The Jewish Counterculture in the Michael Strassfeld papers

The Michael Strassfeld papers, 1901-2015 (bulk: 1968-2015), which came to Penn in 2015, are now processed and open for research. Michael Strassfeld (b. February 8, 1950) is an American Reconstructionist Rabbi. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Strassfeld was profoundly influenced by the burgeoning Jewish anti-establishment movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Michael Strassfeld papers contain the records of the his education and life’s work. Represented are elements of his Orthodox upbringing, traditional Jewish education, influence of the Jewish anti-establishment and countercultural movements, and his training and practice as a Reconstructionist Rabbi.

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An American Looking East: the Holden Furber Collection

furberUniversity of Pennsylvania Professor of History Holden Furber is most likely to be remembered for his important work studying British involvement in India, as well as other Asian studies, mostly focused on the Indian sub-continent. And while Furber’s research, professional papers, published articles and book reviews make for a fascinating read, I am most attracted to this collection because of its extensive personal papers.

Furber was an avid traveler. In his young adult life, both before and after his marriage to Mary Elizabeth Chapin, he made it a priority to see the world. Furber eloquently elaborates upon the wonders and beauties he sees in his letters home to his father and aunt in Boston. Furber was a devoted family man and wrote home regardless of how “interesting” his week was–even though a typical week in the life of Furber normally was quite interesting.

While a student at Queen’s College at Oxford University, Furber talked about the political debates he attended, the friends he made and the lessons he learned. His letters often contain playbills, ticket stubs and song books. These small mementos bring to life his daily activities. In the winter of 1923 and the spring of 1924, Furber traveled throughout Europe (Marseilles, Paris, Florence, Venice, Milan etc.) and the Middle East (Cairo, Jerusalem etc.). From 1937-1938, Furber and his wife traveled throughout India and Africa. When writing home from India, Furber notes the stark wealth disparity between the wealthy Indians with whom he dines and the poor Indians begging him for money on the street. It is these small moments in Furber’s personal writings that shine light onto who Furber was–not merely a historian, but a man eager to understand people from various cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds and nations.

Party like its the 1920s

Here’s hoping that your office holiday party is half as fun as Burton Rascoe’s!  This photo is clearly from a newspaper office’s holiday party in the early 1920s.  I think it is the New York Tribune, but I cannot be sure.  Regardless, everything about this party is positively delightful–from the general messiness of the office, to the “interesting” decorations, to the fashions of the day!.

rascoestaffpartyfrom the Burton Rascoe papers, 1890-1957 (bulk: 1920-1957), Ms. Coll. 1145
Box 26, Folder 9

All my new friends are dead–2016 edition

Not long ago, I was telling a loved one how difficult I find it to make new friends as an adult.  I was told quickly, and emphatically, that I was being ridiculous–that I make new friends all the time–it’s just that almost all of them are dead.  Instantly, I was filled, absolutely filled, with what A.S. Byatt beautifully describes as “pale gold goodwill.”  Because this is true–I do make new friends all the time and, because I am an archivist, most of these new friends are, indeed, dead!  But this does not make them any less dear to me, and in fact, I often spend more waking hours in the company of my dead friends than I do with my living friends!

burton2016 has been a very good dead-friend-year for me. I was lucky enough to become acquainted with Burton Rascoe and his snarky humor–I chuckled over his letters as if he was sitting beside me; I admired the smooth flow of his language; and I nostalgically and wistfully enjoyed his 1920s parties. depreistprayers I also experienced the gentle kindness of James DePreist, a renowned conductor and the nephew of Marian Anderson.  I read the prayers he penned on post-it notes and hotel stationery before his performances and felt that I better understood him as a man and as a musician.  And then, I met Corneille, who I desperately wish was still alive (she would be about 116 years old today) because I really, really want to hang out with her.

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Why is Mary Navis not famous?


Why is Mary Navis not famous?

