New-York Historical Society

“The Science of Government” and the U.S. Constitution

"The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy", Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

“The first Lecture in the Sciences of Geography and Astronomy”, Universal Magazine, London, 1748. PR 68, Subject File

While preparing for a presentation about the intellectual foundations of American political thought, I consulted Donald Lutz’s book A Preface to American Political Theory which offers an interesting introduction into an extremely complicated aspect of American history. Among several things that piqued my interest was Lutz’s discussion of the Enlightenment origin and conception of “political science,” a term we use regularly despite the fact that we rarely associate politics with science directly. As it turns out, understanding the term is a great way to appreciate something of how members of our founding generation saw the government they established.

When we learn about the history of western civilization in school, we’re accustomed to hearing about how Isaac Newton articulated laws describing natural phenomena, including his law of gravity. Even today, the ultimate goal of scientific observation and experimentation — hallmarks of the Enlightenment worldview — is a statement or “law” offering a definitive explanation of an aspect of the natural world. It seems unlikely though that many people feel similarly in the context of politics and government, yet that is precisely how many Enlightenment figures thought.

Rufus King, PR

Rufus King, PR

According to this perspective, the method employed by Newton and his cohorts should apply generally, meaning that the objective of political science was a law explaining the governance of people. It should come as no surprise then that the word science is fairly common in the Federalist Papers, even popping up in phrases such as “science of politics” and “science of government”, conveying their close connection in the minds that generation.

In discussing the integral relationship between science and political theory, Lutz explicitly refers to a juncture in the debates leading to the United States Constitution, where Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson analogizes to explain the nature of the proposed federal system, that offers an overt example of the Enlightenment mind’s influence.

This I found especially intriguing given that the New-York Historical Society holds notes of John Lansing and Rufus King, both of whom were representatives at the convention, for New York and Massachusetts respectively. Because the Constitutional Convention established rules prohibiting public disclosure of the proceedings, these records are exceedingly scarce.

Naturally, I was curious to see if either Lansing or King made specific note of Dickinson’s analogy, and sure enough, on June 7, King notes:

We cannot abolish the states and consolidate them into one Govt. Indeed, if we could I [would?] be against it. Let our Govt be like that of the solar system; let the Genl. Govt. be the Sun + the states the Planets repelled, yet attracted, and the whole moving regularly + harmoniously in their respective Orbits.

Rufus King's "Notes on the Committee of the Whole" 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Rufus King’s “Notes on the Committee of the Whole” 7 June 1787. MS 1660, Rufus King Papers

Given the innumerable variables at work, the idea that government can be boiled down to a “law” in the same way gravity was may sound nothing short of absurd to us. But the more critical lesson this tells us is the intellectual environment in which the founders conceived the American political system, and perhaps revealing something of how they envisioned it functioning.

“We will accept nothing less than full victory!” – Eisenhower


Daily News, June 7, 1944.Vol. 25, No. 298. N-YHS Newspaper Collection

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

June 6, 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The Allied Invasion of Normandy was the largest seaborne invasion in military history. Allied troops consisted of approximately 150,000 service members representing the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Norway and numerous other countries. This strategically organized operation paved the way for the attacks against German-occupied Western Europe, led to the restoration of the French Republic and contributed to a victory for the Allies in World War II. The long-fought battle was not without errors in planning and execution or severe consequences.


U.S. troops on landing craft during training maneuvers in England, spring 1944. PR-076,
WWII Photograph Collection. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

On that first day of battle, there were an estimated 12,000 Allied casualties, over 4,000 of which were men killed in action. Allied codenames for beaches along the 50-mile stretch of Normandy were: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. Omaha suffered the most casualties. Those who lost a loved one as a result of D-Day may beg to differ with the June 7, 1944 headline from Daily News that claimed, “Landings in France made at small cost in men…”

Planning for Operation Overlord, the name assigned to the large-scale assemblage on the Continent, began in 1943. In January 1944, General Eisenhower arrived in England to take command of the invasion forces. Training maneuvers for this amphibious invasion, codenamed Operation Neptune, began shortly thereafter. The photo above shows U.S. troops waiting for orders during pre-invasion training maneuvers.


