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Image: detail, by Sally Deng
February 5, 2019

The New York Times: Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History – and How to Do It

Jaya Saxena describes the experience of  tracing her family history as more than just digging up facts – but as uncovering “the myths that are a part of the story of yourself, whether you like them or not. Learning your history is forced reckoning, asking you to consider whose stories you carry with you and which ones you want to carry forward.” Teresa Koch-Bostic, the vice president of the National Genealogical Society explains, “I think it appeals to people who love an intellectual pursuit, because that’s really what it is…. It’s solving a puzzle at the highest level, and the benefit is that you get to find out about your family.”

Read more in the New York Times article “Why You Should Dig Up Your Family’s History – and How to Do It” by Jaya Saxena

 

 

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Harold Holzer, Historian and Lincoln Expert.
January 31, 2019

Historians Explain Why We Collect Manuscripts

People who are interested in history collect manuscripts because they want to know what somebody was really like. When you look at a letter, you’re looking at what was going on in a person’s life – what did this feel like to the person experiencing it at that time – and before you know it, you have a whole world coming alive.

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Northridge earthquake. United States Geological Survey.
January 17, 2019

25 Years Since the Northridge, California, Earthquake

Natural disasters do not discriminate. These letters about the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake are recalled today on the 25th anniversary of the more recent Northridge earthquake, and following this exceptionally difficult year for Californians.

“We have the dreadful news that an earthquake has almost destroyed San Francisco.  The wires are down, and it is difficult to get accurate information…. It is impossible, however, to hear anything, and we are in the dark.” – William Howard Taft, Secretary of War. April 18, 1906.

Secretary of War William H. Taft Reports That San Francisco is Almost Destroyed in the Earthquake

Mark Twain on the San Francisco Earthquake and a Picture He Cannot Get Out of His Mind

Jack London, Hit Hard By the San Francisco Earthquake

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Image: Alfred Dreyfus. Circa 1894. Aaron Gerschel, Wikimedia Commons.
January 14, 2019

Inspirational Letter from the Wrongly Imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus

This shockingly inspirational letter from Alfred Dreyfus was written shortly after he was wrongly convicted of treason and degradated in a public military ceremony. Writing to his sister and brother-in-law, he tells them of his suffering; not of the conditions he is subjected to, but the suffering and pain in being so powerless to prove his innocence. Despite this weighing heavily on him, he tells them his “pure and clean conscience will give [him] superhuman strength,” and he will clean his name “from the stain that has been inflicted upon it unjustly.” He exhorts them to “not bow your head, but to keep it higher than ever” as he will also do.

Not losing faith, he is sure that “with all of our combined efforts, our wills focused into a single one, we will succeed” in revealing the truth and clearing his name. Read the full transcript of this stirring letter and view the original papers here.

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December 31, 2018

The President’s Bodyguard: Mick McElkenny

Mick McElkenny was a bodyguard to JFK during the president’s visit to Ireland in 1963, just months before his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Mr. McElkenny is the subject of the documentary, “The President’s Bodyguard.”

“Mr McElkenny recalled a story JFK told about how life could have taken a very different path if his Irish ancestors had not set sail for America. ‘He told one about if his grandfather hadn’t left New Ross in Co Wexford that he would have been working over in the factory in New Ross,’ he laughed.” – Read more: http://www.irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2018/12/27/news/john-f-kennedy-and-lord-mountbatten-s-bodyguard-recalls-shock-at-assassinations-1516296/

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Director of Digital Projects, Jamie Levavi.
December 9, 2018

Welcome to the New Home of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation

We’re excited to welcome you to the new online home of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. We’ve added multiple features and tools that will facilitate educators, researchers, and history enthusiasts in discovering and organizing their resources and interests.

In preserving, researching, and digitizing thousands of original manuscripts, we look forward to sharing this collection with you.

The Shapell Manuscript Collection is a private holding of primary source documents relating to various events and historic figures in American, Jewish, and Holy Land history from the 19th and 20th centuries. Included in the collection are signed documents, photographs, rare books, and other artifacts. It is particularly rich with items from the American Civil War era, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Israeli leaders.

In addition to a focus on world-renowned individuals, the collection frequently relates to the history of Jewish American life. These manuscripts explore such topics as the lives of Jewish soldiers during the American Civil War, and reveal aspects of American Jewish influence and contribution to society.

