Tag Archives: Remembrance

The Golden Age of Pageantry

My title does not refer to the made-up medieval era but rather to the first decades of the twentieth century–when civic pageants reigned on both sides of the Atlantic! Datewise, we’re right in the midst of the anniversaries of Salem’s two great historical pageants: on this day in 1930 a replica of the seventeenth-century ship Arbella docked at the newly-constructed Pioneer Village with “Governor Winthrop” and his entourage on board, and seventeen years earlier tomorrow an equally elaborate pageant began its first performance at the gothic Kernwood estate in North Salem: the “Pageant of Salem” to benefit the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association. Both events represent a significant investment of time, money, energy and resources by enthusiastic Salemites: while the 1930 event had the imprimatur of the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission, the 1913 Pageant was organized by an executive board comprised of members of the relatively new Gables Board of Directors (including Gables founder Caroline Emmerton of course) which managed to draw in anyone and everyone: Sidney Perley served as “Historical Censor”, Jean Missud conducted the band, and well-known Salem artists Frank Benson, Philip Little and Ross Turner provided illustrations for the program.

Pageant 1930 collage

pag 3 collage

While the impact of the Tercentenary Pageant was more lasting, as its set, Pioneer Village, became the first “living history” museum in the United States and remains open today, the 1913 Pageant of Salem seems somehow more creative to me–or at least its program presents it as such. It certainly had a longer story to tell: from Naumkeag to “The Salem of the Present reviews the Past and looks forward to The Future”. Yet both extravaganzas shared many similar features, as the format for historical pageants seems to have been quite standardized by this time: a quick review of David Glassberg’s American Historical Pageantry opened up a world of comparative context for me in which professional associations, journals, and guidebooks devoted to pageantry literally set the stage. Pageants had elaborate staging and costumes, a succession of “episodes”  to move the story forward, attempts to personalize the “spirit” of the time and place and symbolize major themes and lessons, and audience participation–or at least the request thereof. Both Salem pageants featured all these general attributes, and more Salem-specific ones: the Native Americans are just waiting, waiting and waiting for the Europeans to come, gazing off into the water: all is well once the latter arrive, of course. For Salem, 1630 it’s all about the world in which Winthrop arrives with the Massachusetts Bay Charter in hand; while the 1913 Pageant of Salem has to transport its audience from the misty and superstitious days of the seventeenth century all the way up to the dawn of the twentieth—through the very romantic nineteenth. This must have been quite a performance (or four): I would especially have liked to have seen prominent businessmen “Knights” bearing inscriptions of the virtues of an ideal Salem, while the very peaceful personification of the City also took the stage.

American Historical Pageantry

Arbella

Tercentenary Cavalcade

Dress Up collage

Last collageLeslie Jones photograph of Arbella “arrivals” on June 12, 1930, Boston Public Library; with the Winthrop Charter in hand, a “Charter Cavalcade” en route from Salem to Boston in 1930, Dionne Collection, Salem State University Archives & Special Collections; Scenes from the 1913 Official Pageant of Salem Program.


Scottish Prisoners of War in Salem

One of the most impressive historical remembrance projects of recent years is the Scottish Soldiers Project initiated by the University of Durham’s Department of Archaeology after human remains were found in mass graves on the grounds of Durham Cathedral in 2013. After intensive archaeological and documentary analysis, it was confirmed that these were the remains of the prisoners of war transported from Scotland after one of the British Civil Wars’ bloodiest battles, the Battle of Dunbar, a hour-long rout which occurred on September 3, 1650. Following their defeat by Oliver Cromwell’s well-seasoned troops, thousands of Scottish prisoners of war embarked on a death march to Durham, where (if they survived) they would experience disease and deprivation, with as many as 1700 men dying over the next year. These are the bodies buried in unmarked graves uncovered five years ago, and re-interred in a much more respectful ceremony just last week. A smaller group of Dunbar survivors—about 150 men–escaped the exhaustive miseries of Durham through another kind of  turmoil: transport across the Atlantic into indentured servitude in the New World. Following the English Revolution’s very last battle, the Battle of Worcester (exactly one year to the day later), more Scottish captives followed in their wake.

Scottish Prisoners of War Dunbar 1661 BM

Scottish Prisoners Worcester Dutch 1661 BM

Scottish Prisoners BodiesofEvidencewebsiteimage

Scottish Prisoners Burial1661 Dutch prints of the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester a decade before, British Museum; the remains near Durham Cathedral, and the reburial ceremony on May 18, BBC News.