U.S.S. Nevada heading up the Hudson River, 1944. WWII Photographic Collection. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

An armada stretched across the ocean replete with battleships, cruisers and destroyers. Bombardment ships moved in closer to shore and opened intense fire against the Nazi pillboxes, gun emplacements and entrenchments. Allied troops were supported by an astounding 5,000 ships and landing craft, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes.  Among the vessels contributing to the Battle of Normandy was the U.S.S. Nevada, which had also served during WWI. The U.S.S. Nevada was praised for “her incredibly accurate support of beleaguered troops” during the invasion. She was also the only battleship to be present at both the Pearl Harbor and Normandy landings. Below, sailors watch as the U.S.S. Nevada makes her way up the Hudson River carrying troops returning from Europe.


Letter from Lundgren to his girlfriend, June 7, 1944. Dewayne Lundgren Papers, MS 393

While correspondence was being censored by the military during WWII in an effort to ensure safety, service members wrote many letters home and vice versa. Communicating with family and friends provided a soldier, sailor or airman an opportunity to step outside the battle zone or military training for a moment to connect with a life that probably seemed a world away at the time. The following letters were written by soldiers stationed on base in the U.S. ,who shared what brief news they could with loved ones back home.

In Dewayne Lundgren’s June 7, 1944 letter to his girlfriend, he writes:

I guess you know by now the invasion has taken place. It didn’t cause much excitement here though. We all have been waiting for it so darn long. The only thing that we all are thinking about is that we hope it didn’t cause to many lifes.”

His girlfriend, Bertha, served in the United States Cadet Nurse Corps.

William E. Tufts, Jr. wrote the following lines to his father from Camp Swift, TX, on June 8, 1944:


Letter from Tufts to his father, June 8, 1944. William E. Tufts, Jr. Papers, MS 642

“Well the Second Front has finally started. I heard about it the morning it began but have had no news since.” Before signing off, he says, “Hope this lousy thing is soon over.”


“A soldier’s loveliness epitomized”, 1944. PR- 287, David Mark Olds WWII Collection

In autumn 1944, Captain David Mark Olds, Radio Officer, was still stationed in France. He’d sustained several injuries as a result of fighting in the Battle of Normandy, including shrapnel wounds and a punctured ear drum. The personal photographs he took reveal the devastation caused by bombings in the city but also display the camaraderie, and even a sense of humor, among he and his fellow soldiers. Taken at the enlisted quarters in Sarralbe, France, this image features a life-size sketch on the wall adjacent to the top bunk. The caption on the back of the photo reads, “A soldier’s loveliness epitomized”.

To all veterans, thank you for your service and dedication!






The Preservation of 18th Century Parchment

This post was written by Janet Lee, Conservation Assistant 

Parchment is a kind of processed animal skin that has been used for centuries as a writing surface. Considered strong and stable, parchments have traditionally been used for important documents.

parchment bundles

These parchments are late 18th century colonial land grants from the Banyar manuscript collection. Like most parchments in the collection, they come to the lab folded into tight bundles, which makes storing them easy but access to them less so.

Having been folded for many years, they tend to resist being opened. They are so stiff, that even if they can be unfolded, they are creased and distorted, too unwieldy for handling.

parchment unfolded

We take advantage of parchment’s water sensitive nature to relax the fibers and flatten it through humidification. Humidification involves the controlled introduction of water as a vapor to an object. There are lots of ways to humidify parchments, and for this document, we decided to use contact humidification with Gore-tex. Gore-tex is a synthetic non-woven fabric that’s used in conservation as a barrier layer that only lets water through as a vapor.

Before humidifying the parchment, we first clean its surface of dirt. Then we introduce the vapor. This is done by lightly misting one side of the Gore-tex with water, and placing it moisture side down onto a clean surface. We place the parchment on top of the Gore-tex with a thin porous barrier between them. We then cover the entire system with a clean polyethylene sheet, which prevents moisture from escaping but also lets us observe the parchment.

parchment humidified

We use light glass weights to help ease out the creases while the parchment relaxes. We don’t humidify the document for long because too much moisture can irreversibly change it. After humidification, we let the parchment dry between layers of absorbent blotter paper and under weight.

parchment drying

This parchment unfolded to be almost 3’ x 3’. It also has a beeswax pendant seal attached with a cord, further authenticating it as an important document. Because of its size and its pendant seal, the next step will be housing this parchment in a custom-made enclosure.

parchment flat

Paper has been the more common writing surface since the late 15th century, and bundled together with this parchment is indeed a smaller document on paper. In this case, the top edge of the paper is scalloped, or cut in an undulating pattern, which reflects the traditional practice of cutting parchment for an indenture so that two or more pieces can be matched together to prove their authenticity.

paper as parchment


The Mormon Alphabet Experiment

This post was written by Catherine Falzone, cataloger.

