Birds twitter outside my door. My children and those of the neighbors shriek and play in their respective yards. Every so often, my partner or I head out to procure supplies. Every day is an exhausting, illuminating adventure on ½ acre.
Today, I’m pondering the similarities and differences between my work for the Historical Society now, in the time of COVID-19, and the lives of the Lexington residents who lived through, for example, the 1721 smallpox epidemic.
For my very selfish part, I am grateful to have a home, a job (and the ability to do said job from home), and the flexibility to teach my kids and work at the same time. Some of these things would have been possible in 18th century Lexington, but some would not (like a paying job outside the home - I am still a woman).
Without getting into modern politics, what are some of the pros or cons you can think of for living in 1721 or 2020 during an epidemic of disease?
*On a side note, it is extremely interesting to be an historian living through an historical moment. I feel as though anyone in the library/archives/museum field has a heightened awareness (our “Spidey sense,” so to speak) of what materials we should be collecting, what stories we should be preserving, whose voices we should be seeking out in this historic moment. This pandemic has changed almost everything about what we do, how we interact, even who we are. It’s a watershed moment in global and U.S. history and it is fascinating (though sometimes terrifying) to live through it.*
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
Well... it is not just archivists at home these days. In recent weeks, many of us have been spending a lot more time at home than we normally do. For some professions, working from home was a fairly easy transition. For those of us in the museum field, we have had to become a little bit more creative – which, of course, is not always a bad thing!
One might think that there is not a lot to keep an archivist busy without easy and immediate access to all our institution’s collections. But think again! While research and other activities that require physical proximity to collections are obviously proving to be a bit more difficult, there are numerous other projects that I have been able to work on. Some of these projects have been “back burner” projects for quite a while – always on my radar, but never of immediate importance. Thus, they always seem to get pushed aside while more pressing items retain priority. This pandemic era, where research requests and archival programs have been limited, has proven to be an excellent time to bump up these items on the to-do list and ensure that they are completed properly.
For example, I have been able to use this time to work on updating our Emergency Preparedness Plan to ensure that it reflects all current information. New data was added regarding our Archives and Research Center, since we just recently completed our collections move into this new building. I was also able to add an entirely new section on an emergency response plan for a pandemic based on what we learned from our recent experiences – which, I must say, is something I never thought that I would have to write.
Additionally, as part of a staff-wide initiative regarding volunteering, I have also been able to work on an Archival Volunteer Handbook, which will formalize our volunteer program in the archives and help to standardize the volunteer requirements and outline specific processes. I have also been able to work on a few different Finding Aids for some of the collections in our holdings, so that access will be made easier for researchers when we can once again accommodate them. And of course, there is always advance preparation to be done for future programming and initiatives, as well as the day-to-day answering of emails, inquiries, and smaller research requests that can be completed through access to our digital collections. Getting to flesh out all these smaller projects, though, has assured me that, when we can finally return to our offices, our historic houses, and our collections, we can hit the ground running stronger than ever.
However, I have also been doing a whole lot of brainstorming. Archives exist to preserve documents, records, and collective memory. In our case, this preservation concerns Lexington’s history specifically. Right now, Lexington, along with the rest of the world, is in the midst of a particularly challenging time in its history. As a community and as individuals, these challenges of daily life are necessarily being met in unique and sometimes highly creative ways. For the benefit of future generations, I believe that it is imperative that we capture this moment in Lexington’s history as best we can, thereby creating a compilation of “What Life Was Like” during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
Many of you will recall our “Lexington Remembers: World War I” events that took place in 2018. During this time, I realized that while our collections chronicled big events in Lexington that took place during World War I, many of the stories of daily life were lacking. One of the most prominent examples of this is the fact that we had surprisingly little in our collections regarding the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. The few items that we did have were pertaining to one man, Dr. Fred S. Piper, who was involved in H Company in Lexington and as a medical professional during epidemic. Dr. Piper documented that there were likely 500 or more cases of the flu in Lexington by November of 1918, and it was proving no less fatal here than anywhere else. (See our World War I Collection online for more information.) Data kept in town offices could provide vital statistics… but why do we have no records personalizing the experiences of the citizens in town? How were people feeling? How did they navigate daily life? How did they respond to and handle the logistics of the Presidential Election of 1918?
With the exception that we are not simultaneously facing a World War (and, albeit, this is no small exception), there are many similarities to be drawn between this outbreak in 1918 and the outbreak we are facing today. However, this time I am hoping to better document this period in Lexington’s history: the impact of schools and businesses being closed; the heroism of those still working in the medical field or as essential workers; the challenges of those working from home or who are not able to work at all; the experiences of those who have been isolated, ill, or lost a loved one; and anything else that sheds insight on the experiences of the individual. How has this experience affected YOU?
