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The Truth Behind the Famous Duel: A Historic Account in HPL’s Collection

17 Jul

Before jumping headway into another post about something cool in our history collection, I’d like to make an important announcement: the history collection itself is available for researchers to access again! We’re completely unpacked and back on the second floor, so please make a research appointment by emailing me at stephanie.diorio@hoboken.bccls.org if you’d like to see anything or do some research.

July 11th is known to many people, myself included, as Free Slurpee Day, and hopefully you all remembered to go and get your free beverage this year! But in Weehawken, New Jersey, right next door to Hoboken, it’s also the anniversary of a very famous event that shook the greater New York City area to the core and still reverberates today. I’m talking, of course, about the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on July 11th, 1805, which ended in Hamilton’s untimely death. If you’re a fan of history, you’re likely familiar with the events of the duel, and even if you’re not, you’ve probably heard about the musical about Hamilton’s life written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which features a whole song dedicated to the duel near the end of the second act (you can read our blog post about the musical here). The actual pistols used in the duel can be viewed at the New-York Historical Society not far from the entrance to the building, where they’ve been on loan from the JPMorgan Chase Historical Collection as part of a permanent exhibition for some time now.

It’s been a few days since the anniversary of the duel (which was last Thursday, the 11th), and it’s a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about it and also point out something really interesting that we have in our collection here.

  1. The duel wasn’t actually up on the cliffs in Weehawken where the memorial was. It was actually closer to the water.

The markers commemorating the duel’s actual supposed location, which were far closer to the waterfront, were moved when a road was put in between Hoboken and Fort Lee later in the 19th century, later replaced by a railroad. When you’re taking the Light Rail through Weehawken, you’re actually passing over the best estimated location. The markers were moved and a monument was constructed up on the cliffs later as a result of the road and eventual railroad. (The bust you see of Hamilton up there today isn’t even the original – there was one built there in 1874, but some vandals threw it over the cliff face in 1934 and it was replaced in 1935, hence the big ol’ fence around it!)

  1. It actually was illegal to duel in both New York and New Jersey.

A lot of reports will mention that the duel occurred in New Jersey because it was still legal there. In actuality, it wasn’t legal, but New Jersey authorities were far more lax about prosecuting duelists, so people would come over from New York to air their grievances via pistols since they were more likely to get away with it.

  1. Hamilton didn’t even shoot at Burr during the duel and never intended to kill him. Whether Burr wanted to kill Hamilton is still up for debate.

Contemporary reports state that Hamilton deliberately shot at a tree branch above Burr; he’d gone into the duel to maintain his honor but had no intention of harming his opponent. (In the musical Hamilton, he shoots at the sky.) Burr, on the other hand, had every reason to actively try to kill Hamilton, as Hamilton refused to retract statements he’d made against Burr politically, but since neither of them could solve the problem amicably because they both refused to back down, the duel was the only way to restore their honor. It’s worth noting that English philosopher Jeremy Bentham met Burr in 1808, a few years after the duel, and got the impression that Burr absolutely intended to kill Hamilton, writing him off as “little better than a murderer.” To this day, historians discuss Burr’s motives and whether or not he actually was willing to kill or was just following the rules and honor code of duelists.

Our collection here at the Hoboken Public Library contains a particularly unique item pertaining to the duel, a newspaper from Boston in 1804. It seemed innocuous at first when I saw it in our vertical files, but then I found the following headline and was floored:

Hamilton paper

The reason the library acquired this newspaper was that it contained a contemporary record of the duel. The “unfortunate transaction” was being discussed rather quickly after the event, with the report being dated to July 12th, one day after the duel and the letter cited in the report dating to the actual date of the duel, July 11th. It was evidently clear almost immediately that Hamilton would not survive his wounds, and the newspaper lamented his probably departure but expressed a hope that he might pull through despite this. The newspaper making its way to us and surviving for over 200 years is incredibly fortunate, and I put it in an archival sleeve for safekeeping and also digitized the article in question (the scanned photo appears above). It’s now safe to be handled by researchers, so reach out to us here at the library if you want to take a look at it in person! (If you see this, Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is your formal invitation to pop in to our library. Actually, anyone in the Hamilton cast or Hamilton fans can show up. We’d be thrilled.)

