History of the Azores, or Western Islands

Image of frontispiece of "History of the Azores" showing a man riding a bull and woman carrying a square, wooden pale.

Frontispiece, History of the Azores, DP702.A86 A88 WILLIAMS

You don’t see many books on the Azores in Burns Library, so having traveled to the volcanic islands myself, once in 1995 and once in 2010, this particular book immediately caught my eye. I found it was a fascinating look at the state of the islands 200 years before I visited. It was remarkable to see how some aspects of the islands remain almost the same as they were two centuries ago, such as the caldeiras (more on that topic below).

In 1810, on his way home from South America, Irish writer Thomas Ashe spent time on the Azorean archipelago. While in the Azores, Ashe wrote a series of letters to the Earl of Moira, Francis Rawdon-Hastings. The Earl, an important figure in British politics, was wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill, a Major General in the French Revolutionary wars, and was even considered to replace William Pitt the younger in 1797 as Prime Minister. These letters were eventually collected and published in 1813 as a book titled History of the Azores, or Western islands; containing an account of the government, laws, and religion, the manners, ceremonies, and character of the inhabitants: and demonstrating the importance of these valuable islands to the British Empire.

Image of Map showing the relative position of the Azores to North America, Europe, and Africa,

Map showing the relative position of the Azores to North America, Europe, and Africa, History of the Azores, DP702.A86 A88 WILLIAMS

Thomas Ashe’s goal in writing these letters was to convince the Earl of Moira, and therefore the British government, to obtain the Azores. In letter III Ashe reminds the Earl that Portugal owes Britain large sums of money due to the support of Britain during the Peninsular War, which lasted from 1807-1814. The Portuguese could easily erase that debt by transferring sovereignty of the Azores. Ashe lays out further reasons for acquiring the nine Azorean Islands in letter IV. His first reason is that the Azores, situated between America, Africa and Europe, would make an excellent port for trading with the rest of the world. Second, Ashe argues that Britain needs a colony that can produce wine, which the Azores is perfect for. The third argument is that the Azores would make an excellent military depot for soldiers before they traveled to Africa or the West Indies in order that a soldier’s “blood may be prepared to meet the vicissitudes of those destructive climates.” Ashe further argues that the islands add another military advantage by allowing Britain to deploy troops from there, rather than directly from Great Britain. This would allow troops to reach the Cape of Good Hope and the East and West Indies more quickly. Ashe also suggests that instead of sending prisoners to the colony of New South Wales (Australia), convicts could be sent to the Azores where they could help improve the infrastructure of the islands. While Ashe’s arguments were ultimately unsuccessful in persuading the Earle and the rest of British parliament, his line of reasoning highlights the British empire’s strategic thinking and concerns of the time. Continue reading

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Generations of Fans: Rex Stout, the Baker Street Irregulars, and the Wolfe Pack

The new exhibit here in Burns Library—Golden Spiders and Black Orchids: A ‘Satisfactory’ Look at the Life and Writings of Rex Stout—inspired us to delve a little deeper into the life of American mystery writer Rex Stout.

Rex Stout’s stories featuring armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, have inspired many devoted fans through the years. The Rex Stout related collections in Burns Library all contain examples of fan art and fan events celebrating Stout’s colorful characters. So it is interesting to learn that Rex Stout himself was a fervent fan—of mystery author Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.


Stout’s review of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Box 18, Folder 27, Rex Stout papers (MS1986-096)

Stout’s writings show a clear admiration for Doyle’s famous literary creation. Stout’s own books follow the archetypes set forth by Doyle: the cerebral lead detective (Holmes: Wolfe) and his more down-to-earth partner (Watson: Archie), solving crimes as private detectives. Stout wrote impassioned essays about Sherlock Holmes. The Rex Stout papers include a carbon copies of both Stout’s introduction for The Later Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Heritage Press, 1952), and his review in The New Republic of Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Macmillan, 1933).

Continue reading

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Thomas J. Shamon’s mystery recommendations

While we’re most well-known for our our major collecting areas in Irish history, Jesuitica, and Catholicism, Burns Library also has a strong mystery collection. With over 5,000 volumes, our mystery collection ranges in date from 1827 to 2018, and in language from English to Dutch to Swedish and several in between. It contains books, journals, audio recordings, and one doctoral thesis, all devoted to the mystery genre.