Numerous other historical and cultural organizations are also finding this documentation to be critical. You can take a peek at some impressive initiatives that have been started by Massachusetts Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Society, New York Historical Society, Heinz History Center, university archives such as at Carnegie Mellon University, and dozens of others throughout the country and world. Though we are a much smaller institution, Lexington Historical Society will be launching its own collecting initiative in the near future, so please stay tuned for how you can affect the way that this time in history is remembered. Please consider joining us in this community project!
P.S. Want to brainstorm with us? Thankfully, there are a ton of great resources out there! Here is a very interesting article published in mid-April by Atlas Obscura entitled “How Museums Will Eventually Tell the Story of COVID-19.” And here’s another by Smithsonian Magazine: “As COVID-19 Reshapes the World, Cultural Institutions Collect Oral Histories.”
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
On the afternoon of April 19, 1775 as Lieutenant Colonel Smith’s force of Regulars reached Lexington common where they had killed eight men and wounded ten others earlier that morning, things were not going in their favor. Minute and militia companies from all over the countryside swarmed the column on their return back to Boston, shooting at them from behind walls, barns, houses, and trees. The Regulars were low on ammunition and had lost a number of men killed and wounded.
Then Lord Percy arrived with his fresh relief force, a brigade of around one thousand men. As Reverend William Gordon described “But a little on this side Lexington Meeting-House where they were met by the Brigade, with cannon, under Lord Percy, the scene changed. The inhabitants had quitted their houses in general upon the road, leaving almost everything behind them, and thinking themselves well off in escaping with their lives. The soldiers burnt in Lexington three houses, one barn, and two shops, one of which joined to the house and a mill-house adjoining to the barn; other houses and buildings were attempted to be burnt, and narrowly escaped.” Things would get worse as both sides took out years of frustration on each other.
Primary sources record that the Regulars began shooting at doors and windows of every home along the route back to Boston. This was aimed at stopping the Provincials from inflicting casualties on the retreating army. In some cases the British set fire to homes along the way. At Buckman’s Tavern in Lexington, Smith’s forces began to meet up with Percy’s, and at least one musket shot struck the building. On March 13, 2020, we were able to examine the original front door displayed in the tavern just feet away from where it was originally hung. While this was part of a larger study that will be assembled and published at a later date, the anniversary of the event is a good chance to share a small piece of the much broader study.
The door was first inspected to verify its age and authenticity. It fits all of the construction methods for a door of the third quarter of the 18th century. The bullet hole is located close to the bottom edge of the door and measures approximately .70 in diameter. The exterior side of the door shows a fairly round entrance hole and an open path through the door at a very noticeable horizontal angle, but a fairly level vertical angle. The exit side is typical of others that we have documented in that as it passed through the door it blew out wood fragments from the inside panel leaving a splintered surface around the exit hole. Following the trajectory of the ball we could see where it would have likely impacted interior architectural elements but interior wall paneling in that location has been replaced since April 19, 1775, thus no secondary impact evidence could be located.
Using a ballistics rod and a compass, we were able to determine approximately where outside the tavern the shooter was standing when he fired. The tavern sits upon a noticeable rise that slopes towards Massachusetts Avenue. Looking at the grade changes outside the structure and combining that with the low impact point on the door and the nearly horizontal patch the bullet traveled through the door, we can surmise that it was likely fired fairly close to the tavern at the bottom of the slope in front. The trajectory matches what a soldier firing a musket from the natural firing position at this lower ground elevation could accomplish. This would more than likely make this strike from the Regulars return to Boston and Percy’s arrival and not earlier in the day. From this point on, the fighting would get heavier and more destructive to property as well as human life.
There are many other ball strikes from April 19 to be shared along with all of the data, but that will be saved for the much larger study. Stay tuned!
-Joel Bohy and Christopher Fox
As businesses and communities close their doors due to COVID-19, a major movement has taken place to create digital content that can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. This topic is constantly being covered in news articles as well as an online course regarding museum leadership in which I’m currently enrolled. Museums and historical sites have been forced to rethink the ways we interpret our collections, archives, and historic sites. Lexington Historical Society staff has been hard at work since we closed our offices in March creating ways to share our wonderful collections and knowledge with our community and those around the world. One aspect of our digital content had already been started over a year and a half ago when I began working with Scott and Siobhan Loftus-Reid of Mass 3D Spaces.
