Fugitive science, antislavery politics, and women in the flash press: Readex Report (April 2020)

In this issue: Turn-of-the-century black intellectuals challenge a dark pseudo-science; the contentious politics of antislavery in early 20th-century newspapers; and the flash press reveals ordinary and outrageous lives of urban women.


Archives of Freedom: Fugitive Science in Antebellum Black Newspapers

Britt Rusert, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst

fugitive science.jpgFugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (NYU Press, 2017) traces a forgotten history of black resistance to the ascendency of racial science in the nineteenth century. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, naturalists, medical doctors, comparative anatomists, and a variety of gentleman scientists became increasingly interested in the construction of human taxonomies that justified regimes of settler colonialism and enslavement in the Americas. Enslaved and indigenous people were easy targets for human experiments because of their capture and confinement within spaces like the plantation, the slave ship, and later, the reservation. > Full Story

Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford Pushes Back: The Politics of Antislavery in the Early Twentieth-Century Press

Fugitive science, antislavery politics, and women in the flash press: Readex Report (April 2020)

Spanish Influenza of 1918, Part 2: The Rapid Spread of the Epidemic in the United States, Oct. to Dec. 1918

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While the Boston area reeled under the burden of the epidemic, the influenza outbreak was spreading rapidly. On the same date, October 21, 1918, the Belleville News Democrat called the Illinois city of Mascoutah “the Center of Influenza Epidemic in St. Clair County with Three Hundred Cases…” and the Aberdeen Daily News announced “Influenza Epidemic Checked in Boston.” The article in the Aberdeen newspaper continued:

Normal conditions were resumed in this city today when places of public assembly were allowed to reopen by health officials. The places had been closed for nearly three weeks because of the epidemic of influenza which caused nearly 1,000 deaths here.

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Meanwhile, the article in the Belleville paper declared:

Influenza has invaded Mascoutah and today it is reported that there are about 300 cases in the city. Three deaths have already been reported and many more of those afflicted with the disease are said to be seriously ill. New cases are reported hourly.

The Illinois city had begun to establish some prophylactic measures.

Spanish Influenza of 1918, Part 2: The Rapid Spread of the Epidemic in the United States, Oct. to Dec. 1918

‘Women Who Wheel’: How the Bicycle Craze of the 1890s Helped to Expand Women’s Freedom

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In the late 19th century women began participating in the bicycle craze which men had enjoyed for two decades. This craze did not last long, but for women it was exciting and liberating. It was mostly affluent society women who defied the naysayers and avidly took to the streets on wheels. By 1889 American newspapers were spreading considerable ink on this latest trend.

In January 1889 the New York Tribune reported on a six-day bicycle race in Madison Square Garden for women only. The competition promised

…an exhibition of woman’s endurance that will rival the female walking matches that took place in certain cities seven or eight years ago….Fifteen women will start in the race and a dozen of the required number have already signed contracts to appear. The women will race eight hours a day instead of twenty-four.

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Two years later in 1891 the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an illustrated article on the “astonishing recent growth of the bicycle habit,” noting particularly that women were flocking to participate. Reporter John Heaton wrote:

‘Women Who Wheel’: How the Bicycle Craze of the 1890s Helped to Expand Women’s Freedom

Spanish Influenza of 1918, Part 1: The First Six Weeks of Epidemic in the United States, Sept. to Oct. 1918

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The Spanish Flu, which swept the globe for more than two years and killed as many as 100,000,000, was misnamed. The origins of the 1918 pandemic have been debated, but it is generally accepted that the disease was prevalent among the troops from Germany, France, and Great Britain fighting World War I. Because of the war, the press was censored in those countries. Spain was neutral and the press was not censored. Hence, the early reports of the spread of infection suggested that Spain was the vector. It was not.

Whatever the source, Boston was the first location in the United States to experience an outbreak, probably because of the troop ships and merchant marine vessels returning from Europe. In 1918, between September 10 and October 21, the disease grew exponentially and spread throughout the U.S. as seen in this national news coverage.

On September 10, 1918, the Fort Wayne Sentinel announced in a headline: Epidemic of Influenza Among Sailors in Boston.

