Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Verses from Beyond the Grave

Thomas W. Piper was executed in Boston on May 26, 1876, concluding one of the city’s most sensational murder cases—the murder of five-year-old Mabel Young in the belfry of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church. It was the sort of dramatic story that had always inspired the poetry of Byron DeWolfe, who penned ballads on several New England murders. But DeWolfe died in 1873, two years before Mabel Young’s murder was committed, so it came as a bit of a shock when a poem written by Byron DeWolfe entitled “Verses Composed on the Confession and Execution of Thomas W. Piper, The Convicted Belfry Murderer” was published after the execution.

George Gordon Byron DeWolfe was known as “The Wandering Poet of New Hampshire.” Though he was born in Nova Scotia and spent much of his time traveling from state to state, DeWolfe called Nashua, New Hampshire, home. He wrote topical poetry about contemporary events and there was no subject too big or too small for Byron DeWolfe. His poems, printed in Boston as one-page broadsides and sold to the public, commemorated everything from a New Hampshire clambake to the assassination of President Lincoln. DeWolfe was also known as the “Steam-machine Poet” for the rapidity with which he wrote. Sometimes he would include the time it took to write the poem as all or part of the title, for example, “Verses, Given in Twenty Minutes,” and “The Great Eastern’s Coming. Composed in Forty-three Minutes.”

Verses from Beyond the Grave


Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion

When the ship Beaver departed New York harbor bound for the China coast in August 1808, the United States was fully embargoed. For over six months the country’s trade had been at a standstill, and all the ports idled. The livelihoods of America’s maritime workers had been sacrificed to the greater good by Jeffersonian Republicans, in the White House and the Congress, who hoped that an extreme form of commercial warfare—a wholesale ban on international trade—would force Great Britain and France to respect American neutrality without any shots fired.[1]

Though it sailed out as an exception to the embargo, the Beaver was no smuggler, and its owner, fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor, was no scofflaw—not this time, at least. The ship was one of the few granted official permission to sail beyond coastal waters—and in this case, that grant came from the President himself, Thomas Jefferson. How did the Beaver and Astor manage this good fortune, one that all the merchants and sailors in America languishing under the embargo desperately desired? The answer lies in the Beaver’s most important passenger: “Jefferson’s mandarin,” a man named Punqua Wingchong.[2]

Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion


Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley

In September 1872, Yung Wing escorted a delegation of young students from China to Springfield, Massachusetts, under the auspices of an unprecedented enterprise—the Chinese Educational Mission.  Wing’s all-male contingent attracted attention throughout the United States.  Rumors had circulated for months that in order to bring its isolated nation into the 19th century, the Chinese government would finance the American education of gifted children.  The Hartford Daily Courant (May 7, 1872, p. 5) explained that “Mr. Wing has finally…prevailed upon his government to select thirty boys each year for the next five years…through which China should be able to profit by an acquaintance with the ways of modern civilization.” 

Celestial Vision: China’s Scholars in the Connecticut Valley


“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics

 

One hundred and one years ago this past summer, American Indian athlete Jim Thorpe was acclaimed around the world for winning, by huge margins, both the classic pentathlon and the decathlon at the Fifth Olympiad in Stockholm. The King of Sweden famously declared him “the most wonderful athlete in the world.”

Six months later, on January 22, 1913, a newspaper scoop in The Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts revealed that Thorpe had played minor league professional baseball in 1909 and 1910. Back then, “professional” was a dirty word because it meant money had changed hands. Only “simon-pure” amateurs were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. Thorpe had signed the official International Olympic Committee (IOC) Entry Form, attesting that he had never played any sport for money and therefore qualified as an amateur.

At a time when so many organized sports were in their infancy, the ensuing reaction and repercussions, worldwide, would cause the Thorpe revelation to be dubbed the mother of all sports scandals. The modern Olympic movement was brand new; its first Olympiad had been in 1896. The identity and credibility of the struggling IOC as an amateur organization were seen to be at stake.

“The Great Upheaval”: Tracking Jim Thorpe’s Swift Fall from Grace after the 1912 Olympics


“A Family Newspaper”: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune

Though no one would have realized it at the time, October 17th 1866 was an auspicious date in the long history of the New Orleans Daily Picayune (founded in 1837). The city was recovering from Civil War: Federal troops still occupied the humbled “Queen of the South,” and political and racial tensions simmered, sometimes exploding into violence on the streets. In such a climate, the slight poem entitled “A Little Bunch of Roses” that appeared on the front page of the evening edition might have escaped the attention of some readers.

