians is small, and in his list of Indians, he places it near this village of their name.

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As shown at the northern end of Hutchins’ 1778 map, the Cahokia tribe lived a few miles east of present-day St. Louis, Missouri.

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The Mound Builders: America’s Indigenous Engineers

Seed Sown on Good Soil: Astronomy, Botany, and Medicine in Early American Books

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Perhaps you’ve explored Readex’s five Origins of Modern Science and Technology collections, which include material from the latter half of the twentieth century. For an earlier perspective on the history of science you can also delve into three new digital products:

It may appear counterintuitive to look for science content in material written for children,  or for a distinctly religious audience, or in relation to Native Americans. Consider though that religious leaders were often the most highly educated members of society during America’s formative years. For example, the evangelism of Cambridge-graduate John Eliot in no way diminished his philology in producing his Algonquian Bible in 1663.

Seed Sown on Good Soil: Astronomy, Botany, and Medicine in Early American Books

Politics and Prophylaxis: The World Health Organization, the Politics of International Public Health, and Open Source Epidemiology

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In June 1958, about eight months after the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite circled the globe, former Illinois governor and future United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson had an idea for another scientific endeavor with global implications: What if the world community could cooperate on achieving a selection of public health goals that knew no boundaries?

U.S. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas had Stevenson’s speech printed in the Congressional Record. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota promoted Stevenson’s idea on the world stage culminating in its adoption by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) in 1959.  It would subsequently be sponsored by the UN as the International Health and Medical Research Year (abbreviated as IHY), and coincide with the WHO’s Twelfth World Health Assembly in 1961.

What is IHY? It is a proposed International Health Year to be sponsored by the World Health Organization of the United Nations.

If the plan for it goes through it will be put into effect in June, 1961. During the following year all the nations of the world would contribute their skill and knowledge in an all-out war against cancer, heart disease, mental illness, old age and infants’ diseases, as well as many other human ills.

Politics and Prophylaxis: The World Health Organization, the Politics of International Public Health, and Open Source Epidemiology

Ghosted: The Eddy Family’s Questionable Claims to Occult Powers in Nineteenth Century Vermont

You’re traveling to another dimension, north of Rutland, Vermont, to a place not only of sight and sound but of mind, on a journey to what was the epicenter of paranormal activity in 1870s America.  Your destination does not appear on any map, but about five miles off Route 7 in the Town of Chittenden there’s a signpost for the High Life Ski Club, formerly the farmstead of the Eddy family. You’ve arrived at “Spirit Vale,” a wondrous realm whose ethereal residents, if they existed at all, benefited from the active suspension of disbelief by mortals holding hands with strangers in a dimly lit room. Call it “the twilight zone.”

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The 1870 census lists the human population of Chittenden, Vermont, as 802 souls including brothers William and Horatio Eddy, their sister Mary, and numerous other close relatives. From 1873 through 1875 the psychic population of the Eddy farmhouse was augmented by a plethora of “materialized spirits” such as “Honto” (a Native American maiden), “The Witch of the Mountain,” even Lord Byron, the famous poet who died in 1824. Guests attending a séance stood a good chance of also seeing the shades of departed loved ones, and many testified to exactly that.

Ghosted: The Eddy Family’s Questionable Claims to Occult Powers in Nineteenth Century Vermont

“Evil Most Disastrous”: The Agony and Ecstasy of Absinthe

There is a peculiar religious sect in Paris and they worship absinthe. Their shrines are the boulevard cafes; their prayer books the muddy green liquid that cages mental rats within their brains and makes monsters of men who once paid their bills and wore clean cuffs.

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“Wormwood”—as described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation—was a fallen star, heralded by an angel:

10 And the third angel sounded the trumpet: and a great star fell from heaven, burning as it were a torch: and it fell on the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters:

11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood: and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.

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Wormwood is also the most contentious ingredient in absinthe, the verdant spirit that was the bane and muse of writers and artists such as Baudelaire, Byron, Poe, Hemingway, Picasso, Joyce, van Gogh…this is the A-list, no first names required. The drinking of absinthe has been identified historically with bohemian decadence and mental health issues which led to its prohibition early in the twentieth century in France, Switzerland and other countries including the United States.