While working in the stacks one day, I happened upon a mysterious book.

cover of Deseret First Book

YC1868.Deser First.

I had never seen these characters before, but luckily the book came with a key:

Pronunciation key of Deseret Second Book

Pronunciation key. YC1868.Deser Second.

Using it to translate the title, I discovered that this was the Deseret First Book. With that information, and the picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the cover, I deduced that it was a Mormon publication. A bit of research led me to a strange footnote to Mormon history: the creation of the Deseret alphabet.

Like the Cherokee before them, the Mormons were eager to invent new symbols for written language. But unlike Sequoyah, who was creating a syllabary for a language that had no written expression, the Mormons wanted to abandon the Latin alphabet in favor of a completely new alphabet and orthography for the English language. Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1847 to 1877, became interested in spelling reform after taking shorthand classes with British convert George D. Watt. He enlisted Watt to create symbols that they hoped would streamline English spelling.

portrait of Brigham Young

Portrait of Brigham Young. Portrait File, PR 52, Box 156.

In an article in the Deseret News from December 26, 1855, Watt praised the sensible nature of the Cherokee written language, saying,

all the credit is due to [Sequoyah] for first discovering in modern times that language is based upon but a few elementary sounds, and that marks appropriated to such would supply the means of writing them in all their combinations to make words. …What a pity that people are so wedded to their traditions, as to cling to them with eager tenacity, even when it is self evident that they are not founded in the common sense of truth! This is a mournful fact alike with the Hindoo and his avatars, and the scholar and his English orthography…The incarnations of the Hindoo gods are very numerous, but the inconsistencies of English orthography are infinite.

Young wholeheartedly agreed. In 1853, he directed Watt and the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (which was founded by the Mormon settlers in 1850 and later became the University of Utah) to create a new alphabet that would make learning English easier. At the time, many non- English-speaking immigrants, particularly those from Scandinavian countries, were settling in the UtahTerritory. Young wanted them to be able to learn English quickly so they could more easily become part of the  Mormon community. He also wanted to decrease the amount of time  children would have to spend in school learning how to spell.

article from Deseret News

Deseret News, the Utah Territory’s Mormon newspaper, reported a meeting to discuss printing elementary school books in the Deseret alphabet (right-hand column). Newspaper Collection.

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book. YC1868.Deser Second.

 Watt and the Regents settled on a  system of 38 characters, one for  each  sound in the English  language. It became known as  the Deseret alphabet,  after the  proposed Mormon state of  Deseret. (According to the Book  of  Mormon, Deseret means  “beehive,” a symbol of industry  that is associated  with Utah to  this day.) The characters have  something in common with  shorthand, but they seem to have  mostly been invented by Watt.

Interest in the alphabet petered out in the late 1850s, but was revived in the mid-1860s, when Young ordered the new font to be typeset back east. Ten thousand copies each of two primers, The Deseret First Book and The Deseret Second Book, were printed by Russell Brothers in New York and shipped to Utah. These were followed by 8,000 copies of part one of the full Book of Mormon and 500 copies of a family version.

cover of Book of Mormon

Cover of Book of Mormon. BX8624 1869.

Despite all this activity, the  Deseret alphabet never caught  on with the  public. In addition to  being too hard to learn, the expenses associated  with translating and  printing works in a completely new alphabet were  just too great. The  alphabet also lost its most powerful advocate when  Brigham Young died  in 1877. While merely a curiosity today, the  Deseret  alphabet was  indicative of the lengths to which the LDS Church  would go in order to reshape the world in accordance with its beliefs.



