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The Spanish-American War was the first U.S. war to implement still photography and motion picture film as essential media for recording the conflict. While the American Civil War was heavily photographed, the Spanish-American War saw an expansion of photographic formats to support a multitude of agendas, from primary documentation to systematic propaganda. Newspapers introduced provocative photojournalism as a way drum up interest, increase sales, and exert influence. The U.S. government also recognized photography as a key instrument in re-affirming the justification for war, swaying public opinion and encouraging nationalistic spirit. While the actual conflict did not last long, it did provide a conspicuous stage for the U.S. to flex its military muscle and establish itself as a political, economic, and military power for the 20th century. Publishers, such as the Pearson Company, recognized the profit potential in offering pictorial volumes to the public that illustrated a confident and progressive U.S.

In one magazine review the “Photographic History Of The Spanish-American War” publication was described as:

“a sumptuous volume containing a very full pictorial and descriptive record of events on land and sea with portraits and (brief) biographies of leaders on both sides. After looking carefully through these 335 large pages, one has a broad, full and at the same time compact knowledge of the countries and cities, the ships, munitions of war, “Jackies” and soldiers, as well as all the prominent leaders,—civil, military and naval—on both sides, in the ” late unpleasantness.” The illustrations are finely executed and five maps add to our knowledge of all our recently acquired territories. The make-up of this choice and timely work is admirable every way.”

The publishers themesleves did not hold back on expressing their own patriotic fervor.

To begin with, it was a noble and righteous struggle, entered upon mainly through motives of humanity; for, while injury to trade may have afforded sufficient provocation, it must be remembered that it was the startling revelation of Spanish cruelty in Cuba which finally aroused the people, and through them the Congress of the United States, to declare for armed intervention…These photographs, with their accompanying descriptions, therefore constitute a moving panorama of the conflict as though, with ear to telephone, one watched the struggle from some distant height; and the record thus preserved of a truly glorious war will prove, to both participants and onlookers and those who come after them, a most fitting, beautiful, and enduring memento for personal possession and study.


The Maxim Gun

The Awkward Squad

Fighting Tailors

Clara Barton

Exercises of Contortion


Photographic history of the Spanish-American War :a pictorial and descriptive record of events on land and sea with portraits and biographies of leaders on both sides. New York : Pearson Pub. Co., c1898.
Persistent Link:
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For centuries, giving flowers or bouquets has always been a common way to convey sentiments, such as love, celebration, sorrow, etc. This practice seems to be universal and can be found in traditional cultures throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The application of this practice is often called floriography, where a particular meaning has been assigned to specific flowers. The interest in the language of flowers really took off during the Victorian Era, where gifts of bouquets or arrangements were often sent as coded messages to the receiving party. With the repressive and restrictive nature of etiquette in Victorian society, flowers offered a way to express feelings that could not and should not be uttered aloud. If one was well versed in floriography, or had access to a printed floral dictionary by Sarah Carter Edgarton or Robert Tyas, he or she could translate the visual meaning and develop an ongoing secret “conversation”.

In his book, Flowers, Their Use and Beauty, Language and Sentiment, published in 1857, Arthur Freeling offers a resource for floriography with a comprehensive definition of terms, historical interpretations, and nuanced sentiments, to help participants build a sophisticated vocabulary of flowers.

After so many books have been published upon
the subject, it would, prima facie, appear almost
presumptuous to offer another to the public; but
a little consideration will prove that a book, or
that books are still wanting to give to Flowers their
full power and significance. The present is an
attempt not only to produce in one volume what
would be technically termed “a language,” and “a
poetry of flowers,” but also to give the mind of the
inquirer an association of ideas, by which he may
recal the Sentiment of which the Flower is the
emblem as soon as the flower is presented or seen…

As in all cases it is best to define the terms
used, we beg to inform the gentle reader that, for
the sake of uniformity, at the head of each Flower
we have employed the term Sentiment, to indicate
the passion, thought, sentiment, or expression of
which a Flower may be the emblem ; for instance,
the Variegated Tulip is the emblem of Beautiful
Eyes. It appears thus in our book:—
Name of the Flower.—The Variegated Tulip.
Sentiment.—Beautiful Eyes.

