A letter from Gibraltar

a selection of curiosities from "Museum of Science: Then and Now"

We’ll be releasing a mobile app in the Fall to accompany a new permanent exhibition on the history of the Museum. As part of the research for that, I spent a day in the Boston Athenaeum looking through their manuscripts collections for information on the Linnaean Society of New England, a predecessor of the Museum of Science that operated from 1814-1823.  One of my favorite parts of research is when you find an object or document that so neatly encompasses an era or an idea that it practically sings.  I found two at the Athenaeum, and I wanted to share one. It starts thus,

U.S.S Washington, Gibraltar Bay, Feb 18, 1817.
Mr. Shaw,
Dear Sir,
I beg leave to recommend to your care the enclosed letter & accompanying box. The box is principally filled with specimens in nat. hist. For the Linn. Soc. but as it contains some private packages, I wish it to be opened by one of the persons to whom it is directed.

This is the third time I have troubled you in this way; but I have done so, presuming on your well-known disposition to aid all endeavors, however small, to advance the cause of science in our country.  What I am able to contribute to this end is certainly very inconsiderable, but “Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus Constare magna non possunt.” [“Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which great things cannot come into being.” – St. Jerome]

I am, Sir, respectfully, yr. obedt. servt.
Ch: Folsom.

Folsom sent a series of letters to William Shaw, the vice-president of the Linnaean Society.  The letter accompanied a large box of specimens that included Roman coins, volcanic rock from Vesuvius, marine creatures, an ostrich skeleton, a chameleon he hatched from an egg, and several pages. His explanation of his collecting is classic,

“In the large box you will find a farrago of specimens in natural history, which I have collected as I could, not without expence of patience, & occasionally of money. I fear some of them may seem hardly worth notice; but they interested me at the time of collecting them, & are connected in my mind with interesting places & circumstances.”

His letters are marvelous, written in a large bold hand, and full of the kind of details about his objects that so often get lost by the time they get into collections databases.  You can almost see him in the wardroom of the Washington, looking at his instructions on how to preserve birds, trying to eviscerate an adult ostrich in his spare time.  His crew mates must have loved him!

The objects themselves are long-gone, along with the rest of the Society’s collections, so his descriptions are all that is left. Folsom goes to great pains to explain his lack of skill. Specimens are poorly preserved, or all that was left after he tried to preserve them. But his snake wasn’t just a snake. It was one he caught climbing up the rudder in Chesapeake Bay. The ostrich was a gift to the Commodore from the Bey of Tunis, which lived aboard ship til it sickened and died, apparently from eating too much rope, “which it consumed avidly.” When he autopsied it, Folsom found its stomach completely full of scraps of rope and other tidbits. Every object possesses some personal meaning for Folsom as well as value to a new museum as specimens. At an old institution, where so many of the object have outlived all the people who were associated with their collection, it’s easy to forget that they all once possessed these narratives.

I was looking for an example of the collecting strategies employed by my distant predecessors, and came up with Lieut. Folsom, much to my delight.  But who was this intrepid benefactor, and aspiring naturalist? Some sleuthing was required.

USS Washington, from an old book

In early 1817, the USS Washington, a 74 gun ship of the line built in Portsmouth, NH, was cruising the Mediterranean as the flagship of Commodore Chauncey’s squadron. Information on Folsom was hard to come by, but luckily he had a crew mate who made quite a name for himself later. The most famous member of the Washington’s crew was a teenager from Tennessee named David Farragut, who was already a seasoned veteran at age 16, and would become Admiral of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War, where he uttered his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Midshipman Farragut’s  instructor (who would become his lifelong friend) was the ship’s Unitarian chaplain, Lieut. Charles Folsom.  Folsom served briefly aboard Washington before being named U.S. Consul at Tunis.  Upon leaving the ship, he secured an extended leave for his young friend to stay with him in Tunis and continue his study of mathematics, as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Turkish.

It’s tempting to imagine the chaplain and his midshipman collecting rocks on the beaches of the Bay of Naples, or catching lizards in the ruins of Carthage, but that’s a bit of a leap to make. More of Folsom’s papers are at the Mass. Historical Society, so someday I might have to dig a little more and see what other gems I might uncover. For now, I’ll hope the we can afford the license and duplication fees, so Lieut. Folsom’s letter can enjoyed by more people.

I do love this work.

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