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November 2008

Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905 – 1920

Girl K region jpegFrom October 11, 2008-April 26, 2009 the National Heritage Museum is presenting "Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920," organized by the Aperture Foundation.   In working on the installation of the exhibition, we found these photographs of the people coming through Ellis Island both striking and evocative.

An amateur photographer and employee of the Executive Division of the Bureau of Immigration at Ellis Island, Sherman had access to immigrants detained at Ellis Island because they were ill or because inspectors sought proof of their means of support.  From around 1905 through the early 1920s, Sherman captured over 200 images (now housed at the National Park Service's Ellis Island Immigration Museum and the New York Public Library) of travelers and families from, literally, all over the globe. Algerian jpeg

We are excited to share this show with our visitors.  It offers a view on a quintessentially American story that resonates personally for  many.  As noted in one of the exhibition’s text panels, more than 20 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. Over than 70 percent of them traveled through Ellis Island, an average of 5,000 immigrants per day during the peak years from 1905-1907. Today, historians believe that more than 40 percent of Americans are descended from these immigrants.  These compelling photographs draw us into their world and invite  you to imagine what the subjects’ or our own forebears’ experience was like.  We all live in the country that these travelers helped shape and build. 

For more information see the description of the exhibition on our website.  As well, see the book that accompanies the exhibition,  Augustus F. Sherman:  Ellis Island Portraits, 1905-1920, published by the Aperture Foundation in 2005.  It includes an historical essay by exhibition curator Peter Mesenholler. 


Girl from the Kochersberg region near Strasbourg, Alsace
Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925)
Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Algerian man
Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925)
Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Much Admired Pilgrims


Pilgrims cropped small view Every exhibition includes an object that makes a real hit with the public.  For "Remember Me:  Highlights from the National Heritage Museum" the visitors' choice was "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a.d., 1620," by Charles Lucy (1814-1873). 

As every text-book reader and museum-goer knows, since the late 1700s, artists have put their versions of American history on canvas.  Among the many topics treated by history painters, anything having to do with the Pilgrims’ voyage, landing and relationship with the native people they encountered has attracted (and continues to attract) viewers’ imaginations.

The Pilgrims’ story caught the attention of French-trained British painter, Charles Lucy in the mid 1800s.  British history of the 1600s intrigued him.  Along with the Pilgrims, he painted scenes of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I.  A London paper memorializing the painter after his death noted that, “One of the first works which brought him into notice on this side of the Channel was his “Embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers in the Mayflower,” to which was awarded one of the prizes for oil paintings in the Westminster Hall competition of 1847.”  Lucy’s winning work, now called the "Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven," is part of the Pilgrim Hall Museum's offerings.  Perhaps building on his success with the subject in 1847, Lucy painted “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a.d., 1620” for the following year.

A 1944 letter from the Frick Art Reference Library from the files of the Pilgrim Society says that that painting, the 1848 landing of the Pilgrim fathers is un-located, other sources note that it is lost.  Has it been found at NHM? 

J. Robert Merrill gave the painting, which he had purchased it at Cape Cod auction in 1974, to NHM.  The auctioneer advertised the work as having been, “displayed at the Royal Academy.” However, it seems unlikely that the NHM painting is the one Lucy created for the 1848 exhibition.  Smaller than Lucy’s “Departure of the Pilgrims from Delft Haven,” (over 9 feet by 14 feet) and clearly dated 1868 in the artists’ hand, NHM's painting is twenty years older and about half the size of Lucy’s showpiece. An intriguing inscription on the strainer of the NHM painting tell us that it once belonged to Capt. E. Mac Kirdy, of Abbey House in Malmesbury.  Mac Kirdy bought that house in 1909 and his family sold it in 1968.  Somehow, between 1968 and 1974, Lucy's painting traveled across the Atlantic, just like the Pilgrims.

We will keep you posted if future research uncovers more of the story.


The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a. d. 1620, 1868.  Charles Lucy (1814-1873), London, England.  National Heritage Museum collection, Gift of J. Robert Merrill, 79.77.1.  Photo, NHM staff.

Gilbert Imlay

Gilbert Imlay (1754?-1828) has variously been described as soldier, surveyor, adventurer, writer, conman -- and cad.  He swindled land from Daniel Boone (among others) and is believed to be the cause of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft's (1759-1797) attempted suicide. 