With bouquets, one can put together a combination of flowers to form a more sophisticated sentiment, analogous to using words to form poetry or prose. For example, put together: peach blossom, box, cypress and marigold, carnation and lily of the valley and you would express the following sentiment:

“I am your Captive, but your Stoicism drives me to Despair; give me your Love and Return me to Happiness”

…or put together the geranium, water lily, harebell, cypress and marygold, lupine, golden rod, hawthorn, allspice, and red rose to articulate this overwrought sentiment:

“Your Preference would Purify my Heart, but your Apathy and Disdain consign me to Grief, Dejection and Despair; Encourage me by thy Benevolence and give me a Token of Hope. My Love is Incorruptible.

Arthur Freeling provides lengthy historical background for his individual floral entries. For example, the Hydrangea as a symbol of heartlessness.


The origin of this idea is not so easily
ascertained as many of those which
we shall have to notice; it seems,
however, to arise from the fact that it gives
very much larger expectation of, and therefore
hope for, perfect flowers, than it ever
realizes, as the plant is distinguished above
all others for its number of abortive flowers
in this degree, therefore, it is a fit emblem
of those heartless wretches of the coquette
species (man or woman), whose glory it is
to raise hopes which they never intend to
realise, without any regard for that “blight
of the heart,” which, if survived, is, we believe,
from much observation, a greater creator,
than callousness of feeling, of those interesting
singularities, “old maids;”…


Freeling, Arthur. Flowers :their use and beauty in language and sentiment. London : Darton and Co., 1851.
Persistent Link:
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Harvard University


Mayo, Sarah C. Edgarton. The flower vase :containing the language of flowers and their poetic sentiments. Lowell : Powers and Bagley, 1844.
Persistent Link:
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Tyas, Robert. The hand-book of the language & sentiment of flowers :containing the name of every flower to which a sentiment has been assigned. With introductory observations. New York : J. Langley, 1844.
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Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) is well known for his cartoons of zany convoluted contraptions offering unnecessary complex solutions for carrying out simple tasks. His work becoming so well known in early 20th century that his own name became an entry in dictionaries by 1931. The first of his invention series was printed in 1914 and involved an “Automatic Weight Reducing Machine”. These comical inventions appeared once or twice a month in syndicated newspapers and captured the public’s interest. Before creating this popular cartoon genre that eventually became his signature style, he created a series of popular one panel comics entitled “Foolish Question” in 1908. It is estimated that he did a staggering 50,000 cartoons in his lifetime.

Foolish Questions was a long-running newspaper single-panel comic in which people ask ‘foolish’ questions and are given sarcastic answers. It appeared in the New York Evening Mail and became so popular, that the readers starting sending in their own questions for Goldberg to answer. Goldberg observed a universality of human stupidity with people generally asking dumb or pointless questions when they already knew the answer. After gaining a popular readership, a hardcover compilation of Foolish Questions was published 1909, being one of the very first cartoon collections published in America.

This compilation of Goldberg’s foolish question comic was a crowd-pleaser, but it was not appreciated by all. There were surprising number of naysayers, partially taking aim at Goldberg’s work but also towards comics as an artform.

“R. L. Goldberg’s illustrated “Foolish Questions” may have been amusing when issued singly in the daily press, but thrust upon one en masse they become nauseating. Which reminds us why do American humorists, alleged an otherwise, adhere to one wretched theme until it is worn to a frazzle? Is it a test of endurance—for the public?”  The Bellman 1909

“Some of them are very funny, but a long array palls on the mind. The illustrations are funny because they are so atrociously drawn by a man who could not do any better if he tried. Now, that really is not funny at all. It is sad! However, this book is bound to sell well because it is drawn and written right to the level of the average intelligence of the great People.”  Overland Monthly, 1909