Spring Fashion, circa 1890’s

“Fashion is unfolding, just like nature,” reads the caption for a recent On the Street column by famed New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham (whose work is currently on exhibit at N-YHS).  Now that spring has finally arrived, we decided to take a look at seasonal fashion in New York over a hundred years ago.


Stern Brothers Catalogue, Spring and Summer 1890. Landauer TT555.S84 1890.

Back then, spring fashion apparently involved more enfolding than unfolding. Store catalogs feature an assortment of stifling outfits that look more suitable for Siberia than summer. Imagine, for example, strolling along Far Rockaway beach in this “Seaside Costume” from B. Altman & Co’s 1896 Spring and Summer Catalog.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


If — when! — you started to perspire under all that blue Mohair, embroidered Grass Linen and shaded silk fabric, you could don your Navy Blue Flannel Bathing Suit, complete with bathing tights with feet, for a refreshing dip in the ocean.


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Even pre-global warming, cycling home from the beach in your Roycelle Bicycle Suit For Ladies (patented 1895) must have been an awfully sweaty business. And think how big of a backpack you would need to cart around all your other outfits!


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Since everyone was too hot to think about what to wear, there were specific outfits for every occasion and activity, such as this trio of dresses for street strolling, visiting and going to receptions, respectively.


B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896.  Landauer TT555.B35 1896.

B. Altman & Co. Catalog, Spring and Summer, 1896. Landauer TT555.B35 1896.


Men had special summer outfits too, like the Bicycle Suit and Livery Suit pictured below.  In a surprising display of equality, their clothing looks every bit as uncomfortable as the women’s.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.


Men’s clothing catalogs also included useful fashion advice, such as “DON’T wear checks if you’re short and stout,” DON’T wear stripes if you’re long and lean,” and “DON’T allow more than a yard and a half of handkerchief silk to protrude from your breast pocket.”


Rogers, Peet & Co., Hints on Dress. Spring and Summer of 1888. AC901, Box R.

For more period fashion, come and visit our stylish exhibition, Bill Cunningham: Facades, before it closes on June 15, 2014.


George Frederick Seward and the Chinese Exclusion Act

This post was written by Heather Mulliner, spring semester intern in the Department of Manuscripts.

George Frederick Seward Papers

George Frederick Seward Papers

A career in politics seemed all but inevitable for George Frederick Seward, the nephew of Lincoln’s famed Secretary of State (and one-time Presidential rival) William Henry Seward. But like his better-known uncle – whose vocal opposition to slavery cost him the Presidential nomination – George Frederick Seward’s political ambitions were thwarted by his stand on a controversial issue.

G.F. Seward’s career as a diplomat began in 1861, when he was only 21, with an appointment as US Consul to Shanghai. He served as a diplomat to China for the next twenty years, eventually rising to the position of Minister to China in 1875.  A few years later, though, the United States shifted its policy toward China and began a series of negotiations that would abruptly end Seward’s political career, and eventually result in passage of the most restrictive immigration law ever adopted by Congress: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Throughout the 1870s, anti-Chinese sentiment began to infiltrate American political discourse. Led primarily by legislators in California, Congress began to seek laws to restrict Chinese immigration. But before the United States could pass any such laws, it needed to renegotiate a set of treaties with the Chinese government to avoid violating international law. In 1879 Congress passed a bill severely restricting Chinese immigration, which allowed only fifteen Chinese passengers on any ship coming to the United States. President Hayes vetoed the bill, despite the fact that he favored restricting Chinese immigration, on the grounds that it violated international treaties. He instead decided that the United States needed to renegotiate its treaties with China to allow for greater immigration restrictions. As Minister to China, it was Seward’s responsibility to lead the negotiations.

Seward opposed the restriction of Chinese immigration, but he nonetheless accepted the role as key negotiator of the new treaty. He simply structured the terms of negotiation to fit his own beliefs about immigration. Rather than seeking a treaty that completely limited Chinese immigration, Seward instead negotiated one that only restricted the immigration of “disfavored classes” such as paupers, the sick, and prostitutes. The Chinese government accepted Seward’s treaty, but there was one problem: the State Department never approved his plan.

George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.

George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.