She was the “duchess of swing,” the only female leader of a male ensemble who played an instrument, and was once the leading trumpeter in Ina Ray Hutton’s all-female group, the Melodears. She was hugely successful in the big band era of jazz, yet she doesn’t produce a single result in a google search. She played the drums, violin, guitar and several other instruments in addition to the trumpet. She was revered as the “world’s hottest girl trumpeter.” She mingled with the greatest of the greats and did publicity shoots for instrument manufacturing companies such as Selmer instruments and she had regular gigs at some of the most popular night clubs in Philadelphia, but today she is almost entirely forgotten.navis2

Given her unique success as a female instrumentalist who also led an entire band, it is necessary to ask why she has been so forgotten by the public, by general history, and by the historians and fanatics of jazz and Philadelphia in particular. Could it be because her uniqueness wasn’t completely accepted in the era? Or did the fact that she was a woman overshadow her career rather than highlight it?

navis-3In the big band era of jazz, the only tolerated roles for women were singer and pianist. Female composers, band leaders, and musicians that did not play the piano were far less respected despite their personal success, and therefore far less remembered today. The instrumentalists remembered today were almost exclusively career-long members of all-female big bands and more than likely active after the 1950s. Navis, while once being a member of an all-female big band, decided to create a career leading a band of men and was active in the years before 1950. In addition to this, female musicians at the time were almost entirely judged on their looks instead of their talent and there was widespread belief that female musicians were simply not capable of being as talented as male ones.

The notion of the highly limited role of women in jazz is highlighted in a photograph called A Great Day in Harlem. This photograph, taken in 1958, featured the era’s greatest jazz musicians collected in Harlem. Of the 57 people featured in the photo, only three were women and all three were either pianists or singers – Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, and Maxine Sullivan.

This lack of female inclusion transcends to downright sexism in a 1938 edition of Downbeat magazine, the most popular jazz publication of the era. This issue featured the headline “Why Women Musicians Are Inferior” and commenced with the quote, “Why is it that outside of a few sepia females, the woman musician was never born capable of ‘sending’ anyone farther that the nearest exit? It would seem that even though women are the weaker sex, they would still be able to bring more out of a defenseless horn than something that sounds like a cry for help.”

That attitude was unfortunately not uncommon at the time. It was the widespread understanding of the female musician. Mary Navis maintained a career in an era where everything was working against her. She was believed by the vast majority of people to not have the capability of being great solely because of her gender. Despite her success in her era and among the people who watched her play, she was never taken into account when it came time to write the history books, very few women were, and that is why Mary Navis is not famous.

Injustice in the Justice System: Women in Prison in the Mid to Late 19th Century


Reading through the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons records is not unlike reading nineteenth century crime novels. Many of the crimes presented in the case reports are akin to Jean Valjean’s crime of stealing a loaf of bread that eventually earned him nineteen years in prison in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. That is to say, they are nothing short of unbelievable. From the man arrested for “stealing” a small piece of cloth (who actually bought it and had a receipt) to the grandfather arrested for hugging his own granddaughter, it is unbelievable from the 21st century perspective that these cases resulted in arrests and trials. These case reports provide a view into Philadelphia’s past that helps the modern citizen understand just how arbitrary the system was, and just how easy it was to end up in one of these horrible prisons that this society set out to reform.

This collection highlights the fact that, in public prisons, all prisoners were held together. Men, women and children were all combined regardless of crime. The murderers and rapists were assembled with the women who were victims of abuse and the children accused of stealing petty change. This fact, in combination with the unsanitary conditions of the prisons, explains the need for reform of the prison system.

These manuscripts come from the papers of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, a prison reform group created in 1787 based off of the work of prominent Philadelphians, such as Benjamin Franklin, to reform the harsh penal code of 1718. The society continued the work of these men by investigating existing prisons and seeking to reform the prison structure that caused all people, regardless of crime and guilt, to be held together in overcrowded unsanitary holding cells for as much as several months as they awaited trial. This society was engaged in the construction and establishment of the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, which was modeled off of their ideas for a humane prison environment. The group still exists today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Upon reading the “case reports” section of this collection, it became evident that women were often the ones arrested for crimes in which they were the victims. These stories also show just how warped the disciplinary system was at this time, the man accused of molesting two young girls was in prison for the same amount of time as the woman accused of keeping a “disorderly household,” a crime that, much to my surprise, does not imply a lack of cleanliness but rather the operation of a brothel or a house “kept in such a way as to disturb or scandalize the public.” The stories below are directly quoted from the case reports in the collection and show the imbalance of the prison system in America prior to the reform that began in this era.

The Girl Who was Arrested for Making Ten Pairs of Drawers

January 14, 1862: “[The case] of a young girl, about sixteen years of age, that was charged of having stolen 10 pairs of drawers. In the investigation of the case it was shown by her book, which was given to her by the contractor, from whom she received the drawers to make, that she had not stolen them, but the prosecutor who charged the prisoner with stealing them, stole them from the prisoner and took them into the contractor and took the pay for the making, which rightfully belonged to the prisoner; whom she had imprisoned out of a mere pretext to save herself from a prosecution for the taking of them.”

