Herman Melville, hair tonic, and the nature of historical inquiry

It’s late April. For me, this means only one thing: it’s research season.

I teach an introductory writing seminar to college freshmen, and the final phase of the semester always focuses on a major research paper, to be handed in in the last few weeks of the semester (I’m getting 35 drafts tomorrow). Whenever my students start research, the first thing I do is try to break down any preconceptions they may have about actually finding what they hope to find.

“Research is about change and uncertainty,” I tell them. “It’s about asking a question, finding out you asked the wrong question, and asking a new one. Be ready for your topic to change.” Be ready, in other words, to find no sources on your topic, give up in despair, panic last-minute, and scrounge together a 10-page paper on something you never planned to write about at all, but on which the library search engine spits back a hundred sources at a time. Beggars, you know, can’t be choosers.

Archival research works the same way: you set out with a perfect image in your mind of the precise source you’re going to find, with all the necessary details laid out in well-organized, legible print. It must exist. It’s in the finding aid. And then–things change. Which is how I’ve come to write a post about Herman Melville, hair tonic, and the nature of historical inquiry, and not about the long-lost baby daddy I actually set out to track down.

An interloper

To back up slightly: the elusive baby daddy was a man named Thompson, residing in Pittsfield, Massachusetts around the year 1863 and working as a furniture dealer. At trial in 1872, Josephine McCarty testified that while pregnant in 1863, she had named this “Thompson” as the father of her unborn child–a confusing claim, given she would later swear Milton Thomson (no p, resident of Utica) was the father of little Josephine Cleopatra, but she presumably had her reasons. The details surrounding Mr. Thompson are sparse: he was a furniture dealer, with a business opposite Josephine’s rooms on the main street of Pittsfield; he enlisted in the army not long after the paternity suit; he never became involved with Josephine McCarty again. He is a brief shadow passing through the eventful life of Mrs. McCarty and disappearing with barely a trace.

In part because there is so little to know, Thompson has long been on the back burner of my research. Other pieces of the story are fleshed out in detail, but Thompson is a footnote, a question mark, a Post-it note on my wall marked “look into later.”

But two weeks ago, I was driving west on I-90 from Boston to Rochester–a route that takes me directly through several key points on the map of Josephine’s world, including Albany, where she earned her dark reputation, and Utica, where her story begins and ends. I-90 also passes directly past Pittsfield, a small town on the outermost edge of western Massachusetts (which, incidentally, I have on good Bostonian authority is a different Massachusetts entirely). I decided to take advantage of a rare chance to do some real-life digging. I looked up a finding aid, found a listing for the ledger of the American House hotel, and sent an email to the Berkshire County Historical Society.

The Berkshire County Historical Society (photo by author 4/17/17).

All this is how, on a Monday afternoon in mid-April, I found myself standing in Herman Melville’s backyard. The Berkshire County Historical Society, you see, has the honor of housing their collections at Arrowhead, the house where esteemed American author Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, still preserved today as a beautiful yellow house off a country road.

The particular Monday I chose happened to be Patriots’ Day, which explains the desolation you see in these photos: in Massachusetts, everyone takes the day off on the third Monday of April to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The archivist I contacted was in and out on the day of my visit; when I showed up, my little black Honda was the only car to be seen.

Herman Melville apparently liked privacy for his writing. 

I wandered through the yard and around the front of the house, looking for anything that looked like an entrance. The silence was country silence–the same kind of heavy quiet I hear at my parents’ house, deep in the woods of upstate New York. Here, in western Massachusetts, it felt, I confess, a little more eerie than I liked.

I finally found a door, tucked away on the far side of the house, which invited me in unmistakable (if somewhat…fishy) terms to come inside. Inside I found an abandoned hallway, leading to two abandoned offices. “Honey,” I texted my fiancee, “I’m breaking into Herman Melville’s house.”

I wasn’t, of course. I had made an appointment. Someone started moving around upstairs, and before too long a man with a rumpled gray sweater and rumpled gray hair was leading me into a side room where my materials were stacked neatly under a wall of forbidding photographs of the Melville family.


The packages you see in that photo are packets of disappointment: they contained, despite my best hopes, none of the answers to the questions I’d set myself. A directory of Pittsfield from the 1860s listed two furniture dealers, neither named Thompson; the ledger of the American House hotel on which I’d set so much stock listed among its lodgers a Kate McCarty and a Maria McCarty, but no Josephine, no matter how hard I squinted at the loopy brown script. In the rest of the packets, I found the personal papers and notebooks of various medical students who had passed through Pittsfield to study at the Berkshire Medical College, taking notes on surgery, chronic abscess and obstetrics, and writing in the margins recipes for beer and hair tonic.

The documents, in other words, were full of answers and leads to fascinating research–they were just answers to questions I hadn’t asked, and leads that I couldn’t afford to follow.

Mr. Thompson is still a question mark–maybe one I’ll never translate into a decisive full stop. But I didn’t walk away from Arrowhead with nothing. I left suspecting, as always, that Josephine’s version of her life story included some revisions from the historical record–that what the documents didn’t say was as important as what they might have said. I left with a sense of the land, of how close we were to Josephine’s home base in Albany, yet how different the rural landscape was from the city whose name was synonymous with corruption by the time she made her home there. I left with the same questions I came with, but with a new set of questions as well–about what brought Josephine to Pittsfield in the first place, about what the town looked like when she stayed in rooms somewhere on its main streets (but not in the American House), about why this Mr. Thompson, whoever he was, became a part of her personal narrative (I do believe he existed, but the sources are blurry; I still need to pin this down).

When I’m working in such uncertainty, I turn back to the advice I give my students: “Don’t waste your time searching for a source that only exists in your imagination. Look at what you actually have, and work from there.”

What I have, in this case, is a big blue sky over a yellow house and a story I’m almost certain is in some way a lie. Until the mystery sources fall into my lap, I’ll work from there.





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