 

 

 

 

“A Family Newspaper”: Pearl Rivers and the Rebirth of the New Orleans Daily Picayune


The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success

Over the years, the Cardiff Giant has been called America's greatest hoax as well as the world's most successful scientific hoax. England's Piltdown Man—a purported evolutionary missing link—also lays claim to the latter distinction, but, really, in a head-to-head match, who's not going with a 10-foot, 3,000-pound giant?

Here's the story: In 1867, George Hull, a small-time rogue and avowed atheist from Binghamton, New York, got in a heated argument with a Methodist preacher, who maintained that every word in the Bible was literally true. Hull subsequently came up with a scheme to make pious Americans look like fools—and perhaps make himself some money along the way. Drawing inspiration from the passage in Genesis that “there were giants in the earth in those days,” Hull and his collaborators sculpted a giant out of a block of gypsum and staged its discovery on a relative's farm in Cardiff, New York.

 

The Tallest of the Tall Tales: Using Historical Newspapers to Unearth the Secrets of the Cardiff Giant's Success


Ford Fiasco: Tracking the Rise and Fall of the Edsel in American Newspaper Archives

Automotive sales tracker R. L. Polk & Co. recently announced that the Ford Focus was the best-selling passenger car in the world in 2012.  Impressive!

By contrast, Ford Motor Company’s ill-fated Edsel, sold for the 1958-1960 model years, is a dark icon of product failure even today.  Ford sunk $250 million into Edsel development; what on earth went wrong?

In 1948, Henry Ford II, Ford’s president and son of previous Ford president Edsel Ford, formed a committee to look into the viability of a new car in the expanding medium-priced segment of the automotive market.  General Motors, by far the largest of the Big Three auto makers, had Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick as entries in the medium-priced field, while Chrysler Corporation had Dodge, De Soto, and Chrysler.  Ford had only Mercury.

Ford Fiasco: Tracking the Rise and Fall of the Edsel in American Newspaper Archives


Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints

One of the challenges—but also one of the joys—of teaching classes on colonial American literature is that students often enter the classroom with few preconceived notions and little background knowledge in the period.  As my comments on my course evaluations have attested, students are often surprised to find that early American literary study involves not just the Puritans but also the study of authors of various genders and cultural and social backgrounds. Because most students have little prior exposure to early American literatures, my courses must address not only the content matter and themes of the texts but must also teach students to read texts written with unfamiliar literary strategies and for very different audiences than twenty-first century college students.  Early American Imprints, Series I (Evans) and II (Shaw-Shoemaker), offer a treasure trove of documents that introduce students not only to a wide range of texts and topics but also to research skills necessary to study in the Humanities.

Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints


Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice

When researching a topic such as the history of eighteenth-century hymnbooks, databases such as America’s Historical Imprints can greatly enhance access to rare materials, but I recently found that research questions also lurk in the digital archive.  Out of curiosity, I did a search for materials listing Isaac Watts (the century’s most popular hymn writer, starting in 1707) as an author in Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800, to see how early an American edition of Watts would be available in images.  The literature on American hymnody had led me to expect one or two printings in the 1720s, a few more in the 1730s, and an explosion in the 1740s in the wake of the Great Awakening.  My search, however, returned hits going back into the 1710s—with Cotton Mather listed as the author!  I was prepared for the bibliographies to miss a few titles, but how could the database think that Mather had written Watts’s hymns?  By the time I had answered this question, I was well on my way to an article.[i]
Hymns Without Hymnbooks: Tracking a “Late Puritan” Practice


The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers

Visiting archives to view old documents can stir strange emotions. Handling manuscripts, the historian sees not only the private words of someone else but even a physical presence: the quiver of an elderly hand, the smudge of a young thumb, the jagged strokes of impatient fingers flying across a page during a few minutes of leisure. Reading old books, likewise, the historian sees not just printed words but also their readers, folding down page corners or arguing in the margins—or, in one case I found, pressing maple leaves in the fashion pages of Harper’s Magazine. This intimacy is unpredictable, like contact with living people.

Digitized sources, on the other hand, are uniquely democratic. They are available to researchers working from far away, and they lower barriers in other ways—allowing a scholar, for example, to quickly search mountains of text for a particular phrase, reducing the advantage of veterans who have spent years studying the same documents. The ease of manipulating digital sources makes it possible to study large subject populations and great periods of time. For this, we owe digital repositories a great debt. But it sometimes can be harder to feel the life in digital sources. They do not necessarily make it easy to understand the text as something fashioned and received by living people.

The Resignation of John Russwurm: Individual Lives in Early American Newspapers


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