Seward claimed that he received approval from the Secretary of State prior to the negotiations, but once he entered into talks with the Chinese government, the State Department failed to respond to his reports. The State Department contended however that Seward never informed them of his negotiations and by the summer of 1880, they sent someone else to China to replace him. Whether or not Seward actually received approval for his treaty is unclear, but he never forgot the sting of his dismissal. Although he moved on to a highly successful career in the insurance industry (serving as the president of the Fidelity and Casualty Company), Seward continued to be an outspoken critic of the United States’ treatment of Chinese citizens until his death.

History has vindicated Seward’s position: the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, and in 2012 Congress issued a formal apology to Chinese-American people, expressing regret for the discriminatory law.  To explore the fascinating history of trade and immigration between China and the United States, please visit our upcoming exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, opening September 26, 2014.

“To blossom as a rose”: the Society and the New York Wilderness

Portrait of John Pintard by Waldo & Jewett, 1832. 1928.1

Portrait of John Pintard by Waldo & Jewett, 1832. 1928.1

While the rain falls outside and spring continues to give us only tantalizing glimpses, it seems like a good time to visit a curious little story about the conflicted relationship we Americans have long maintained with nature. In fact, it actually involves the New-York Historical Society itself.

By September 1809, just shy of five years old, the Society had moved into its second home: the northwest room of the Government House’s second floor at Bowling Green. While the move presented ample opportunity for the Society to solicit and collect new material, one thing it didn’t provide was funding to promote the organization’s growth. Fortunately, its members were men of influence who sought to remedy this through a bill to be presented at the New York Assembly.

John Pintard to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

John Pintard to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

The bill that the Society backed was meant to provide funding to the organization through the Union College lottery, a venture authorized in 1805 to build the college’s endowment. All this seems within expectations but this is where things get interesting. The other part of the bill provided money “to be applied to the extirpation of Wolves & Panthers,” as founder John Pintard wrote to Assembly member Stephen Van Rensselaer on March 20, 1810. Yes as incongruous as it sounds, the bill meant to funnel money into the elimination of both wolves and panthers from the wilds of New York. It may sound like a pretty inane combination and to our sensibilities it is. But as with just about any historical event, a little context goes a long way toward understanding why there’s a thin, but discernible, line of reasoning that links both endeavors.

The most salient point is that, even at the close of the first decade of the nineteenth century, any sustained appreciation and/or defense of nature and wilderness within America was still a long way off. Instead, flush with Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic, the new nation was busy turning what most citizens regarded as a savage wilderness into a new Eden. Pintard’s letter captures the prevailing sentiment to perfection:

Fortunate shall we deem ourselves, and honourable will it be for the character of the State should the exterpation of Wolves and Panthers lead to the cultivation of Science as well as the fruits of the earth. This will indeed be enabling the Wilderness to blossom as a rose.

Detail from John Pintar'd letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer, March 20, 1810. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

Detail from John Pintard letter to Stephen Van Rensselaer. MS 490, John Pintard Papers

Particularly telling is the imagery of his last sentence. The subjugation of the American wilderness was hardly a novel concept and A Design to represent the beginning and completion of an American Settlement or Farm (1764) derived from sketches by Thomas Pownall (who served as governor of Massachusetts and acting governor of New Jersey) offers evidence of a legacy that stretched back even to the earliest European settlements.


“A Design to represent the beginning and completion of an American Settlement or Farm”, 1764. PR 58, Printmaker File

Pintard’s words also reveal traces of the Enlightenment mind, embracing the supremacy of reason while striving to describe, categorize and pursue intellectual dominion over the natural world. In concert, as a learned institution the Society strove to establish an intellectual structure for the new nation with a core mission being the construction of an historical record for America. Where the Society fulfilled an intellectual mission, the hunting of wolves and panthers would ensure progress in the physical world and the establishment of control and order on a savage landscape, a venture that required the pacification of wilderness.

According to subsequent correspondence, the bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but fell short in the Federalist dominated Assembly. This misfortune elicited the displeasure of physician, scientist, legislator, and Society member Samuel L. Mitchill who on April 3rd scribbled furiously that Federalist Assemblyman Richard Van Horne “ought to be conveyed to his native town in a car drawn by wolves, panthers, and wild-cats.”

Quoth the Raven Poetry Circle

This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian

Ravens peddling poetry on Washington Square South and Thompson Street, 1930s. Mcrudden is second from the right. Bodenhiem is to the far right. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108.

