Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Thomas Hamblin’s House of Blood and Thunder: The Transformation of New York’s Bowery Theatre in the Early 19th Century

Thomas Hamblin (1800-1853) was arguably the most influential—and contradictory—figure in antebellum U.S. theater. An English actor and manager, he became synonymous with American working-class nativist culture. He transformed New York City’s Bowery Theatre from a failed venue for refined drama to what became known as “The House of Blood and Thunder.” Hamblin excelled at producing successful melodramas, tragedies, and farces that appealed to the city’s working classes while not alienating the elite. Despite being repeatedly mired in scandals of adultery, divorce, as well as rumors of murder, Hamblin remained an influential figure. As a man who literally traded blows with his critics, Hamblin remains a fascinating, if overlooked figure, in nineteenth-century American culture.

 

Hamblin came to the United States in 1825, launching his American career as Hamlet at the respectable Park Theatre. Although he became known as a fine Shakespearean actor, Hamblin stepped into management in 1830 when he took the reins of the re-opened Bowery Theatre, a house that would go on to revolutionize New York theater. A letter to the editor during his opening tour in New York shows a confident and proud, if arrogant, approach to dealing with the public that would remain a hallmark of his career.

Thomas Hamblin’s House of Blood and Thunder: The Transformation of New York’s Bowery Theatre in the Early 19th Century


Speaking Out in Thunder Tones: Black Chosenness and “Our Government” in the Earliest African American Newspapers

In the fall of 1836, a fastidiously well-dressed New Yorker was elected President of the United States. One year later, the country was in the midst of a devastating economic depression, the forced removal of Native Americans from the southeastern states was in full swing, and the regime of slavery seemed more secure than ever.

On November 4, 1837, the Colored American, a black newspaper based in New York City, weighed in on the political state of the country. In a letter titled “Our Government,” the paper’s white printer Robert Sears took a dim view of the present and future state of the nation. “It requires but a very superficial acquaintance with the state of ‘men and parties’ in this country,” lamented Sears, “to convince the most unbelieving, that PATRIOTISM among us at the present day, is but an empty name, and that the days of our Republic are numbered.” Lambasting the moral character of the men ostensibly governing the country, Sears wrote that “Swindlers and drunkards are appointed to office” and “Licentiousness exists to a most alarming extent among our men in power.” “Extravagance and speculation seem to be the order of the day,” he continued, “and MONEY—not intellectual and moral worth—is the true standard of character and respectability among us!” Acting as a “sentinel on the walls seeing the enemy approaching,” the Colored American used Sears’s letter to “sound the alarm” and warn its readers, “Our Nation is corrupt to the very core.”

Speaking Out in Thunder Tones: Black Chosenness and “Our Government” in the Earliest African American Newspapers


Anticipating a National History for a New Republic

Historical writing in the eighteenth century has not received much attention from scholars of the period in recent years. Nevertheless, the long revolutionary era witnessed an unprecedented explosion of historical cultural production, both in the form of traditional histories and in other emerging cultural forms such as early American poetry, fiction, and art. Before the Revolution, there was as yet no sense of a shared “American” or “colonial” history, i.e., one that incorporated the histories of all of the British American colonies into a coherent narrative. Therefore, when the new nation found itself on the other side of the War for Independence, Americans had the beginnings of a nation but no national history.

 

Cultural nationalists in the early republic, which included historians, antiquarians, writers, and artists of all kinds, understood the importance of crafting a national history as a way of fostering the shared national sentiment they believed crucial to the new republic’s survival. Politicians and military officials such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and others also keenly understood the importance of developing a new national history. As early as 1786, Washington “regretted” that a “comprehensive view of the war” had not yet been published. As a result, these public officials offered encouragement and support (as well a bit of caution) in the 1780s to those seeking to craft the first histories of the Revolution and the new nation.[1]

Anticipating a National History for a New Republic


Two Women Who Spied During the American Civil War: Going Undercover with Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman in the Archive of Americana

In July 1861—just three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter—unabashed Southern sympathizer Rose O’Neal Greenhow of Washington, D.C., was already engaged in espionage on behalf of the Confederacy.  Well-placed in Washington society—and adept at bleeding information from the many men who found her attractive—Greenhow learned that Union troops under General Irvin McDowell would attack Rebel forces in Manassas, Virginia, within days.

Rose got a message via courier to the Confederate commander, General P. G. T. Beauregard, informing him of the Union’s plans.  With this advance notice, the Confederates had time to bring up General Joseph Johnston’s troops from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to augment Beauregard’s army.  After crossing Bull Run Creek on July 21, McDowell’s men encountered thousands more enemy soldiers than expected.  By day’s end, the Confederates had routed the Union forces and sent them into a panicked retreat back toward Washington.

Rose Greenhow was justifiably proud of her intelligence effort, which contributed to a stunning Rebel victory in the first major battle of the war.  But this triumph all but guaranteed a long and bloody struggle ahead.  A decisive Union victory at Bull Run, followed by a push toward Richmond, the Confederate capital, might have brought the war to a quick end, thus sparing hundreds of thousands from death and disfigurement.

Two Women Who Spied During the American Civil War: Going Undercover with Belle Boyd and Pauline Cushman in the Archive of Americana


A True Tale of Adultery, Murder, and Dismemberment in Black Women's History

The torso discovered on the bank of a pond just outside of Philadelphia was headless and limbless.  The head had been severed at the fourth vertebra, one arm had been chopped off at the joint, the other cut crudely through the shoulder; the midsection had been sawed midway so that the distended bowels protruded.  Blood leaked from the exposed orifices and the trunk had been wrapped in heavy brown paper marked, “Handle with care.”

