Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


A "Doubtful and Dangerous Practice": The 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, and Uncovering African Medical Knowledge in Early American Newspapers

In 1721, residents of Boston began to fall ill with smallpox, in what would become the city’s sixth such epidemic since 1630.  At this time, neither physicians nor laypeople conceptualized disease in terms of discrete entities such as germs or viruses; instead, they held that illness originated in physical imbalances, often caused by unhealthy environmental conditions or dietary choices.  Additionally, many colonists believed that illness was a divine judgment upon people that could be healed through prayer and repentance.  Consequently, Boston city leaders ordered 26 free Africans to wash the streets in hopes of preventing smallpox from spreading.  Their efforts were unsuccessful, for the disease infected over half of the city’s population of 11,000, eventually killing over 800 citizens in just over a year.

A "Doubtful and Dangerous Practice": The 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, and Uncovering African Medical Knowledge in Early American Newspapers


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


On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

If American history students can name any victim of the Boston Massacre, it is almost certainly Crispus Attucks. He became a symbol of African-American patriotism for the Abolitionists of the 1800s and for civil rights activists of the 1900s. Yet Attucks' name doesn't appear in the first newspaper reports about British soldiers shooting into a violent crowd on March 5, 1770. That's just one of the mysteries that students can explore by using the Archive of Americana to examine the Boston Massacre.

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In colonial Boston, some newspapers were published on Mondays and some on Thursdays. Because the shootings on King Street occurred on the evening of Monday, March 5, the first press reports didn't appear until Thursday, March 8. The Boston Chronicle stated that among the dead was "A Mollatto man named, Johnson."

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The same day's Boston News-Letter provided more information about this victim:

A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.

On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre


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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