As always, keep an eye on the history page on our website as more and more materials are digitized and organized, and we’ll have more to report soon!

Written By:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library

Our Steampunk Oculus: HPL’s Magic Lantern

5 Jun
HPL Magic Lantern

The library’s magic lantern opened up to reveal the interior. Visible are two lenses and an antique-styled light bulb.

The Hoboken Public Library’s history collection may be mostly books, photographs, and historic newspapers, but there are a few physical artifacts within our walls, as well. Part of our collection includes an antiquated edutainment device called a magic lantern and the slides that were used to do all manner of presentations at the library.

Before film and the modern projector, magic lanterns were the best way to produce a slideshow – think of them as 19th century PowerPoint presentations, but sometimes with added special effects if the show was aiming to be more entertaining than educational. The technology for the magic lantern was first properly developed by Christian Huygens in the 1600s, magic lanterns really took off in the 18th and 19th centuries as a form of entertainment and as a method of illustrating lectures and other educational events. The heyday of the technology was in the middle and late 19th century and early 20th century; as mentioned above, film eclipsed the entertainment aspects of the magic lantern during the 1920s, and although magic lanterns continued to be used to project previews onto the screens before and after movie screenings, they were eventually replaced by the projector, as well. The technology used in a magic lantern is relatively simple – it utilizes lenses and a light source to project an image on a glass slide onto a screen, and much like a modern day projector it can be adjusted for focus depending on its distance from the screen. To see this more easily, here’s a photo of our own magic lantern opened up:

As you can likely see in the image above, our magic lantern utilizes a lightbulb, which immediately dates it to post-1879, when lightbulbs became commercially available following Edison’s patent. During my research on our lantern, I was able to locate a sibling lantern of sorts that had once been for sale online. Both were manufactured by Charles Beseler and Co., a company still around today (albeit as a supplier of photographic equipment). The serial number on our model is 2031; the seller’s model had the serial number 2357, making it slightly younger than our own. Their date estimate was the late 1910s-early 1920s, which seems about right given the circumstances. Hoboken Public Library has been in the current building since 1897, and although I’ve so far been unable to confirm exactly when we acquired the lantern, I’ve heard that the library did use it for programming, so those dates would likely line up well. The box our lantern is contained in refers to it as a B-1, which is likely the model number, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on an old Charles Beseler and Co. catalogue to confirm this yet.

I took quite a few photos of our magic lantern before packing it up to store it with the rest of the history collection during the renovation process on the second floor.   Although we have the reference and history collection in storage, you can still find temporarily computers and seating for adults on the third floor.  Here’s a selection of the photos I took:

 

Magic Lantern Label

The serial number and the Charles Beseler and Co. logo, a swan on a lake.

Magic Lantern Lens

A better shot of the lens from up front.

Magic Lantern Slides

A selection of some of the slides the library has. The slide collection is actually quite vast!

magic-lantern.jpg

The lantern is actually lighter than it looks at first glance, and the handle makes it easier to move around and set up when it’s not in its box.

At the moment, our lantern is sitting dormant, but we’d love to get it into full working order and do a proper magic lantern program here at the library. Hopefully in the near future once this phase of the second floor renovations are complete we’ll be able to put on a little show for you all! Until then, stay tuned for more history content (especially as I unpack it all once the renovations are done – thank you for your patience!). You can always access digitized versions of parts of our collection online. Another great source for Hoboken historic materials is the Hoboken Historical Museum (check them out if you haven’t)!

You can check out the library’s high tech modern version of the Magic Lantern, the immersive virtual reality Oculus during our Open Makerspace Time on Mondays from 1 PM-7 PM in the library’s lower level programming space!

Written By:
Steph Diorio
Local History Librarian/Archivist at the Hoboken Public Library

 

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