Ravens peddling poetry on Washington Square South and Thompson Street, 1930s. Mcrudden is second from the right. Bodenhiem is to the far right. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108.


A very rare example of a handwritten poem and sketch, like those displayed for sale at Annual Exhibitions, circa 1940s. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, MS 2921.

In honor of National Poetry Month, I felt inspired to celebrate one of the more obscure literary contributions of the early twentieth century, true pioneers of the D.I.Y. movement. Formed in 1932 by retired New York Telephone Company employee, Francis Lambert McCrudden, the Raven Poetry Circle was unveiled at an outdoor event near Washington Square Park in May of 1933. Members of this unique collection of writers were known as “Ravens” and included bohemians, published poets, students, city employees, various characters from the neighborhood and even a feline mascot named Phyllis. Mcrudden held monthly poetry readings in his storefront apartment and devised a plan to sell poetry in an open market atmosphere. The New York Times referred to it as “the world’s first sidewalk poetry mart”.

The Ravens, whose namesake and symbol stem from the classic poem by Edgar Allan Poe, held annual exhibitions in which participants tacked original copies of their poetry to a tall green wall on Thompson Street, next to a tennis court. Attendees were encouraged to purchase the poetry that hung like artwork on display for all to enjoy. Prices ranged from a nickel for the work of a lesser-known writer up to several dollars for a piece penned by one of the more popular Ravens. At a time when New York City streets were crawling with pushcarts filled with apples and knishes, the Ravens were pure peddlers of poetry. Initially published monthly, then quarterly, The Raven Anthology journal was produced from December 1933 to October 1940.


Francis Lambert McCrudden, founder and father of Raven Poetry Circle, early 1940s. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108.

Everyone, including writers, felt the financial and emotional effects of the Great Depression. By 1935, royalty rates had dropped by 50%, newspaper closings had climbed to 48% and best sellers were few and far between. The Ravens were operating in a devastated economy and living in a fractured city. Charter member of the group, Anca Vrbovska, said McCrudden “kept the flag of poetry flying in our community”. He was a quiet, hard-working, scholarly man who valued a writer’s sincere expression of sentiments. Mcrudden could not tolerate “mere rhymers, wise- cracking doggereleers and other nuts” and such individuals were not welcome into the Ravens.


Max Bodenheim, “Bogie”, strikes a contemplative pose at Ravens’ Annual Exhibition, 1930s. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108.


Thought by many to personify the Avant Garde, the most prominent figure among the Ravens was Max Bodenheim. A Mississippi native who’d previously been involved in the Chicago Literary Renaissance, Bodenheim moved to New York City in the early 1920s. Life magazine described Bodenheim as “young and slim with sandy red hair and pale, baleful eyes” and noted that “women jammed tiny candle-lit rooms in The Village when he gave readings of his poetry”. Although he was a prolific writer in his earlier years, publishing 13 novels and 10 books of verse, as Bodenheim grew older and fell deeper into alcoholism, his writing suffered and his rambunctious behavior took a turn for the worst. He was known to panhandle for money and exchange poems for drinks at local bars, such as the Minetta Tavern, frequented by many Ravens. Victims in a twisted crime of passion, Bodenheim and his third wife were brutally murdered by Harold “Charlie” Weinberg, an unstable dishwasher they’d befriended and were staying with in February 1954.


Official list of poets featured at 10th Annual Open Air Exhibition, Summer of 1942. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, MS 2921.

Anton Romatka, the self-proclaimed “Poetry Mender”, was another regular in the Ravens’ scene. He hosted Saturday night poetry sessions in which writers came together to read their work aloud. He charged several cents for critiques and editing services and wrote “verses to order” for 10 to 15 cents per line. Ironically, Romatka was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, and became a Bohemian in Greenwich Village.


Joe Gould peers into the camera at Raven Poetry Circle Annual Exhibition, 1930s. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108.