Born in New Jersey, Imlay was a lieutenant in a Continental regiment and went west to make his fortune when the Revolutionary War ended.  He began as a land surveyor but by 1785 was already heading back east, in debt and wanted for unscrupulous land deals.  After losing money in yet another investment scam, Imlay disappears in 1787 and next surfaces in London as an author, and friend and lover of Mary Wollstonecraft.  After the birth of a daughter, Fanny, their liaison ends around 1796 and Imlay remains in Europe until his death in 1828 which is believed to have occurred on the Isle of Jersey. 

If Gilbert Imlay is an unfamiliar name to you, it's not so surprising.  As Wil Verhoeven puts it in his new biography, Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World, “Although by no means a major historical figure in his own right, Imlay unwittingly acted as an interface between figures of much greater historical significance.  Their diverse and often mutually exclusive ideas and ambitions, dreams and schemes he frequently borrowed and then disseminated across continents and across the Atlantic, whilst invariably serving his own, usually less than honorable interests.”

I hadn't come across Gilbert Imlay before reading Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone and became more interested when I discovered a copy of the 3rd edition of his A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America [RARE F 352 .I33 1797] in our collection.  You may remember from our previous post on Daniel Boone that not only did he cheat Boone of land, in later editions of his 1792 publication (such as ours), he included the chapter about Boone which first appeared in John Filson's The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky without attribution (not an uncommon practice in the days before copyright).

Of the many ways Imlay reinvented himself through the years, the most improbable, it seems, is his short stint as an author. Imlay is on record as having published 2 books, the aforementioned travel guide and a novel, The Emigrants, or the History of an Expatriated Family in 1793.  Both works were published in London to generally good reviews.  His novel, published after Imlay met Mary Wollstonecraft, follows the adventures of an English family in America and espouses a progressive social agenda.  Some critics find its feminist tone more than could be reasonably expected of an 18th century man and attribute authorship to both Imlay and Wollstonecraft.  An entry in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature wonders why, given Imlay's own colorful career, he bothered to write a work of fiction at all; a memoir "might well have been superior to his novel."

Ohio_imlayBut it is Imlay's first effort for which he is best known.  In true Imlay fashion, he describes himself as 'Captain' Imlay, the 'Commissioner for laying out Land in the back Settlements' and an 'intelligent and lively author'.  Topographical Description.... is written as 'a series of letters to a friend in England' and tied together by commentary from an English 'editor' who initially asked for 'a complete description of the western country of America'.  Though Imlay claims in the introduction 'it is certain that no work of the kind has hitherto been published in this country' most critics cite Letters from an American Farmer by Crevecoeur as something of a template -- and that both authors draw heavily from John Filson's more original work.  However, most also note that Imlay takes the genre a bit further and describes Western expansion as the obvious extension of the American Revolution.  According to Verhoeven, Imlay foresees "the wilderness frontier as the centre of a future American empire."

While Topographical Description.... includes detailed reports of roads, waterways, soil, flora and fauna and, basically, any and all information anyone thinking of settling in America would need to know, he also includes four maps.  Pictured above is 'A plan of the rapids of the Ohio'.  In 'Letter III....about Ohio", Imlay writes:  "The Rapids of the Ohio lie about seven hundred miles below Pittsburg, and about four hundred above its confluence with the Mississippi.  They are occasioned by a ledge of rocks that stretch across the bed of the river from one side to the other, in some places projecting so much, that they are visible when the water is not high...The fall is not more than between four and five feet in the distance of a mile; so that boats of any burden may pass with safety when there is a flood; but boats coming up the river must unload."

The other maps include: 'A map of the western part of the territories belonging to the United States of America drawn from the best authorities', 'A map of the Tennassee (sic) government formerly part of North Carolina taken chiefly from surveys' by Gene D. Smith and other, and 'A map of the State of Kentucky from actual survey by Elihu Barker of Philadelphia'.

There's no evidence Gilbert Imlay ever returned to America, but surely his work encouraged many to emigrate, and still others to write about it.  Irish Poet Thomas Moore, in highlighting the romantic nature of his work, proclaimed it 'would seduce us into a belief that innocence, peace, and freedom has deserted the rest of the world for...the banks of the Ohio."  Add 'marketeer' to the list of ways to describe Gilbert Imlay!

Reference sources:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature.  New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Filson, John.  The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky.  Wilmington, Delaware : Printed by J. Adams, 1784.  An online version available here.

Imlay, Gilbert.  A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America.  London, Debrett, 1792. 

Richards, Cynthia D "Romancing the Sublime: Why Mary Wollstonecraft fell in love with that cad, Gilbert Imlay." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 25.1 (Spring 2006)

Saint John, J. Hector, pseud. van Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur.  Letters from an American Farmer.  London : Printed for Thomas Davies, and Lockyer Davis, 1782.

Verhoeven, Wil. Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1979.

A Surprisingly Popular Print!

84_28t1 One of my favorite tasks as Curator of Collections is answering inquiries from the public.  I’ve been surprised by the number of questions I receive about an 1884 print titled “Rock of Odd Fellowship,” which appears in the Treasures section of the National Heritage Museum website.  The lithograph shows many of the common symbols associated with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows fraternity, along with portraits of two of its leaders and scenes of members pursuing the group’s charitable activities: educating orphans, visiting the sick and burying the dead.  The group is still active today.  Most of the inquirers are looking for information about the print’s history, and are curious about its value.  While museum policies prohibit me from commenting on the value of objects, I have investigated the history of this print, and have decoded some of the symbols and images it shows.

Originally founded in England in 1745, the American branch of the Odd Fellows was organized in Baltimore in 1819 by Thomas Wildey (1782-1861), who is pictured on the print at bottom center, as well as on a separate engraving seen here.  Born in England and apprenticed as a coach-spring maker, Wildey later worked as a coachmaker and came to the United States in 1817.  The other man shown in the center of the print is James L. Ridgely (1807-1881).  Ridgely was a lawyer in Baltimore who joined an Odd Fellows lodge there in 1829.  He was Grand Secretary for the group from 1841 until his death, as well as an author of some of its rituals. 79_35_2di1_cropped_3

By 1907, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows had almost one million members.  All members contributed to a fund that was used to assist sick and distressed members, as well as their widows and orphans.  In 1851, the group’s female auxiliary, the Daughters of Rebekah, was founded.  Like Freemasons, Odd Fellows must profess a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being.  You may recognize some of the symbols that appear on the “Rock of Odd Fellowship” print: the all-seeing eye that reminds members that the omniscience of God pierces into every secret of the heart; the heart and hand signifying that work should be performed from the heart; three pillars representing faith, hope, and charity; and the three-link chain, symbolizing the chain by which members are bound together in Friendship, Love and Truth.

The print was published in Boston in 1884 by T.C. Fielding (who was a Past Grand, or head, of the Odd Fellows in Massachusetts) and the lithographer was Frederick T. Stuart (1837-1913).  I’ve been trying to learn more about these two men and to understand why the print was produced at that time.  1884 was the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the United States, so this print may have been part of the celebration of that anniversary, but I haven’t found conclusive evidence.  So I ask you – do you have information about Stuart or Fielding?  Do you know why this print was published in 1884?  Have you come across one of these prints in your own life?

Rock of Odd Fellowship, 1884, F.T. Stuart, artist and T.C. Fielding, publisher, Boston, Massachusetts, National Heritage Museum, gift of Mrs. Harold F. Price, 84.28.  Photograph by David Bohl.

Thomas Wildey (1782-1861), 1843, John Sartain (1808-1897), engraver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, National Heritage Museum, Special Acquisitions Fund, 79.35.2.

All together now...

Those of you who have been reading our posts for the last 5+ months know that we've been focusing on items from the collections of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives and telling some of the interesting stories behind those objects. We're happy to say that this blog is going to transform into an institution-wide National Heritage Museum blog that will expand its focus to cover objects from the museum's collections, as well as exhibitions and programs. The Library & Archives staff will still continue to blog about our collections, but we'll now be in the good company of fellow National Heritage Museum staff members who will be sharing stories and news about the collections, exhibitions, and programs here at the museum.

When is all of this happening? Today! Look for a post later today about an object from the National Heritage Museum’s collection. We hope that the expansion of this blog will be welcomed by our current readers, as well as those folks who stumble across us in their search for stories and information about Freemasonry, fraternalism, and American history.

You can continue to access this blog at http://nationalheritagemuseum.typepad.com/library_and_archives or you can access it at the simpler http://nationalheritagemuseum.typepad.com - and be sure to let us know what you think of the new changes you’ll be seeing here!

