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King of The Mud Dragons

Smithsonian Magazine

A serrated rostrum of a sawfish shares wall space with a dozen or so carved wooden masks from Madagascar, Tahiti, Chile, Peru, and beyond. Behind the couch hang four paintings—Chinese landscapes delicately rendered on silk—each depicting a season. On the bookshelf, 80 or so small flags stand at attention, lined up like a miniature United Nations court of flags—one for every country Robert Higgins visited in his lifelong quest for dragons.

Now 85, Higgins’s dragon-hunting days have passed, but the work he pioneered continues—younger searchers are off on modern expeditions. And while the world Higgins traveled was large, the world he studied was not. He spent a lifetime searching for animals smaller than the dot on a 12-point i. His specialty is a group of marine organisms called kinorhynchs, aka mud dragons.

Mud dragons are just one type of meiofauna, animals so diminutive they live between grains of sediment. They swim through the watery film surrounding each grain, or navigate the terrain of sand and mud—veritable mountains to scale—using suction pads, hooks, or tiny toes. Just a handful of marine sediment is a meiofauna metropolis. They’re so numerous that under a single footprint on moist sand there could be up to 100,000 individuals. A brief walk, say just 85 steps, might tromp over eight and a half million organisms, a number equivalent to the population of New York City.

For over 60 years, Robert Higgins (right) traveled the world collecting microscopic meiofauna from their sand and mud habitats. Here, in the late 1980s in a makeshift laboratory on a hotel terrace, Higgins and his colleague Fernando Pardos search for life in samples collected earlier in the day on the coast of Santander, Spain. (Photo courtesy of Fernando Pardos)

But for a group of animals so plentiful, they are little known and poorly understood, except by a dedicated few. Meiofauna means lesser or smaller animals, and Higgins has spent a lifetime challenging such a dismissive descriptor. Far from being “lesser,” to him this abundance of life speaks of endless opportunity. Higgins’s passion has been to bring these animals the due they deserve, to bring the obscure out of obscurity.

Forget Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, and her quest for the Iron Throne—Robert Higgins was the original. This father of dragons has been building his kingdom since he snagged his first mud dragon over 60 years ago.

Today, Higgins lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community in Asheville, North Carolina. Widowed in 2010 after his beloved wife, Gwen, died of cancer, he shares the space with a fluffy, white Havanese, Susie, who today is tricked out in a pink, ruffled collar. A talented artist, he spends some time oil painting—a recent subject is Echo, his African gray parrot of 30 years—but is still keenly interested in meiofauna research, and signs of his life’s work fill his home.

A balsa wood model of a mud dragon is prominent atop his media cabinet. The model was once on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where Higgins spent 27 years. “They had a terrible model of a kinorhynch,” he says, “so I carved this one.”

About the length of his forearm, Higgins’s model is no delicate tchotchke. Scaled up to about 500 times the actual size of the largest kinorhynch, the model brings to life the 13-segment creature, with its retractable head covered in recurved spines. To move through the sediment, a mud dragon thrusts its head out of its cylinder-like body, hooks its spines on the grains of sediment, and then hauls itself forward. Its mode of locomotion explains the etymology of kinorhynch, Greek for moveable snout.

Nearby, a packed bookcase speaks to Higgins’s fascination with the natural world—several atlases, titles on birds and insects, the textbook Cell Structure and Function. The lower shelves hold two bulging black binders filled with copies of Higgins’s professional publications, all neatly collated in color-coded plastic sleeves. Together, they form a paper trail, documenting a career spent searching for life in the world’s sediments.

Robert Higgins samples the bottom sediment for meiofauna in the waters near the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. Various sampling devices including corers and dredges are used to gather the top layers of sediment, which is the most oxygenated and hospitable to meiofauna. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)

Higgins’s travels with meiofauna began in 1952, when he arrived as an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, fresh-faced and buzz cut, newly released from the Marine Corps. In his second year there, he met professor Robert Pennak, who introduced him to the world of invertebrates, including tardigrades, a type of meiofauna so pudgy they’re called moss piglets or water bears.

Pennak hired Higgins for 35 cents an hour to work in the university’s moss and lichen herbarium, where he’d regularly find hundreds of microscopic animals, including water bears, in the moss samples. “If you take a lush piece of moss, put it in a bowl of water and squeeze it … you have about a 50 percent chance of finding a tardigrade,” he says.

Higgins was enamored by the tenacity of tardigrades, with their death-defying adaptions to desiccation, freezing, radiation, and other extreme environmental stresses. So after taking every available course on invertebrates and completing his bachelor’s degree, he went on to do a master’s degree on the life history of a tardigrade species living in the mosses of the Boulder region.

He thought about staying at Boulder for a PhD on water bears, but Pennak encouraged his protégé to go elsewhere, and also delivered some prophetic advice. “He said, ‘Do something no one else has done, and then you make your own science,’” recalls Higgins. “I was quite affected by that.”

Tardigrades are also called water bears or moss piglets. They are a well-studied group of meiofauna, famous for their ability to withstand numerous environmental stressors. Tardigrades were Robert Higgins’s first introduction to meiofauna and the subject of his master’s thesis. (Photo by Papilio/Alamy Stock Photo)

Higgins applied to five universities, was accepted to five, and chose Duke University in North Carolina. But between leaving the Colorado mountains and arriving on Duke’s Atlantic shore, Higgins made a trip to the Pacific for a summer fellowship at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor marine laboratory. Before he left, Pennak asked Higgins to try to collect a few samples he was lacking in his teaching collection, including kinorhynchs.

Even though he’d never seen a kinorhynch, Higgins accepted the mission. Within days of arriving, he was on a boat dredging sediment from the seafloor. Back in the lab, he was confronted with a bucket of mud and water and the tactical problem of trying to extract minute creatures from the crud. “Self, how the heck am I going to go through all this mud?” Higgins recalls of the moment.

The only information he had on technique was from the one scientist who had previously found a few kinorhynchs at Friday Harbor. Squeezing a pipette, she’d added bubbles one by one to the sample, relying on the physics of bubbles to find the animals. The exoskeletons of kinorhynchs and other hard-bodied meiofauna are hydrophobic—they repel water—causing them to stick on the bubbles in the surface film.

Higgins tried the method, picking the speck-sized animals off the water surface using a small tool with a tiny wire loop at one end, but it was tedious work. After an hour, he’d managed to snag just four; his days of squeezing dozens of tardigrades out of Colorado moss seemed halcyon in retrospect. But, just as a weak batch of adhesive gave 3M its Post-it note, a fumble in the lab that day proved serendipitous, perhaps not for the world, but at least for those trying to separate infuriatingly small creatures from a slurry of sand and water.