I first met with Scott and Siobhan after a suggestion by a board member to partner with Mass 3D Spaces, a local company that “specializes in creating immersive 3D interactive tours (powered by Matterport)." LHS Executive Director Erica McAvoy and I sat down with Scott and Siobhan to discuss how the Matterport technology they use for virtual real estate tours might assist in making Lexington’s history more accessible to a nationwide audience. After chatting with Siobhan and Scott about the technology and the passion they shared with Lexington Historical Society for sharing Lexington’s unique history, the decision was made to move forward and work together on this project.
With the assistance of a collection of reenactors and volunteers, Historical Society staff along with Siobhan and Scott have been meeting at our three historic houses and filming inside each location. During each photo shoot, we have been able to stage actors in our historic rooms to represent the historic people, periods, and aspects of each house’s unique history. We’ve been able to capture the panic of Aunt Lydia and Dorothy Quincy as they prepare to flee from the Hancock-Clarke House, the calm moments spent by Lexington’s militia in Buckman Tavern as they await the arrival of the British Regulars, and the chaotic scene at Munroe Tavern when British Regulars occupied the building for a portion of the afternoon on April 19, 1775. Once the three historic sites were photographed, I’ve been able to work with Siobhan to highlight artifacts and embed audio and video clips which will allow visitors to gain a better understanding of what happened at each location.
The original goal of the project was to allow schools nationwide who are unable to make the pilgrimage to Lexington to experience what it would be like to walk through these historic houses. It was also to allow visitors with physical limitations the ability to access the second floors of our historic homes and enjoy content discussed during that portion of the tours. I had envisioned the entire project being launched in May (peak field trip season). However due to the current situation, the decision was made for us to release the tours earlier. Now everyone who would normally be coming to visit can access the historic houses from the comfort of their own homes. So far, the Buckman Tavern and Hancock-Clarke House tours are available (for free!) with the tour of Munroe Tavern set to be released in the coming weeks.
I don’t think I will ever be able to thank Scott and Siobhan enough for their work on this project. Siobhan has been a huge help as I worked my way through selecting artifact images, audio clips, and video clips. She has been ever-patient and quick to reply as text and formatting edits are sent to her almost daily (I’m sure she’s getting tired of seeing my name pop up in her inbox, haha). I’d also like to thank Siobhan’s daughter, Saoirse, for working so patiently with two amateurs during the video shoot for the introductory video she filmed, edited, and created for the project. See below for an introduction video from myself and Siobhan.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t thank my co-workers and Society volunteers for helping select artifacts and suggesting edits of the tours - your fresh eyes on the project were a huge help!
Finally, thank you to our visitors for their curiosity and passion for learning about Lexington and the history that Lexington Historical Society has to share. Without your curiosity and passion for interacting with our history, this project would never have been undertaken.
-Chris Kauffman, Education and Interpretation Manager
A pervasive stereotype about history is the inherent seriousness of our ancestors. Look at an old painting or photograph and you'll see: unsmiling Victorians glare out at us, seemingly in eternal judgement of our frivolous modern ways. So stiff are many of these people that entire corners of the internet have been dedicated to poring over old images to confirm that the people in them are, in fact, still alive.
In reality, people a hundred or more years ago were just as colorful as today, even if they had different ideas about what made a good family photo. And archives like ours can be a treasure trove of spontaneity. We have been looking through ours to find some of the best. Each week during the museum closure, we will feature a new find.
Among these are a series of photos of one J. Chester Hutchinson. Born in 1883, Chester spent his teenage years playing in the Lexington Drum Corps and doing bike tricks, which have been memorialized in our archives (there are at least four photos of Chester posing on a bicycle). The lack of activity in downtown Lexington at the moment seems surreal, but in 1900 you could actually have a photoshoot in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue and not worry about being run over. The following photograph shows Chester showing off at the corner of Mass Ave and Depot Square (notice the Depot in the background).
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
"What should we call our quarantine content?" was not a question I was expecting to ask in the museum staff group chat this month, but we are all adjusting to new circumstances!
In a time when group gatherings are restricted to no more than 10, non-essential businesses are closed to the public, and millions are staying home, Historical Society staff have been brainstorming ways to bring the museum to you!
We will be compiling all of our digital content in one place, but I wanted to focus specifically on our exhibits in today's blog post. Read on to see some of your options for digital exhibits.
We have had an online exhibits page for more than 7 years, but it hasn't gotten a lot of traffic in the past. Now is the page's time to shine! You will find three years of past CVS exhibits and exhibits on Hancock–Clarke House archaeology, Lexington trade signs, Loring Muzzey's Civil War diary, and much more.
