Monthly Archives: February 2017

Rags to riches

Courtesy of

Ching Shih, born Shi Xianggu in the Guangdong Province of China in 1775, started out underprivileged, a young woman forced into a life of prostitution. But with tenacity, cunning, and sheer force, she grew into one of the most powerful and successful pirates in the history of the world.

In the brothels of Canton where she worked in her youth, she met a notorious pirate, Cheng I, from the famous family of Cheng pirates that had, for many years, terrorized the China seas. Continue reading Rags to riches

‘What can Charles St. do?’

[Author’s note: This series, on Mrs. Gray’s reading habits, began here.]

Regina Shober Gray by [Edward L.] Allen, ca. 1860. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Item PP231.236
While she was not as prosperous as her brother John Shober or her brothers-in-law William and Horace Gray, Regina Shober Gray[1] moved in a fashionable set of people, whether in Philadelphia, Boston, or New York. Her reference here to Mrs. Ronalds, a notably “fast” Bostonian who went on to international fame for the beauty of her voice, captures a mixture of worldly values (Fanny is “absolutely infuriating to men”) and more prosaic ones (she is “recklessly extravagant, but tasteful in dress”). When Mrs. Gray quotes her friend Amelia Jackson Holmes, she is practical about the likely outcome of a “Loyal Woman’s League,” noting the limitations of a boycott on luxury goods.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 1 May 1864: Tuesday we had our “sewing Circle” tea, at Mrs. Chadwick’s[2] – 24 of us there – a very pleasant gathering – sumptuous tea – a tiny bouquet laid on each plate, and splendid flowers in vases on the tables. Continue reading ‘What can Charles St. do?’

Daughtered out

In a patronymic culture we put emphasis on surnames that are passed from son to grandson. This is mostly a matter of habit, because tracing a genealogy of descendants by their surname is usually much easier than tracing descendants through female lines where the family names keep changing every generation.

I’ve never been politically active – Women’s Lib came along a few years too late for me; I was already out of college and missed the movement, although I embraced “most” of the ideas – but lately I’ve been thinking more about how we all still, out of habit, approach genealogical research and publication mostly by surnames. Continue reading Daughtered out

ICYMI: Family plots: Part Two

[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 19 October 2015.]

Riffing on something Chris Child wrote about collecting photos of family members in July, I thought I might do something similar with information about family burial plots. Such an exercise leans heavily on (where some of the images may be found), although in my case I also have the notes compiled by my great-aunt Margaret Steward in 1966 as a resource for my research.

My grandparents are easy: my father’s parents (and stepmother) are buried at Hamilton Cemetery in Massachusetts, while my mother’s parents (and stepmother) are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. I was present for my paternal grandfather’s memorial service in 1991, my maternal grandfather’s burial in 1994, and for my paternal step-grandmother’s memorial service in 1996. Continue reading ICYMI: Family plots: Part Two

A pair of firsts

Bessie Coleman in 1922. Courtesy of

Recently, as I was browsing Google, I noticed their doodle for the day.[1] It was honoring Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, who was born 26 January 1892. She was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to receive her pilot’s license, and she was also the first person of African American and Native American descent to receive an international pilot’s license. Continue reading A pair of firsts

Remembering William Monroe Trotter

William Monroe Trotter

The documentary “Birth of a Movement” – which premiered on 30 January at the Somerville Theatre outside Boston, and airs nationally on PBS on Monday 6 February during African-American History Month – explores D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) through a modern lens. What caught my attention about the film is the documentary’s protagonist, famed civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter (1872–1934). Trotter lived nearly his entire life in Boston and founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper. He also established the Niagara Movement, in 1915, with fellow Massachusetts native W.E.B. DuBois, and participated in numerous other causes for civil rights until his death in 1934. Continue reading Remembering William Monroe Trotter

‘In cold blood’

[Author’s note: This series, on Mrs. Gray’s reading habits, began here.]

Thomas Ball’s statue of George Washington, in Boston’s Public Garden. Courtesy of

In her diary, Regina Shober Gray[1] notes occasional instances where (usually at the behest of a friend) she assumed a more public profile. Her literary efforts were prized by her contemporaries; one set of her verses was published both in Boston and in Philadelphia in 1862. That Mrs. Gray could feel competitive about her work, even with her friend Mrs. W. B. Richards, may be seen in the diary.

This first entry also refers to the diarist’s friend Emily Adams, newly-wed to Caleb Agry Curtis, whose father had died in late March, drawing them back to Boston from a European honeymoon.

61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 10 April 1864: A wet afternoon; I joined Emily Adams[2] after church and walked home with her, glad of the chance to see her for a few minutes without feeling myself an intruder in her mother-in-law’s house of mourning.[3] Three weeks ago, to-day, they were in Venice, preparing for a trip to Sorrento, with the Gordons[4] next day – when the sad news came to hurry them home. Continue reading ‘In cold blood’