Higgins accidentally dropped a piece of paper into the water and when he pulled it out, it was covered in specks. He washed the sample into a petri dish and took a look under the scope—kinorhynchs were everywhere. The low-tech, highly effective technique, “bubble and blot,” was born. And so was Higgins’s life’s work.

The senior researchers at Friday Harbor were astounded when Higgins showed them the wealth of kinorhynchs he’d managed to find, and after working on the samples for his summer term’s research paper—and finding a paucity of literature on kinorhynchs—Pennak’s advice was staring him in the face. He’d found his “something” that few people knew anything about.

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Back at Duke in the fall, with his Friday Harbor kinorhynch collection in tow, Higgins informed his PhD supervisor that he was switching from moss piglets to mud dragons. His adviser admitted he wouldn’t be much help—he knew next to nothing about kinorhynchs—but provided what support he could. “He bought me the equipment I needed and turned me loose,” says Higgins.

Higgins worked through the hundreds of mud dragons he’d collected, painstakingly detailing the morphological minutiae of spines and scalids, oral styles and cuticular hairs. The seven species he’d found were undescribed, which left the meticulous work of scientific description up to him. “Doing my thesis on the life history of kinorhynchs got me started,” he says, “and that got me everything.”

He became an expert in kinorhynchs, and quickly became the go-to taxonomist for that phylum as well as many other groups of meiofauna. Soon researchers from around the world leaned on his skills, shipping all manner of unidentified animals his way. “Send them to Bob, he works on these weird things,” Higgins later recounted in a speech.

But Higgins didn’t want to remain the only guy who works on weird things. As he progressed in his career from Duke to Wake Forest University and finally to the National Museum of Natural History, where he served as curator in the department of invertebrate zoology, he nurtured a community of researchers who collectively animated the hidden micro-kingdoms below our feet.

In 1966, he cofounded the International Association of Meiobenthologists and launched its newsletter, with an eye to keeping the communication, both professional and personal, flowing. Three years later, while working for the Smithsonian in Tunis, Tunisia, he co-convened the first International Conference on Meiofauna. Twenty-eight participants from seven countries attended. It was a start.

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Almost 50 years after Higgins first snagged some mud dragons on a sheet of paper, María Herranz, a kinorhynch biologist doing a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is bubbling and blotting the sediment sample she collected that morning near the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory on British Columbia’s central coast. As she works, she recounts the story of how Higgins discovered the technique—with slight tweaks as one expects in an as-told-to story (her version had Higgins with a cold, and a tissue in his shirt pocket falling into the sample). The details of paper versus tissue don’t matter so much, but what is clear is the legacy that has come down via the generations from when Higgins was pretty much on his own studying kinorhynchs, and today, when the international kinorhynchologist club has grown to about 10.

Out sampling, Herranz uses a dredge, modeled after one designed by Higgins, to grab the top layer of mud . (“The first five to 10 centimeters is where the action is,” explains Higgins, “that’s where it’s still oxygenated.”) All the other dredges he’d tried dug too deep, so Higgins designed one. Rather than patent it, and hold the idea close, he readily shared the plans with any researchers who asked so they could build their own.

When she’s ready to strain the creatures she’s blotted from the mud slurry, Herranz uses a small net (think butterfly net meets coffee filter). It’s another Higgins-designed piece of equipment used by kinorhynch researchers, and each one was sewn by his wife, Gwen. The net’s resemblance to a bra cup—a pointy vintage number—was not lost on a crewman on one of Higgins’s research expeditions who saucily held the net to his chest. The name “mermaid bra” stuck and regularly makes its way into the methodology section of scientific papers. During her lifetime, Gwen made nets for anyone who asked and they all came with a label and serial number. Herranz’s reads: Gwen-Made Ltd., Mermaid Bra, SN 070703. (To recognize Gwen’s contribution to the science, Herranz named a new species of kinorhynch after her: Antygomonas gwenae.)

Herranz has never met Higgins, but his name comes up often in her kinorhynch work. There’s bubble and blot, the dredge, the mermaid bra, the meiofauna bible—Introduction to the Study of Meiofauna—he coauthored, but most importantly there is lineage. Higgins and Herranz are linked by Fernando Pardos, a zoologist at Complutense University of Madrid, who encouraged Herranz to study kinorhynchs instead of jellyfish, a suggestion strikingly similar to the encouragement Higgins once gave him.

The mermaid bra is standard equipment in meiofauna research. The net was designed by Robert Higgins and for years sewn for researchers around the world by his wife, Gwen. Here, Robert Higgins and Reinhardt Kristensen ham it up at the Den Lille Havfrue (the Little Mermaid) in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo courtesy of Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen)

In 1986, fresh from completing his PhD, Pardos, then 30, was applying for a university teaching position. In preparation for the interview, and anticipating he’d be asked to teach invertebrate zoology, he was searching for information on a newly described group of meiofauna. Pardos knew Higgins had been involved with the discovery, so he wrote him a letter asking for information.

“To my surprise, Bob Higgins answered with a stack of scientific papers and a letter,” says Pardos. In the chatty letter, Higgins noted that his specialty was phylum Kinorhyncha and added a sentence that would send any ready-to-launch zoologist’s heart aflutter: “Did you know there is nobody studying [kinorhynchs] in Spain?”

Just as Pennak had encouraged Higgins to study something that no one else was, Higgins was offering the opportunity of a lifetime to Pardos. And it came with room and board. In his letter, Higgins invited Pardos to stay with him and Gwen in Washington, DC, despite never having met the young student. “These are the kind of things that happen maybe once in your life,” says Pardos. “My only English was, ‘My tailor is rich,’ but I traveled to the States and I found there the most generous people, both in personal terms and in scientific terms.”

Pardos and Higgins spent two weeks together in the summer of 1989, one in Washington at the National Museum of Natural History, and one at the Smithsonian’s field station in Fort Pierce, Florida.

“Bob opened my eyes to the meiofauna world,” says Pardos. “He was so enthusiastic and could transmit the excitement of seeing something that very few zoologists have seen.” He recalls a quiet moment in the lab when they were both at the microscope looking through samples, when Higgins cried out, “Kiiiiiiiiii-no-rhynch!” “This may have been his 100,000th kinorhynch, but he looked as excited as the first time,” says Pardos, adding that when he found his very first mud dragon, Higgins took him out for a beer. “It was the first time I’d seen a kinorhynch alive and I thought, ‘This is fascinating.’ I am still fascinated.”

