From Chasubles to Spider Puppets: The Lessons, Joys, and Challenges of Curating at Burns Library

A new Burns Library exhibit, The Object in the Archives: Networks & Materiality at John J. Burns Library is on display through June, 2018. Comprised of objects from 30 different collections at Burns Library, this exhibit examines how an object moves from personal possession to archival object and the relationships and connections that develop between and across objects, collections, and researchers. This project had its genesis in two distinct places; the first was my own scholarly work in Victorian literature, new materialisms, and material culture studies and the ways in which matter and materiality are active and independent.(1) The second was a casual comment I made over the summer while I was working that I enjoyed helping with exhibits but had never had the chance to curate one. Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services and Engagement at Burns, suggested that I pitch a proposal for an exhibit and The Objects in the Archives began to take shape.

Given my interest in material culture, the objects in Burns Library’s collection were a natural focus for my exhibit. I established the central idea—the connections between object and researcher, past and present—and then started exploring Burns to see what artifacts were available. This exploration including talking to individual staff members about some of their favorite objects in the collections, searching finding aids of unfamiliar collections for artifacts, and looking for objects that fell into categories of particular interest to me, such as textiles. The joy of the early stages of exhibit development is the possibility: there are so many choices! As I learned more about individual collections and artifacts, I began to trace networks of connectivity between items that helped to focus my searches and choices. At this point the technical side of exhibit development began. I met with Katherine Fox and Amy Braitsch, Head Archivist, to discuss the topic of the exhibit and the types of artifacts I was interested in displaying. Katherine and Amy affirmed my topic, asked questions, suggested objects, outlined care and use guidelines, and provided me with a general timeline and task list to follow.

Continue reading

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The Contention of The Bards: Loyalty, Learning, & Literature

Map of Ireland, split into the 4 provinces

The four provinces of Ireland, demonstrating the progression of English conquest in Ireland and the migration of English and Scottish settlers to Ireland, circa 1515-1625. This was the context in which The Contention of The Bards took place.

Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh, or The Contention of The Bards (c. 1616-1624), was a series of polemical poems sparked by The Flight of the Earls (1608, itself a result of the English victory against Aodh Mór Ó Néill and his Irish forces in the Nine Years War, 1594-1603) that pit the poets of Munster against those of Ulster. Curiously, the Contention is often neglected by scholars, despite its fascinating insights into Irish responses to the calamities caused by the English victory in the Nine Years War. It is also a strong look into the obscure world of the Irish poet class and their systems of knowledge and learning. Fortunately, the Burns Library has a physical copy of the only collection of the poems translated into English.These poems, upon close inspection, remain relevant not just to our understanding of Irish history but also to our contemporary debates surrounding “knowledge” and “truth.”

Photograph of book binding with gold Celtic medallion

McKenna, Lambert. Iomarḃáġ Na ḃfileaḋ : The Contention of the Bards. Irish Texts Society (Series) ; v. 20, 21. London: Published for the Irish Texts Society by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1918. Green binding featuring a gold Celtic style medallion and the series title, title, and author’s name in gold text.

The Contention began when a Munster poet, Tadhg mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha (Tadhg Mac Brody, 1570-1652), criticized fifth century historical poet Torna. In so doing, Tadhg challenged the legitimacy and supremacy of the great septs of Ulster. Predictably, this sparked the poets of Ulster to defend their patrons. In this time, Irish elites, poets, and political leaders were loyal first and foremost to their septs and interested in their own local interests. Even in the Nine Years War, leaders of Irish septs chose whether to join the rebellion, fight against it, or remain neutral primarily based on their understanding of what would benefit their own position.

Image of Irish Manuscript

P. 370, Keating, Geoffrey. ?1507-?1644. Foras Feasa Ar Eirinn, [i.e. History of Ireland] transcribed by William Sheehan, 1737- 1755, at Coolemhota (MS.1986.085.005), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In fact, Tadhg’s patron, Donogh O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond and leader of the great O’Brien sept, was one of the most important leaders of the loyalist forces. His motivations were in no small part because of his desires to have the crown reallocate County Clare—where he held part of his estate—to the province of Munster, where he held greater political power.In early modern Ireland, loyalty and identity were determined first and foremost by one’s sept and its own local interests. This was plainly reflected in the poems of the Contention: of the 13 poets and their 30 poems, only a single poem from Mathghamhain O hIfearnain (Mahon O Heffernan, 1585-?) questioned this regionalism and tried to redirect attention to the Sasanach (English) threat.3