Making a Mason at Sight: The Case of President-Elect Taft

Taft_portrait With president-elect Barack Obama waiting to be inaugurated in January, it seems like an opportune moment to look at a previous president-elect and the story of his unusual entry into Freemasonry. William Howard Taft (1857-1930), who served one term as president (1909-1913), is one of the fourteen U.S. Presidents who were also Freemasons.

As we've just come to an election whose campaign lasted about twenty months, it's interesting to note that Taft was elected President during a time when campaigns seemed quaintly short - Taft complained that he disliked the campaign of 1908, stating that it was "one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life." Indeed, despite having served as President of the United States, Taft felt that his greatest accomplishment was having served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (he's the only person to have held both offices), a position he was appointed to in 1921 and which he served until his retirement in February 1930, a month before he died.

Freemasonry was a tradition in Taft's family. His father, Alphonso Taft, was a prominent member of Kilwinning Lodge No. 356 in Cincinnati and two of William's brothers had already been raised Masons, in ceremonies that included the participation of their father. But William Howard Taft didn't become a Mason in the traditional way, as his father and brothers did. Instead, he was "made a Mason at sight." But what exactly is making a Mason at sight?

Louis L. Williams (a Masonic historian who was heavily involved with the formation of our library and who is one of the namesakes of our library) writes in his book on the subject, Making a Mason at Sight:

I originally thought that the Grand Master might take the proposed recipient off to the side, or to some private place, and possibly obligate him in one or more degrees, and simply declare him to be a Mason henceforth and thereafter. I was many years a Mason before I learned that under normal procedures the Grand Master would convene an Occasional Lodge, with the requisite number present, and then, by issuing a dispensation for the purpose, proceed to confer all three degrees on the candidate. The Grand Master would waive the petition, balloting, Catechism, and the like, but the degrees themselves were usually conferred in full, including lectures and charges, but usually on the same day, and in proper succession. This is the usual and proper way it is done, although using his unique and unquestionable power, the Grand Master could pretty well proceed as he might see fit.

As Williams points out, the phrase "making a Mason at sight," brings to mind an activity that has a sense of immediacy, rather than something that is planned out, although making a Mason as sight is, generally, a ceremony that is planned out well in advance. (The actual ceremony of making a Mason at sight also has some interesting parallels to contemporary Freemasonry's one-day degree conferrals (a.k.a. Grand Master Classes) which are a hotly debated aspect of Freemasonry today. If you are interested in that topic, there's no shortage of opinion to be found. You can find plenty of arguments made both for and against these classes.) 

Taft became a Mason just a few weeks before his inauguration as President on March 4, 1909. On February 18, 1909, the Grand Master of Ohio, Charles S. Hoskinson, convened an Occasional Lodge at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Cincinnati for the purpose of making the President-elect, William H. Taft, a Mason at sight. Fourteen Grand Masters of other jurisdictions were in attendance, along with many other Masonic dignitaries. Because making a Mason at sight is a relatively rare event (except, perhaps, in Pennsylvania, which Williams refers to as being in a "class by itself" because of the number of Masons that have been made at sight), and because it was being done for a man who was to be sworn in as President of the United States the following month, this was, understandably, a remarkable occasion. The New York Times reported that there were 800 people in attendance, with 2,000 more being turned away. Taft affiliated with Kilwinning Lodge No. 356, the lodge that his father and brothers belonged to.

Yet this event, while widely celebrated, was not without controversy. After Taft was made a Mason at sight, hundreds of letters flooded Masonic magazines, written by Masons who decried the practice of making a Mason at sight. While most Masons appear to have supported Taft's being made a Mason at sight, some Masons were upset. Those who objected appeared to have done so because they believed that the practice went against the whole idea of meeting "on the level" and the tacit agreement that all brothers are equal in the lodge. By singling out a powerful individual to be made a Mason by another arguably powerful individual (the Grand Master), critics contended that this went against the very tenets of the professed equality within the fraternity. Edward M.L. Elhers, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of New York said that while he had great respect for Taft, he censured those involved for the act of making him a Mason at sight, by saying "Princes and paupers stand equal in the eyes of Masonry, and I deprecate the lodge that allows Masonry to fall at the feet of power...it does not matter whether it is President-elect Taft or anyone else, the Cincinnati lodge deserves the severest criticism of all Free Masons."