From that initial time together, Pardos and Higgins forged a strong bond that persists to this day. The summer after Pardos’s stint in the United States, the pair met on the north coast of Spain where they collected and described the first two species of Spanish mud dragons. Their collaborations continued until Higgins’s retirement, but they still have long chats on the phone every few months during which Pardos passes on research updates. “He is absolutely curious about my work and he’s very proud,” says Pardos.

With Pardos and other colleagues from the meiofauna nexus, Higgins traveled the world collecting wherever he could, taking along a portable dredge—the “mini-meio”—in his impeccably packed luggage. No meiofauna anywhere was safe from his shovel and sieve. Higgins was encouraged by the Smithsonian to describe and collect what he could, snagging life from marine sediments, piecing together a picture of life in the mysterious muck animal by animal. His work created an international repository of meiofaunal life, an essential time capsule given that coastal habitats are dredged and polluted with astonishing speed.

Meiofauna live within moist sediments throughout the world. Robert Higgins (left) and his colleagues Yoshihisa Shirayama, from Tokyo, Japan, and Supawadee Chullasorn, from Thailand, search for meiofauna on a Japanese beach. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)

And the collection is still a meiofauna mother lode for contemporary researchers. “There is more than one scientific life of work waiting there,” says Pardos, who regularly sends students to the Smithsonian for research, scouring Higgins’s collection of prepared microscope slides and tiny vials with their impeccably lettered labels.

In a world with macroscopic spectacles such as Komodo dragons, sea dragons, snapdragons, and dragonflies, it might seem like the epitome of obscure pursuits to geek out on row after row of jars and slides and lipstick-sized vials housing microscopic mud dragons and other species from this nanosized wonderland. But as with many scientific pursuits, you never know where a serendipitous sample causes a life to zig when it might have zagged.

Higgins recognizes that serendipity—“my old friend” as he once called it—is a central character in his life story: a sheet of paper falls into a bucket, a letter from Spain crosses a desk, an almost-missed train leads to the discovery of an entirely new life form.

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Years before Pardos received his life-changing letter from Higgins, another meiofauna researcher, Reinhardt Kristensen, was sampling the sediment near the Roscoff Marine Station on the coast of Brittany, France. It was his last day in the field and he was racing against the train schedule. Kristensen, then a senior lecturer at the University of Copenhagen and a colleague of Higgins’s through the meiofauna network, was processing a large sample, preserving it for future study. The protocol for separating the meiofauna from its sediment is multistep, but Kristensen didn’t have time, so instead he quickly rinsed the sample with fresh water. The temporary salt imbalance shocked the creatures within, causing them to loosen their grips on the sediment. He strained them into a vial, and was off to catch the evening train to Copenhagen.

Several months later, in the fall of 1982, newly arrived at the Smithsonian Institution to do a postdoc in Higgins’s lab, he showed his colleague one of the unfamiliar animals he’d collected that day near Roscoff. It looked familiar to Higgins. “I went over to the cupboard and pulled out a little vial and dumped it into a petri dish. They were the same things, or species of the same things,” Higgins says.

Eight years before, Higgins had found a single specimen of this type of animal among thousands of meiofauna collected on a six-day expedition off the North Carolina coast. From the moment he looked at it under the scope, Higgins knew he had something special on his hands, but with only one specimen, there was little he could do but preserve it and file it in his collection. “Every once in a while, I’d take it out of the cabinet to take a look,” he says.

When you’re working with poorly studied yet ubiquitous animals, finding organisms new to science is not uncommon. (As Pardos notes, “Every time I look at a sample, I see more things that I don’t know than things I do.”) But while finding a new species may be almost routine, the higher up you move on the classification ladder, through class, order, family, and such, finding new animals that deserve an entirely new grouping is increasingly implausible. And discovering an organism different enough to warrant its own phylum comes only to a rare few. After all, all known animal life on Earth—to date almost one million species and counting—is categorized into one of only 35 phyla.

And a new phylum is just what Higgins and Kristensen had on the lab table before them.

This illustration shows the loriciferan Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the species found by Robert Higgins off the Atlantic coast. (Illustration by Carolyn Gast, National Museum of Natural History/Wikipedia)

An ocean apart, the two men had discovered two species of a new kind of animal. Higgins had found an adult of one species in 1974, and Kristensen found the full life cycle—adult and larval stages—of another species in 1982. Using the Latin words loricus (corset) and fero (to bear), they called the phylum Loricifera, the “girdle wearer,” to reflect the corset-like rings making up the animal’s armored cuticle.

After painstakingly detailing the original specimen for their proposed new phyla, Kristensen, now curator at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, made the announcement of their discovery with details of Nanaloricus mysticus, the “mysterious girdle wearer,” to the world in a 1983 paper. Loricifera was one of only four new phyla described in the 20th century.

In honor of his colleague’s contribution, Kristensen named the loriciferan’s larval stage the Higgins larva. “That was my payoff and a wonderful one,” says Higgins.

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Beside the balsa wood kinorhynch on Higgins’s media cabinet, sits another sculpture—this one a 3D computer-generated glass model of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the loriciferan Higgins found off the North Carolina coast. The art piece, which renders the animal in delicate bubbles, was made by Kristensen and created in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of the new phylum Loricifera.

Kristensen and Higgins continued to work together throughout the rest of Higgins’s career, in the United States and around the world, discovering and naming many new species, including a loriciferan they named for Gwen Higgins—Nanaloricus gwenae. As with Fernando Pardos, Higgins was a professional colleague, a mentor, and a generous personal friend to Kristensen and his family. At times, Higgins, who is 16 years older, offered some life skills to help the young scientist launch his career. He gave him pointers on delivering scientific talks for instance, and even instructions on how to tie a tie. “You can’t go to meet a president without a proper knot,” says Kristensen. It was a life skill that came in handy as the men were recognized for their discovery in several ceremonies, including one at the Smithsonian hosted by then-US vice president George H. W. Bush, and another in Denmark where they were honored by Queen Margrethe II.

But for all of the accolades—the times his colleagues have added higginsi to a newly discovered animal; the hundreds of scientific papers with Robert Higgins as contributing author; and even to his part in discovering a new phylum of animals—it is the work that Higgins has done to build networks, foster relationships, and share generously that is, perhaps, his greatest legacy.

At its core, at its purest non-cynical, non-competitive center, science is about sharing. Through journals, researchers share their discoveries; at conferences, they speak a common language with their peers, reveling in the knowledge that, for a few days at least, they’re not the only wonk in the room; in the field, they slog through the mud and haul nets, and share a beer at the end of a hard day. And, just as for Higgins’s prized meiofauna, where a magnificent world unfolds in the interstitial spaces between the grains of sand, for scientists it is often in the interstices between all the formalities—a chance comment over coffee, a tossed out phrase in a presentation, a brief mention of something observed or collected or pondered—where the wonder happens.

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Lakota texts by George Bushotter, Stories 1-55, 1887

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available. Each digital slideshow represents a folder.

MS 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103] was arbitrarily broken up into multiple records to facilitate accessibility of digital slideshows.

These 55 stories form a portion of Lakota texts by George Bushotter collected by James Dorsey in Manuscript 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103]. Interlinear translations are by Dorsey, aided by Bushotter and Bruyier. Each story is numbered. 1.) Sword Keeper and his brother. The latter meets Two Faces, a mythic giant. Includes 1 page partial translation. 2.) The Mythic Buffalo. 3.) Two Faces. Explains the origin of arrows, pipes, axes, knife-sharpeners, beads, etc. 4.) Three brothers who had a witch sister. (incomplete) 5.) Children, a bad old woman cannibal, and Spider (the Mythic Trickster). 6.) Spider, animals, and women. 7.) A man and his ghost wife. 8.) Two against one: a ghost story with a song. 9.) A man, a female ghost, and a male ghost who wrestled with the man. 10.) Ghost on the hill, who could not be hit by arrows. 11.) Treatment of the sick, burial customs. Includes a sketch. 12.) The man who came to life again. Includes translation and note by Bruyier at end. 13.) The man and woman in the moon. 14.) Man, two in the lodge, female ghost, and the friendly wolf. 15.) The man who spared the wolf cubs. 16.) The Thunder Being and the Unkcegila (a mastadon ?) 17.) Waziya, the northern giant who brings snow. 18.) Buffalo people who attacked the Indian people. 19.) Spider and the land turtle. 20.) The man and his two sons. 21.) The turtle who wished to fly. 22.) The man who could become a grizzly bear. 23.) How the Indians cured the sun. 24.) Spider and the horned water monster. 25.) The strange lake with large subaquatic animals. 26.) The warrior surrounded by a serpent. 27.) The one-eyed serpent with short legs and large body. 28.) Why they pray to stones, the sun, etc. 29.) The mountain in which was a large serpent. 30.) Adventures of a man and his wife. 31.) Spider and the Prairie Chicken. 32.) Adventure of Rabbit Carrier. 33.) The woman who turned to a fish from her waist down. 34.) Spider and the Rabbit; how the latter made snow. 35.) The male ghost and his living wife. 36.) The man with the magic sword, and the one with the powerful breath. 37.) Swift Runner (he who tied stones to his legs). 38.) The man who was rescued by eaglets. 39.) The Double-woman. 40.) Spider and the mice. 41.) Spider and the ducks--how they got red eyes. Includes a sketch. 42.) Spider and the Rabbit; how the latter lost his long tail. 43.) The man who ressembled the man in the moon. 44.) The young lover who was rescued by the girl. 45.) The warriors who met Heyoka (Sunflower) who was singing and dancing. 46.) The flying Santee (a ghoul). 47.) How the Santees first saw buffalo. 48.) How the Lakotas went against the Rees. 49.) Adventures of the Short Man. 50.) Smoke Maker's adventures: a war story. 51.) Fight between the Lakota and the Blackfeet. (incomplete) 52.) Fight between two unarmed men and a grizzly bear. 53.) Treatment of an Omaha spy caught by the Lakotas. 54.) The wild man, a nude cannibal. 55.) He who uses the earth as an ear.

Lakota texts by George Bushotter, Stories 190-240, 1887

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available. Each digital slideshow represents a folder.

MS 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103, 190-240] was arbitrarily broken up into multiple records to facilitate accessibility of digital slideshows.

These 51 stories form a portion of Lakota texts by George Bushotter collected by James Dorsey in Manuscript 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103]. Interlinear translations are by Dorsey, aided by Bushotter and Bruyier. Each story is numbered. 190.) A bird that foretells cold weather. 191.) Cause of scrofulous sore on the neck. 192.) Meaning of ringing sounds in the ears. 193.) The Brave and Fox societies. Includes 4 sketches. 194.) Dog Society. Includes 2 sketches and 1 page drawing. 195.) "Killing by Hitting," or "Taking the Buffalo paunch," a society of women. 196.) Scalpdance society. Includes 1 sketch. 197.) Night dance. 198.) Mysterious society. 199.) Grizzly Bear dance. 200.) Belief about the Kildeer. 201.) The acts of a leader. 202.) Return of the night hawk in the spring. 203.) Belief concerning the Ski-bi-bi-la, a small grey bird which says Gli Hunwo ?" ("Coming home ?). Also earlier version of the same, with mistakes. 204.) About hanging the "tablo" ("shoulder blade") at the door of the lodge. 205.) Trying to excell others. 206.) Scolding or whipping a woman. 207.) How Indian paints are made. 208.) Acting like the buffalo bull. Includes 1 drawing. 209.) Law about bowls. 210.) Meaning of a rooster's crowing. 211.) The taking apart of fetishes. 212.) How one man drowned another. 213.) Concerning warts. 214.) Of a woman who was killed by mosquitoes. 215.) Concerning hermaphrodites. 216.) Belief concerning the grebe or dabchick. 217.) Rules for eating dogs. 218.) Bushotter's recollections of a certain famine. 219.) Why Lakota men should not wear women's moccasins. 220.) Customs relating to bowls. 221.) Meanings of various kinds of twitchings. 222.) "Kicking out his elder brother's teeth." 223.) How a boy wounded his grandfather in the scrotum. Bruyier's revision of the same. 224.) Legend of the nude Spider woman. 12 pages. About the woman who was deceived by the grizzly bear, with an account of the prairie hen. 20 pages. By Bruyier. 225.) "Punishment of the prairie." 226.) Part of the punishment of a murderer. 227.) About a foolish wife. 228.) How a ghost stunned Bushotter's father. 229.) Occasions for scolding wives. Half-page corrected sentence at end by Buyier. 230.) Setting out food, etc. for ghosts. 231.) Concerning widows and widowers. 232.) About a newborn child. 233.) Tatala, a humorist. 234.) Vegetal lore. 235.) About the year when the stars fell (1833). 236.) Concerning shells used as necklaces. Includes 2 sketches. 237.) Game with a ball of mud. 238.) "Throwing fire at one another." 239.) Punishment of a liar. 240.) Invocation of the Thunder.

Lakota texts by George Bushotter, Stories 56-110 and 1513, 1887

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available. Each digital slideshow represents a folder.

MS 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103] was arbitrarily broken up into multiple records to facilitate accessibility of digital slideshows.

These 55 stories form a portion of Lakota texts by George Bushotter collected by James Dorsey in Manuscript 4800: (3.1.1.3) [103]. Interlinear translations are by Dorsey, aided by Bushotter and Bruyier. Each story is numbered. 56.) Why horses are called, in Lakota, "mysterious dogs." 57.) The man who could understand ravens. 58.) Of the two small stones that were servants of the people. (Brief note at the end appears to be in Swanton's hand.) 59.) The Wahanksica, a strange animal. 60.) The animal in the Missouri River which breaks up the ice in the spring of the year. 61.) How the wind brought sickness to Medicine Butte Creek. 62.) Beliefs about day and night. 63.) The man in the forest and his contest with ghosts. 64.) The feast in honor of the Anti-Natural God. 65.) Of the Heyoka man who dreamed of his death by lightening. 66.) Fight between the Lakota and the Blackfeet. 67.) Of the mysteriousman who knew about the distant war party. 68.) Of the wise man who caught his eloping wife. 69.) How the Rees or Blackfeet came against the Lakotas. 70.) Origin of the buffalo. 71.) The Sun Dance. Includes figures and diagrams. 72.) The man who could lengthen his arm at will. 73.) What a young man must do before he can marry. 74.) How the Crows surrounded some Lakotas. 75.) A raid on a Lakota camp. 76.) Story of a warrior who was not wounded. 77.) Fight between the Lakota and white soldiers. 78.) Of the Santees, and their fondness for certain foods. 79.) What the Lakota thought of the first white people whom they saw. 80.) Belief respecting lakes. 81.) Belief about this world. 82.) The calumet dance. Includes 2 diagrams. 83. How they honor the dead (the Ghost Feast). 84.) Men who are arrow and bullet proof. 85.) Of love potions, etc. 86.) The acts of a wounded warrior. 87.) Actors clothed in buffalo robes with the hair out detect wrongdoers. 88.) Those who imitate the elk. 89.) Why a man may not speak to his mother in law. 90.) Rules for feasting, smoking, and visiting. 91.) Of certain boyish customs. 92.) A ghost story. 93.) Origin of the white people. 94.) Games and their seasons. 95.) Education of a boy. 96.) Of youth killed in battle, and of his faithful horse. 97.) The people who lived in the north. Includes 2 sketches. 98.) The ghost woman and the robin. 9 pages. Note at end by Bruyier. 99.) The Flying serpent whose touch was fatal. 100.) Origin of twins. 101.) George Bushotter's autobiography. 102.) Belief concerning a loved one who has been called by a ghost. 103.) Fight between two gamblers near Chamberlain, Dakota. 104.) The singing elk. 105.) Belief about Spider. 106.) War of the Lakota against the Omaha. 107.) Narrow escape of Bark Bird's Tail (a Lakota). 108.) Busnotter's cousin's war adventure. 109.) How certain men (doctors, priests, etc.) have become mysterious. 110.) How the Lakota fought the Cheyennes and Black Men (Commanches ?). 1513) Transcription of beginning of text 109. Also note from W. H. Holmes to J. N. B. Hewitt requesting the latter to identify the manuscript. Formerly MS 1513.

Landscapes in the Manner of Old Masters

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Le Costume ancien et moderne : ou, Histoire du gouvernement, de la milice, de la religion, des arts, sciences et usages de tous les peuples anciens et modernes, d'après les monumens de l'antiquité et accompagné de dessins analogues au sujet

Smithsonian Libraries
The maps are counted as plates.

[v. 18.] t.-p. reads: Del costume antico e moderno di tutti i popoli del dottore Guilio Ferrario; indice general per alfabeto e per materie preceduto da un saggio di supplimento alla detta opera e dall' indicazione delle più importanti scoperte e relazioni fatte dai recenti viaggiatori dal 1820 al 1829. Milano, Dalla tipografia del dott. Giulio Ferrario, 1829.

Also available online.

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Light Billions of Times Brighter Than the Sun Used to Read Charred Scrolls From Herculaneum

Smithsonian Magazine

Researchers are hoping that a new technology will help them to begin reading charred scrolls dating back 2,000 years. If successful, the technique could help decipher other charred, faded or damaged scrolls and documents from the ancient world.

These particular scrolls were unearthed in 1752 in the ruins of Herculaneum, which was covered in ash by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. They were discovered, specifically, in the library of a grand villa, believed to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. As Nicola Davis at The Guardian reports, the documents were a major find, since the site, which became known as the Villa of the Papyri, is the only known intact library from the ancient world. Most of the documents, however, were charred into rolled up logs, rendering the texts more or less useless.

“Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not anymore,” Brent Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, tells Davis.

That hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to access the writings, most of which, it’s believed, were lost to history. Attempts have been made to unroll about half the scrolls using various methods, leading to their destruction or causing the ink to fade.

Seales and his team are now seeking to read the text using the Diamond Light Source facility, a synchrotron based in Oxfordshire in the U.K. that produces light that can be billions of times brighter than the sun. They will test out the method on two intact scrolls and four smaller fragments from L'institut de France.

“We... shine very intense light through (the scroll) and then detect on the other side a number of two-dimensional images. From that we reconstruct a three-dimensional volume of the object... to actually read the text in a non-destructive manner,” Laurent Chapon, physical science director of Diamond Light Source, tells George Sargent at Reuters.

Machine-learning algorithms will then attempt to use that data to decipher what was on the scrolls. “We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization,” Seales says in a press release. Eventually, if the technique works, the team hopes to use it on 900 other Herculaneum scrolls from the villa. “The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader,” Seales says.

The isn’t the first time he’s unrolled ancient scrolls. As Jo Marchant reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2018, Seales began researching techniques for creating 3D images of ancient documents and deciphering faded or damaged scrolls back in 2000. In 2005, he first saw the Herculaneum scrolls, most of which are housed in a museum in Naples, and decided he’d focus his technical attention on the documents. “I realized that there were many dozens, probably hundreds, of these intact scrolls, and nobody had the first idea about what the text might be,” he says. “We were looking at manuscripts that represent the biggest mysteries that I can imagine.”

Since then, advancing technology has helped him dig deeper into the documents. In 2016, his team made news when they were able to use micro-CT scans to read a charred scroll found in an ark near the Dead Sea at En Gedi. Because the ink used metals, Seales was able to detect the writing. He then used his advanced software to digitally unroll the scroll and piece it back together to learn that the 1,500-year-old document was snippet from the Book of Leviticus.

But the Herculaneum scrolls pose a different problem: The Romans did not use heavy metals in their carbon-based inks, though some of their inks do contain lead. That makes the contrast between the ink and papyrus not very strong. That’s where the machine learning comes in. Davis reports the team is training its algorithms using bits of charred scrolls where the writing is still visible. The hope is that the software will learn the microscopic differences between parchment where ink once was and wasn’t.

The team has already collected the high-energy X-Ray data from the scrolls and are now training their algorithms. They hope to perfect the process in the next few months.

Most of the writings in open scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri have been philosophical works in Greek on Epicureanism. But there’s a chance that some of the charred scrolls contain Latin texts. It’s also possible that more scrolls remain undiscovered in parts of the Villa that have yet to be excavated. “A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” as Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink points out to Davis.

If and when the scrolls are revealed, it will be a windfall for historians, classicists and archaeologists alike. “It’s ironic, and somewhat poetic that the scrolls sacrificed during the past era of disastrous physical methods will serve as the key to retrieving the text from those survive but are unreadable,” Seales says in the press release. “And by digitally restoring and reading these texts, which are arguably the most challenging and prestigious to decipher, we will forge a pathway for revealing any type of ink on any type of substrate in any type of damaged cultural artifact.”

Manners and Customs of Ye Yengeese

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Manners and rules of good society : or, Solecisms to be avoided / by a member of the aristocracy

Smithsonian Libraries
"Contains all the information comprised in Manners and Tone of Good Society, but with considerable additions."

Also available online.

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Medicine Man's Rattle "She-Sheequoi" 2

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
PROVENIENCE NOTE: ACCESSION FILE FOR E6326-361 NOTES ONLY THAT OBJECTS WERE SENT FROM FORT STEVENSON IN 1868. THE COLLECTORS, DRS. GRAY & MATHEWS, WERE POSTED TO THIS FORT IN 1867-68, BUT PRIOR TO THAT, DR. MATHEWS HAD SERVED AT FORT BERTHOLD AS WELL AS AT FORT UNION. NEAR THERE, AT FORT BUFORD, DR. GRAY HAD BEEN POSTED IN 1867, AND IN 1866 SERVED AT FORT RANDALL (NOW SOUTH DAKOTA). PRECISE PROVENIENCE IS THEREFORE UNCERTAIN FOR THESE OBJECTS; "FORT BERTHOLD," "FORT STEVENSON," "UPPER MISSOURI RIVER," OR SIMPLY "DAKOTA TERRITORY" INCONSISTENTLY APPEAR IN THE CARD CATALOG LISTINGS FOR THIS SERIES. (CFS/1995).

FROM CARD: "RAW HIDE STRETCHED OVER A SMALL HOOP, GATHERED AT THE BACK FROM WHICH SECTIONS HAVE BEEN REMOVED TO MAKE THE BACK FLAT. A PORTION IS BOUND AROUND A SMALL STICK, FOR A HANDLE AND SEWED. CATLIN, IN HIS MANNERS AND CUSTOMS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, VOL. 1, P. 109 SPEAKS OF RECEIVING A SHE-SHEE-QUOI. A DOCTOR'S RATTLE. THE ABOVE IS ONE OF SUCH RATTLES, THE OTHER HAD THE FORM OF A GOURD WITH A WOODEN HANDLE MADE OF DRIED SKIN. IT WAS CALLED EEH-NA-DEE. ORIGINAL LABEL READS: 'DISCOID MEDICINE RATTLES OBTAINED FROM MANDANS AT FORT BERTHOLD. DRS. GRAY AND MATHEWS'".

Meet Doris Raymond, the Fairy Godmother of Vintage Clothing

Smithsonian Magazine

Walking through the doors of The Way We Wore in Hollywood, California, is like taking a step back in time. Racks and racks of dresses, blouses, pants and shoes from every decade of the 20th century line the walls. In a separate, appointment-only room, over 1 million swatches of inspirational, vintage material pile high. Founded by Doris Raymond in 1981, The Way We Wore has grown from a fledgling boutique in San Francisco to an internationally renowned vintage clothing shop in the heart of Los Angeles. The store attracts all manner of customers, from brides-to-be to influential clothing and costume designers to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Adele.

Tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET, the second season of "L.A. Frock Stars" premieres on Smithsonian Channel. The six-episode docu-reality series will follow Doris and her team as they travel across the country in search of timeless garments. I spoke with Doris about her vintage journey and what we can look forward to this season.

You mention in the first episode of this season that you’ve been going to auctions since you were eight. What was your path to vintage buying and selling? How did you get into this?

When I was eight, my mother purchased the estate of an apartment—a very old woman had passed away. Her heirs came and took what they wanted and then basically told my mom she could have whatever she wanted for ‘X’ number of dollars as long as she cleared out the apartment. In that apartment was a treasure trove of curio cabinets, jade snuff bottles, paintings, and what happened was my sister and I began the journey of researching like signatures on paintings in our encyclopedias. This was obviously long before the Internet. The thrill of discovering that something that you have is important; that was the seed.

What influences your inventory?

We always have a selection of pretty much the entire 20th century up to the 1990s. Even though fashion can be trend-driven, I tend to buy whatever strikes my aesthetic chord. I look at it more from the universal river of accepted aesthetics. I make exceptions with things that are super kitschy or so wild and ugly that they’re wonderful, but for the most part, I try to keep it in acquiring pieces that have a “wow” factor—something that makes it a little bit more special than what you find anywhere else.

What percentage of your inventory falls into: Someone will like this, I know who will like this, and we should just have this because?

Well I would say the stuff that I buy, I buy thinking that someone will love it, but as far as buying for specific clients that is not even 10 percent. We have certain clients that we know, for example, buy classic size 2 or 4. Or we have one special client who’s requested caftan. We’re always looking for special things, for example, for Adele, and we’ve been working with a gentleman who is the stylist for Lenny Kravitz—so half of them are ephemeral requests and the other half are permanent requests.

Which auctions do you look forward to the most and why? What have you learned in your years of auction going?

Time is of the essence, so I don’t really invest any time in the smaller auction houses because it’s not worth it for me to fly out to preview just for a few pieces. I am a firm believer in seeing the piece in person, and that’s pretty much 90 percent of the time for me.

If I can touch it, feel it and really inspect it, I’ll see things that nobody else sees, and if they’re small, reparable problems, I don’t have an issue with it. I’ve been stuck with so many problems, like labels that have been sewn on so a piece is not what they claim it to be, or perspiration stains. Those are just small examples.

I would say that the auctions that I’m most excited about are the ones in the United States, so that would be Augusta Auction, which was shown in the first season; Whitaker Auction, which is in the second season and is actually the most stuff I’ve ever bought in any auction—it wasn’t because the cameras were rolling—and Hindman in Chicago.

How do you go about confirming that a dress is of a certain designer or a certain period? How much of that comes from previous knowledge and how much of that do you have to look up?

Well looking up is an arduous process, because you either have to go to Paris and go through the archives or you have to go through fashion magazines from around that time period and hope that there’s an image illustrated. To be honest with you, there aren’t that many pieces that I would do that investigation on. It would really be for the haute couture and for the pieces that command higher prices because, you know, your reputation is attached to the authenticity even though you aren’t responsible for changing a label.

You speak of the importance of developing young talent. What’s the store’s relationship with young stylists?

Young stylists or young costume designers or young anything—for me that’s one of the things that I get great joy of, working with the next generation, because it’s I think our duty to feed the fire. I really believe that if you tap into something that you’re passionate about, you’ve got a great chance for success.

What have been some of your most fun buys or styling sessions so far?

This season the cameras were really lucky to be available for me to experience the trip to Chicago that we all took—a lead happened to call in…an ex-model had passed away. It was, in my 34 years in the business, the second best stash of things that I’ve acquired, so I would say that that’s definitely a highlight. That is in episode four, premieres April 9.

Other things that have been highlights: Acquiring a hat and a scarf about 20 years ago and having a hunch that it was an importance piece of art, doing the research and having it confirmed that it was in fact an ensemble that was made by the great Sonia Delaunay, which puts it in the stratosphere of being worth in excess of $100,000.

How many items do you hold onto for a rainy day?

I have acid-free boxes that are stashed in various places in the store, and a good portion of them are '20s and '30s [pieces] without labels. Because of the way that they’re constructed with the couture finish and the elaborate detail—just, they’re beautiful pieces—I’m not selling them. I want to research them.

There’s a museum of fashion next to the Louvre, and they have the most incredible archives that you can make appointments to look through. I actually purchased seven or eight Madeline Vionnet gowns from the 30s and none of them had label. I was 100 percent sure that they were Vionnet, and maybe 15 years ago, I went to research and confirmed all of them through images and photographs. What’s exciting about that is that when you can confirm it, it is no longer an attribution. Attributions are you can ask a little bit more for an attribution, but you certainly can’t ask what it would be if it’s an authentic piece.

Do you have a favorite decade?

I would say Madeline Vionnet’s period—the late '20s to the mid '30s are my favorite, because the garments are so beautifully constructed on an architectural [level]. 

What can we look forward to this season?

I am giving access to a lot of trade secrets, the auction houses for example, what I buy things for and sell things for. Beyond that, I’m honored to be on Smithsonian Channel because they’ve taken and created this show that is a genuine reality show. It’s not scripted; it’s not fabricated. If there’s any drama, it’s genuine.

Tune in to Smithsonian Channel tonight at 9:00 PM ET to catch the first episode of the new season of L.A. Frock Stars and read about all six episodes here.

Meet the First and Only Foreign-Born First Lady: Louisa Catherine Adams

Smithsonian Magazine

In an electoral season where the presumptive Republican nominee has proposed erecting a wall on the border of the United States and Mexico, not to mention banning those of Muslim faith from immigrating to the United States, it can be easy to forget that Donald Trump is married to an immigrant.

But while those running for the highest political office in the United States must be able to meet just three simple requirements—one of which is being a natural born citizen—there is no such burden imposed on a prospective first spouse.

Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs in a village in Yugoslavia, now part of modern-day Slovenia, in 1970. A former model, Melania left Slovenia by choice for a bigger European market, living in places like Milan and Paris before a talent agent arranged to get her a visa and an American modeling contract, allowing the 26-year-old to move to New York in 1996.

Melania is not the first candidate's spouse to be from a foreign country; even in recent history, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the 2004 failed candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, boasted of her immigrant heritage. Almost 200 years ago, Louisa Catherine Adams became the first and only foreign-born first lady to claim the title when her husband John Quincy Adams took office in 1825. 

In a strange historic parallel, Louisa also first came to live in the United States when she was 26, only she did so in 1801. She was a new mother and anxious about her place in the Adams’ family, considering the influence that her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams—who already made it clear that she disproved of Louisa and Quincy’s marriage—wielded. Unlike Melania, who has so far been notably quiet in her husband’s campaign for the nomination, Louisa very much wanted to play a role in John Quincy’s election, and indeed, her weekly tea parties helped swing the election in his favor. 

***

Louisa was born in London, England, in 1775. Her mother was, like her, British-born but her father was born in the colonies, and the family was staunchly supportive of the young republic, staying in France for the duration of the Revolutionary War, which officially began only weeks after Louisa's birth.

While her parents were sympathetic to the fledgling nation’s cause, Louisa was raised the way that “young, pretty, wealthy English girls were raised,” as Louisa Thomas writes in her lushly detailed, authoritative book on the former first lady, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, which came out this spring.

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Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

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Her upbringing would initially provoke the ire of the Adams clan, direct descendants of the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and looked down on those who valued worldly possessions. Indeed, just that Louisa was born in London bothered Abigail, who early on referred to her as a “half-blood.” But her almost aristocratic air—honed by following John Quincy on his diplomatic tours in Europe after their marriage—was key for his presidential campaign. While many in the United States also considered her to be a foreigner, they saw her experience as a diplomat’s wife as a novelty, and Louisa used her accomplishments to her advantage.

“She wasn’t an intellectual but she was very intelligent,” Thomas tells Smithsonian.com. Though Louisa was taken out of school at the age of 14 to prepare for the marriage “circuit”, she showed a natural interest in learning.

Like Abigail and John Adams, Louisa and John Quincy engaged in an extensive correspondence throughout their relationship. At first, Louisa was unsure what to write, and self-conscious about her words, but she grew into her voice. Throughout her life, she wrote memoirs and autobiographies, in addition to her many letters, leaving behind a vibrant portrait of her opinions.

Louisa lived during a time when women were not supposed to express an interest in politics, but the scene fascinated her. “She writes these lengthy letters about political gossip, where she spends three pages gossiping about the treasury, way beyond mainstream news of the day, and then denies her interest,” Thomas says.