As you can read on the project blog, an initiative that began as scholarly, and even scientific, became and remains very personal, assimilating the contributions of thousands (?) of descendants of the Scottish prisoners in the United States, and most particularly here in New England, as a band of Dunbar survivors were transported to Massachusetts Bay where they began their North American lives as bond labor at the Saugus (then Hammersmith) Iron Works north of Boston or in sawmills in southern Maine. Another 272 men were transported to Massachusetts as “servants” in November of 1651, and dispensed to their “positions” by Charlestown merchant Thomas Kemble. After these Scottish prisoners of war served their terms of 6-8 years of forced labor, they were free to establish new lives elsewhere—and so they contributed to an evolving New British community and identity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site.

At least four of the seventeenth-century Scottish prisoners of war found their way to Salem after their indentures were completed: Allester Mackmallen (Alester M’Milan) came to Salem in 1657 and never left, as did apparently his neighbor from back home, Allister Greimes (Grimes), George Darling operated a tavern in the vicinity of “Coy Pond” on the Salem-Marblehead line, and Philip McIntire settled ultimately in nearby Reading but was notably the great-great-grandfather of Salem’s iconic architect, Samuel McIntire. All of these men were imprisoned at Dunbar and marched to Durham–and beyond. My colleague Emerson Baker contributed to the Scottish Soldiers Project in a big way, and while he notes their original “alien” identity in Puritan Massachusetts, he also recognizes their ability to succeed and assimilate, particularly in the southern Maine region which would become known as “Berwick” after the town adjacent to Dunbar. It’s the same for the Scottish soldiers of Salem: though Greimes would be the beneficiary of public charity during the final years of his life, both Mackmallen and Darling left considerable property to their heirs. There’s a Darling Street in Marblehead and a whole historic district named after Samuel (and Philip) McIntire. These prisoners of war made their mark, in a world not of their choosing.

Scottish Prisoners Essex Antiquarian Volume 13

Mcintire collageThe Darling property in Sidney Perley’s Essex Antiquarian, Volume 13; Prints of Benjamin Blyth’s pastel portrait of Samuel McIntire, 1786, and McIntire’s rendering of the Ezekiel Hersey Derby House on Essex Street–originals in the Peabody Essex Museum, of course.

Appendix: The site manage of Historic New England’s Boardman House tells me that it was long identified as the “Scotch House” and the barracks for the Scottish prisoners of war working at the nearby Iron Works. It was actually built in 1692, on a site adjacent to where the real barracks was situated.

Scotch House

The Scotch House MarkerBoardman House and Mass. Tercentenary Commission marker, 1930s, Library of Congress.


The Dashing and Devoted Landers

Lately I’ve been thinking about a Salem native, descended from the city’s most-monied maritime family, the Derbys, but still devoted to public service, very well-known in his day but little-known in ours: Frederick William West Lander (1821-1862). Today, you can find hardly a trace of Lander in Salem, a city that has a statue of a fictional television witch in its most public square. Yet he was referred to as “the fearless solder, the bravest of the brave” and “the very beau ideal of an American soldier” in his New York Times obituary. Yesterday, the first truly warm spring day of the year, I wandered past Lander’s rather secretive grave in the Broad Street Cemetery and wondered about him—about all that he came from, all that he did, and what he might have done if not cut down in the prime of his life by pneumonia contracted in a West Virginia encampment towards the end of the first year of the Civil War. Lander was educated in private academies before he went to Norwich University in Vermont to study engineering. After Norwich, he worked at surveying and laying trails, first for the Eastern Railroad in Massachusetts and later the Pacific Railroad way out west, leading five expeditions to map out transcontinental routes between 1853 and 1858. He was a commissioned a Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Interior that year, giving him superintendent responsibilities over what had become known as the “Lander Trail” through Wyoming and Idaho. In 1860, purportedly after a 12-year acquaintance and 3-year engagement, Lander married the famous British-American stage actress Jean Margaret Davenport in a San Francisco ceremony called the “The Union of Mars and Thespis” by the San Francisco Daily Times. Seventeen months later he was dead, after being commissioned as a Brigadier General and leading charges in several battles. His was the first full-fledged funeral with honors of the war, held in Washington with President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court in attendance. And then his body was transported in a special train to Salem, for burial in Broad Street.

by Mathew B. Brady

Harvard_Theatre_Collection_-_Jean_Margaret_Davenport_Lander_TC-22Matthew Brady daguerreotype of Lander, Smithsonian; Jean Davenport Lander at about the same time, Harvard Theater Collection.

