Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold

When I began work on a history of American counterfeiting between the Revolution and the Civil War, I was faced with some peculiar research problems. With a few rare exceptions, counterfeiting during this period was a crime that was not prosecuted by federal authorities. The problem was instead left to state and local law enforcement officials who were often outnumbered and incompetent. This was partly a consequence of the fact that the paper money in circulation originated not with the federal government, but with hundreds of state-chartered banks. But it was also a reflection of the relative weakness of the federal government's policing.

And therein lay a serious problem, not only for the police of the day, but for the historian who would attempt to reconstruct this kind of criminal activity. Counterfeiting involved vast numbers of players spread out across state and even national lines. This meant that local law enforcement officials often operated in the dark as to the scope and scale of the network of manufacturers, distributors, retailers and passers of bogus bills. Local law enforcement records—what few have survived—often provide but a fleeting snapshot of an individual counterfeiter who typically posted bail and fled, never to be seen again. What, then, is a historian to do, particularly a historian who wants to reconstruct the entire criminal careers of some of these colorful individuals?

The Digital Detective: Tracking Criminals When the Trail Runs Cold


Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?

When I set out to write a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man known by the informal title of "Commodore," I faced one mystery after another. Even though he was one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in American history, he conducted most of his operations in secret. He left no diary, no collection of papers, and carried out many transactions orally, without committing them to paper. But perhaps no period of his life was more bewildering than the Civil War.

Congress bequeathed a gold medal upon the Commodore for donating his largest steamship (the Vanderbilt) to the Union navy—but he did so only after leasing it to the War Department for many weeks, until the bill reached $300,000, nearly a third of what it cost to build. He refused to take any compensation when he organized a massive flotilla to transport an expedition to New Orleans led by General Nathaniel Banks—yet the press was scandalized by stories of decrepit, unseaworthy vessels that he hired for the fleet. It was said that Vanderbilt used an agent who extracted outrageous commissions from shipowners, suggesting the Commodore had received some of the gains as well.

Was Vanderbilt a noble patriot, or a war profiteer? Most histories of the period that mention him list him as an example of the latter, alongside men who sold the government rotten shoes and shoddy uniforms that fell apart in the first rain. Yet Vanderbilt named two of his sons after national heroes (William Henry Harrison and George Washington), and seems to have taken great pride in his country.

Commodore Vanderbilt: Patriot or War Profiteer?


Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers

Among the various types of writing in early-20th century Hispanic American immigrant newspapers was a genre essential in forming and reinforcing the attitudes of Hispanic communities. It was the crónica, or chronicle, a short, weekly column that humorously and satirically commented on current topics and social habits. In Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the crónica had already been cultivated extensively and had helped to define national identity over the course of the 19th century.

In America, however, the crónica came to serve purposes never imagined in Mexico or Spain. From Los Angeles to San Antonio and even up to Chicago, Mexican moralists assumed pseudonyms (in keeping with the tradition of the crónica) and, from this masked perspective, wrote scathing satirical commentaries in the first person. As witnesses to both American and Mexican culture, the cronistas were greatly influenced by popular jokes, anecdotes and speech, and in general, their columns were a mirror of the surrounding social environment.

Cronistas battled with religious fervor to protect Spanish language and Mexican culture against what they saw as Anglo Saxon immorality. This was done not from the bully pulpit but rather through sly humor and a burlesque of fictional characters.

Cultural Conflict and the Battle of the Sexes in Hispanic American Newspapers


Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox

When I began work several years ago on my in-progress biography of William Fox (1879–1952), founder of Twentieth Century Fox, I knew I was in for trouble. Although Fox was arguably the most important of all the early movie moguls because of his foundational contributions to the art, technology and business of movies, he seemed to have largely disappeared from history. No serious biography of him yet existed, and most movie history overviews made only scant, passing reference to him. Personal papers? Fox left none. Studio archives? Successive management regimes threw away almost everything except minutiae from Fox's regime—keeping extras' contracts and the like, but none of the founder's correspondence or business files. As if all that weren't bad enough, the general field of early film history, especially from 1900 through the mid-1920s when Fox was highly active, was woefully under-cultivated. No wonder no one had ever written a William Fox biography.

Searching for the Forgotten Movie Mogul: William Fox, Founder of Twentieth Century Fox


Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America

The consumer behavior of 18th-century Americans has been well-documented in regard to tastes in clothing and furniture, the social acts of dining and tea drinking, and pursuits such as book buying. Benjamin Franklin, for example, records how he purchased a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress as a young man, then later sold it to buy Burton's Historical Collections from one of Boston's numerous booksellers. Yet in comparison to the study of early Americans' literary purchases, few efforts have attempted to understand how Americans acquired cartographic products, or what choices the market offered. My research has focused on determining the composition of the map trade, the vendors involved and the availability of their products, including maps, charts, atlases and globes.

Trade with England and Western Europe supplied many of the manufactured goods that populated the colonial American economy. Among those goods were prints, books and maps that appeared in prodigious numbers in American marketplaces. Several types of sources record the inventory and sale of maps, charts, atlases and globes. Account books and correspondence between merchants and their customers can be fruitful, albeit labor-intensive, avenues of inquiry in manuscript repositories. The printed catalogues of booksellers, only a handful of which include cartographic products, also offer a narrow window on the market. Far more numerous than those research staples—and now far more accessible—are early American newspapers. Advertisements and notices from newspapers provide indispensable documentation of the map trade, and America's Historical Newspapers, part of the Readex Archive of Americana, greatly facilitates the task of locating that evidence.

Assessing the Map Trade in 18th-Century America


Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism

The Golden Age of America's founding was also the gutter age of American journalism. It seems a remarkable paradox. And the Founding Fathers were both the perpetrators and the victims of this brand of journalism.

The Declaration of Independence was literature, but the New England Courant talked trash.

The Constitution of the United States was philosophy, but the Boston Gazette slung mud.

Its chief mud-slinger was Samuel Adams, whose name has become far more credible as a brand of beer than it ever was as a brand of reporting. Adams wanted the colonies to be free from British rule—legislatively if possible, militarily if need be. And toward that end he not only wrote lies about egregious behavior on the part of British soldiers and diplomats stationed in Boston, behavior that never happened, but urged violence to punish them.

In at least two cases, the violence was carried out: against Andrew Oliver, who was appointed to collect taxes in Boston under the Stamp Act, and against Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whom Adams accused, falsely, of being one of the architects of the Stamp Act. Adams seems as well to have been one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party, and it was probably in the back room of the Boston Gazette that the colonial marauders applied their Indian makeup and took their bows to one another when the tea had been dumped into the harbor.

Other newspapers took their cue from Adams, the Pennsylvania Journal publishing a list of punitive measures being considered by Parliament in the wake of American opposition to the so-called Intolerable Acts. None of it was true; all of it was incendiary, Sam Adams-inspired journalism for the purpose of rousing public opinion, not reporting the facts.

Slinging Mud and Talking Trash: The Gutter Age of American Journalism


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