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Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
September 2, 2018

The 2018 Mid-Term Elections: Where the Debates all Started

It is to be supposed that the 2018 mid-term elections will be fraught with controversy, and
some anguish. The recent past will be raked over; accusations lobbed; the word
“unprecedented” exhaled as commonly as breath. None of this, however, is new to American
elections. In 2016, so much candidate verbiage was expelled and expounded
in so many primary and general election debates, that any reasonable person might well have
assumed “Debate” was a weekly television series. Now, with the advent of the Labor Day
holiday, traditionally marking the “official” start of the campaign season, that live program,
after a two year hiatus, is back. But how it came to be made, and become as much a part of
the American election cycle as ballots themselves, is the story told here. It began, humbly, with
Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates – In a Prelude, Lincoln Shadows Douglas Around Illinois

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan waves just before the attempted assassination on Monday, March 30, 1981. In raincoat is secret service agent Jerry Parr, who pushed Reagan into the limousine. Wikimedia Commons.
August 22, 2018

Jerry Parr: The Man Who Saved Ronald Reagan

At 2:35 pm on March 30, 1981, seventy days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan exited the presidential limousine, buttoned his suit jacket, walked 45 feet towards the George Washington Hospital Emergency Room, and promptly collapsed. Five minutes earlier, six shots had rung out, and unbeknownst to himself nor his security detail, one bullet had ricocheted off the limousine, flattening into a disc, and then entered Reagan’s chest as he had lifted his arms instinctively upon hearing the shots. The bullet had lodged itself in Reagan’s lung, less than an inch away from his heart, in the moment that the Special Agent in Charge threw him into the limousine. In the tumult after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, the seemingly unscathed Reagan was set to head back to the White House. Yet within 80 seconds of the shooting, one man overrode that decision; making Reagan the fifth president to be shot and the only to survive it. That man’s name was Jerry Parr, and the story of his journey to becoming the head of the Secret Service and saving Ronald Reagan’s life is as cinematic as it was serendipitous.

Jerry Parr’s interest in a career in the secret service was ignited, when, as a boy, he saw the 1939 film Code of the Secret Service several times. The nine-year-old Parr knew he wanted to be just like agent “Brass” Bancroft, played in the film by Ronald Reagan. Reagan called the film the “worst picture I ever made,” even remarking that “never had an egg of such dimensions been laid.”  Amazingly, forty-two years later, Parr, now Special Agent in Charge, would find himself saving the life of the man who had inspired that dream: the President of the United States.

Parr was born in 1930, and grew up during the Depression with an unemployed alcoholic father (who took him to the movies), and a life further interrupted by his mother’s subsequent two marriages to abusive men. Though born in Alabama, he spent most of his turbulent childhood in Florida, and after struggling through high school, Parr took a job with Florida Power and Light, becoming a lineman. This job was highly dangerous and required quick-thinking; Parr, who survived several near-death incidents on the job, served as pallbearer for eight of his colleagues.

Parr became the first member of his family to attend university when he moved to Nashville in 1959 and enrolled at Vanderbilt. It was the same year he married Carolyn Miller, who would later become a judge. By the time Parr graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy, he was a father. Later that year, a recruiter for the Secret Service came to town, and Parr, having experienced serious occupational hazards as a lineman, was undeterred by the risk involved in becoming an agent; at 32, he was the oldest rookie in his class.

Parr served in the Secret Service for twenty-three years, protecting presidents, vice presidents, and over fifty foreign heads of state. At the time of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Parr, fifty at the time, was Special Agent in Charge and Head of the White House Detail, and supervised over 100 agents a day. For some inexplicable reason, on March 30, 1981, Parr decided to ride with the president.

During his tenure as Assistant Director of the Secret Service, Parr began a Master’s program in Pastoral Counseling, and eventually founded the Festival Church after his ordination in 1989. In his written statement of the assassination attack, Parr wrote “while I went in with a Democrat and out with a Republican, it didn’t make much difference to me—they were both Presidents of the United States.” In a twist of Reagan being Parr’s boyhood hero, written at the top of  Parr’s accounting of the Reagan assassination attempt, Reagan inscribed “Jerry Parr is my hero!” Parr died in October of 2015 of heart congestion in a hospice near his home.

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President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons.
August 14, 2018

The 150th Anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s 1868 Election Year

It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news.  That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Tries to Lose the Antisemite Label Engendered to Him During the Civil War By His Infamous “Jew Order”

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Nirit Shalev Khalifa
August 21, 2017

U.S. Policy in the Middle East is (Much) Older Than You’d Expect

U.S. presence and diplomacy in the Middle East, specifically the Holy Land, goes back much farther than you’d expect. You can listen to curator Nirit Shalev Khalifa and Dr. Ron Bartour discuss this topic with Gilad Halpern. Discover more on this topic at our online exhibition, Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land: American Consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th Century.

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April 30, 2017

Mary Benjamin – Famous Autograph Authority

Mary Benjamin is known as perhaps the most famous manuscript dealer of the twentieth century. That she’s the only woman on (and at the top of) the list of foremost autograph dealers is dwarfed by her widely respected authority. For decades, Benjamin practically singularly set the market value of autographs of presidents, poets, and prominent figures. Famously, she once snorted with disdain when a supposed autograph of George Washington was announced at an auction. With her photographic memory, she could tell instantly if a signature was real or forged. The auctioneer wasted no time and immediately withdrew the item from the sale. Mary Benjamin, who died in 1998, is certainly a personality worth reading more about for those interested in collecting. For her detailed obituary in the New York Times, click here.