The Woman Who was Arrested for Being Beaten Bloody by her Husband

February 16, 1869:“Number 2 was the case of a woman who had been imprisoned at the insistence of her husband, upon the charge of assault and battery. Obtained her discharge from the court with consent of Judge Brewster who took the agent for bail. This arrangement afforded her an opportunity to leave the prison at once and to institute legal proceedings against her husband who was the prosecutor, for cruelly beating and whipping her in such a shocking manner, so much so, as to require medical aid of the prison physician. It seems that she got into the difficulty by taking down a portion of her clothes line and attaching it to a sled for the amusement of her children who desired to draw it over the ice. Her drunken husband not being pleased with this arrangement, took the rope and twisted it together, and cruelly whipped his wife in the presence of her five children until the blood ran down her back; and in order to prevent her from suing him, he sued and imprisoned her upon the above named charge; an offense which he alone was guilty. The agent procured her immediate release without costs, and sent her to her home to inform her husband, that if he dared to strike her again, or misuse her in any way, the agent would interfere and have him arrested and imprisoned.”

The Woman Imprisoned for Being Chased with a Poker

April 13, 1869: “Number 5 was that of a poor colored woman who was unjustly committed to prison upon the charge of misdemeanor. Her prosecutor chased her through the street with a poker for the purpose of beating her, at a time when he was drunk. He then went to the magistrate and sued and imprisoned her for an offense of which he alone was guilty. The agent went to the magistrate, explained the case, and obtained her discharge by becoming bail for her appearance at court, when she will be supplied with counsel who will speak of the drunken condition of the prosecutor, who should be punished for his improper conduct to the prisoner.

The Young Girl Who was Seduced by an Older Man Who was Arrested for Asking Him for Help

August 16, 1870: “Number 1 was the case of a young girl who was imprisoned upon the charge of breach of the peace. Her offense consisted in her asking for some assistance from a man who seduced her when she was but sixteen years of age, and took her from the home of her respectable parents, and kept, and lived with her for a period of five years. He then deserted her and married another. As he was in good circumstances, and wealthy, the prisoner thought the least that he could do would be to give her some assistance to enable her to live. This he refused to do, and caused her to be arrested and imprisoned upon the above named charge. The agent procured her discharge from the alderman by explaining her case, and by becoming bail for her to keep the peace for the future.”

The Old Woman Who was Arrested for Being Beaten by a Young Man

August 16, 1870: “Number 2 was that of a poor woman whose daughter had married the son of a wealthy citizen. The young man’s brother and mother were displeased with the match, and sought to get revenge and satisfaction by beating the prisoner, who was the mother of the young girl. She was knocked down in the street on a Sabbath day, and badly beaten by the prosecutor’s son. Her cries for help caused a mob of four or five hundred persons to collect in the street who came to her rescue, and interfered in her behalf. The mother of the man who inflicted these injuries upon the prisoner in the presence of so many witnesses immediately sued the prisoner upon the false charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. This was done to prevent this poor woman from prosecuting her son for an assault and battery with intent to kill her. She was scarcely imprisoned before neighbors came to your agent and informed him of all the facts in the case, which they themselves had witnessed. These persons contributed sufficient funds to pay the cost to procure the prisoners immediate release…[she was then] left free to prosecute the young man who had so badly beaten her.”

The Woman Who was Arrested for Trying to Keep her Husband from Drinking on the Sabbath

January 15, 1880: “No. 2 was the case of a worthy woman, who was also imprisoned, upon the charge of assault and battery. She had one of her children in prison with her, she got herself into the difficulty by resisting her prosecutor when he came to her house on the Sabbath day, and persuaded her husband from his home, to go with him to a tavern and partake of intoxicating liquors. She followed him and protested against the tavern keeper selling her husband intoxicating liquors, for the doing of this she was arrested upon the false charge of assault and battery…”

The Woman Sentenced to One Year in Prison for Keeping a Disorderly House that was not her Own while She was Ill and on Bed Rest  

October 1, 1880: “No. 1 was the case of a woman who was convicted and sentenced to one year upon the charge of keeping a disorderly house…She only occupied a room in the house with her father as she was sick and in a diseased condition, the agent procured a certificate from Dr. Smith the prison physician, that certified that she was not a proper subject for the prison and should be sent to the Almshouse…”

“Malice is at the bottom”: Family Drama in the Litigation of the Thomas W. Evans Estate

It took less than twenty-four hours for the will of Dr. Thomas Evans to be legally contested. On May 31, 1898, the very day the wealthy dentist’s will was filed in the United States, Evans’ niece, Clara E. Davis, made a formal objection to the stipulations of the document. This legal action was only the first in a long series of bitter lawsuits over the Evans estate that dragged on for over a decade. By the end of 1898, heirs, executors and the City of Philadelphia (Evans’ intended recipient of the bulk of the fortune) were locked in a vitriolic legal contest, to which Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor for Philadelphia, was soon to be subjected and which his papers document.

