At some point during the first decade of 2000s, I went to see Hall and Oates at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. They were on a tour to promote a Christmas music album they released earlier that year, but I don’t think I knew that and I don’t know that many people in the audience did either. I went there to see Sarah Smile performed live, just like everyone else. When they were about to start their fifth consecutive Christmas folk song of the night, the entire theater whined in unison, and Daryl Hall was not amused. A known curmudgeon, he motioned for the band to stop playing before he disembarked the clown car of complaints about the esthetic and operational state of the theater. He said that he had seen quite a few such old auditoriums, that the one we were all together in at that moment was one of the most beautiful, and what a shame for the current owners not to value its charm and elegance. Continue reading Sold for a song
I truly went down a rabbit hole recently, and all the credit goes to NEHGS’s Chief Genealogist, David Allen Lambert. He recently reported in Vita Brevis that his second academic sabbatical was spent transcribing the 1800 “Taking Books” (tax records) for Suffolk County, Massachusetts. I commented then that I looked forward to checking out this new database, and recently I got around to doing so.
I’d already discovered my ancestor, George Athearn, in Boston city directories for 1798, 1800, 1803, 1805, 1806, and 1807, but it was still fun to check out his entry in the Taking Books. I noted wryly that his surname and that of his business partner, Stephen Fales, were both misspelled; additional notes were “Merch[an]t: ½ Store on Spears W[harf], partners w[ith] Fails, Large Ho[use]” with real estate valued at $3,000. Continue reading Curiouser and curiouser
I am not sure where my fascination with the personal histories of American presidents began. Maybe it was the long road trip I took with my family in 2003 when we listened to David McCullough’s John Adams on audio book or my earliest visits to Washington, D.C. and Mount Vernon when I was even younger.
I do remember that after that road trip, I demanded a visit to Quincy to visit Adams National Historic Park and Peacefield. This spark of curiosity came full circle in the summer of 2016 when I was a graduate fellow at United First Parish Church in Quincy, aka the Church of the Presidents, the final resting place of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams. Continue reading Presidents’ Day reflections
Some years ago I was looking through a set of books that had been given to me by my wife’s grandmother. They were pictorial and history volumes relating events of the Civil War. This set was a memorial published 50 years after the war, in 1911, and there are hundreds of photographs in the ten volumes, many of which were taken by famed photographer Mathew Brady. While most of the pictures were interesting, there was one that immediately captured my attention. It was a photo of General Ulysses S. Grant and his staff just prior to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. The caption below the picture reads in part “… the Articles of Surrender which reunited a nation were inscribed in the handwriting of a descendant of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Indians of New York State.” I was astonished. None of the history books or teachers that I had ever mentioned that the articles of surrender at Appomattox had been penned by a full-blooded American Indian. I was also curious about how this came to be. Who was this person? I was determined to learn more. Continue reading The last Grand Sachem
The life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary, has penetrated the wider public consciousness ever since the release of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical.
The musical touts Hamilton’s connection to his adopted home, New York City, and in truth his name is found on streets and buildings across Manhattan. Meanwhile, though Boston was a stronghold of his fellow Federalists, Hamilton did not spend much time in the city during his lifetime. As such it is peculiar that his statue can be found on the Commonwealth Mall in Boston’s Back Bay. Continue reading ‘The first of their fellow citizens’
When writing my last post, I missed an event that Granduncle Fred (Ross W. McCurdy, that’s for you!) mentioned briefly in the many notes he had made. While Fred was “hoboing” his way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, he and his pals happened to be sitting on a coal car in the freight yard at Marion, Ohio, when the body of 29th U.S. President Warren G. Harding arrived for burial in Marion, Harding’s hometown. The President had died suddenly on 2 August 1923 at age 57 while on a speaking tour to San Francisco. Seeing “the entire train draped with black bunting” was a somber moment for Fred and his companions. Continue reading Back to the sea
Over a year ago I wrote a Vita Brevis post about my great-great-great-grandfather, James O’Neil, who successfully sued the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for the wrongful death of his daughter, Emily O’Neil. I had only recently learned that James had three children in Vermont before moving to Boston in the early 1870s: Mary Ellen (1864), Arthur Michael (1866), and Emily Ann (1867). Continue reading James O’Neil revisited
[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 9 September 2016.]
One of the trends in my ancestry is the curious one whereby, when given the choice between staying in a locale or moving on, my nineteenth-century forebears often remained behind as other relatives ventured further west. One of the sadder family stories is covered in the 1999 book Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California, by Albert L. Hurtado, and concerns my great-great-great-uncle John Henry Beeckman (1818–1850).
Uncle John was the eldest son of Henry Beeckman and Catherine McPhaedris Livingston, and the family was a prosperous one in the days before the Civil War. That they were socially acceptable to New Yorkers and Virginians alike is suggested by the fact that John H. Beeckman married Margaret Gardiner in 1848 at the Virginia plantation of the bride’s brother-in-law, former President John Tyler. Still, John Beeckman was a young man, fired up by the discovery of gold in California, and in 1849 he left bride and newborn son to travel west. Continue reading ICYMI: Lost generations
The recent acquisition of a 1947 photograph of the mezzo-soprano Dorothy Dow playing Susan B. Anthony made me think about how historic figures have been represented on stage and in film – and, thus, in the still photographs that capture moments in these productions. In most cases, inevitably, the production choices reflect the date of the production as much as the purported date of the action. This example, by Carl Van Vechten, tells us as much about Van Vechten as it does Susan B. Anthony. While the setting is presumably the stage set for a scene in the opera, the lighting and even the backdrop belong in the photographer’s own studio. Continue reading Artistic imposture
While the obsequies associated with President Lincoln’s death and burial continued into May 1865, Regina Shober Gray’s thoughts turned to other subjects as well. It would also seem that the Shober gift for descriptive writing was present in at least one of the diarist’s sisters.
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Thursday, 4 May 1865: This day no doubt the weary, restless, and unparalleled funeral march for our beloved President ends in the sealed silence of the tomb, and mortal eyes have looked their last of earth upon the martyred statesman & patriot. At last he rests in peace forevermore, emphatically alone in the glory and the gloom of his immortal story. For where in all history shall we find a man risen from the very people, untrained in the “learning of the schools,” unpolished by the habitude of cultivated society, who could have so nobly acquitted himself in the high station to which God, and the people God-guided, called this true patriot and humbleminded Christian, this far seeing, cautious, yet tenacious statesman, this genial-hearted and merciful man? Continue reading ‘The glory and the gloom’