Nearly 100 sailors of the merchant marine suffering from influenza, who have been stationed aboard training vessels in Boston harbor, were removed for treatment today to tents pitched on the summit of Corey hill…

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The next day the Pawtucket Times reported that

Spanish Influenza of 1918, Part 1: The First Six Weeks of Epidemic in the United States, Sept. to Oct. 1918

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

Turning Students into History Detectives: A Conversation with Professor Amy Murrell Taylor

Amy Murrell Taylor is an award-winning professor in the Department of History at the University of Kentucky, and author of the highly praised Embattled Freedom: Journeys Through the Civil War’s Refugee Camps (2018). In this brief interview, she discusses the use of primary sources in her history classes, and she shares techniques for inspiring undergraduates to become investigators of the past.


For other perspectives on the value of primary sources for research and teaching, please see the Readex “Scholars Speak” video series.  Here you will find concise conversations on this topic with Joanne B. Freeman, Amy E. Hughes, Stephen Aron, Daniel Feller and other scholars.

Turning Students into History Detectives: A Conversation with Professor Amy Murrell Taylor

“Through the tears, confident and determined”: American Women Get the Vote One Century Ago

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August 18, 1920, was a momentous day for the women of America. When Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the act granting equal suffrage for women, which had been passed by Congress earlier in the year, became the law of the land. The preceding months of 1920 was a time of growing enthusiasm, apprehension, and frustration for the women and men who advocated for this landmark legislation.

On January 7, 1920, the Anaconda Standard of Montana published an article headlined “Suffrage Amendment is Still Short in 12 States.” At that time 36 states had to ratify a proposed amendment for the act to be added to the Constitution.

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Two days later, in a widely print Associated Press story, the Democratic leader of New Jersey attacked the amendment calling it “the mother of all ‘isms,’ the greatest menace now threatening the stability of the American government and American institutions.” He added that with along with prohibition the amendment “was forced through an effeminate, absentee congress of cowards by coercion and intimidation.”

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“Through the tears, confident and determined”: American Women Get the Vote One Century Ago

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

“The highlight of my ALA conference”: Librarians laud Readex-sponsored program by Civil War historian Amy Murrell Taylor

[Go directly to Prof. Taylor’s highly praised presentation.]

In the days following the start of the American Civil War, enslaved people immediately began fleeing plantations to seek refuge. In a captivating presentation on this topic at the 2020 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, Amy Murrell Taylor, Ph.D., shared from her acclaimed book Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps. An award-winning professor at the University of Kentucky, Taylor is an authority on the social and cultural history of the U.S. South in the 19th century.

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Taylor’s research, supported in part by Readex products, uncovers stories of the many thousands of men, women, and children who fled slavery and sought refuge behind the lines of the Union army during the Civil War. These untold stories of people seeking freedom shed new light on history of emancipation.

In a survey following her presentation, attendees offered overwhelmingly positive reactions:

  • Fantastic!
  • Best thing I attended.
  • The highlight of my ALA conference.

Taylor revealed in her powerful talk how she was struck over the course of her research by the way issues that people were wrestling with in the 19th century have become “eerily relevant to our lives today.” Listen as she describes the similarities.

“The highlight of my ALA conference”: Librarians laud Readex-sponsored program by Civil War historian Amy Murrell Taylor

The Great Blondin: ‘Crossing of Niagara on a Rope!’

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The acrobat whose name would become synonymous with tightrope walking was born Jean-François Gravelet in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France. Generally known as Charles Blondin (1824-1897), the performer was also referred to as Jean-François Blondin, Chevalier Blondin, The Great Blondin, and, in his first public appearance, The Boy Wonder.

Blondin traveled to the United States in 1855, joined a circus, and became famous for crossing the Niagara Gorge, at times doing summersaults, on a tightrope. In a series of articles, originally reported in the Rochester Union and reprinted in the Washington, D.C., Constitution, the acrobat himself and his first crossing are described on July 6, 1859, this way: 

“About four o’clock M. Blondin arrived in a carriage decorated with the American and French flags, and was received with cheers from the multitude, music from the bands, and the firing of a cannon, which was answered from the Canada side. A ring was made by a rope, and within the ring was a tight rope six feet above the ground, upon which the preliminary exhibition took place.

The Great Blondin: ‘Crossing of Niagara on a Rope!’

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