Joe Gould, also known as Professor Seagull, was perhaps the most controversial writer associated with the Ravens. A Harvard graduate and struggling historian, Gould came to the city in 1917 and worked as a reporter for the New York Evening Mail. He was a rather eccentric, often homeless man who lived largely on hand-outs he received from local establishments, like the Waldorf Cafeteria, on 8th Street. He attended poetry readings and recited outrageous, absurd poems intended to mock the more serious poets. Gould felt alienated from other writers and wanted to document the history of the “shirt-sleeved multitude”. He was known to wander The Village with a sign that read, “Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Hot Shot poet from Poetville, a Refugee from the Ravens. Poets of the World, Ignite. You have Nothing to Lose But Your Brains”. He boasted about an in-depth Oral History he’d written that purportedly included transcriptions of 20,000 conversations he’d overheard. In Joseph Mitchell’s 1965 book, Joe Gould’s Secret, the author reveals the secret is that the manuscript never really existed.

While original Ravens passed away or became too reclusive to participate in social groups, the Beat Generation was blossoming into a powerful, magical movement of its own. The Raven Poetry Circle dissolved by the early 1950s. Francis Lambert Mcrudden was buried on what would have been his 86th birthday, January 21, 1958. The final lines of his epitaph were taken from a poem he’d written for Bodenheim.

Child of the Lyric Muse, your

song is sung.

Your wanderings ended and your

harp unstrung.

For you, the ills and joys of life

are gone.

The music of your poetry lives



Francis Lambert McCrudden surrounded by books and artwork in his storefront at 168 Sullivan Street, 1940s. Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, MS 2921.


Happy Passover and Easter!

To celebrate the holidays, here are a few lighthearted Easter and Passover images that can hardly help but make you happy, regardless of religion.

Real feathers! Postcard Collection, PR 54.

Real feathers! Postcard Collection, PR 54.



“The First Book of Jewish Holidays,” 1954, Text by Robert Garvey, Pictures by Sam Weiss. BM690.G32.


Postcard File, PR 54.

Postcard File, PR 54.


"The First Book of Jewish Holidays," 1954, Text by Robert Garvey, Pictures by Sam Weiss.  BM690.G32.

“The First Book of Jewish Holidays,” 1954, Text by Robert Garvey, Pictures by Sam Weiss. BM690.G32.


Postcard File, PR 54.

Postcard File, PR 54.








What does the ‘S’ in Ulysses S. Grant stand for?

Photo of Ulysses Grant taken at the time of his appointment as Lieutenant General  of all the Armies of the Republic in 1864. PR 52 Portrait File

Photo of Ulysses Grant taken at the time of his appointment as Lieutenant General of all the Armies of the Republic in 1864. PR 52 Portrait File

You might expect to hear this kind of question in a game of Trivial Pursuit, and if you’re inclined to say “Simpson”, you’re right – sort of.

In truth, Simpson was not part of his name at all and that’s on the authority of the man himself. On June 23, 1864, Grant wrote to Congressman E.B. Washburn with an explanation, politely noting, “In answer to your letter of a few days ago asking what ‘S’ stands for in my name I can only state nothing.” Yes, it’s largely inconsequential minutia, and one wonders why a congressman queried the commander-in-chief of the army over it while civil war ravaged the nation  but it’s also a reminder that even the simplest historical questions are often not so simple.

Grant to E.B. Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC - Grant, Ulysses

Grant to E.B. Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC – Grant, Ulysses

Grant goes on to explain that the misnomer originated from the congressman who assisted his application to West Point. According to Grant, Senator Morris of Ohio had erroneously named him as “Ulysses S. Grant.” Simpson was Grant’s mother’s maiden name and the name of his brother, but had never been in his own. In fact, he was baptized Hiram Ulysses Grant, though known from the very beginning as “Ulysses.”

It seems the last straw was his diploma and commission from the academy, both of which were issued with the erroneous “S.” Apparently, Grant tried to rectify the problem but his efforts to have the S excised from West Point records proved fruitless, so he resigned himself to signing his name that way.


Grant to Washburn, June 23, 1864. AHMC – Grant, Ulysses

With the benefit of historic hindsight, though, the “S” seems less mistake than prophecy.  After Grant’s spectacular victory at the 1862 Battle of Fort Donelson, his initials were said to stand for “Unconditional Surrender,” in honor of his demand for the same from the confederate forces.  The nickname stuck, and Grant continued to live up to it, until finally, on April 9th, 1865 — 149 years ago today — Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, effectively ending the civil war.


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