On May 18, 1994, our mystery collection grew even further when Burns Library finalized a gift from Thomas J. Shamon. We don’t know much about him, other than that he came bearing a formidable collection of 19th-21st century English-language mystery fiction, criticism and reference, and he wanted to give all 40 boxes of it to us.

This year we were able to devote the resources to more thoroughly catalog these books.

shows the embossed stamp TSJ, a handwritten rating of C-, and the words “Very, very tiresome” in pencil.

The front flyleaf of Death at Swaythling Court PR6037.T4627 D43 1926

And while we were going through it, we discovered a fun little feature Shamon built in to his collection: In addition to his personal monograph stamp, which is present on the front flyleaf of every book he gave us, he also penciled in his handwritten ratings and reviews of the novels.

Continue reading

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Digging into Funeral Home Records: The Ledgers of J.D. Fallon & Son, Jamaica Plain

Image of Detail of index page, Funeral ledger

Detail of index page, Funeral ledger, 1907-1918, Box 1, J. D. Fallon & Son ledgers, MS.2003-061, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Funeral practices in the United States moved from personal residences to funeral homes in the late 19th century. Until that period, families laid out their own dead, wakes were held in houses, and burials — by necessity — swiftly followed deaths. Undertaking was professionalized in the 1880s as embalming became common, coffins became more elaborate, and other services were offered to mourners. Funeral homes were often founded as family enterprises, remaining so for generations. These businesses built close ties to their neighborhoods, and clientele often came from particular religious, ethnic, or racial groups within their communities. 

Funeral home records were created as business accounts. While some of these records have been transferred to historical societies or libraries, most are still held by the businesses that created them. Burns Library holds one such collection. J.D. Fallon & Son ledgers (MS2003-061) are from a funeral home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. It includes four ledgers of funeral transactions covering the period 1907-1943. 

Image of entry for Mary K. Flate

Entry for Mary K. Flate, p.236, Funeral ledger, 1929-1934, Box 4, J. D. Fallon & Son ledgers, MS.2003-061, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Like many undertakers of their time, Fallon & Son used pre-printed ledgers specifically designed for their work, with each page a template to record the details of the transaction. Depending on the thoroughness of the funeral parlor in completing the template, records could include details:

  • About the deceased: name; address; date, place and cause of death; birthplace; age at death; gender; race; marital status; occupation; parents’ names and birthplaces. 
  • About the funeral: type of casket; service date, time, and place; apparel supplied; candles and flowers; conveyances (carriages, hearse, cars); chairs; newspaper notices; name of church; type of service; date of interment. 
  • About the business transaction: deed information; arrangements to have the body moved or grave opened; name of person making arrangements; itemized charges and payment information.

In addition to providing an avenue for understanding the social customs of communities, these types of records are useful for genealogical and historical research. One ledger entry adds shades to the story of the Owen F. Cummings family. John Cummings, age eight, died of diphtheria and was buried January 4, 1907. His mother, Bridget, was buried fifteen days later. Online genealogical sources provide more information about the Cummings. Bridget’s death certificate gives “acute dilation of heart, one week” as her primary cause of death, with a contributing cause of “intense grief, three weeks.”  Her Boston Globe obituary also provides an account of her death – seemingly of a broken heart over John’s death.

Image of entry for John and Bridget Cummings

Entry for John and Bridget Cummings, page 51, Funeral ledger, 1907-1918, Box 1, J. D. Fallon & Son ledgers, MS.2003-061, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The ledger entry begins with the name of Owen F. Cummings, a stone mason who came to Boston from Vermont with his family in the 1890s. Owen arranged for the funerals of his wife and child through the Fallon funeral home, located a few blocks from the rented apartment where he now lived with three of his four grown children. Eldest son, Eugene (age 25), no longer lived at home at the time of John’s death, because he was studying to be a Jesuit at Woodstock College in Maryland.