Something Must Be Done: Bold Women of Lexington opened on March 8 with a wonderful (and now illegal) preview event. It was open until March 12, then we unfortunately had to close this brand-new exhibit. In the interim, we will be working to populate the exhibit page with documents, photos, audio, and a batch of videos taken last week!
#Alarmed: 18th Century Social Media closed in December, but through the magic of 3D filming, it is available on our recently-released Buckman Tavern virtual tour.
Stay tuned for more content coming online in the next week or two. Happy Virtual Explorations!
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
We have been having an unseasonably warm winter this year, but 250 years ago, in 1770, there were feet of snow on the ground. The citizens of Lexington were tucked away in their farms, spinning flax by the fire, waiting for spring, and wondering what the next political upheaval might be. Just six months earlier, they had staged a spinning match on the town common to protest British imports, and had been boycotting tea since April.
Bostonians, a more politically diverse lot, were still coming to blows over which shops were selling imports and which were not. On February 22nd, a Loyalist from Woburn
named Samuel Richardson, who would have been well-known to many Lexingtonians, fired his musket into a crowd of protesters, killing ten-year-old Christopher Seider. Some would consider his death the first real casualty of the American Revolution. Then, less than two weeks later, a group of civilians got into an altercation with British soldiers, who fired into the crowd, killing five, in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
We do not have any surviving records of what Lexingtonians thought of these events when the news made it out here, but the reaction in general was swift, as copies of Paul Revere’s print of the Massacre began to circulate. One of these was put on display in the Wright Tavern in Concord, and John Buckman may have done the same in his establishment.
250 years later, however, the Boston Massacre is remembered as one of the most pivotal events leading up to the outbreak of war in 1775. Revolutionary Spaces, the new partnership between the Bostonian Society and Old South Meeting House in Boston, put together an incredible program on March 7 to commemorate the anniversary of this event. Over 100 reenactors spread out between the sites, showcasing a variety of daily activities in pre-Revolutionary Boston, such as a town selectmen’s meeting, a football game, and a ladies’ tea party.
As is often the case, I spent the day as a professional turncoat – for the afternoon portion of the program, I interacted with the public as Mary Saunders, the wife of a British soldier in the 14th regiment, introducing people to the Loyalist perspective. During the evening reenactment, I was Mary Cathcart, one of the many townspeople who scuffled with the soldiers, offering a distinctly different point of view.
This has definitely gotten me in the spirit for our upcoming 250th celebration in 2025 – not that far away now! The reenactors are already thinking ahead - doing research, making new clothing, and recruiting new soldiers into the ranks. Each Patriots’ Day morning is a uniquely moving experience, as the drumbeats of the British soldiers get closer and closer to the Green, but I imagine that the reenactment five years from now will be one not to forget.
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
It's a show where people pretend to be people pretending to be people, and one of them pretends to be Paul O'Shaughnessy of the Historical Society. When the REAL Paul O'Shaughnessy joined the New York City audience to watch last month, things got truly odd. And quite wonderful.
O'Shaughnessy, now enriching his sixth decade of Lexington's portrayal of the past, was one of many reenactors interviewed for "How To Load A Musket," an original play by actress and playwright Talene Monahon that ran for two weeks in January at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. After interviewing reenactors for five years, the Belmont native took her script through workshops at the Cape Cod Theatre Project and Northern Stage in White River Junction.
She and her Lexingtonian best friend "used to attend the Battle of Lexington together and I loved exploring her home and pretending to act out the story of the wounded Redcoat who was taken in by colonists during the war," Monahon wrote in an email. "Later, as an adult and theater-maker, the initial impulse was to explore a world which felt adjacent to my own and seemed to be a uniquely fascinating lens through which to look at the country in the present."
It's an unusual show, and totally compelling if you're into geeking out on history, especially the Lexingtonian variety. It goes in unexpected directions, but it's not too surprising that O'Shaughnessy would find his way into it. He's an absolute stalwart of preserving Lexington's past by playing it out.
But not as a colonist. Cheerful and erudite, O'Shaughnessy wields a musket and bayonet as a leader of the His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot in America, the top-notch British reenactment company formed in 1968 in anticipation of the Bicentennial. He brandishes a soft-spoken wit and a knowledge of history as least as formidable as his equipment, and he's a trooper in the truest sense. He shows up for everything, as willing to play auctioneer as Grenadier if called upon by the Historical Society.