Goldberg, Rube. Foolish questions. Boston : Small, Maynard, c1909.
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William Allen (1793–1864) was a British naval officer, explorer, musician, artist, and anti-slavery activist, who published works on his various expeditions to Africa and the Middle East, as well as presenting his own strategy for ending the slave trade. Under the auspices of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa, Allen published A Narrative of the Expedition sent by H.M.’s Government to the River Niger in 1841, following up on his earlier pictorial publication, Picturesque views on the river Niger. Allen described these particular expeditions as “desirable for nobler ends than the acquisition of wealth”, with a pledge to help eradicate the persistent and pervasive slave trade network. In 1846 he published a pamphlet on ‘Mutual Improvement,’ a Utopian-like recipe for moral development and social compassion. In 1849, his Plan for the immediate Extinction of the Slave Trade, for the Relief of the West India Colonies was a provocative scheme to have slave-dependent nations transition their slaves into short-term binding apprenticeships with fixed end-dates for release and economic freedom. Allen also traveled through Syria and Palestine, and published these results in The Dead Sea, a New Route to India, with other Fragments and Gleanings in the East, in which he promoted the construction of a canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea.

William Allen–

Those, however, who watched with intense anxiety the increasing horrors of the Slave Trade, and who saw that the means were ineffectual which had hitherto been employed for its extinction, believed, nevertheless, that a way was providentially opened to the very source of the evil. An enlightened Government, adopting the views of these philanthropists, readily consented to send an Expedition, composed of three iron men-of-war steam-vessels, up the River Niger, with Commissioners charged by Her Majesty to make treaties with the native chiefs for the suppression of this horrible traffic ; and to point out to them the advantages they will derive, if, instead of the wars and aggressions to which it gives rise, they will substitute an innocent and a legitimate commerce.

This mission of Peace and Charity —which will redound so much to the true glory of this country is on the eve of departure; and the deep interest on behalf of Africa—which has never been extinguished in humane minds,—will thus derive a fresh stimulus, and a more general participation.

The extended cultivation of the soil of Africa, if unaccompanied with precautions against Slavery, may even aggravate and perpetuate this lamentable system : and every step towards extending and improving the resources of these countries may with them, as with Egypt, prove a step towards promoting and encouraging predial bondage. In short, our paramount object is to establish free labour cultivation, and to prove its superiority, thus providing wholesome and profitable occupation, and undermining the Slave Trade.

We followed in the pinnace, sheltered by a prodigious umbrella, of all the colours of the rainbow; with old Jowdie—a Doma slave, who had been purchased by Lander, and manumitted on his first journey,—seated in the bow, in the character of “ Saliki-n maikidi,” the chief of the drummers, the proudest of the proud. Not satisfied with a good drummer’s jacket, he covered himself with all the ornaments he could lay his hands on, and which were more remarkable fox variety than taste. He seemed, however, to think himself the most important person of the cortege, as he exerted his strength upon the sheepskin with considerable effect; though, with more noise than music, giving ample note of our approach.

I witnessed such a scene as is here represented, when the King of Attah sent a deputation to assure us of his friendly intentions, although he had threatened the inhabitants of the surrounding villages with his vengeance, if they supplied us with provisions ; whereby he nearly reduced us to a state of starvation. He moreover subsequently caused our interpreter, old Pasco, and two or three Krumen, to be poisoned. The principal man in the deputation delivered a very long speech, with great volubility, good action, and emphasis; as, however, it had to pass through two languages before I could understand it, all the poetry and flowers of rhetoric were lost in the double translation, especially as Pasco made a very lame affair of his English version.