Those are the bare biographical facts, but there is so much more to say about Lander—-and Mrs. Lander: he was not all Mars and by no means was she solely a thespian. Though Lander was obviously a man of action (and I have not even mentioned his dueling), he was also a champion of the arts: he included the Massachusetts artists Albert Bierstadt, Francis Seth Frost and Henry Hitchens on his 1859 expedition team out west–with glorious results–and addressed the “aptitude of the American mind for the cultivation of the fine arts” on the Lyceum circuit back east. He was also a poet, and although at least one publisher told him effectively not to give up his day job, several poems were published before his death, and more after, including Ball’s Bluffhis poetic account of the Union defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, with an opening stanza responding to the purported Confederate claim that fewer Massachusetts soldiers would have been killed in the battle had they not been too proud to surrender. This was the battle that really “brought the war home” for Massachusetts: as soldiers in two Bay State regiments accounted for more than half of the approximately 1000 Union casualties. Lander lived to tell the tale, but not for much longer.

Landers MAP SLM

Bierstadt Rocky Mountains

Ball's BluffOne of Lander’s early road surveys, from Danvers to Georgetown, Massachusetts, State Library of Massachusetts; Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Soldiers from the 15th Massachusetts Regiment charge the Confederate line at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Illustrated London Newspaper, November 23, 1861, Library of Congress.

Jean Davenport Lander played several important Civil War roles as well. In the early days of the war, before her husband’s engagement and after they had taken up residence in Washington, Mrs. Lander happened to hear (I can’t fix the details!) whispers of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Whether by the confidence of her celebrity or the urgency of the times, she made her way to the White House hastily to report the conspiracy. Perhaps this was not as serious a threat as the earlier “Baltimore Plot“, but still, she acted to foil a presidential assassination plot! Her husband’s tragic war-camp death apparently inspired her (as well as his sister, the sculptor Louisa Lander) to start nursing, and she served as the supervisory nurse at the Union hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina for several years. After the war was over, Mrs. Lander resumed her acting career and seems to have been constantly on stage for the next decade or so, playing her last role in 1877: somewhat ironically, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.

Lander collageJean Margaret Davenport Lander as a bride in 1860 and Hester Prynne in 1877. Below: I’m assuming the friendship of Lander and Albert Bierstadt brought the latter to Salem at some point, because Christie’s has a Bierstadt landscape titled Salem, Massachusetts up for auction on May 22.

Bierstadt SalemAlbert Bierstadt, Salem, Massachusetts, 1861.


My Salem Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum has made an additional concession in the mitigation dialogue following their admission to the relocation of Salem’s historical archives to a “Collection Center” in Rowley: a presentation/exhibition on the “Salem (Historical?) Experience” to be permanently installed in Plummer Hall. This could be good news—-like everything else the devil will be in the details—but it in no way compensates for the removal of historical materials left in good faith to the care of the PEM’s predecessors by scores of Salem families. Still, Salem has always needed a proper Salem Museum, with texts, objects, and interpretations of key events and themes in its history presented in an installation that is both contextual and chronological. This could be an opportunity to have some semblance of that, as the PEM has wonderful curators and resources, but the institutional reluctance to actually showcase authentic Salem items—combined with the word “experience”—leaves me a bit worried that all we’re going to get is some sort of virtual presentation. Nevertheless I was inspired to put together my own Salem Museum, and here are its key components.

Salem Worlds: I would prefer a thematic presentation to a chronological one, but after teaching history for 20+ years I know that chronology is important—-people want to get the facts straight and in order. So I think I would use a “worlds” approach in which Salem expands from a tiny little settlement into one which is an important part of the entire world, and then create various other worlds which represent different aspects of Salem’s history. Worlds are a way to combine themes and chronology: we need to know about Salem’s experience as a colonial outpost of the expanding British Empire, its role in a world of Revolution, and its preeminence in a world of global exchange, but also about the worlds of ideas, work, and association which flourished within its borders. I’d like to flesh out the isolated world of seventeenth-century Salem and its environs that served as the setting for the witchcraft accusations of 1692 as much as possible, but also trace the legacy of the Trials through the evolution of the “world(s) of Witch City” from its first expressions until today. We need to peer into the worlds of Salem’s many activists—whether they were working for abolition, temperance, social reforms, or suffrage in the nineteenth century, or striking for more job security at Pequot Mills in 1933. I’d like to recreate Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem world with texts and images, and also that of one (or more) of the lesser-known diarists whose memorials are locked in the Phillips Library. Different worlds could be explored in keeping with the PEM’s programming (I guess I have to make that concession).