The Fallon record shows that Owen bought the deed to a cemetery plot from New Calvary Cemetery at the time of John’s death. Expenses for the two funerals totaled $131.40 (approximately $3700 in 2019). It took the family 11 payments over more than 4 years to settle the bill. With its detailed entry, the record of the funeral and payment adds a layer of information that cannot be seen in other sources.

At a broader level, records like these may be used to uncover evidence of the social customs of the communities they served. An example can be seen in the doctoral dissertation Revelations from the Dead: Using Funeral Home Records to Help Reconstruct the History of Black Toledo by Camillia Z. Rodgers. Using statistical analysis, Rodgers uses data about individuals from funeral home records similar to Fallon & Son’s to build a profile of a community’s development between 1912-1917, adding to the historical record of an under-documented community. Although small in scope, the J.D. Fallon & Son collection likewise provides a lens with which to look closely at individual experiences, and, more comprehensively,at the customs of a Boston neighborhood in the early 20th century.

  • Shelley Barber, Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library


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The Avatar and Fort Hill Community

When we think about the history of cults and communes in the United States, we often jump to the big names: The Manson Family, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Ragjneeshpurams. What we may not consider is that one was operating in our own backyard.

In 1966, musician and writer Mel Lyman founded the Fort Hill Community, a commune centered on what Lyman referred to as neo-transcendentalist spirituality. The community was based around a few homes clustered together in Roxbury, about 5.5 miles from us at John J. Burns Library. It housed as many as sixty members at a time. In its early days, tension between the Fort Hill Community–mostly comprised of white artists and intellectuals from Cambridge–and the neighborhood’s African American residents escalated until Fort Hill Community members could be seen patrolling the perimeter of their property.


The Avatar, Vol. 1. No. 1 June 9-22, 1967. BP605.N48 A93 FLAT STORAGE

From 1967-1968, Lyman, local friends, and commune members ran The Avatar, an underground newspaper geared toward people of like-minded beliefs in the Boston area. The newspaper focused on the power of the Zodiac chart and highlighted counter-cultural activity throughout Boston.

Burns Library houses Lyman’s Avatar newspapers dating from June 1967-April 1968, as well as Pluto, an occult newspaper started by Lyman that ran for one issue in 1970.

Avatar, much like the Fort Hill Community itself, encouraged spiritual freedoms and socio-political liberties common to late 1960s counter-cultural movements, but also localized much of its focus on Lyman as a spiritual leader. While early issues of Avatar seemed to focus on the Boston community and the importance of the Zodiac, by the end of its first year, the newspaper transitioned into almost exclusively radical anti-war content and Lyman’s own thoughts on obtaining the correct kind of spiritual enlightenment. Later issues of Avatar contained several-page spreads of “Letters to Mel,” in which Lyman responded directly to a mixture of devotion to and criticism of his beliefs and practices. One note in the October 13th, 1967 issue declares, “Your cant is singularly repulsive and curiously naive for one who is regarded by his fellows as an ‘Avartar'[sic]–having the evasiveness of a politician and the equivocation of a Greek oracle. I can only surmise that the anti-intellectual climate of your paper is indicative of your movement, and that you, as a self-styled equal of the Buddha, Jesus, and Emerson, leave more to be desired than do a great number of “straight” artists.”

Pluto almost exclusively deals with the significance of the Zodiac in charting our behaviors and choices, and dedicates several pages to exploring Charles Mason’s behavior through his astrological alignment, specifically, fixed Scorpio signs that dictated what the writers’ believed showed he was a man with “debts owed.” The newspaper shifted from local political and cultural highlights and instead focused on supposed “Plutonian” figures of the day, such as Manson and Iggy Pop. Continue reading

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Sound Innovations: Howard Belding Gill and Robert W. Bullock Recordings

Two red vinyl discs

Generally multiple discs were kept together in one sleeve as seen above. Box 3, Howard Belding Gill papers (MS-1995-018)

Many unique or rare archival audio recordings in Burns Library collections have been unavailable to researchers due to the fragility of their storage media (think: cassette tapes, vinyl records, and their predecessors). Any time a recording is played might be its last, so during playback it is important to digitally capture the recorded content for long-term preservation and access. Until recently, the archives of both Howard Belding Gill and Robert W. Bullock contained many hours of recordings that have lingered in silence.