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January 16, 2017

Lincoln and the Jews – Book and Exhibition Reviews

Lincoln and the Jews: A History illustrates how President Abraham Lincoln – perhaps best known for his efforts in abolishing slavery – intended to secure equality and freedom for all Americans, including another growing minority group in Civil War-era America: the Jews. Read the reviews and discover the story at our online exhibition or purchase a copy of the book.

Reviews

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March 26, 2015

Honest Abe and the Children of Abraham

“Abraham Lincoln and the Jews don’t exactly go together in the popular imagination like bagels and lox. While Lincoln has been championed as a Moses leading African Americans out of slavery, the 16th president’s ties to the Tribe have not been well examined or even clearly acknowledged.” – Emily Shire, The Daily Beast. (more…)

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July 28, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt and Grandsons

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured holding grandson Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., and again alongside grandson Richard Derby, Jr. These photographs date from 1916. (more…)

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July 17, 2014

50 Children

“The new book, ’50 Children’ tells the remarkable story of two Philadelphia-area Jews who, at the dawn of World War II, went to extraordinary lengths fighting red tape on both sides of the Atlantic to save the lives of children on the brink of the Holocaust in Europe.” – Jordan Hoffman, Times of Israel (more…)

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March 26, 2014

Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds

This month marked the anniversary of the death of Anne Frank.  She would have been 84 years old had she lived to today.  Looking for a way to mark this tragic event, I came upon a site where photographs of the Frank family are displayed.  These images of intimate family life brought home for me the terrible tragedy Otto Frank faced, and very much how the mind cannot fathom the atrocities and tragedies that consumed Europe and European Jewry during WWII and the Holocaust. (more…)

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February 25, 2014

Beautiful Historic Photographs from 1862-1924

Be prepared to take some time to stroll through these nostalgia-inducing photos. Shorpy.com is a vintage photography blog that digitally enhances photographs acquired from a variety of sources, including the Library of Congress and National Archives.  The clarity of the images is particularly impressive. Most of the photographs on the website date to the early twentieth century.  I highly recommend visiting their site to enjoy the photographs in their full-size glory. (more…)

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Robert Huston Milroy. Photograph: Matthew Brady. Library of Congress.
November 19, 2013

Lincoln’s Eloquence

Lest anyone think that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – delivered 150 years ago, today – came out of thin air, one has only to look at the wonderful, if weary, elegance of his 25 words written to General Robert Huston Milroy on October 19, 1863, just one month prior. Whether a warm-up to narrowing down his thoughts in a short, concise, and understandable manner, or merely a discrete example of the same,  Lincoln was capable, we see here – be it in a national address,  a debate, or on a simple card –  of a literary brilliance unsurpassed by any other American president and barely, by any other American, period. This, then, is perhaps the best presidential short composition ever.

Lincoln Would be Glad to See General Milroy, “Were it not that I Know he Wishes to Ask for What I Have Not to Give”

 

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Carte de Visite of John Wilkes Booth. Black & Case of Boston. Wikimedia Commons.
September 17, 2013

An Assassin Prepares

Famous people, as a general rule, do not become assassins. The man who shot Abraham Lincoln point-blank in the back of the head, however, was the most popular actor of his time. Yet John Wilkes Booth, for most of the Civil War, did not see himself in the role of assassin, but spy.  At twenty-six, he was rich, handsome, adored – and a secret Confederate agent. Here, writing 150 years ago today, Booth works behind the scenes to appear in Washington, at Ford’s Theatre – an appearance which would prove but a rehearsal for the role in which he is still reviled:  assassin.

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May 29, 2013

JFK’s 1944 Flight Logbook

The man who, for an entire generation, embodied youth and vigor, would have been 96 this year. At 43, he had been the youngest man elected President; at 46, the youngest to die in office, assassinated. But Jack Kennedy never expected, one way or the other, to live long. In chronic pain, suffering a myriad of illnesses, he had received the last rites of his Church three times before he was 40 – and that wasn’t counting the near-fatal sinking of the legendary PT-109 in World War II. Perhaps that was why he lived so fearlessly, intensely, joyously – and fast. He wanted to do everything, and he did – all of it, well. He could even fly. This war-time flight logbook, virtually unseen, is thought to be the only proof of this hitherto-unknown fact. Lieutenant Kennedy, USNR, it is noted, soloed once – on his 27th birthday. He is not known to having piloted an aircraft ever again.

John F. Kennedy’s 1944 Flight Logbook

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July 10, 2012

Jewish Participation in the American Civil War

John R. Sellers discusses Simon Wolf’s original research and roster of Jewish soldiers and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s efforts to review and expand upon Wolf’s original work regarding Jewish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War.

Jewish Participation in the Civil War – by John R. Sellers

Learn more about the Shapell Roster here.

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