The regionalism, competing loyalties, and colonialist context, to the Contention are fascinating and of great historical significance- as such, they warrant greater historical attention. However, a singular focus on the politics of the poems would obscure an equally fascinating insight into the learned world of the Gaelic poet class. The poems demonstrate not just regional and familial loyalties but, also, profound learning and extensive education. The poets from both sides- who all would have been educated in Irish, Latin, and Greek- drew from the Bible and Classical Greek texts as well as Irish mythical-history to argue their points. The Contention, in fact, was primarily a debate over Irish mythical-history.

It is perhaps wise not to try to explain the erudite, verbose, and complicated histories debated amongst the poets in the Contention. It is worth mentioning, however, that the crux of the debate centered on the mythical-history of the supposed division of Ireland, north and south, and, subsequently, which half was better than the other. They traded boasts of their respective kings and insults to the other’s supposed kings, and they also argued over which half had produced more High Kings of Ireland. Much of the content of the debate came from Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), a work of Irish-mythological history written in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was believed that the book contained absolute “truths” and,  in medieval and early modern Ireland, was taken as the source of legitimate knowledge about Irish history. Thus, all the poets frequently referred to it to bolster their claims.

The grounding and legitimation of knowledge in written texts was not new then, nor is it outdated now. However, it is something that appears to be increasingly questioned in our contemporary society. The example of the Contention might give credence to such skepticism. Surely we do not believe the mythical components of Ireland’s medieval texts that the poets in the Contention seemed to believe. Further, it is fair to note that the “knowledge” contained in the books served to empower the great families and septs who were the ones who patronized the poets- in other words, the promulgation of the knowledge of Ireland’s medieval texts served the poets’ own interests and that of their patrons. Nonetheless, this does not negate the merits of learning, written texts, and the endeavor for knowledge.

The commitment to critical understanding of the world and the academic process is not an endeavor that should be abandoned merely because it can never be perfect. In today’s world, academia is secular and mostly independent of power-sources. More importantly, there is a strict process of verifiable-research procedures and a demand on scholars, especially historians and other humanists, to maintain a degree of skepticism and caution with all evidence sources. Through critical dialogue and scholarly conventions, scholars today have developed an impressive understanding of our world in the various fields of knowledge, i.e. biology, chemistry, history, math, etc.

We here at Boston College, and especially at John J. Burns Library, remain committed to this project. After all, it was the fact that these poems were written down and preserved that we even know of their existence.

  • Michael Bailey,  Student Assistant to Kathleen Williams and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History

Works Consulted:

  1. Ed. Rev. L. McKenna, S.J., MA. Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh: The Contention of The Bards (London: Irish Texts Society, 1918). The Burns’ copy is also that from which the digitization of the work derived from:;view=1up;seq=7
  2. Boylan, Henry. “O’Brien, Donough,” A Dictionary of Irish Biography. 3rd ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1998. Burns Library, Boston College.
  3. Mathghamhain O hIfearnain, Poem XI, in ed. Rev. McKenna, Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh, 113.
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In His Own Grave: Undertaker Thomas Murray’s Record of St. Augustine Cemetery Burials, 1833-1839

1840 Janury 7
Thomas Murray
59 yrs
in his own grave
Buried from South Boston
~~ Final entry in Thomas Murray’s record ~~

In 21 pages of closely written entries in a slim 8″ x 10” notebook, undertaker Thomas Murray (1774-1840) listed the names of those he buried. This partial record of interments at Boston’s earliest Catholic burying ground, St. Augustine Cemetery, was kept by Murray during a six-year period beginning in 1833. The newly-digitized document can now be viewed online.

Prior to the establishment of St. Augustine Cemetery in the then-newly-developing neighborhood of South Boston, the remains of Boston’s Catholics were interred in cemeteries not consecrated by the Church. Boston’s first Bishop, Jean-Louis Cheverus (1768-1836) established St. Augustine Cemetery with the support of Augustinian priest Fr. Philip Lariscy, who raised the money for the project. When Cheverus’ dear friend, Rev. Dr. Francis Matignon, died in September, 1818, the cemetery was not yet opened, and Matignon’s body was kept in a tomb at Boston’s Granary burying ground.  Three months after his death, Matignon was interred at St. Augustine Cemetery in a service presided over by Cheverus. Remains of other area Catholics were also moved to the new cemetery, whose mortuary chapel was dedicated July 4, 1819. The oldest extant Catholic church in Massachusetts, St. Augustine Cemetery Chapel is now part of Gate of Heaven-St. Brigid parish collaborative.

Library of Congress photo

St. Augustine Chapel, St. Augustine Cemetery, Dorchester Street, South Boston, Suffolk County, MA. 1933.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress.

The fragile pages of Murray’s record list names and ages in chronological order, beginning in October 1833 and ending with Murray’s own death. Some entries identify places and causes of death, or include additional notes such as “city poor,” “alms house,” or “house of industry.” Names of parents and spouses are occasionally identified, and sometimes information about payment is recorded.

The locations listed are primarily street addresses, but also include neighborhoods, or towns and cities outside Boston. One notably frequent location, “Cregys,” is Craigie’s Point, a neighborhood in East Cambridge. Hospitals and other institutions are mentioned – along with the occasional schooner or railroad. It is the city’s waterfront neighborhoods, particularly the North End, whose addresses dominate the record.

Reading death records from any time period is a grim experience, and examination of these is no exception. One confronts disease (typhus, cholera, croup, fits, whooping cough) and many types of accident. The names of the ledger’s dead are almost entirely Irish and their ages rarely exceed fifty years. Infant and child mortality is plainly evident.  Stillborn children are entered with a parent’s name. The locations of the burials are recorded as grave numbers (4, 11, etc.) or by owner’s name (“Collins grave,” “Cain’s grave,” “my tomb”).


Detail of ledger page including the burial of Ursuline nun, Sister St. Henry (Catherine Mary Quirk), October, 1834. Thomas Murray Family Papers (MS2000.017).

In primarily Protestant Massachusetts in the early 19th century, assimilation of Catholic immigrants wasn’t without conflict. In August, 1834, a mob of anti-Catholics in Charlestown (now Somerville), rioted and burned down Mt. Benedict, a school for girls operated by nuns of the Ursuline order. One nun who endured the violence, Sister St. Henry, died of tuberculosis a few months after the destruction of the school. She was buried at St. Augustine, and is included in this record. Burns also has a small collection related to the school.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1774, undertaker Thomas Murray arrived in Boston in 1810 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1814. He was sexton of St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery from the time they were established. He also owned a Catholic bookstore in Boston. Murray married Margaret Murphy in 1821 in a ceremony officiated by Bishop Cheverus, who would become a close friend of the family, and for whom the couple named their first son. The Murrays lived in South Boston and had six children. The undertaking ledger is just one part of a larger collection of Murray family material held at the Burns Library.

MS2000.017.01.03 naturalization

Detail of Thomas Murray’s naturalization certificate, 1814. Thomas Murray Family Papers (MS2000.017).

The Archdiocese of Boston Archives holds other records of St.  Augustine cemetery, including burials, 1850-1859; lot sales, 1840-1859; copies of gravestones, 1819-1850; and a list of graves copied from original records, undated. The website Find A Grave includes over 740 entries associated with the cemetery. Deaths in the Murray ledger are also represented in copies of Boston death records available online.

The long and interesting story of St. Augustine Cemetery and Chapel, including their place in South Boston history, their deterioration, renovation, preservation, and – most importantly – the people connected to them, is documented in many sources and publications. The John J. Burns Library is happy to add this record to them.

Shell   Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist, John J. Burns Library

Related collection:

Works consulted:


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Irish Collections at Boston College

IMG_5967 (1)The Irish Institute at Boston College hosted Justin Dolan Stover, Assistant Professor of Transnational European History at Idaho State University, for five weeks during the summer of 2017. This brief research stint provided him time and workspace to explore John J. Burns Library collections relevant to his work, and to take advantage of the O’Neill Library’s valuable resources, as well. Dr. Stover’s current work considers the environmental impact of the Irish Revolution, which provides contrasting guerrilla and counter-insurgency examples to larger-scale war damage, displacement, and environmental nationalism in modern Europe. As you’ll read below, Boston College resources greatly contributed to his research!

Irish Collections at Boston College

It is difficult to assess the overall worth or application of the Burns Library Irish collections, or the important resources available on the shelves of the Bapst and O’Neill libraries. There are numerous holdings unique to Boston College, while other more widely known collections are also readily available, permitting students and the general public access to records replicated from holdings in Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. For five weeks, I moved freely between the Burns special collections and more general resources, often detouring to recharge with a BC Bolt in the Hillside Café. Here are a few elements that really struck me about BC’s collections and their accessibility.

I imagine it’s easy to take for granted the variety of material available for Irish studies scholars and students at Boston College. Its book collections not only reflect an acquisition of the most recent scholarship but also contain rare volumes essential to the field. In certain cases, these books are reserved for use in the Burns Library, but many are also available at the O’Neill Library. I express surprise (delight) at this because of the joy I experience in perusing shelves, and because it allows for a much more organic approach to secondary source research. My Alma Mater, Trinity College Dublin, had/has world-class collections, but its volumes were too often stored off-site and needed to be called to campus – a minor inconvenience, but one that the luxury of a five-story library on a hill easily overcomes. Moreover, O’Neill library’s digital scanners allowed me to capture a great deal of material for future reference – a necessity for those on brief research trips.

The Burns Library’s archival holdings represent BC’s unique approach to acquisition, with rich and diverse literary, historical, and artistic material available to scholars exploring a variety of disciplinary sub-fields. The Thomas and Kathleen Clarke Collection, for example, contains the type of political material one would expect from a Fenian family. Poetry, news clippings, and unique photos of the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising buttress the more enchanted items, such as the scarf worn by Tom Clarke. However, you can also find items that permit a view beyond the political atmosphere of revolutionary Ireland and legend of its leaders. For example, Kathleen Clarke’s sons’ correspondence includes numerous postcards of cartoon cats in humorous situations, foundational evidence for future historians examining society’s obsession with feline shenanigans.



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More serious material, preserved during Kathleen Clarke’s tenure as Lord Mayor of Dublin, presents highlights an important gender equality narrative concerning her suitability for the office. (“Women’s Brains As Good As Men’s,” Daily Sketch, 25 August 1939). The Molly Flannery Woods’ papers also illustrate a deeply documented life, which can be further cross-examined in her witness statement to the Bureau of Military History, a way of extending the relevancy of the BC collections and corroborating historical documents.

Dublin and London are historically rich, beautiful cities with archives and libraries that provide a foundation for studying Irish history. However, limited time, resources, and accessibility (opening times, digital photography policies, off-site collections) may not allow for extended stays. For those studying the modern period – particularly Ireland under the Union, 1801-1922 – the O’Neill Library contains microfilm of some of the most significant files documenting the British administration in Ireland – the infamous CO 904 series. These records include police reports, rebel suspect profiles, agrarian outrage summaries, and returns on political violence, and  permit undergraduate, graduate, and even postgraduate students to establish a solid foundation of primary source research in Boston before travelling abroad. The Colonial Office records are complemented by the vast collection of Irish newspapers housed in O’Neill. However, the greatest asset (I believe) is BC’s microfilm readers, which allow for continuous, automatic scanning to USB key, saving time and allowing visitors to maximize their research!

I was able to access and examine many newspapers that I had failed to consult in Dublin. The Irish Builder and Engineer, for example, provided a glimpse into Irish architects’ attitudes toward Dublin’s reconstruction and how best to utilize the bricks and other building materials from damaged structures.  The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal provided equally novel approaches to revolutionary activity, as well as a more nuanced explanation of martial law and its application. Labour and agricultural concerns are also well represented, with issues of Bottom Dog, Land, and Irish Homestead in ready supply.

Environmental Humanities at Boston College

During my stay, my primary research concern was to explore Irish collections connected to the environmental humanities. Of immediate relevance to the revolutionary period (1916-23) are the outrage reports (CO 904/148-50) that detail the date, location, and severity of damage wrought on built environments. “The Weekly Summary,” compiled by Dublin Castle and circulated amongst police and soldiers, provides an additional British-centric view of the conflict and its impact on the urban landscape. However, the libraries also boast a deep secondary source catalogue, which includes classic works, new releases, and lesser-known titles, such as Redfern Mason, Rebel Ireland, and Wilfrid Ewart, A Journey in Ireland 1921. Other material outside the immediate revolutionary period provides a view toward Irish interpretations of environment, its manipulation, and restoration. For instance, the Bapst Library shelves relevant art and architectural history, including JoAnne Marie Mancini, Keith Bresnahan, Architecture and Armed Conflict: the Politics of Destruction; Anne Tucker Will Michels, Natalie Zelt, War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath; and Moises Saman, Witness to Man’s Destruction: This is War.

One of the most intriguing books I discovered was a small volume that detailed the Catholic Church’s response to contemporary environmental issues. Published in 1980, Environmental Problems in Ireland: A Report to the Churches, presents a straightforward, ecclesiastic argument about environmental protection: “God made the Earth, the Sea and the Sky. … Ireland should use and not abuse the natural resources of our land, which are God’s gift.” However, the period’s prevailing para-military violence, political divide, and mounting social issues in Northern Ireland and the Republic did not deter recommenders from citing the need for cross-border efforts to combat pollution and environmental damage. This small volume, tucked away in the Burns Library, helped to broaden my own approach toward the environmental history of Ireland. One that, like so many other sub-disciplines of Irish history, moves between various spatial and chronological scales, which incorporates diverse voices and interpretations, and is often informed from the most unlikely of sources. Much of this material finds its home at Boston College, which I look forward to visiting again soon!

  • BC-Ireland photo July 2015 (1)Dr. Justin Dolan Stover, Assistant Professor of Transnational European History at Idaho State University and Burns Library Visiting Researcher, Summer 2017

Justin Dolan Stover holds an M.A. in 20th Century Irish History from University College Dublin, and a Ph.D. from Trinity College Dublin. He has held various research fellowships, including the William B. Neenan, S.J. Fellowship at Boston College Ireland, which he served in 2015. His research has explored the social impacts of war and violence in Europe, touching on the processes of identity formation and loyalty, trauma and memory during the First World War and Irish Revolution. He has published widely on the Irish Revolution. Recent publications include: “‘Shattered Glass and Toppling Masonry’: War Damage in Paris and Dublin,” in Paris – capital of Irish culture: France, Ireland and the Republic, 1798–1916; “Families, Vulnerability and Sexual Violence during the Irish Revolution,” in Perceptions of Pregnancy: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century; and “Violence, Trauma, and Memory in Ireland: The Psychological Impact of War and Revolution on a Liminal Society, 1916-1923,” in Aftershock: Psychological Trauma and the Legacies of the First World War. He has also collaborated with Century Ireland on a piece about the destruction of Dublin during the Easter Rising.

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The Beanpot: A Midwinter Staple

The start of the second semester at Boston College means the illustrious Beanpot Tournament is right around the corner. On the first two Mondays of February the 66th Beanpot tournament will take place at the TD Garden. Students and fans of Boston College, Boston University, Harvard College, and Northeastern University will flock to the Garden to cheer on their team with the hopes that their team is lifting the Beanpot at the end. At all four participating schools, the Beanpot has become a chance to show school spirit and is a focal point for many rivalries among the teams.

1952 Beanpot coaches from all 4 colleges

1952 Beanpot coaches. Standing (left to right): Snooks Kelley (BC), Harry Cleverly (BU), Herb Gallagher (Northeastern). Seated: Cooney Weiland (Harvard) from P. 11, The Beanpot: Fifty Years of Thrills, Spills, and Chills by Bernard M. Corbett, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Despite its current status in Boston hockey, the Beanpot Tournament was devised by the Boston Arena’s manager, Walter Brown, merely as a way to fill dates and sell tickets. On December 26, 1952 the first Beanpot, called the New England Invitational Tournament, took place in the Boston Arena.  At the time, the Boston Arena was the home rink for all four teams. Before the first tournament, representatives from the Arena and the four schools came together to coordinate the tournament. A rotating schedule, that is still used today, was devised to allow each college the chance to play each of the other three in successive years. 5,105 fans were in attendance at the opening rounds of the inaugural tournament. Fewer than 1,000 seats were left empty, exceeding all expectations. Boston College lost their first round game to Harvard and Boston University beat Northeastern in their first round game. Boston College went on to win the consolation game against Northeastern and Harvard beat Boston University in the first tournament’s championship game.    

Boston College forward Wimpy Burtnett from first BC team to play in the Beanpot

Boston College forward Wimpy Burtnett from first BC team to play in the Beanpot from P. 10, The Beanpot: Fifty Years of Thrills, Spills, and Chills by Bernard M. Corbett, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

However, Boston College did not have to wait long for their first Beanpot Tournament championship. The following year multiple changes were made to the tournament. The tournament moved from December to January, adopted the name, the Beanpot, and began taking place in Boston Garden. Coming in to the second tournament in 1954, Boston College was favored to win it all. They had an 8-1 record and were third in the Hockey East. In the first round of the second tournament, BC beat Northeastern 8-5 to advance to the championship game, where they beat Harvard 4-1.

The years following BC’s first win (1956-1963) were known for the BC-Harvard rivalry. In all but one tournament in this seven year span either BC or Harvard was in the final. BC became the first team to win back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957, and won five titles overall during the seven year span. During this period, the Beanpot began to be played on the “first-two-Mondays-in-February” as it still is to this day. After this era of intense rivalry, it would be another eighteen years until BC and Harvard met again in the tournament title game.

Boston College defenseman Tom "Red" Martin

Boston College defenseman Tom “Red” Martin from P. 30, The Beanpot: Fifty Years of Thrills, Spills, and Chills by Bernard M. Corbett, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In the midst of the BC-Harvard rivalry, defenseman Tom “Red” Martin became a BC and Beanpot legend. Martin played the entire 1961 championship game except for the two minutes he had to sit out due to a penalty. Not only did Martin play almost the entire game, but he also scored the game winning goal, earning himself tournament MVP.   

BC continued to be a staple of the championship game for the next few years. In 1963, 1964, and 1965, BC won three straight Beanpot titles, becoming the first team to do so. However, BC hit a drought after 1965, and went eleven years without a Beanpot championship. The drought was finally ended in 1976 when a struggling BC team beat BU in the championship game. BC’s struggles of the mid 60s and 70s continued in the early 80s. BC was in the championship game from 1979-1982, but lost each time despite being favorites in many of the years. In 1983, BC was once again in the final, but finally prevailed with a win against Northeastern. The rest of the 80s were a struggle for BC and they went another eleven years without a championship. BC’s tournament win ended an eleven year drought and came about in spectacular fashion. BC came in as the underdog in both of their games and won both games in overtime to bring the Beanpot back to BC.  

KIC Image 3

Boston College goalie and 2010 Beanpot MVP, John Muse from P. 116, Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room by Tom Burke and Reid Oslin, John. J Burns Library, Boston College

After 41 tournaments in the Boston Garden, the tournament continued onto its present home in TD Garden. Although BC struggled in the 90s, with only one win, they rose to prominence once again in the 2000s and 2010s. In the 2000s and 2010s BC has been in 13 championship games, winning 9 of them. From 2010 to 2014, BC won five Beanpot tournaments in a row, and BC’s most recent win came in 2016.

One week from today, fans will gather in the TD Garden to cheer on their teams and watch some good college hockey. In what Jerry York has deemed, “the beginning of trophy season,” each team hopes in the end they will hold up the trophy and have bragging rights over their cross-town rivals. The BC team, students, and fans will be looking for BC’s 21st Beanpot Tournament win.

Natalie Spindler, Boston College Class of 2020 and Burns Library Reading Room Assistant

Works Consulted:

Corbett, Bernard M. The Beanpot: Fifty Years of Thrills, Spills, and Chills. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002        
Burke, Tom, and Reid Oslin. Tales From the Boston College Hockey Locker Room. New York: Sports Publishing, 2014   

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Boston in the Early Republic

The John J. Burns Library’s Boston collection houses approximately 4,500 works about the city and its neighboring municipalities. While the majority of this collection encompasses material from the 19th and 20th centuries, as a result of the remarkable growth in population, literacy, and print culture following industrialization, the collection also includes works from the late 18th and early 19th centuries which afford an insight into life in the early years of the American republic.

War Map

A map of troop positions during the Revolutionary War from Almanack by Nathaniel Low, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Nathaniel Low’s Almanack, For the Year of Christian Era, 1777 offers some glimpses into the intensity of revolutionary sentiment in the year following the outbreak of the war. The almanac contains the typical calendrical and meteorological information, including information on the year’s eclipses and holidays, and weather predictions. But New England farmers looking for advice on when to grow their crops would also find a heady dose of pro-Revolutionary propaganda. A full page map of the military campaign in New York follows the list of notes on high tides, and the monthly charts are immediately proceeded by a two-page “Address to the Tories,” which leaves no question as to Low’s sympathies: “I expect nothing that I can say, will in the least alter the corrupt bias of your minds; you are too far advanced in your wicked apostasy to afford the least ray of hope that you will ever be recovered” (Low 1777, 4). Additionally, every monthly chart begins with six lines of political verse. The lines prefacing the chart for January exemplify the tone of these:

Let tyrants rage, and sycophants exclaim,
Let Tories grumble, parasites defame,\
And all the herd of trembling despots roar
And lot revenge; — dependence is no more.
‘Tis Independence that we will maintain,
And Britain’s tyrant shall no longer reign. (Low 1777, 6)

 The almanac abandons revolutionary agitation in its final pages, focusing on general life advice and lists of the principal roads and inns in New England. One particularly tongue-in-cheek entry on the back cover adds a note of dark humor:

Wood Recipe

From the back cover of Low’s AlmanackJohn J. Burns Library, Boston College

Low’s Almanack may have succeeded in finding levity in cold and privation, but there were even grimmer facts of life in 18th century Boston. Among the grimmest were major outbreaks of Yellow Fever in 1796 and 1798.  At a meeting on January 6th, 1800, the Trustees of the Humane Society established a prize of “piece of plate… to the value of Fifty Dollars” for a comprehensive study of the disease, including “…the circumstances of importation; the situation of places in which it appeared; the waters used by the inhabitants; the diet and occupations of the persons most affected by the disease; the state of the atmosphere previous to and at the time of its prevalence; together with all such accidental causes, as may have concurred in the generation of the epidemic…” (Brown 1800, iii). The winner was Samuel Brown’s Treatise on the Nature, Origin and Progress of the Yellow Fever. Brown’s Treatise focuses particularly on the more intense 1798 outbreak, which it traces to the family of one “Mr. Stoddard, in Fore-street.” Brown’s description of the area where the outbreak began paints a bleak picture of 18th century Boston:

The marketplace is a low, sunken part of the town. It is, from situation, the reservoir of every putrid matter, flowing in from more elevated parts of the town, and accumulated by every rain. It is surrounded with docks of stagnant waters, filled with offal and all manner of noxious matters, which, becoming putrid, throw up, at every ebb of tide, a stench very disagreeable to the adjacent inhabitants.  (Brown 1800, 22)

He describes another affected area, Cross Street, as dominated by ““the exhalations of

Boston 1775

A map of Boston from 1775. Many of the city’s current neighborhoods were still ocean in the 18th century, having been subsequently created by large-scale infill projects. (From Wikimedia Commons; public domain.)

putrid collections in a cellar in this street, which had been gathering for three years, without removal. They were so offensive, that it was necessary to bestrew the cellar with several hogsheads of lime, before any person could be hired to clean it” (Bown 1800, 23).

For those looking for a diversion from the city’s unsanitary conditions, one option – at least, for able-bodied men – was to join the Boston Light Infantry. The Light Infantry ratified its Constitution in 1803, its stated purpose being “To give energy and direction to that military spir[it] when we deem ornamental in peace and our security in war” (Boston Light Infantry, 1808, 3). Citizens looking to join the militia had to be over 18 years old and approved by a vote of at least five-sixths of the members present at the meeting at which he was nominated (3). They were also required, within fifteen days of admittance, to pay a fee of $12, a rather substantial sum in 1808, and to pay for their own uniform, the description of which does not suggest a cheap article:

…a Light-Infantry-Coat of dark blue Broadcloth, trimmed with gold lace, with scarlet facings, cape and cuffs, and yellow metal buttons; white cassimere vest and pantaloons, edged with blue; black cloth half gaiters, with scarlet tops; black silk stock; helmet with a crest of red hair, red sash, brass eagle and bindings… (Boston Light Infantry 1808, 4)

The expenses required suggest that this organization’s membership was de facto closed to Boston’s lower socioeconomic classes – the people who usually do the bulk of fighting in infantries. It appears, though, that the Boston Light Infantry did not particularly anticipate much, if any, combat, to judge from the priority given to the articles in their constitution. Article 21 mandates an annual uniformed parade on October 18th, and Article 23 outlines payment for public dinners. Actual fighting is not mentioned anywhere until Article 27, the second to last item in this constitution: “As this Company has been associated to form a Corps prepared at all times to resist sudden invasion, and repress internal commotions, every member hereby pledges himself to be ready at a moment’s warning… and that unless commanded, he will never quit his standard, until forced from it by an Honorable Death” (Boston Light Infantry 1808, 8). Had they truly expected to be called upon to defend the Commonwealth, this martial sentiment might have been expected earlier, but it seems the Light Infantry anticipated a higher likelihood of serving as an “ornament in in peace” than as a “security in war.”