The Howard Belding Gill papers document Gill’s professional career, notably as superintendent of Norfolk Prison Colony and as founder and director of the Institute of Correctional Administration. In addition to the newly available audio recordings of class lectures, events, and dictation, the collection contains artifacts, awards and certificates, clippings, correspondence, notes, photographs, photograph albums, scrapbooks, and typescript, manuscript, and carbon-copy drafts of his writings and speeches.

The Robert W. Bullock papers relate primarily to Bullock’s ministry as a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. In addition to the newly available recordings of his local interfaith radio talk show, “Talking Religion,” the collection includes a significant body of sermons as well as correspondence, manuscripts, meeting information, and photographs.

Photo of Jack Kearney, Digital Archives Specialist, Boston College Libraries

Jack Kearney, Digital Archives Specialist, Boston College Libraries

Jack Kearney is the Digital Archives Specialist in the Boston College Libraries. He has been digitizing hundreds of recordings and lectures from these collections. Gabe Feldstein, Boston College Library’s Digital Publishing & Outreach Specialist, recently chatted with Jack about the digitization process, and what it is like to work with dated and rare audio materials. In a departure from the usual narrative style of our Burns Library blog, we’re pleased to present this interview. Our thanks to the Digital Repositories Team for helping Gabe with this interview and to Jack, for sharing his expertise.

Question: There are so many different types of audio media in Burns Library, especially from the Howard Belding Gill Collection. What was the most difficult to deal with?  Why couldn’t they just make vinyls? 

Answer: While digitizing the Gill Collection, I transferred both audio cassettes and Edison Voicewriter dictation machine discs.  The dictation discs were by far the most challenging format I’ve encountered in my entire career. Audio cassettes, a more familiar format,  have their own problems too, such as cracked or broken plastic shells. This is fixed by simply rehousing the tape. However, and generally speaking, cassettes can provide reliable playback for audio capture if they’ve been stored with adequate temperature and relative humidity control.

The dictation discs were another story altogether.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, personal recordings were made with reel-to-reel tape recorders or dictation machines. One such dictation machine was the Edison Voicewriter, which is likely what Gill used to record his class lectures. 

Image of an Edison Voicewriter vinyl disc

An Edison Voicewriter record. The person being recorded would speak into the “Voicewriter” and then it would be saved on flimsy red vinyls, like the one you see here. The discs are thin to the point of being translucent and flimsy to the touch.

The red vinyl discs used with this machine are significantly flimsier than the more common LPs. However, it was the narrow grooves of the recordings that presented the real obstacle to digital reformatting. The grooves are so narrow that a modern LP stylus (or “needle”) is too large to stay in the groove, which results in incessant skipping.  So I did some research and also got in touch with Karl Fleck, the audio engineer at NEDCC in Andover who had recently transferred our reel-to-reel tape recordings from the James W. Smith and Joe Lamont Irish Music Recordings.  Karl advised me to use a smaller diameter conical stylus as opposed to the traditional modern LP record stylus, which has a larger tip and is elliptical in shape.  We followed his advice, and this conical stylus succeeded in improving playback for a majority of the discs, especially some of those that were basically unplayable before with the original stylus I was using.  There were also some issues with the playback speed varying from disc to disc, but I was able to correct the speed digitally for the access copies using Pro Tools audio software.

Image of two styluses.

The stylus on the right is the newly-ordered stylus with a smaller diameter, compared to the original, standard stylus on the left. If you zoom in very closely, you can see the very tip of the needle and indeed they are different in size, but only barely to the naked eye.

Close-up image of original and new styluses

The image on the left shows the original stylus, the image on the right is the new thinner stylus. Fractions of a millimeter in diameter distinguish the two, but it is enough of a difference to be able to meaningfully digitize these records – the original stylus is too thick.

Question: If the copies that we are listening to now are available digitally, can I get them on my own laptop?

