Monday, May 22, 2017

Who Is Robert Twelves?

Boston has a rich history of architecture, from historic buildings from the 1600s to contemporary architecture designed by all-stars like IM Pei & Partners and everything else in-between. Around the time when Massachusetts transitioned from a colony to a commonwealth, architecture was also changing from a (expensive) hobby of educated gentlemen to a studied practice by professionals. Today we like to know the identity of the individual or firm that designed our favorite buildings and structures, but in colonial America the mason or builder was often responsible for both the layout and the construction of the buildings, and therefore many early “architects” are unknown. However, there are two early Boston landmarks whose designers should be unknown but have been credited to the mysterious Robert Twelves.

The Old South Meeting House, built 1729.

Both locals and visitors to Boston are familiar with the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House, both built in the first half of the 1700s and both sites for iconic moments in American Revolutionary history. But who built these buildings? If you do a basic Google search for their architect, many webpages will inform you that the talented individual is none other than Robert Twelves. Wikipedia mentions Robert Twelves in their entries for both buildings; his name is also listed on websites and resources like, The Cultural Landscape Foundation, MIT’s DOME digital collections, and the Boston Public Library Fine Arts Department’s artist index. But if you try to dig deeper, the trail ends. Who is this so-called architect and why do we have no record of him?

According to Marian C. Donnelly, the first reference to Robert Twelves occurred in Hamilton A. Hill’s History of the Old South Church (1890). At the end of a citation regarding cornerstones, Hill casually throws in, “Robert Twelves is said to have been the builder” without any explanation as to where this information came from. Yet further architecture historians took this kernel for truth, and the attribution appeared in Charles A. Place’s Old Time New England (1923), Hugh Morrison’s Early American Architecture (1952), and Harold W. Rose’s Colonial Houses of Worship in America (1963) (Donnelly). Even some contemporary books like Howard S. Andros’ Buildings and Landmarks of Old Boston (2001) mention Twelves as the designer of Old South Meeting House.

Old State House, built circa 1712.

How Twelves was also credited with the design of the Old State House is less clear. It is possible that, because the Old State House in its current form was built less than two decades before the Old South Meeting House, contemporary sources have gotten the two buildings confused or assigned Twelves when no architect was known.

Donnelly was able to trace a Robert Twelves using colonial town records. In Braintree, a Robert Tweld “who erected the South Church at Boston” died March 9 in either 1696 or 1697. How could a man have built the Old State House when the original Town House of 1657 didn’t burn down until 1711, almost 15 years after his death? Similarly, how could he have designed a building for the Old South congregation when they voted to replace their wooden building in 1728? It is possible, at the most, that Twelves was involved in building the original Old Cedar Meeting House around 1670.

We unfortunately don’t know where Hamilton A. Hill found the name of Robert Twelves, whether he misread this limited Braintree obituary or viewed other records that mentioned Twelves. The proliferation of this seemingly insignificant fact can serve as an example of how historiography can so easily alter contemporary understandings of what happened in the past. Whether you are a student, established historian, or amateur researcher, always remember to check those citations!


Donnelly, Marian C. “Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 29, no. 2, 1970, pp. 204–204.,

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Monday, May 15, 2017

Political Milestones of Christian A. Herter

Recently the library recognized Christian Herter’s anniversary on being appointed the 53rd United States Secretary of State on April 21, 1959 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  His official term as Secretary began the very next day on April 22nd.  While looking through the library’s collection for a portrait of Herter, I came across some fun pamphlets that mark the different milestones of his political career in Massachusetts.

Campaign pamphlets illustrating Herter's state and congressional
service, as well as a dinner program celebrating his gubernatorial victory.

Here’s a short timeline of Herter’s life and the political seats to which he was elected or appointed in Massachusetts and beyond:
  • March 28, 1895:  Christian Archibald Herter was born in Paris, France to expatriate parents.
  • 1915:   Graduated from Harvard University.
  • Jan. 1931-Jan. 1943:  Served as a republican state representative for the 5th Suffolk district; during the latter part of his tenure he was also appointed Speaker of the House.
  • Jan. 1943-Jan. 1953:  Served the 10th Massachusetts congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • Jan. 1953-Jan. 1957:  Served for one term as Governor of Massachusetts.
  • Feb. 1957-Apr. 1959:  Served as Under Secretary of State, appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • Apr. 1959-Jan. 1961:  Served as Secretary of State, appointed by Eisenhower.
  • Dec. 1962-Dec. 1966 (his death):   Served as the first United States Trade Representative, appointed by President John F. Kennedy.
I also came across a very fragile comic book in our collection that criticizes Herter’s political record and asks its readers to instead vote for then-gubernatorial incumbent and Democrat Paul Dever.  The comic book was published by Massachusetts United Labor in 1952 during Herter’s campaign and refers to the governor hopeful as a “reactionary” and a man who “cannot wish to stand on his record.”  Dever ultimately lost the election to Herter and retired from political life.

For more information on Christian Herter’s life and career, please visit:

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Librarian

Monday, May 8, 2017

May Author Talk: Gregory N. Flemming

                        Register Online

At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, 
and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, by Gregory N. Flemming 
Tuesday, May 23, 2017—Noon to 1:00pm
State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House
Join us at the State Library on Tuesday, May 23, to hear author
Gregory N. Flemming share the story of the Marblehead fisherman who has been called “America’s real-life Robinson Crusoe.” This intriguing tale is at the center of Mr. Flemming’s 2014 book At the Point of a Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton.