Dr. Thomas Wiltberger Evans was a famous dentist, born in Philadelphia in 1823 but professionally active in Paris. At the peak of his practice, Evans was treating most of Europe’s sovereigns, from Queen Victoria to the Sultan of Turkey. Evans shared a close friendship with Emperor Napoleon III, and managed to smuggle the Empress Eugenie out of Paris in his private coach when the masses rioted after the Battle of Sedan. To call Evans “wealthy” would be a considerable understatement. The dentist’s friends in high places, rather than his medical practice, were responsible for his massive fortune. In the 1850s and 1860s, when Napoleon III launched a comprehensive urban re-planning of Paris, Evans was tipped off to the areas of the city that were soon to be transformed from labyrinthine networks of medieval alleys to spacious and stately boulevards. Strategically buying cheap properties in these quarters, Evans saw the value of his real estate skyrocket as development moved forward. When Evans died in 1897, his estate was valued (conservatively) at $4,000,000, or about $110,000,000 in 2016.

The subsequent disputation of Evans’ will was not caused by any ambiguity of the document. Rather it seems that his millions were simply too alluring for his relatives to give up without a fight. Evans left two wills, one to be valid under French law and the other in the United States, but they both described the same wishes for the distribution of his capital. Evans set aside a total of $275,000 for his wife, mistress and some other relatives (he had no children), and left the rest of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia, for the establishment of the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute, an institution which he required be “not inferior to any in the city.”

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

An 1882 portrait of Madame Laurent, by Edouard Manet.

The social and economic ripple effects of the dispensation of Evans’ estate are exemplified in one of several amusing anecdotes reported in American newspapers. Evans left a large sum of money to his mistress, Méry Laurent, an active figure in Paris’ artistic circles (she modeled for the impressionist painter Edouard Manet and entertained Proust and Zola at her salon). Laurent was a great appreciator of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and decided to pass along her portion of the estate to his daughter. According to a reporter commenting on the gift, “during the few days since it has become known that the young lady is in safe possession of $100, 000 [not an accurate figure] she has had twenty offers of marriage from as many Counts. In fact, her windfall is interfering with the American marriage market.”

Evans’ other heirs, however, were less magnanimous than Mme. Laurent. They contested the provisions of the will on several accounts, first questioning its validity and then the right of the City of Philadelphia to receive funds from the estate given that the Museum and Dental Institute had yet to be officially established. Wisely intuiting that the litigation of the estate was about to get very, very messy, Philadelphia Mayor Charles Warwick secretly dispatched Joseph W. Catharine, the Assistant City Solicitor, to Paris, where most of the heirs lived. Catharine’s task was to defend the interests of Philadelphia, mainly by making sure that Evans’ heirs didn’t siphon away too much of the money meant for the Museum and Dental Institute.

He's determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

He’s determined! An undated photograph of Joseph W. Catharine.

Though thrown into a legal case whose milieu was the most elite tiers of Parisian society, Catherine himself was from relatively modest background. He was born at sea in 1859 on the Carrier Dove a clipper ship owned by his father, which ran between Philadelphia and several Southern ports, and, according to a later biography, “a common school education was his lot.” Catharine began his career at the Philadelphia Treasurer’s office whilst he read law, and later joined the Solicitor’s office, where he successfully argued several important cases.

Catherine’s professional aptitude served him well in Paris, and over the course of a few months he was able to defeat almost all of the heirs in court. Despite this, Evans’ relatives walked away with a total of $800,000 in addition to their original $275,000: in 1900, the executors and the City agreed to grant the heirs a bonus if they forfeited their right to further contest the will in the French courts.