While the sex of the victim was readily discernable, his race was not.  Some believed it to be the body part of a “Chinamen,” others a “Spaniard or an Italian”; the ambiguity around whether the torso might belong to a white man would spur a feverish hunt for whomever might be responsible.  Without the use of well-placed surveillance cameras, CSI teams, fingerprint or DNA evidence, investigators zeroed in on two suspects: a 37-year-old black Maryland migrant named Hannah Mary Tabbs and an 18-year-old “mulatto” named George Wilson.

 

A True Tale of Adultery, Murder, and Dismemberment in Black Women's History


Gas! Gas! Gas! Anesthesia History in Early American Newspapers, Pamphlets and Broadsides

In the past newspapers, pamphlets and broadsides have been underused sources for research in medical history. Digital access has made these materials much easier to find and use. This piece examines three significant documents and explains their value to the history of anesthesia: an 1800 newspaper article found in Early American Newspapers, 1690-1922, Series 1-14, and an 1860 pamphlet found in American Pamphlets, 1820-1922: From the New-York Historical Society. The third item is a broadside from the Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia.

On September 9, 1800, a most remarkable letter appeared in The Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser published in Baltimore, Maryland. [Fig. 1] Written on August 27, the letter originated from “Prison, Philadelphia” and is signed by Thomas Cooper [Fig. 2]. His long piece of correspondence is one of the earliest notices in America of the gas research by Dr. Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy in England.

Gas! Gas! Gas! Anesthesia History in Early American Newspapers, Pamphlets and Broadsides


The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson, October 23, 1945-March 1, 1946

 

 

There is little about the life of Jackie Robinson that historians do not know. Each part of his saga has been analyzed time and again. Among the periods sometimes given short shrift, however, is the time between the seminal event of his signing with the Montreal Royals, AAA farm team of Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers, in October 1945 and his arrival in Sanford, Florida, for his first spring training in an unapologetically racist South.

Such is not to say that the period has not also received its chronicle. Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment is the most substantial account of the sport’s integration, and Tygiel does recount Robinson’s time during the interregnum. So too does David Falkner in his Robinson biography Great Time Coming and Chris Lamb in his account of Robinson’s first spring training. [1] Each of those accounts uses major black weeklies to create a picture of Robinson’s actions and the black response, but looking at smaller black weeklies, less trumpeted than the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender, a more nuanced picture of that response helps color the solid scholarship that already exists.

The Robinson Interregnum: The Black Press Responds to the Signing of Jackie Robinson, October 23, 1945-March 1, 1946


The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond

Ralph Keeler is the most extraordinary American that you’ve never heard of—a performer, traveler and writer who blazed a trail through the heart of literary scene on both sides of the continent in the decade after the Civil War. His astonishing adventures—and, particularly, his equally enigmatic end—can be traced through the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.

 

A potted biography can hardly do justice to the vicissitudes of Keeler’s short life: as a runaway child, Keeler became part of a minstrel troupe that travelled around the country, including a stint along the Mississippi River in a showboat. Leaving that life behind to pursue an education, he made his way to Europe where he enrolled as a student at Heidelberg University. Returning to America after the Civil War, he gravitated to San Francisco—at that moment, the capital of Bohemian life in the newly reunited nation. It was an apt choice: Keeler’s flamboyant personal style soon captured the attention of the city’s literati, and he became friends with writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Charles Warren Stoddard. At first he worked as a teacher: notice of his address to the “The State Teachers’ Institute,” in his role as “Principal of the Foreign Evening School,” appeared in the Weekly Alta-California, the city’s leading newspaper, in May 1867.

The Lost Prince of American Bohemians: The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of Ralph Keeler, Literary Vagabond


Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom

In January 2016 I launched the Adverts 250 Project, a daily blog that features an advertisement published 250 years ago along with analysis and historical context.  This project grew out of my current research, a book tentatively titled Advertising in Early America: Marketing Media and Messages in the Eighteenth Century.  Publishing a blog as a supplement to the book offers several advantages, including the ability to share more of my work more frequently and to broader audiences.  It also opened up new opportunities for integrating my research into the undergraduate classroom, enriching both my scholarship and my teaching.

 

 

Early American Newspapers and the Adverts 250 Project: Integrating Primary Sources into the Undergraduate History Classroom


Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?

As an older man writing his life’s story, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned that, in his youth, when he’d “had such a Thirst for Knowledge, more proper Books had not fallen in my Way.”[1] The books on his family’s shelves were mostly in “polemic Divinity,” he said, and as we know from how his life played out, Franklin’s inclinations tended more toward physics than metaphysics. To make up for the absence of useful reading in his own home, Franklin borrowed books, read widely, and famously practiced writing based on articles in the news journal, The Spectator. At merely thirteen years old, Franklin entered the printing world himself in his brother’s printshop.

Eager to bring Britain’s (especially London’s) cosmopolitan culture to Boston, the Franklin brothers set out to use James Franklin’s printing house and especially his New-England Courant to set a higher standard for learning and culture in Boston. James Franklin also used the Courant to test the limits of press freedom in Boston. (He discovered there wasn’t much, and he was jailed for a month for contempt of court.[2] Benjamin became the publisher while James was in jail, and he published in the newspaper—in case people might like to borrow or buy them—a list of books available in the Courant’s printshop. The books in Franklin’s list suggest the worldliness of the Franklin press, and they indicate the brothers’ interest in views of political freedom being articulated and published in Britain. Indeed, the list provides invaluable insight into the worldly design behind the newspaper and its publishers and friends.

Benjamin Franklin: Empire Man or Radical Political Theorist?


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