This guest post is by Manuscript Division reference librarian Loretta Deaver.
Prepare for Halloween this weekend with some items from collections held in the Manuscript Division that are likely to raise a few hairs.
Petition for Bail from Accused Witches, ca. 1692
Hysteria over suspected witchcraft boiled over in New England in 1692. More than 150 people were accused of being witches, 19 were executed, one was crushed to death, and some died while imprisoned due to harsh conditions. The desperate plea shown above comes from a group of 10 women and “thre or foure men” accused of witchcraft and imprisoned at the Ipswich jail, not far from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The accused begged to be tried in the spring as they were “like to perish with cold” during the winter months. According to the petition, among those imprisoned some were nearly 80 years old, some were pregnant, and one was breastfeeding.
James A. Garfield
According to this June 4, 1851, diary entry, a 19-year-old James A. Garfield attended a séance conducted by “Miss Fish of Rochester” and two other women. With sixteen people in attendance, Garfield excitedly reported, the “spirit knocking” began immediately. Many questions were asked of the spirits present—one being Garfield’s own father—and correct answers “infallibly” given, communicated by the spirits “rapping” on the sofa, wall or table. Of the proceedings that evening Garfield concluded, “Tis a mystery however, and I’ll not speculate upon it.”
Garfield would go on to serve nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and become the twentieth president of the United States. Sadly, on July 2, 1881, the much-troubled Charles Guiteau shot the president as he was arriving at a Washington train station. Garfield would later die on September 19. The strange and tragic happenings in the 80 days following the shooting are documented in several of the Library’s collections, including the papers of Garfield, Chester Alan Arthur, Alexander Graham Bell, and even a small collection of Guiteau’s papers. After the assassination, Guiteau was immediately apprehended and imprisoned, during which time he scrawled the New Year’s greeting shown to his jailer. He was tried and ultimately executed almost exactly a year after he shot Garfield.
Walt Whitman’s Hair
This lock of poet Walt Whitman’s hair was collected for friend Horace Howard Furnace, on March 31, 1892, the day of Whitman’s funeral, and “would have been twice as large” if it had not been split between Furnace and another of Whitman’s good friends, John Burroughs.
The note that accompanies the sample reads:
“Walt Whitman’s hair, given to me by Mrs. Davis (his housekeeper) 31 March ’92.
This lock, cut off on the day of Walt’s funeral by Mrs. Davis (at my request) would have been twice as large – had not John Burroughs been having a cup of tea with Mrs. Davis when I called for it, and Mrs. D felt obliged to divide it between J.B. and me. HHF.”
Alexander Freud’s Death Mask
In addition to the papers of Sigmund Freud and many of his associates, the Manuscript Division holds the collection of his younger brother, Alexander Freud. Most of the papers relate to the emigration of family members from Austria and Europe during the Holocaust, but also included is Alexander’s death mask. As opposed to a life mask, which is created from a living subject, death masks are created after a person has died. Freud’s death mask was produced in 1943, likely by oiling the face and applying plaster or wax to make a mold. The mold would have then been filled with plaster to make an impression, and some details, such as the beard, eyebrows and hair were likely added after the plaster was removed from the mold.
Though these items may be unsettling to some, many Manuscript Division collections represent the whole of a person’s life, even if touched by tragedy, turmoil, or plain curiosity.
Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!
Now *this* is the kind of spooky I like to learn about! Great post and wonderful to see some new treasures being highlighted!