From these texts, we can see a Boston unrecognizable from the modern, cosmopolitan city of 2018. The city began to take its current shape during the large-scale immigration and industrialization of the later 1800s. In subsequent installments, we’ll return to the Boston Collection to see what light it can cast on how the city came to be what it is today.

  • Eric Pencek, Reading Room Assistant, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted

Brown, Samuel. A treatise on the nature, origin and progress of the yellow fever, with observations on its treatment : comprising an account of the disease, in several of the capitals of the United States, but more particularly as it has prevailed in Boston. Boston : Printed by Manning & Loring April, 1800.

Constitution of the Boston Light Infantry : established, May, 1798, revised and ratified, January, 1803. Boston : Printed by Belcher and Armstrong 1808.

Low, Nathaniel. An Astronomical Diary, or, Almanack For the Year of Christian Era, 1777; being the first year after bissex-tile or leap year, and the first year of American independence which began July fourth, 1776: containing every thing necessary for an almanack.
Boston: Printed by J. Gill in Queen Street, and T. and J. Fleet in Cornhill 1777.

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A Roycroft Book, the Perfect Gift for a Jesuit Professor

cover of Essays of Elia

Cover from Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb, East Arurora NY: Roycrofters, 1899 PR 4861 .A1 1899 GENERAL

The John J. Burns Library has many interesting and historic books that are also noteworthy for their bindings. One such book is the Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb (1775-1834), an English writer and essayist. This particular edition of Lamb’s collection of 14 essays was printed and then bound in suede leather at the Roycroft Shop in East Aurora, New York. Elbert Hubbard began the Roycroft Press in 1895, choosing the name “Roycroft” because he admired the printing works by Samuel and Thomas Roycroft, London printers from 1650 to 1690. Hubbard, born in 1856 in Illinois, had been a soap salesman prior to changing careers and becoming an editor, publisher and best-selling author.

The housing of the Essays of Elia boasts a heraldic cover design created by W. W. Denslow, who also illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The small seahorse, visible in the corner of the design stamped on the suede leather cover, is Denslow’s signature.


The chapter headings are graced with charming hand-colored initials, or “illumines,” as described in advertisements by the Roycroft Shop. This book, number 318 in an edition of 970, is signed in the limitation statement by Elbert Hubbard and is  the 27th title printed by the Roycroft Press.


In addition to the noteworthy binding, the Burns Library copy of Essays of Elia is significant to Boston College because it is inscribed to “Father D N Dwyer from the Sears Family.” Daniel N. Dwyer, S.J. was born in Medford, MA and graduated from Boston College High School. After attending Boston College briefly, Dwyer entered the Jesuit Order in 1932 at Shadowbrook. He attended Weston College and Fordham University, and then taught English at the College of the Holy Cross. Fr. Dwyer was ordained in 1942 and taught English at Boston College High School. After further studies at Yale University, he taught in the Boston College English Department from 1947-1979. Fr. Dwyer, in addition to teaching, supported Boston College clubs such as the Fulton Debating Society. The student publication, The Heights, reported on March 1, 1957 “Senate sponsors Skit Competition at Campion Hall,” and  listed the judges, including Rev. Daniel Dwyer SJ, within the article  A second Heights article from October 23, 1959, “Young Poets Series Slated for Spring,” mentions faculty lectures given in support of the series, stating that on April 14 Rev. Daniel Dwyer SJ, was to give a lecture titled “Hart Crane.”

Other than the inscription to Fr. Dwyer, there are no marginal notations in the volume. Whether the book was gifted to him because Charles Lamb was a favorite writer or because he admired the work of the Roycroft Press is not known. The Sears family, in selecting and giving this beautifully printed and bound volume, signaled their high regard for a beloved educator. Perhaps they embraced the Roycroft advertising, “As a gift you probably cannot present anything at equal cost that would be more acceptable than an illumined Roycroft book. Our work is the product of the three H’s: Head, Heart and Hand.”

  • Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted:

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