One might imagine that after becoming a Mason in a ceremony that lasted no more than a couple of hours, and with the duties of being President of the United States, that Taft might not have been an active Freemason. Yet it's interesting to note that on April 22, 1909, just a little over a month after being inaugurated as President, the New York Times reported that President Taft attended a regular session of the Temple Masonic Lodge in Washington, D.C. where he "saw the third degree worked upon several candidates."

Interested in finding out who else has been made a Mason at sight? Check out this list at Paul Bessel's website.

Want to read more about the topic? Take a look at:
Williams, Louis L. Making a Mason at Sight. Bloomington: Illinois Lodge of Research/Masonic Book Club, 1983.
Call number: 32 .W724 1983

Today's illustration of Taft is from:
Wolf, Simon. The Presidents I Have Known From 1860-1918. Washington DC: Press of Byron S. Adams, 1918.
Call number: E 176.1 .W85 1918

A (Vigilante) Masonic Funeral

Vig_2 Amidst the mayhem and murder recounted in Vigilante Days and Ways, Nathaniel Pitt Langford's (1832-1911) classic tale of settling the Northwest, comes a small story of Masonic grace and brotherhood.  One William H. Bell was the first citizen to die of illness in the Bannack, Montana settlement which, thanks to the discovery of gold, was quickly populated in the early 1860's.  Most deaths in the area at the time were the result of violence, as Langford's 2 volume work graphically illustrates.  But, when Bell knew he was dying, he requested a Masonic burial.  Langford, also a Mason, at first deemed the request impossible as he didn't think enough Masons could be found.  Nevertheless, Langford writes in Chapter XXIII....

A request for all the Masons in the gulch to meet on Yankee Flat at the cabin of Brother C.J. Miller, on the evening of the day of Mr. Bell's death, greatly to our surprise, was so numerously responded to, that we found it necessary to adjourn to more commodious quarters.  It was past midnight before the forms of recognition were fully administered, and preparations completed for the funeral.  So delighted were all to meet so many of the order, that before we separted it was virtually understood that early application should be made to open a lodge.  In the meantime, we agreed to hold frequent meetings.

The funeral ceremonies, the next day, were conducted by myself.  The strange peculiarities of the occasion added a mournful interest to the impressive truths of the ritual.  A large congregation had assembled,  Near by, and surrounding the grave, stood the little band of brethren, linked by an indissoluble bond to him for whom they were performing the last sad office.  With clasped hands and uncovered heads they reverently listened to the solemn language which in that far off land committed one of their number to his mother earth; while farther away, and encircling them, stood a curious multitude, whose eager gaze betrayed that they were there for the first beheld a Masonic burial ceremony.  Among this latter number might be seen many whose daily lives were filled with deeds of violence and crime...How strange it seemed to see this large assemblage, all armed with revolvers and bowie-knives, standing silently, respectfully....

The ceremonies were conducted to a peaceful conclusion, and the assembly quietly dispersed.  But from this time onward, the Masons met often for counsel.  Among them there was no lack of confidence, and very soon they began to consider measures necessary for their protection.....It is a remarkable fact that the roughs were restrained by their fear of the Masonic fraternity, from attacking its individual members.  Of the 102 persons murdered by Henry Plummer's gang, not one was a Mason.

Langford continues that he and others requested a dispensation to form a Lodge in Bannack but by theVig_4 time it arrived from Nebraska, most had moved on to Virginia City.  He was instrumental in starting the Lodge in Virginia City, Montana in 1864 and went on to be named Grand Historian in 1866 and Grand Master of Montana in 1869.  Though known for bringing the institution of Masonry to Montana, he is also known as one of the early founders of Yellowstone National Park.  He was part of the Washburn party in 1870 and later named first Superintendent of the park.

Callaway, Lew L.  Early Montana Masons.  Billings : Western Litho-Print Press, 1951.  Call no.  16.1 .C 156 1951

Langford, Nathaniel P.  Vigilante Days and Ways : the Pioneers of the Rockies ; the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  Boston : J.G. Cupples, 1890.  Call no.  F 721 .L275 1890.  Online edition here.

Additional information on Langford may be found in both Montana and Minnesota archives:

Nathaniel Pitt Langford and Family Papers, 1707-1942, Minnesota Historical Society.

Nathaniel P. Langford Papers, 1862-1909, at the Montana Historical Society.


Illustrations all from Vigilante Days and Ways : the Pioneers of the Rockies ; the Makers and Making of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.  Boston : J.G. Cupples, 1890.