Answer: These particular recordings from Gill are being made available for listening only onsite in the Burns Library Reading Room via a laptop that was set up for this very purpose.  Researchers will know this when they consult the finding aid and request to come in to review the materials. Generally, the archivists at Burns Library assess collections like this for privacy restrictions, copyright, or other concerns, and decide how it should be made accessible.  Access levels are noted in the collection’s corresponding finding aid. For example, the finding aid for the Gill collection notes: “Conditions Governing Access: Phonograph records have been digitally copied; all original media was retained, but may not be played due to format. Digital use copies can only be accessed in the Burns Library Reading Room.” Continue reading

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What has your Congressperson done for you lately?

Politics. It is a topic that elicits a variety of emotional and intellectual responses in our currently very polarized environment. It makes you wonder what the attitudes and perceptions of politics were 20 or even 30 years ago. To shed some light on this topic, Burns Library has embarked on a two-year project to process a number of congressional collections making them available for research and study here at Boston College. Now you might be asking yourself what exactly is in a congressional collection? Simply put–it is the personal papers retained by a member of Congress while they were in office. It can include correspondence from constituents, legislative files on specific bills and resolutions, topics important to the represented district, campaign materials, travel files, invitations, photographs, committee files, and various objects.  

Photo of archival boxes on shelving

Initial survey of donated boxes. Edward P. Boland congressional papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Edward P. Boland donated 200 boxes of his congressional papers to Boston College in 1990. And although I’d like to tell you that everything was clearly labeled and in some sort of recognizable order… I cannot. Typically when a Congressperson leaves office their staff has a very short time to physically clean out their office to make room for the incoming member. When one has served over 30 years in office, the amount of materials produced can be daunting, both for staff and institutions that ultimately take the collection. The organization of congressional collections varies and depends on how good the filing and record keeping of the member’s staff was while they were conducting business on behalf of their district. Complicating matters further are staff changes, changes in the role of the member, and committee assignments.

This is where the archivist comes to save the day! We create a recognizable intellectual and physical organization of the materials so that a researcher can find them and use them. To accomplish this goal, we survey the collection materials, arrange them in a meaningful way, and house them in acid free folders and boxes. At Boston College, this work is being done by two Project Archivists in a modified work space at the Theology and Ministry Library (TML). A short walk down the hill from the John J. Burns Library leads to the Brighton campus, where you can find us working in a large room with lots of tables to spread out the massive amount of papers and objects in these collections and be able to adequately process them. 

The Edward P. Boland congressional papers is one of these collections. Boland was a Congressman in the House of Representatives in the 2nd District of Massachusetts (Western Massachusetts) from 1953-1989. A Democrat, Boland was known for his civility and worked very closely with his colleagues and Republicans on a number of important legislative issues. He was also a contemporary, friend, and, for a time, even a roommate of Tip O’Neill.

While he was in office, he worked on legislation about education, environmental concerns, economic issues, and urban development that shaped the fabric of many policies which still exist today. The materials in the collection often reveal the strong opinions the public and lobbyists had regarding the government and representatives. 

Boland served on the Appropriations Committee for almost his entire career, was a respected member of the Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, and participated in the Iran-Contra investigations in the 1980s. As part of his work on Appropriations, he was heavily involved in NASA’s funding and attended launches, retrievals, and celebrations. 

Working with the collection, it is clear that Boland was very focused and committed to his job as a public servant, and he was always available and willing to help his constituents and, more broadly, Americans. The war in Vietnam was a topic that greatly concerned Boland, and led him and fellow Congressman Silvio Conte on a joint inspection tour in 1966. While there, he met men from Massachusetts in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

Photograph of Boland shaking hands with troops in Vietnam, December 15, 1966

Boland shakes hands with Sgt. Robert C. Rose of Holden, Massachusetts in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, December 15, 1966. Edward P. Boland congressional papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

He never faced serious election opposition, except for a 1968 challenge from Charles V. Ryan, the mayor of Springfield, during the controversy over the closing of the Springfield Armory. After an intense campaign battle, Boland was victorious in his re-election. While these papers are still currently being processed, we anticipate that they will be available for research and study by January of 2020. 

  • Alison Harris, Project Archivist for the Edward P. Boland Congressional Papers
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