He was, however, very civil, and his wife did the very polite thing, by calling on us attended by her handmaidens. She reduced me, however, to a very considerable dilemma, by throwing herself on her knees before me. As I could not call to mind that I had ever received such a mark of attention from any civilized lady of my acquaintance, nor even of having read of such a precedent in any code of gallantry, I was utterly at a loss how to perform my part; —whether to receive her with the dignity of an oriental, or to descend to my own marrowbones in imitation of her politeness. I steered a middle course, and raised her tenderly by the hand, whereat she and her sable and glossy nymphs laughed immoderately. She doubtless was a fascinating creature, though a little unwieldy withal. Her hands and feet were deeply tinged with henna, and her lovely eyes with antimony. Her hair—thickly plastered with indigo was enveloped in a sort of turban, and a country cloth encircled her waist with many graceful folds. I gratified her with a few trifling presents the principal object of her visit—and dismissed the rosy-footed channel’, apparently well pleased with her visit.

It is difficult, with our prejudices, to appreciate the principles of fitness and taste, by which the architects of Africa are governed. From the unvarying style of the buildings, to which the lapse of ages has probably brought no improvement, one might imagine that they have been guided solely by animal instinct, and that they have never departed from the lesson first taught by nature. The houses are usually devoid of every qualification which we look for in a dwelling, with the exception of shelter from the sun and rain. No difference is found between the palace and the poor mans hut…The meals are always eaten in the open air, or under verandahs formed by the projecting thatch of the roof, where the master of the house luxuriates with his friends, sending forth volumes of smoke.


Allen, William. Picturesque views on the river Niger :sketched during Lander’s last visit in 1832-33, London : John Murray : Hodgson & Graves : Ackerman, 1840.
Persistent Link:
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Allen, William. A narrative of the expedition sent by Her Majesty’s government to the river Niger, in 1841 :under the command of Captain H. D. Trotter, R.N. London : R. Bentley, 1848.
Persistent Link:
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Harvard University


The friend of Africa. London : J.W. Parker, 1841-1843.
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Harvard University


W.L. (Waterman Lilly) Ormsby (1809-1883) was a notable engraver, particularly recognized for his dedication to the reformation of currency production. While he had some formal training, most of his skills were honed through hours of hands-on work and experimentation in his workshop. He invented several ruling machines and transfer presses for improving the process of steel engraving. In addition, he is usually credited for the redesign of the five-dollar bill. Outside of banking notes, he assisted Samuel Morse with his telegraphic alphabet and provided engravings for Samuel Colt’s revolvers. In the end, Ormsby’s most influential contribution to the engraving trade was his personal crusade to bring attention to the proliferation of counterfeiting schemes in the U.S. In 1852, Ormsby published an impressive work on bank note engraving, the most extensive to date, with a particular focus on flaws in the current bank system and recommendations on how to counteract currency counterfeiters.

The losses occasioned by Counterfeiting are already enormous; and, under the present system of Engraving, they must inevitably become greater. The multiplication of Banks, and the increase of dies and machinery, are rendering the business of Counterfeiting so easy and so safe, that its rapid increase will be inevitable. But few persons, whose attention has not been directed to the subject, are aware of the alarming extent to which this dangerous crime is now carried. Our Bank Note Detectors teem with cautionary notices and descriptions of counterfeits, alterations of denominations, and other kinds of Forgery, all of which can be distinctly traced to the system of Engraving now universally in use. This evil will go on till the paper currency of the country becomes worthless, unless some remedy, covering all the sources of danger, be adopted. 

There have never been, in the History of Banking, such vast quantities of counterfeit paper thrown upon the community as at this period. The Engraved Plates of more than two thirds of the Banks in this country have been so successfully and fraudulently imitated, that few persons are enabled to discriminate between the genuine and the false paper.


Ormsby also sent a personal copy of his book to President-Elect Franklin Pierce, hoping to gain national support.

Dear Sir:
Allow me to present you with a copy of my late work on Bank Note Engraving which will explain the cause of the vast amount of counterfeiting in this country. This is the first publication on this subject, and it is daily growing more and more important to every person in the community. I beg permission to call on you, at some future time, when my plans for constructing bank notes to prevent forgery are mature, that I may have an opportunity of convincing you of the utter insecurity of our present paper money, and the necessity of Legislative action on the subject. At present I will only ask your attention to the important requisites of a Bank Note which constitute its value – there are but two – first that the Bank be good – second that the note be genuine. The people loose (sic) more by counterfeiting money than by broken banks.

Ironically, Ormsby’s own character and reputation came into question several times for involvement in counterfeiting schemes and banking frauds. While he was never convicted of any wrongdoing, he was either conveniently ignorant or complicit. According to the New York Times, the Mercantile Agency claimed that Ormsby was “in the habit of engraving for any casual applicant for plates without inquiring into his character or the object for which the plates were to be used, and in this way he engraved counterfeit plates on a number of banks in this and other States”.  As the foremost authority on techniques for currency engraving and how counterfeiters circumvent security measures, his motivations in these corrupt activities remain unsettled.


New England Bank Note Company embellishments easily copied

bank notes: the first and last were copied from genuine dies by Ormsby’s studio

the geometric lathe work denominations

Ormsby, W. L. A description of the present system of bank note engraving, showing its tendency to facilitate counterfeiting :to which is added a new method of constructing bank notes to prevent forgery. New York : W.L. Ormsby ; London : Willoughby, 1852.
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University


The first and second bombs fell on the Tower, reducing
it half to ruins ; they were of the largest kind,
and terribly effective instruments. Meanwhile the
quick-firing guns played havoc at all points of the
compass. But the worst was to come. As we rode
over the heart of the City—that sanctum of capital,
where the Bank of England, many other banks of
scarcely less brilliant fame, the Royal Exchange,
Stock Exchange, with credit companies, insurance
offices, and discount houses innumerable lie herded
—the bombs fell in a tempest, shattering fabric after
fabric, and uprooting their very foundations. There
was a constant roar of explosions, and the loss of life
must have been something terrible.

Acts of terrorism in the modern age can be historically traced back to the anarchists of the late 19th century. The anarchist movement developed and carried out a number of acts of violence, from random bombings to targeted assassinations. The world’s newspapers would record these events, but sometimes in a banal fashion with minimal elaboration, as if it were unexceptional.

A foreign Anarchist was blown up at Greenwich by an explosive with which, it is supposed, he intended to wreck the Observatory; the bomb-outrage by Emile Henry at the Hotel Terminus, Paris, is said to have been part of a vast Anarchist plot.  —New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 16 Feb. 1894.

Amidst this wave of anarchist violence in Europe, Edward Douglas Fawcett published his futuristic science fiction novel, Hartmann the Anarchist. Edward Douglas Fawcett, only 17 years old when he wrote this story in 1892, tells the tale of an anarchist revolution set in a future European world of 1920. The novel is narrated by a socialist, named Stanley, who provides a journalist-like account of the exploits of Rudolph Hartmann, an anarchist presumed dead after he botched an attack on the Westminster Bridge, resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders. In actuality, Hartmann survived and has now plotted a major attack on European capitals, beginning with London. To meet his evil purpose, Hartmann developed an electrically powered flying machine, named Attila, to drop dynamite bombs on prominent targets such as the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

During the violent engagement, Stanley described the chaos.

The wretched victims were fighting for the 
blocked gates and outlets like creatures possessed,
bloody gaps opened and shut in their midst, and
heaps of butchered and trampled bodies tripped up
the frantic survivors in batches as they ran. The din
was simply unearthly ; the picture as a whole 
indescribable, not being set off by two or three easily
detachable features, but so compositely appalling in
its details as to baffle the deftest pen. It lingers still
vividly in my memory.

Eventually, Hartmann fails:

Despite the devastation he had caused, Hartmann
was very dissatisfied with the result. His vast outlay
of material had not effected the ruin of one-fifth part
of the great city, while in all probability the resources
of the Attila were becoming somewhat strained…
A flash that beggared the levin bolt, a crash
shattering the window-panes and deadening the car,
a shock hurling us both on our backs, broke the
utterance. Then thundered down a shower of massive
fragments, fragments of the vast ship whose decks I
had once trodden. Hartmann, dismayed with the
failure of his plans and rendered desperate by the
letter, had blown up the Attila.

