Sunday, May 31, 2009

Brookline Rides: 1910 & 2009

With hundreds of bicyclists filling Beacon Street for the second annual Brookline Rides event today, it seems appropriate to run this iconic image of another kind of Brookline ride nearly a hundred years ago and contrast it with one from the bicycle parade.


The sleigh photo, from the Brookline Historical Society's collection of lantern slides, shows horse-drawn sleighs going east on Beacon Street, just past Carlton Street, in 1910. (Photo by Thomas E. Marr). The 2009 bike photo is by the Historical Society's Jean Stringham.

Visit the online photos and documents page of the Brookline Historical Society website for more photos and information about the lantern slide collection.

Mary McSkimmon, Brookline Educator

Seeing news of the National Spelling Bee this week reminded me of the story of Mary McSkimmon, long ago principal of the Pierce School in Brookline who, as president of the National Education Association, presided over the second annual Bee in 1926.

McSkimmon was a forceful and innovative educator who achieved local and national prominence. (I first researched and wrote about her in 2005 for the sesquicentennial of the Pierce School, where both of my daughters were students.)

Among her many accomplishments were the following:
  • She was an early promoter of both student government and parental involvement in the schools. Among her innovations were regular mothers' meetings at Pierce at a time when there were no PTOs.
  • She was a co-author in 1914 of a "peace curriculum" for American schools aimed at promoting international understanding and appreciation for other cultures.
  • As NEA president in 1925, she created a committee on "Problems in Negro Education & Life" which provided for the first time an official way for the predominantly white NEA to work with the predominantly black American Teachers Association.
  • She fought relentlessly for an expanded view of and public support for education. As the Brookline Chronicle wrote upon her death in 1946, “She campaigned militantly for increase in music, physical training, school doctors and nurses in days when they were considered educational ‘frills,' and she often lectured on the subject, telling civic groups that unselfish taxation must be the rule for education.”
Born in Bangor, Maine in 1862, Mary McSkimmon was principal of Pierce from 1893 to 1932 and a member of the Brookline School Committee from 1933 to 1939. She was the founder of the Brookline Teachers’ Club, the first woman president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and president of the National Education Association (NEA) from 1925 to 1926.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day and Brookline's Civil War Dead

The statue of the soldier near the main library is more visible and better known, but I've always been moved more by Brookline's other Civil War memorial. Sitting on the small plaza opposite the entrance to Town Hall, this two-sided memorial consists of eight glass encased panels, one with a flag and the others with words chiseled into stone.

Visually, it's far less dramatic than the statue but unlike the anonymous bugler on his horse this memorial bears the names of 72 Brookline men who died at such places as Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Fredricksburg, the Wilderness, and the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

These are storied places for anyone who's read about the Civil War. But they carry a different weight here on the memorial.

A century and a half ago, news of these places arrived in Brookline not just as part of the broad story of the war but as terrible news for families living in streets (and maybe, in a few cases, houses) that are familiar to us today. That's always made the names of these places -- and Brookline at the time of the Civil War -- much more real to me.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

William Dawes' Descendants in Brookline

I was surprised to learn, while reading up on Brookline in the Civil War, that the first Brookline man to enlist in the Union Army was a grandson of William Dawes, the rider whose passage through Brookline on the day of Lexington and Concord is marked at the Devotion House each Patriot's Day.

William Dwight Goddard, who enlisted on April 23, 1861, was the son of Mehitable May Dawes Goddard, youngest daughter of William Dawes. Born in 1796, she married Samuel Goddard of Brookline in 1818.

William D. Goddard died in 1866. Mehitable Goddard died in 1882. Both are buried, along with Samuel and other family members, in the Old Burying Ground on Walnut Street.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Honey" Fitz on Brookline

Boston Mayor John F. Fitzgerald had this to say in a November 1913 State House speech welcoming the City and Town Planning Conference to Boston:

"[I]f you meet a citizen of any of these towns [Somerville, Everett, Malden, Medford, Arlington] abroad you will always find that they claim to come from Boston; the same is even true of our aristocratic sister Brookline, for, charming as Brookline is, it is unknown in Berlin, except perhaps as a suburb of the great city which so nearly surrounds it."[1]

Just a few months later, Fitzgerald's daughter Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy and her husband Joseph would buy a house in Brookline where their son, the future president John F. Kennedy, would be born in 1917.

[1] from Letters and Speeches of the Honorable John F. Fitzgerald, Mayor of Boston, 1906-07, 1910-13, p. 161

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Deaf Inventor Aids the Deaf

I recently came across a short article about a deaf inventor who lived and worked in Brookline at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought I'd do some quick research and a brief write-up.

Little did I know how complex and interesting the story of William E. Shaw would turn out to be.

Shaw, who had been deaf since the age of 5, designed and built a series of special electric devices -- telephones, doorbells, alarm clocks, burglar alarms, and more -- all for use by those who could not hear.

His work won praise from Alexander Graham Bell and an invitation from Thomas Edison to work at Edison's laboratories in New Jersey. Shaw and his wife and son were also at the center of a controversial custody battle that revolved in part around the rights and abilities of deaf parents to raise hearing children.

William Edward Shaw was born in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada in 1869, the son of a sea captain and his wife. Shaw lost his hearing after a bout of spinal meningitis when he was 5, and his father took the boy to sea with him in the hope that a change in climate would help his recovery.

After the father died in 1877, the family moved to Portland, Maine. Shaw was educated there and later at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. After graduating in 1893, he worked at a carriage factory and then at Anchor Electric in Boston and the Holtzer Cabot Electric Company in Brookline, moving to Brookline before the turn of the century.


It was in his home laboratory at 12A Linden Street that Shaw worked on many of his inventions, including:
  • the "talkless telephone," which enabled deaf people to send messages over a telephone line by typing on an ordinary typewriter which caused light bulbs with letters and numbers on them to be lit up at the other end of the line.
  • a doorbell that activated not a chime, but flashing lights (different colors for the front and back doors), an electric fan pointed at the bed, and other kinds of soundless alerts.
  • an alarm clock that agitated the sleeper's pillow to wake them up.
  • a baby monitor that alerted parents to the movements of a restless baby by flashing lights or shaking the parent's pillow.

William Shaw, 1924
Image from Popular Science, November 1924

Alexander Graham Bell, whose research on hearing and speech -- both his mother and wife were deaf -- led to his invention of the telephone, met and corresponded with Shaw. In a 1904 note, Bell wrote to Shaw:

"I have always been greatly interested in your inventions for the Deaf, and trust that the future may bring you continued success in the pursuit of your worthy inventions." (See an image of the note.)

There is no indication that Shaw's inventions were produced commercially or widely adopted. (His only patent appears to have been for an arcade shooting game in which the target would light up when hit while everything around it went dark.) But the inventor and his efforts garnered widespread attention with numerous articles in Boston-area newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications around the country.

William Shaw in his lab, 1924
Image from the Boston Globe, November 15, 1924

He was also an advocate of both electrical knowledge and the deaf community, giving demonstrations that raised money for programs and organizations for the deaf and promoting the inclusion of electrical work in the curriculum of schools for the deaf.

The custody case involving Shaw began in 1907. Shaw's first wife Lucy, who was also deaf, had died in 1902 soon after giving birth to their son, William Jr. The child, who was not deaf, went to live with his maternal grandparents in Boston. Shaw remarried -- his second wife was also deaf -- and in 1907 took back his son over the objections of the grandparents. Brought before a judge in probate court, the case drew wide attention with more than one hundred members of the deaf community present in the courtroom.

Several witnesses, including an Episcopal bishop who worked with the deaf community, testified that deaf parents could not raise a hearing child without having a negative impact on the child's development. Shaw was also attacked personally. Witnesses -- including his own mother and several of his siblings -- testified that he had a violent temper. But other witnesses, including his landlady, co-workers, and another sibling, testified on his behalf disputing the attacks on his character and praising his affectionate and loving demeanor with his son.

Both sides asked Alexander Graham Bell to support their case, but Bell -- saying he did not know Shaw well enough personally -- declined to get involved.

Shaw himself took the witness stand, speaking -- as had other witnessses -- through a sign language interpreter. The judge ruled in Shaw's favor, and the boy stayed with the inventor and his wife.

Six years later, William Jr. , then 10 years old, stayed with his grandparents again when Shaw's second wife became ill, and Shaw had to go to court to get the boy back again. After this second courtroom victory, he wrote:

"It is partly for the sake of the deaf in general that I have fought so hard. Law is law and it is the duty of the deaf to defend their own rights and fight for them if necessary."

Shaw's son, who was known as Willie, helped his father in his electrical exhibitions. He later became a seaman like his grandfather.

William Shaw and his son at a demonstration at a New Jersey School, 1914
Image from The Silent Worker, April 1914
(Courtesy of Gallaudet University Archives)


After leaving Brookline, William Shaw lived in Dorchester and then in Lynn, where he worked for General Electric. He later accepted Thomas Edison's invitation to come work for the great inventor and stayed at the Edison labs in New Jersey for five years.

Shaw returned to Massachusetts in the 1920s and continued his work. He was profiled by the Boston Globe at his Cambridge home and lab in 1924. He returned to Brookline in 1934 and lived at 9 School Street for the rest of his life. He died July 1, 1949 at New England Deaconess Hospital.

For more on William E. Shaw, see the following:

About Muddy River Musings




About the Author

Ken Liss has been president of the Brookline Historical Society since June 2009. A librarian at Boston University, he has lived in Brookline since 1996.
As a researcher and amateur historian interested in the history of Brookline, MA -- originally called Muddy River -- I've had the opportunity to share some of what I've found through formal programs and presentations. But many of the most interesting things I find are just bits and pieces of Brookline's past, uncovered while digging through sources or, serendipitously, when not even looking.

They may not fit right away into a formal presentation or a broader theme, but these little tidbits help tell the big story of the town, what it is and what it has been.

I started this blog to share, informally, some of what I find as I wander through what I call the thickets of historical research. It will be an idiosyncratic assortment: people, places, and events, big and small, that I've found interesting, amusing, poignant, or peculiar, or that otherwise caught my eye.

I hope others will enjoy coming along on these rambles through the past while adding to their own knowledge of Brookline and its history.

- Ken Liss