Yet the appeasement of the heirs did not mean the settlement of the estate. The suits lumbered on, now between the City and the estate executors, and got particularly nasty in 1906, when Catharine and his colleagues accused three of the executors of mismanaging the estate for their personal financial benefit. In the words of G. Heide Norris, one of the City’s lawyers:

“The many and devious methods adopted by the French executors, in order to delay settlement and maintain possession of the estate both in France and in this country, should be fully exploited at this time… The object of the executors in holding on to the estate and in delaying settlement, has always been a matter of inquiry, but the sequel seems to disclose the answer very clearly. It is now entirely apparent why Mr. Valois, the principal of the French executors could never be found when wanted for discussion, why he avoided interviews with counsel for the city, why he has interfered with and delayed any attempt to deal with the American executors, why he has delayed promised accounting…”

The executors filed countersuits, but also responded on more personal terms. Sarah Gray Crane, whose late husband, Edward Crane, was one of the indicted, wrote directly to Catherine, that “I feel sure Mr. Catharine, although you accuse him of a crime, that in your heart you do not believe him guilty of any misdemeanor. You are led by… a faction of the family of the late Dr. Evans- who are very jealous of both my husband and myself- malice is at the bottom.”

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

An early photograph of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Amidst the hundreds of letters and dozens of legal memoranda that make up this collection, it’s hard to get a sense of what Catharine was like, personally. If anything sheds light on his character, it’s an assortment of newspaper clippings. Quoted in these articles he seems first dogged, but gradually more pessimistic about the outcome of the case. Indeed, I doubt Catharine had any idea in 1898 that the Evans estate litigation would last about fourteen years, demand he make at least six trips to Paris and provoke in him three “health crises.” Yet Catharine must have maintained at least some of his initial determination because, eventually, the City received the necessary funds from Evans’ estate to establish the Museum and Dental Institute. In 1915, the Institute opened its doors to a first class of students, and still operates today, at its original location on 40th and Spruce Street, as the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

Happy Halloween (from the most fabulous witch EVER)

Happy Halloween to one and all!  If you are looking for a truly fabulous costume, we have the perfect volume! Fancy dresses described, or, What to wear at fancy balls, by  Ardern Holt, is an 1887 book containing gorgeous color plates and the description of costumes to be worn to fancy dress parties.  Here is the most traditionally Halloween of the costumes, but every one is absolutely amazing!  You would be the envy of every Halloween-er should you dress from this book!


Celebrate People’s History

2016-10-11-11-45_page_10One of the best parts about preparing for our Archives Month Philly Event (this year our event, “By the Book:  Making–And Breaking!–The Rules,” is on October 25) is looking at my colleagues’ favorite finds.  This year, Abby Lang suggested an amazing collection of posters, Celebrate people’s history, compiled by Josh MacPhee, a designer, artist, and archivist who is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive.  He is also an author and editor and clearly interested in social justice.

2016-10-11-11-45_page_11According to the Justseeds Artists Cooperative website, “this cloth-bound box set documents the first 18 years and 100 posters in the Celebrate People’s History Poster series. The posters are rooted in the do-it-yourself tradition of mass-produced and distributed political propaganda, but detourned to embody principles of democracy, inclusion, and group participation in the writing and interpretation of history. It’s rare today that a political poster is celebratory, and when it is, it almost always focuses on a small canon of male individuals: MLK, Ghandi, Che, or Mandela. Rather than create another exclusive set of heroes, I’ve generated a diverse set of posters that bring to life successful moments in the history of social justice struggles. To that end, I’ve asked artists and designers to find events, groups, and people who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world. The posters tell stories from the subjective position of the artists, and are often the stories of underdogs, those written out of history. The goal of this project is not to tell a definitive history, but to suggest a new relationship to the past.”

2016-10-11-11-45_page_08Each poster is offset printed and the box set includes a letterpress printed half-title sheet with curator’s statement.  One of the amazing things about these posters is that despite the date of the event, so many of them are completely relevant today.  We still worry about the same issues:  African American rights, Native American rights, gender equality, workers’ rights, environmental issues, and animal rights.  Every single poster is beautiful, powerful, and educational.

Researchers–come to the reading room to check out these images; students–use these images in your papers and projects, and everyone–come to see just one of these beauties displayed at our Archives Month event as an example of people who challenged the rules!

By the Book: Making–And Breaking!–The Rules

archives16_300Ah, rules! Where would we be without them? According to some, we would be savages at the dinner table, we couldn’t shoe a horse, and Penn students would be dueling willy-nilly! As a result, rules have flourished: governments issued them, activists challenged them, and inquisitors enforced them. And literary critic Burton Rascoe had so little faith in his own ability to follow the rules of society that he purchased pre-printed apologies to send following events! As part of Philly Archives Month, join the catalogers of the Kislak Center to meet the medieval to modern role models and scape-graces who inhabit our collections.

If you missed the event, which was held October 25, 2016, check out the online version of the evening!

Archives Month Philly event hosted by Penn’s Special Collections Processing Center generally take place in the University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, sixth floor, 3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA

This event was free and open to the public!  We look forward to seeing you next year at our annual show and tell!