Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook

On October 16, 1859, the white abolitionist John Brown and 21 followers attacked the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an event that secured Brown a place in the hall of iconic American personalities and which, paradoxically, obscured the men who sacrificed with him. Indeed, while volumes have been filled about Brown, there is a serious dearth of information surrounding his band of militants, so much so that many students might believe Brown acted alone. One such militant in particular was so invaluable to Brown’s campaign that it would be historically ignorant to overlook him.

John E. Cook.
Image source: green-wood.com

His name was Captain John E. Cook, brother-in-law of Indiana Governor A.P. Willard, poet, womanizer, respected abolitionist—and if it weren’t for the Afro-American Imprints collection—a continued mystery for myself and others. A Readex Archive of Americana collection, Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia is an enormous archive of important documents relating to the African-American literary and cultural experience. The collection represents more than just a compendium of slave narratives; it is a gateway to a hidden cultural past shared by slaves, freemen, abolitionists, slave owners, writers and activists. It should truly serve as the logical starting point to any scholarly inquiry related to pre-20th century African-American studies.

Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook


The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star

From late 1877 until his death in early 1895, Frederick Douglass was the most prominent resident of Anacostia, the historic area located in Washington, D.C.’s Southeast quadrant. An internationally known writer, lecturer, newspaper editor, and social reformer, Douglass was a man of his neighborhood. He spoke regularly at nearby churches, invested in the area’s first street car line, and opened his Victorian mansion, Cedar Hill, to students from Howard University, where Douglass served on the Board of Trustees. Douglass’s many contributions to Washington, D.C. have been overlooked for too long.

With the digitization of the Washington Evening Star, researchers can now systemically track the growth of Anacostia, which became D.C.’s first subdivision in 1854, and the life and times of Frederick Douglass in the nation’s capital. Douglass moved from Rochester, New York, to Washington, D.C. in the early 1870s to publish and edit The New National Era, a weekly newspaper devoted to covering Reconstruction, the Republican Party, and black Washington.

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia (Washington, D.C.) as told in the Washington Evening Star


When Benjamin Franklin Came Home: A Look at the Media Coverage of His Return

In the late afternoon of July 12, 1785, Benjamin Franklin, along with his two grandsons, set out on the approximately 125-mile trip from his home in Passy to the port of Le Havre on the northern French coast. They arrived on July 18 and set sail for England on the morning of the 22nd. Landing at Southampton on the 24th, Franklin spent a few days, as he had throughout the trip, being entertained by friends, dignitaries, and various well-wishers. Finally, on July 28, they set sail for America. The passage was quite swift, with Captain Truxton’s ship, the London Packet, arriving in Philadelphia 48 days later on September 14. Franklin recorded the arrival in his diary: “My son-in-law came with a boat for us, we landed at Market Street wharf, where we were received by a crowd of people with huzzas, and accompanied with acclamations quite to my door. Found my family well.” [1]

Franklin's return to Philadelphia 1785

 

When Benjamin Franklin Came Home: A Look at the Media Coverage of His Return


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


“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


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


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


War of the Dictionaries

The Georgian brick building of the Merriam-Webster company on Federal Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is considered by some world headquarters of the English language.  Scholars, heads of state and judges alike often deem the Merriam-Webster dictionary the final authority in spelling, pronunciation and definition.  That standing is the outcome of winning a long-fought conflict over a century ago. The company’s founders were brothers George and Charles Merriam, young printers who settled in Springfield in 1831 to print and sell books.  Their shop specialized in school books, Bibles and, curiously, wall papers.  The second-floor presses produced titles stocked by stores in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
War of the Dictionaries


Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar

As a librarian, I love to recommend the perfect Boolean search phrase to unearth the exact documents wanted, but as a writer who digs up stories from America’s criminal past, I generally find myself using simple search phrases. This search strategy, however, does not mean that I conduct simple searches.

In seeking primary source material, I inevitably find myself trying to answer one or a combination of four basic questions: who? what? where? and when? (“how” and “why” are more the province of secondary sources). By combining these basic questions with knowledge of the peculiarities of how information in eighteenth-century America was published and distributed, I have a better chance of finding the information I need.

Who? In writing about crime in early America, I am interested in the lives of criminals, especially if they have a compelling story to tell. But early American sources can be frustrating in their lack of detail. The Boston News-Letter reports that in New York on June 9, 1718, “Three men are condemned here for Burglary and Felony and are to be Executed on Saturday next.” That is all. No names. No details. I can waste a lot of time in an attempt to track down more news reports about this execution, but I will find no more information than what is offered in this one newspaper.

Digging Up Crime Stories from America's Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar


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