O'Shaughnessy relishes telling how he first was drawn into reenacting as a teenager in 1972, hanging around the Green as teens are wont to do, and semi-interested in the Lexington Minute Men and their drill. When he saw the precision and splendid accoutrement of the 10th, his perspective and his loyalties shifted, and he's since devoted his talent, time and energy to exploring and exposing the value of the British point of view. His core rationale for 50 years of wearing a red coat is so resonant, it makes it right into the script and onto the stage: "Somebody's got to play the British." And sure enough, during the performance that very line got an appreciative chuckle.
It comes at the very beginning, as the audience is just moving into the words and thoughts of these thoughtful, obsessed, meticulous odd ducks, whose actual words from Monahon's interviews form virtually the entirety of the script.
They describe their craft and its impact on its impact on their lives. They talk about the unexpected ways the modern world affects their vocation (the racial clash in Charlottesville that rocked the nation as Monahon was researching her show serves as a disturbing pivot point). They grapple with the question, "Am I laughable?" and decide they are not.
And they poignantly express yearning felt in one form or another by most historical society affiliates, to return to a past world that feels more comprehensible and worth inhabiting because we know how the story ends.
O'Shaughnessy says Monahon wrote in the play's turning point, the modern intrusion of racial ugliness, because she had to, and did a good job balancing the laughs inherent in a deeply eccentric pastime and respect for the passion and sense of higher calling it entails. "She was reasonably fair about that. She portrayed the oddities where they were oddities, and rationality where there was rationality and she included a little bit of magic."
O'Shaughnessy good-naturedly allowed how he'd have loved to have all three hours of his interview worked into the script, but understands well why his character (played by Ryan Spahn) really only has a few pure O'Shaughnessy lines - and a terrific story about losing one's sense of fiction and swinging a real sword at reenactors attempting to seize a cannon. O'Shaughnessy is a techie at the Footlight Players in Jamaica Plain, and knows well the constraints and vagaries of scriptwriting and the stage.
But not what it's like to be trodding the boards in the third person. "I was very interested to hear my words spoken to me from the stage, by someone's else's voice. It was a bit fascinating, and, I was measuring the distance between what I said and how I said it, and how he said it."
O'Shaughnessy said both actor and playwright got him right, and he delighted in meeting Spahn after the performance. The actor clearly enjoyed the odd encounter too. "I think it closed a loop for both of us," O'Shaughnessy said. "I told him that he played me better than I do."
What's next for the show? Monahon just learned it's going to have another run in NYC, and she's interested in connecting with still more reenactors. And it's not implausible that the show could be staged in Lexington (watch this space….)
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
Lexington Historical Society has a very clear mission: to be a premier interpreter of the events of April 1775, and the faithful steward of all of the town's history through time. Working with events surrounding April 1775 has always, understandably, been very important to us and our mission. However, particularly in recent years, we have made a conscious effort to better uphold the latter part of our mission statement.
We are endeavoring to focus on areas of Lexington history that are more recent, more diverse, and less prominent, and we have been making this a priority going forward. For example:
In continuation of these efforts, this past Saturday, February 8, Lexington Historical Society had the honor of partnering with Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL) to co-sponsor an event during Black History Month: “The Black History Project of Lexington.” The goal of this program was to endeavor to better document the history of the black experience in town by inviting individuals to stop by and tell us their stories. We requested that participants either be willing to take part in an oral history interview and/or donate (or allow us to scan) some of their photographs and documents. We described the event as an opportunity to “help historians build a clear and complete picture of Lexington’s multiracial history.”
Though it is not yet open for researchers, this was the first collections related event to officially take place at our brand new Archives and Research Center (ARC), and we were thrilled to be able to use the space publicly for the first time in such a meaningful and important way. We plan for this to be the inaugural event for a further initiative and partnership with ABCL. Also, stay tuned for details on the ARC's official opening later this spring!
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Silk, linen, steel needles. How would you make a sampler without these items? Or, more appropriately, with what would you replace them if you were boycotting the British manufacture and import of said items?
This sampler was completed by Bethiah Hastings of Lexington at age 8. She would have been just 3 years old at the spinning protest of 1769, but her mother or older sisters may have attended that event to protest British textile imports. The Hastings household may have given up that boycott fervor by 1774 and Bethiah may have used items imported from England for this sampler.
Or Bethiah may have completed the sampler on New England linen using silk thread and steel needles that predated the Townsend Acts. Wool thread from local sheep would have been available, and possibly needles made of horn or bone. Neither silk weaving nor steelmaking were sufficiently advanced by 1774 in New England to say for sure if she could have accessed local needles or silk.
We have no way of knowing where its component pieces came from, but considering this one object helps us understand how the trade conflicts with England may have affected everyday life for patriot women in Lexington.
How many of your favorite items are imported? How would you feel if you no longer had access to them?
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.