Virtual is fine, but we need objects and texts too: I’ve been to quite a few city history museums (but unfortunately none on this list) and it seems to me that the mix is best. There’s always some sort of “orienting” video, so that might be the best way to deal with the chronology: I love the Museum of the City of New York’s Timescapes in particular. The only way we can create some semblance of seventeenth-century Salem is through cgi, and I cannot watch Pudding lane Productions’ deep dive into seventeenth-century London enough (and my students love it).

My Museum Timescapes

In this era of immersive make-believe, people crave authenticity, so we need to see real stuff too: personally, I’d love to see the 1623 Sheffield Patent, which granted rights to Cape Ann to several members of the Plymouth Colony and was contested by a representative of the Dorchester Company. This is a connecting link between Plymouth and the North Shore, and between Plymouth and Salem: as Cape Ann didn’t quite work out at that time the old planters migrated down the shore. Later in the seventeenth century, let’s widen the circle of persecution a bit by showing items that illustrate the struggles of Thomas Maule and Philip English—what an Atlantic world the latter represents! The widening world of eighteenth-century Salem could be explored through periodicals, ephemera, and any and all expressions of “trade port culture”, which the PEM loves (as long as the port in question is not Salem). Craftsmanship (or simply work), consumption, and activism are themes and worlds that can take us (or Salem) from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth century and all the way up to today.

SHeffield Patent

My Museum Maule

My Museum Handkerchief PEMThe Sheffield Patent, 1623, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum; Title page of Thomas Maule’s New England Pesecutors Mauld, 1697; The Poor Slave (Dedicated to the Friends of Humanity), ca. 1834, copperplate-printed cotton, Boston Chemical Printing Company, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum (Also in the Phillips Library). 

Art+History=Culture+Connections: The past five months—this entire semester!—has been like a Museum Studies course for me as I have been reading and exploring museums and historical societies around the world to see if I could come up with some compensation for the cultural deficit we have here in Salem, where the institution with most of the historical collections has withdrawn, leaving behind an infrastructure of largely commodified historical interpretation. There are many historical museums doing amazing things, but I’ve been particularly impressed by what I’ve seen (only online) at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. I spent a summer in Santa Cruz years ago on an NEH grant, so I have a fondness for that place anyway, but I love how this particular museum merges art, history, and community engagement into a mission that stresses relevance and region. It is an institution that is governed by the same “connections” mission that PEM references all the time, but their much stronger emphasis on place (in part through history) must make the pursuit of those connections more attainable and meaningful. As I haven’t been there, I’m not sure exactly how SCMAH presents the past, but my Salem History Museum would not recognize divisions between art and history, or material and textual culture. I’d have both, together, and a very particular emphasis on architecture. Lots of McIntire drawings, a whole gallery wall of Frank Cousins photographs, and some modern representations of Salem buildings to illustrate their (ever-) lasting impact. I would certainly have some of John Willand’s houses on a wall of my museum as I already have one on a wall of my house: each one is amazing, and I know he prefers a collective display. I would also feature some of the wonderful photographs of Salem captured by Salem instagrammers: more posts than #pem, just count the hashtags.

My Museum Little collage

My Museum collage

My Museum 30 Chestnut

Willand Gallery

Two sides of Salem artist Philip Little (1857-1942) from the PEM’s own collection: “Submarine Baseball” and A Relic of History, Old Derby Wharf, Salem, c. 1915; A Frank Cousins (18501927) portfolio; John Willand’s 30 Chestnut Street and Chestnut Street “Gallery”.


Remember the Armory

The opposition to the Peabody Essex Museum’s removal of Salem’s historical archives to an industrial park in Rowley incorporates a range of perspectives: some people have never been in the Phillips Library but nevertheless have been waiting for its return; others have very concrete memories of childhood forays or later visits to research some specific aspect of their Salem past: their house, their neighborhood, their family. Everyone had great expectations: as the Museum leadership closed the Library in 2011 with promises to return in two years, only to disclose the Rowley move six years later, under duress. Expectations are a powerful motivating force, but so too is distrust: and for those of longer Salem residence the latter is clearly apparent. For them, the PEM’s latest move (literally and figuratively) falls into an established pattern of behavior that has broken trust with the Salem community. And the event that looms largest in this pattern is the demolition of the storied Salem Armory in 2000, under the auspices of the Peabody Essex Museum, which had previously signed a memorandum of agreement to preserve and incorporate the Armory’s headhouse into its expansion plans. Only the Armory entry arch remains on Essex Street, right next door to what used to be the Phillips Library, a constant reminder of what was and what was not preserved.