Fawcett’s novel was not a major work and its influence was modest, especially in comparison to the contemporary works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Fawcett lived a very full and active life, continuing to write a few more sci-fi novels before turning his attention toward philosophical ideas, mountaineering, flying, and chess competitions.

Hartmann in his flying machine attacks London

The narrator escapes the Attila

Hartmann destroys his mighty Attila


Fawcett, E. Douglas. Hartmann the anarchist, or, The doom of the great city. London : Edward Arnold, 1893.
Persistent Link:
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owl 2

Napoleon Sarony (1821 – 1896) was a famous New York photographer and lithographer whose output was both prodigious and imaginative. Today, he is mostly remembered as a portrait photographer and particularly for his original portraits of literary and cultural figures from the late-19th-century, including such icons as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, and Sarah Bernhardt. In addition to his artistic and technical skills, he was also a clever and prosperous businessman, being one of the first photographers to start paying celebrities to pose for him and then securing the rights to sell their photos for his own profit. In fact, he was the first to successfully defend a photographer’s right to claim copyright protection for his own photographic work, eventually winning a controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision. Sarony was also one of New York’s favorite eccentrics of the 19th century, typically seen strutting around town in a full hussars uniform. He was easily recognized for his ostentatious mustache and goatee and uncanny resemblance to Emperor Napoleon III.

According to Tchaikovsky:

“I never came across such a droll fellow. He is a parody of Napoleon III. He turned me round and round while he looked for the best side of my face. Then he developed rather a tedious theory of the best side of the face. Finally I was photographed in every conceivable position, during which the old man entertained me with all kinds of mechanical toys.”

Sarony was appreciated for his dedication to his craft, using inventive and dynamic backgrounds and posing his subjects with more naturalism and spontaneity than his contemporaries. He was quoted as saying “a picture requires the use of all the art the photographer commands. It must be taken at the moment the subject is unconscious, and at his best.”

Sarony’s celebrated photographs overshadow his work as lithographer. However, he was equally talented with that medium as well, producing lithographs for noted publishers such as Nathaniel Currier. He contributed his own creative lithographic work to accompany a new compilation of the Grimm brothers, entitled “The Fairy Ring”, in 1849.



A collection of Sarony’s photographic work held at Harvard can be searched and viewed below:


The fairy ring :a new collection of popular tales for 1849. New York : E. Kearny, 1849.
Persistent Link:
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Harvard University


Sporting periodicals began sprouting up in the latter half of the 19th century in direct response to an increased participation in both amateur and professional level sports. The growth in sports in America during the 19th century was spurred on by many factors, such as increased leisure time, improvements in the standard of living, as well as the overall shifting populations, mostly from the emancipated African Americans and the large influx of immigrants from Europe. Sports during this period (and even afterwards) offered a pseudo-safe haven for the disenfranchised members of society, allowing participants the ability to circumvent or rise above some of challenges of discrimination, societal mores, and other prejudices through merit and achievement. Beyond the growing working class and immigrants, there were other factors contributing to the rise of sports in America. Daily newspapers, cheaper printing methods, and telegraphy, all helped to disseminate and publicize national sporting news. Some of the sports we recognize today, baseball, football, boxing, track and field were starting to see a steady increase in event attendances. Even an occasional horse race, with an acclaimed thoroughbred, might be big news and attract some fifty thousand people. America’s first sporting magazine appeared in the second decade of the nineteenth century, but the large majority were established and published by the end of the century. In this rare pocket booklet from 1894, the Boston publisher Franklin K. Lanpher offered an annual sporting manual that recognized the great achievements in sports, cited official records, documented current rules, and offered other anecdotal information.

Some advice is given to the burgeoning athlete:

If one exercises till he is fatigued, he will
tear down and not build up. The muscles are
strengthened by moderate exertions and not
violent and fitful ones…Where the most heat is,
there is the most reduction. Fleshy persons
should keep the fattest parts of body covered
the most when exercising. Also wear a heavy
sweater. If feeling thirsty, gargle the throat
with cool water for a minute or two. Then
slowly drink a little.

In 1894, boxing was widely recognized as the premier world sporting event. This manual notes the achievements of prominent pugilist, George Dixon, who was the first black world boxing champion in any weight class, as well as another black boxer, Peter Jackson, who fought champion James Corbett to a 61 round draw.

Jewish cyclist, Arthur Augustus Zimmerman, was considered one of the world’s greatest sprinting cyclist and became the winner of the first world championship in 1893.

In addition to many familiar sports, such as cycling, baseball, horse racing, rowing, and track and field, the manual also provides records for ocean steamships, trains, ice polo, bowling, and walking.

Some interesting nuggets:

  • Champion pedestrian C. A. Harriman was credited with holding the record for “walking without a rest” with 121 miles, 385 yards.
  • The system of scoring for football adopted in 1883. Scoring —Goal by touch-down, 6; goal from field-kick, 5; touch-down falling goal, 4; safety by opponents, 2.
  • The largest turnstile count was at the New York-Chicago game, at N. Y., June 30,1891 — 22,289. The smallest attendance was at Pittsburg, on September 26, 1890, when 23 people paid to see the game between the Pittsburg and Boston League teams.
  • Rope Climbing record —22 ft., by B. Stanford, from New York Athletic Club
  • Throwing Base Ball —369 ft. 2 in., by G. G. Russell, Aliens, Cambridge, June 9, 1893
The Champion pocket sporting manual. Boston, Mass. : F.K. Lanpher & Co.
Persistent Link:
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Harvard University


The Planchette, a French word for “little plank,” was a heart shaped piece of wood with wheels and a slot for holding a pencil or some other writing implement. The purpose of a planchette was to assist with the generation of automatic writing, or as a medium to encourage communication with the spirit world. According to G.W. Cottrell, the manufacturer of the first planchettes in America, French monks were responsible for devising the planchette in a Parisian monastery. The planchette became trendy throughout France and England in the 1850s, with the device making its way into the United States by the 1860s. The devices were very popular amongst followers of the Spiritualist movement and featured during seances. It also had interest in various sects of society as a curiosity item for parlor entertainment, allowing men and women the opportunity to breach Victorian social mores by holding hands in a darkroom. The planchette design eventually morphed into the more familiar Ouija board, where automatic writing was removed in favor of a board that could dictate messages via numbers and letters. In this publication from 1868, G.W. Cottrell relays the origin and purpose of the planchette, as well as, how to purchase one.

As everybody interested in this wonderful invention
is anxious and curious to learn all that is known of
its early history, we extract, for further enlightenment,
the following, from a letter written by Dr.
H. F. Gardner to a Boston paper, dated London,
May 5th, 1859, which solves the question of the origin
of Planchette in this country.

“In Paris I witnessed a method of communication of which
I had not heard in America. The instrument used by them
they call a Planchette. The method of communication is by
writing. In order to give you some idea of the interest taken
in the investigation of the subject in Paris, it will only be
necessary to state, that I called upon the manufacturer of the
above-mentioned instrument to purchase one to take home
with me, and he informed Mr. Owen (Hon. Robert Dale
Owen), who was with me, that he had made and sold several
hundred in Paris alone.
” Not being able to speak the French language, I could not
enjoy the society of the household of Faith as I could have
done under more favorable circumstances ; yet, on visiting in
a family where Planchette was used, there was no difficulty
in -writing in my own native tongue.”

Dr. Gardner brought to Boston the Planchette
which he purchased in Paris, and some few were
made for the use of his friends : reference to which
is made in a recent number of a St. Louis paper as
The Boston Planchette, which is now to be found
in thousands of homes throughout the land.


Revelations of the great modern mystery, planchette, and theories respecting it. Boston : G.W. Cottrell, 1868.
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University


Blame it on the booze


“Touch not, taste not any intoxicating drink. Go not to a Grog Shop or Bar Room, as you would avoid the awful fate of Russell and Crockett!”

Simeon Crockett and Stephen Russell were convicted and executed in Boston on March 16, 1836 for the crime of arson. Capital punishment in Massachusetts, as was true for many states, was not limited to homicide. In the early 19th century, the scope of capital offenses in Massachusetts included arson, “if at night”; highway robbery; willful murder; burglary at night, and treason.

“Simeon L. Crockett and Stephen Russell were jointly
indicted for designedly, feloniously, maliciously, and
wickedly, setting fire to and burning the dwelling-house
of Joshua Benson, situated in South-street Place, on Haskins’
wharf, at or about twelve o’clock, on the night of
October 22, 1835. Mr. Benson was not himself an occupant
of the house, but it was inhabited by nineteen or
twenty Irish families, consisting of one hundred, or one
hundred and twenty persons-men, women, and children.”

– Supreme Judicial Court, Boston, Mass.

The two plead not guilty, but were convicted by a jury on Dec. 17th 1835 and sentenced to death by hanging in March of 1836. For his part in the crime, Crockett blamed the incident on alcohol. When asked by a journalist…

“How could you do so bad a thing?” his reply was, “we were all
half drunk, and did not know what we were about.”

Even in his final written statement before the execution, Crockett would not take personal responsibility for his actions. In fact, he implicated the sellers of alcohol as having equal culpability as those who actually imbibe the drink.

“I now under a deep sense of my situation, wright a few
lines to leave on earth, after I leave the world in memore
of me, while my spiret is gone into the world of spirots
… No wonder so many Crimes are Comited with
the drunkard when his brains is boiled in gin, rum
and brandy, when the natural man has fled and rum and
brandy has changed a man in to a beast, and destroys the
finest works of nature… The RETAILERS are
no more Guiltles than the men that drinks it. I feel to ‘
render the most tender and piteful feelings towards sutch
people.” (unedited transcription of Crockett’s final statement)

This crime was committed during the rapid growth of the temperance movement. Boston was an early advocate for reform, establishing The American Temperance Society in 1826. The movement used this incident as a way to advance their cause, providing sermons, pamphlets, and postings to expose the evils of alcohol to the public. Giving advice such as,

“Your safety depends on total abstinence from its polluting and destroying
touch. Its victims have all been those who once thought
they could drink and let it alone when they pleased. They temporized
with the destroyer until they were lost. They soon found
that, they could please to drink; but they could not please to let it


                            booze leads to malfeasance


Recently identified and digitized, as part of a collaborative project between Harvard and the Mass. Archives, are petitions to the Massachusetts governor submitted by Crockett and Russell, as well as relatives, witnesses, and supporters, in February 1836. These petitions requested a reprieve or pardon for the death sentences, offering a combination of arguments such as extenuating circumstances, personal testimony, and Christian objections to capital punishment.

The original petition by Simeon Crockett to commute his sentence


Below are resources on the Crockett and Russell crime and execution.

Crockett, Simeon L. A voice from Leverett Street Prison, or, The life, trial and confession of Simeon L. Crockett, who was executed for arson, March 16, 1836. Boston : Printed for the Proprietors, [1836?]. 6th ed.
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University


Crockett, Simeon L. A voice from Leverett Street Prison, or, The life, trial and confession of Simeon L. Crockett, who was executed for arson, March 16, 1836. Boston : Printed for the Proprietors, [1836?]. 3rd ed.
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University


Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions; Council; Council Files February 20, 1836, Case of Stephen Russell and Simeon Crockett, GC3/series 378. Massachusetts Archives. Boston, Mass.
Persistent Link:
Massachusetts Archives, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Harvard University & Massachusetts Archives, Commonwealth of Massachusetts


Crockett, Simeon L. The true cause of crime. :Dying words of a criminal. Boston gail [sic], March 15, 1836. [Boston] : Cassady & March, printers, Boston, [1836].
Persistent Link:
Widener Library
Harvard University


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