“Evil Most Disastrous”: The Agony and Ecstasy of Absinthe

Hetty Green, “Financial Amazon” of the Gilded Age

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At the southern edge of the picturesque village of Bellows Falls, Vermont, stands a modern TD Bank building. Erected on the site of the former home of Hetty Green, it’s a fitting tribute to the richest woman investor of her day who owned banks, railroads, mines and much else besides. When Mrs. Green passed away in 1916 at the age of 81 she left to her children Edward and Sylvia an estate worth upwards of $100 million dollars. Adjusted for inflation that would be about $2.4 billion dollars in 2020. That’s serious money for the “financial Amazon” who took money very seriously, which engendered grudging respect and fear from the “sharks of Wall Street.”

Mrs. Green, the financial Amazon who has proved herself a match for the schemers and sharks of Wall Street, who occasionally engineers mysterious movements there, who has several times put the bears to rout in corners on Reading, in which her clutch on the throats of unfortunate shorts was none the less strong because it was that of a woman’s jeweled hand, was really the cause, it has always been held, of the failure of John J. Cisco’s Sons, the bankers, last year.

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Hetty Green, “Financial Amazon” of the Gilded Age

A Name to Conjure With: Mardi Gras Indians Keep the Faith through the Spirit of Sauk War Leader Black Hawk

The spirit of Black Hawk is alive and well and living in New Orleans. How does the influence of this Sauk war leader inform Creole identity over 250 years after his birth? The answer involves a rich gumbo of Native American and African American culture with dashes of American Spiritualism and the iconography of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

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Black Hawk (Muk-a-tá-mish-o-ká-kaik) was born to a prominent Sauk family in 1767 in Saukenuk, present-day Rock Island, Illinois. He distinguished himself in battle during numerous campaigns against other Indian tribes and thus became influential although he was not a hereditary chief. Life was good for Black Hawk’s band in the years leading up to the 1820s. But it did not last. Edwin D. Coe recounted Black Hawk’s trajectory in an 1896 pamphlet from Readex’s American Pamphlets:

A Name to Conjure With: Mardi Gras Indians Keep the Faith through the Spirit of Sauk War Leader Black Hawk

Inherit a Problem: How Lysenkoism Ruined Soviet Plant Genetics and Perpetuated Famine under Stalin, Khrushchev—and Mao

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Part of the power of Readex’s new Morality and Science: Global Origins of Modern Bioethics is the access it affords to primary material that is otherwise difficult to obtain in English-language translations. This is certainly true when it comes to the suppressed Soviet controversy regarding Lysenkoism as a credible expression of the tenets of evolutionary biology. That debate bears a striking resemblance to America’s love/hate relationship with climate change as a consequence of global warming in which human actions are held to play a significant role—or not. And the parallels go deeper still.

In 1925 America had a problem with evolution, or rather with government endorsement of Charles Darwin’s widely accepted theory of “natural selection” which implied that human beings were the descendants of primates rather than created in the semblance of a divine being. The “Scopes Monkey Trial” of that year pitted orator William Jennings Bryan against highly regarded attorney Clarence Darrow in a bid to punish (or free) John Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher who taught evolution rather than creationism. Scopes was jailed for doing so under Tennessee’s Butler Act of 1925, which prohibited the denial of creationism in public education. The case was ultimately invalidated on technical grounds during an appeal of the initial ruling to fine Scopes $100. It became the template for the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, which was later made into a motion picture.

Inherit a Problem: How Lysenkoism Ruined Soviet Plant Genetics and Perpetuated Famine under Stalin, Khrushchev—and Mao

Lawyers, Guns and Money: California during the Interregnum of 1846-1848

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The inclusion of California in Territorial Papers of the United States, 1763-1953, is perhaps surprising as that state was never formally organized as a territory prior to statehood in 1850. Rather, Alta (Upper) California, including much of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, went through a two-year transitional period during the Mexican-American War when its status was undetermined. The “territory” that became the Mexican Cession following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 was administered by the U.S. Army as a protectorate with the clear understanding that it would ultimately redound to the United States.

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The conquest and annexation of Upper California was the ultimate step in “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan to articulate the sense that the American national project was to extend republican government from coast to coast, and that this task was sanctioned by God.

Lawyers, Guns and Money: California during the Interregnum of 1846-1848

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