After the Adamses had an early social faux pas in Washington, though, Louisa began to understand how women could sway politics. Following John Quincy’s appointment as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, both John Quincy and Louisa ignored a custom that demanded that newcomers in Washington make the first social call to all notable persons in Congress. Louisa then experienced a social freeze-out by the women of Washington, and both Louisa and John Quincy initially suffered for the slight. At the time, Louisa wrote, “Indeed I could hardly have imagined that a man’s interests could be so dependent on his wife’s manners,” as Thomas records.

Louisa went about working her way into the Washington social scene, and through the parties she hosted, she became the capital’s “primary hostess,” as Thomas puts it. Her presence seemingly helped compensate for John Quincy’s belief, passed down from his father, that candidates shouldn't actively campaign or in any way express their ambitions publicly.

“He believed that merit alone, not party or political campaign rhetoric, should determine the choice of the American people,” as Harlow G. Unger wrote in John Quincy Adams: A Life. It was a view that made more sense at the time, considering that until 1824, the year of John Quincy’s presidential campaign, the popular vote wasn't even recorded.

That election showed how the balance of power in Washington had started to shift. When the United States of America was first founded, the Constitution and Bill of Rights dictated that citizens should have the right to vote and that the country would have a free press. Except at the time, that meant almost universally that only white men could vote, and, among them, only those that held land. And though newspapers were free to print uncensored content, they were limited in reach and readership.

Come 1824, however, the United States’ franchise had expanded into Native American territory, creating new states and opening up the opportunity for more to vote. Meanwhile, media production boomed, and by 1823, there were 598 newspapers in the nation, allowing citizens to be better informed and more engaged with the politics of the day.

Though John Quincy Adams, the son of a president with a long history of public service, might have once seemed to be the heir apparent to the executive office, the growing populist movement—fed by a growing frustration with banks and business, which was accelerated by the Panic of 1819—made for close competition in the multi-candidate field for the election.

Adams was up against Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Though those in Washington did not initially take Jackson seriously as a politician, his charisma and victory at the Battle of New Orleans caused the public to rally for the war hero.

Meanwhile, Adams, who cared little for putting on a show, preferring to focus on the politics at hand, did little to curry favor with the greater population. Considering that Democratic-Republicans distrusted him for his ties to Federalism, and most Southerners refused to vote for him because he morally opposed to slavery, his chances for election were looking increasingly bleak.

Louisa became the face of his election. Starting in 1819, she held her “tea parties” every Tuesday night, in addition to hosting balls and other social events. The women in Washington who had once refused to visit her because off her early misstep now became regulars at her raved-about parties. When her brother’s chronic health problems (and her own) forced her to withdraw to Philadelphia, she set up a salon in her hotel parlor there, where important figures in the area would visit to exchange news and discuss the election.

In her letters to John Quincy, she continued to urge him to engage with the public more; she saw the path to victory relied in having Jackson-like charisma, and tried to push her husband toward presenting himself in such a way. “She probably wouldn’t admit it, but she was electioneering,” Thomas notes.

When the votes were tallied, Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality of electoral votes, but as a majority of electoral votes are needed to take the presidency, the House of Representatives was tasked to pick the next chief executive.

Louisa held her last tea party on the evening of Tuesday, February 8, 1825, the night before the House voted. As Thomas writes, based off of John Quincy’s diary, 67 members of the House came to her party, as well as “400 citizens and strangers.”

The next day, the House—led by Clay, the failed candidate and Speaker of the House—voted John Quincy Adams as the next president.

Much has been made over the “corrupt bargain” that Jackson accused Adams and Clay of, for when Adams became president, he made Clay the new Secretary of State. But Louisa’s role has been obscured by history. Without Louisa’s support and social influence, who knows how many electoral votes her husband would have initially curried, causing Clay to rally the vote around him.

The senior Adams famously relied on Abigail’s perspective on issues of the day, but Louisa arguably was more integral to her husband’s election, as she helmed the unofficial campaign. As Thomas puts it in Louisa, “She was not content to be an adviser. She sought a public presence that Abigail avoided, and she chafed when she ran up against its limits."

But whereas his father trusted his wife almost implicitly and Abigail often referred to their property as “ours,” Louisa and John Quincy did not share the same respect. Louisa always felt beholden to John Quincy for lifting her out of the poverty her family had come into before she married him. While she tried to reconcile her own desire for equality with her institutionalized sense of a woman’s place, she struggled.

“She was of two minds about what a women’s role was,” Thomas says. “On one hand, she’s retiring demure, innocent and on the other hand, she’s self taught and has this vibrant intellectual life.”

Louisa grew up in a world where she was groomed to marry and told that women were supposed to stay in their realm. Even with her tea parties, she would not and could not admit what she was actually doing.

Louisa’s time in the White House would be marked by misery. Jackson’s victorious campaign for president in 1828 would begin barely after John Quincy stepped into the White House. The “corrupt bargain” lost him public support, and he had no reliable allies in Congress. Meanwhile, Louisa felt abandoned and neglected in the White House. 

The years following for Louisa were colored by personal tragedy, including her son’s suicide in 1829. While her husband found a second political career as a member of the House of Representatives, and led a crusade for the right to petition against slavery, she did not play a role, rather though she considered slavery a moral sin, she had to contend with her own deep-seated racism.

When she turned 65, Louisa began what Thomas calls her “most ambitious project,” a 70-page memoir titled, The Adventures of a Nobody, which chronicled her history since she first wed John Quincy, preserving her life and efforts for historians to come.

Today, in a time where everything seems to be written down, little is known about the newest foreign-born contender for the First Lady of the United States. As the election heats up though, history will record the role that Melania chooses to play in her husband’s campaign, and what, if any, historic parallels she shares with the woman in her position 200 years earlier. 

Memoirs of an American lady: with sketches of manners and scenery in America, as they existed previous to the revolution. By the author of "Letters from the mountains," &c. &c. ; in two volumes

Smithsonian Libraries
"Strahan and Preston, Printers-Street, London"--Verso of title pages

Pagination of each volume: volume 1. xii, 322, [2] pages; volume 2. ii [that is, vii], [1], 344 pages

Errors in paging: volume 2, page vii is misprinted as ii; volume 2, page 250 is misprinted as 50

Errata for volume 1: page [1] (2nd group) of volume 2

The final two pages of volume 1 are publisher's advertisements

Also available online.

SCDIRB copy (v. 1, 39088004416814; v. 2, 39088004416822) has pages 257-258 misbound between pages 248 and 249 of volume 2

SCDIRB copy has some handwritten annotations in pencil on the front free endpaper of volume 1

SCDIRB copy has contemporary gilt-tooled full leather bindings with gilt-lettered black and green spine labels, with marbled endpapers and edges

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