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


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 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


Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers


Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers

I am finishing a history of antebellum black politics, a little-studied topic for which many of the usual sources are unavailable: white politicians did not record their correspondence with black men, and the latter rarely donated personal papers to libraries, for obvious reasons. However, America’s Historical Newspapers (AHN), used with precision, can produce extraordinary insights into the quotidian fabric of American politics and culture, evidence otherwise unavailable. 

Three examples illustrate its unique capacities.  First, AHN can be extremely productive in combination with another archival base—the decennial manuscript census of the U.S. The latter can be searched online to locate name, state, county, and municipality going back to 1790 (I use archives.com, but there are other genealogical databases).  Prior to 1850, the information is very limited, in that only heads of households were named, with numbers of household members distributed by sex and age range; race is indicated in various ways. Starting in 1850, however, much more information is available: full names of all family members, house numbers, exact ages, employment, real property, literacy, place of birth, and more. The census, combined with hundreds of individual name searches in AHN, has allowed me to construct a prosopography of the black political class in Portland, Maine; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

Excavating Antebellum Black Politics via America’s Historical Newspapers


The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance

In August 1799, as partisan antagonism heated up in advance of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election, the Republican press worked hard to paint the Federalist establishment in the colors of an imperial court. Drawing comparisons with Caesar’s Rome, these newspapers pointed out that leading figures in the political and business elites of the new nation were tied to each other by more than just their shared social position.

“General Hamilton,” wrote a correspondent to the New London Bee, “is married to the daughter of Gen. Schuyler, of New York sister of Mrs. Church. Mr. Church then called Carter, was co-contractor in the army with col. Wadsworth, both of whom made great fortunes by the war. And the son of Mr. C.,” the writer went on, “is about to marry the daughter of Mr. Bingham of Philadelphia, the federal Senator. Thus are our advocates for war cemented together.”

The article was soon reprinted in the Philadelphia Aurora. Its message was clear: if the Quasi-War with France were to escalate, as men like Hamilton seemed to wish, it would be ordinary folk doing the fighting and the dying, while the Federalist aristocracy would be the ones to benefit.

The Mysterious Mr. Carter: Transatlantic Adventures in Early American Finance


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