Armory 2

Salem Armory LOC

Armory Arch

The Salem Armory in 1992, ten years after a ravaging fire, and the year of the Memorandum of Agreement by which the “Museum Collaborative” promised to preserve its headhouse. This was also the same year that the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum of Salem were merged to form the Peabody Essex Museum, which was still bound by that agreement. Library of Congress.

The Armory story–of its rise, role, and fall–has been written about many times, and well: the preservation report and narrative for the MOA is here, some colorful context is here, and the story in parts, right up to arrival of the wrecking ball, is here. But one of the most poignant accounts of the Armory (or of any building’s destruction, frankly) that I have ever read is a Letter to the Editor (of the Salem Evening News) written by Salem architect Staley McDermet in 2002, two years after its demolition. Mr. McDermet asks for an apology that I don’t think he–or we–every received, and goes on to document everything that happened. Indeed, the letter is historical in terms of both intent and subject, but it is also a very timely document, in light of the PEM’s recent actions and their explanations for actions in the past, so timely that I thought it should be “published” again.

Armory text 1

Armory text2

Armory text 3

Armory text 4

 


An Antiquarian Artist

I’ve been thinking about commemoration—past, present, and future–a lot lately, yet another consequence of the constant interplay between what I do and where I live. I’m pretty sure my understanding of English and western European history between 1400 and 1700 is grounded in historical sources, but I’m increasingly aware that my “knowledge” of American history is much more a product of projection than evidence. And as Massachusetts heads into a prolonged period of commemoration for the 400th anniversaries of Plymouth and its successor settlements (including Salem, which will have to “remember” without its hijacked historical sources), I’ve been reading up on the scholarly literature, and just finished We are What We Remember: The American Past through Commemoration, a volume of essays edited by Jeffrey Lee Meriwether and Laura Mattoon D’Amore. Two essays in particular, D’Amore’s “Patriarchal Boots: Women, Redcoats and the Construction of Revolutionary Memory”, and Anne Reilly’s “The Pilgrimization of Plymouth: Creating a Landscape of Memory in Plymouth, Massachusetts during the Pilgrim Tercentenary of 1920-21”, were quite resonant for me, and almost as soon as I was done with them we were off to see commemoration in practice rather than theory: at the annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre by the Bostonian Society at the Old State House. It was interesting to see the “Colonials” mingle with the large crowd assembled: when well-worn revolutionary phrases were shouted out, I heard several individuals wearing capes, cocked hats, and mob caps replying not yet…..that’s from 1774, or 1775.

We are Crop

Boston Massacre 8

Boston Massacre best

This is a really great event but there are too many glaring lights! Can’t we turn off Boston for a half-hour or so? I suppose not, but we should remember that this epic event was clothed in darkness. Even Revere’s iconic print, which is so important a foundation for our collective memory, casts it in light: it’s not until a century later that we see darker depictions. I wanted to see more after the reenactment, so I started looking around, and came up with several references to a painting by Walter Gilman Page (1862-1934), a prominent Boston artist whose commemorative painting of the Massacre was exhibited in 1899-1900. It received strong reviews, but I can’t find the actual painting anywhere–only illustrations and lantern slides. As you can see, it is dark. Where is it?

Boston Massacre Art Exchange 42

Boston Massacre Page

Page was a wonderful portrait artist (best known for his extremely humanist portrait of a dying Grandmother in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and an active member of the Nantucket Art Colony, but he seems to have been particularly passionate about historical paintings: he depicted several other revolutionary events (Paul Revere’s ride, of course) and also reproduced portraits of founding fathers. The 1899 article in the Art Interchange (the source of the illustration above) notes that Mr. Page’s keen interest in American history of the Revolutionary period is indicated by his membership in several historical societies—charter member of the Society of Colonial Wars for Massachusetts, charter member and vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the Revolution, and member of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. He is also chairman of the Tablet Committee of the Sons of the Revolution, whose business it is to mark with properly inscribed tablets the scenes of historical events connected with the War of the Revolution. He has been prominently connected with the movement for art and art decoration in the public schools, and is chairman of the Committee of Massachusetts’ Artists for the Paris Exposition of 1900. Artistry and memory: a winning combination, from time immemorial.

Antiquarian Artist Hutchinson.JPG 1900

Antiquarian Artist HancockWalter Gilman Page’s portraits of Thomas Hutchinson (1900, copy of the 1741 portrait by Edward Truman), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and John Hancock (1906, after John Singleton Copley, Skinner Auctions).


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


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