A Boston Globe bestseller, At the Point of a Cutlass tells the true story of Philip Ashton, a nineteen-year-old Massachusetts fisherman who was captured by pirates in 1722 and forced to sail across the Atlantic and back under the command of the notorious pirate Edward Low. Ashton managed to escape his captors while anchored off the coast of a deserted Caribbean island, where he survived for more than a year as a castaway. Meticulously researched, At the Point of a Cutlass is based on trial records, logbooks, colonial newspaper reports, and Ashton’s own first-hand account of his ordeal.  

Author Greg Flemming is a former journalist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During the three years that he spent researching his book, Mr. Flemming traveled to many of the key locations in Philip Ashton’s story, including the Nova Scotia harbor where Ashton was taken captive as well as the remote island of Roatan, where Ashton was marooned.

Copies of At the Point of a Cutlass will be available for sale and signing at the conclusion of the talk at the State Library.

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Lost Bradford Manuscript

The Mayflower Compact from
William Bradford's journal 
On Plimoth Plantation, also known as the Bradford Manuscript, may be the jewel of the State Library of Massachusetts’ collection. But the manuscript had many other homes along the way, was coveted by other institutions, and was even considered lost at one point during the 19th century. So how did the manuscript find its way back to the Commonwealth?

The Bradford Manuscript is so called for its writer, William Bradford, who was the governor of the Plymouth Colony generally from 1621 to 1657. The journal includes the original Mayflower Compact, a list of Mayflower passengers, and the most authoritative account of life in the early years of the colony. Most famously, it includes an account of the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags led by Massasoit. After the death of William Bradford, the manuscript was kept by his descendants and lent to historians throughout the 17th and 18th centuries such as Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Thomas Hutchinson. Thomas Prince, a clergyman, historian, and collector, eventually obtained the manuscript from the Bradford family and deposited it, along with the rest of his historical collection, at the Old South Meeting House in the mid-1750s. However, from there, the manuscript appears to have disappeared during the American Revolution. For almost a century, the Bradford Manuscript was lost.

Did a British soldier or statesman steal the volume during the tumultuous period in Boston leading to the American Revolutionary War? Was it in the possession of a Loyalist historian or clergyman for research purposes when they decided to return to England, perhaps Thomas Hutchinson? We do not know how the Bradford Manuscript arrived in London, but some antiquarians with an eye for detail noticed that several histories published in London in the 19th century included passages that had been attributed to Bradford’s manuscript by American historians before the manuscript’s disappearance. Eventually word of these theories made its way to Charles Deane, chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s publishing committee. Deane reached out to Reverend Joseph Hunter, vice president of the Society of Antiquaries of London and correspondent of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and asked that he examine the manuscript cited in these histories to verify if it was the long-lost On Plimoth Plantation. Not only did the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) want to recover the manuscript, but they also wished to produce the first publication of the document in American history.

Hunter obtained the manuscript from its keeper, Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, and verified that its identity using attached documents from the Bradford family and Thomas Prince. Deane commissioned a copy of the manuscript, which arrived in Boston on August 3, 1855. While the MHS did publish the manuscript, its members were not satisfied and wanted the manuscript to be restored to the United States. So began a struggle that would persist for almost half a century. In 1860, MHS President John Charles Winthrop attempted to secure the return of the Bradford manuscript during an upcoming visit to the United States from the Prince of Wales as a “conciliatory act,” but this plan was foiled by an inability to push legislation allowing this transfer through Parliament. After the Civil War, Justin Winsor, librarian at the Boston Public Library, met with John Lothrop Motley, newly appointed minister to the Court of St. James, to organize an act of reciprocity by returning the Bradford Manuscript in a similar manner to the return of several British manuscripts by the Library Company of Philadelphia in the 1860s, but again the transfer was considered out of the question without an act of Parliament. Further appeals were made to various church officials in England by Winsor and other members of the Massachusetts Historical Society throughout the 1860s and 1870s to no avail. Finally in 1896, MHS member and U.S. Senator George Frisbie Hoar visited the manuscript and petitioned the Bishop once again for its return: “Why, if there were in existence in England a history of King Alfred’s reign for thirty years, written by his own hand, it would not be more precious in the eyes of Englishmen than this manuscript is to us” (The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, pages 212-213). The Bishop responded that he thought “myself that it ought to go back, and if it depended on me it would have gone back before this” and that he would petition Queen Victoria directly about the manuscript’s transfer.

But who would the manuscript be transferred to? Those involved considered the manuscript Massachusetts property and therefore did not want to deposit it in a federal institution such as the Library of Congress. The Boston Public Library, the Plymouth Registry of Deeds, and other organizations were considered before it was decided that the manuscript would be presented to Governor Wolcott.  On May 26, 1897, the delegates of the General Court presented to the governor the Bradford Manuscript in a public ceremony. While the governor had the option to deposit the document with the state government or the Massachusetts Historical Society, Wolcott decided to keep the manuscript in the State House’s collection. Hence, the Bradford Manuscript was finally recovered and returned to the Commonwealth and has been part of the State Library’s collections since the turn of the century. Today, this precious manuscript is kept in secure storage in the library’s Special Collections department, with high-quality facsimile reproduction for anyone who wishes to view or research the manuscript both in person or online.

Further reading:

The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History (1791-1991) by Louis Leonard Tucker (1996)
The Surrender of the Bradford Manuscript by Justin Winsor (1897)

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff