Last Thursday, Now & Then hosts Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman appeared live at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) to accept the William Hickling Prescott Award for Excellence in Historical Writing and to explore five objects from the Society’s collections. The presentation, which is now this week’s episode, “Now & Then Live! The Unsung Voices Episode,” began with a discussion of a vial of tea leaves allegedly recovered from Boston Harbor on the day after the Boston Tea Party. Another supposedly Tea Party-affiliated artifact made waves at MHS in 1927, introducing a fascinating cast of characters and triggering a conversation about historical authenticity that showcases the crucial role of historians in our quest for national self-comprehension. 

Sometime in the late Summer of 1927, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) received an odd bequest from Frances M. Goold of East Orange, New Jersey. “I give to the Massachusetts Historical Society a tea caddy given me by Robert Goold of Cambridge, Mass., it being a mahogany chest…emptied by one of my ancestors the night of the Boston Tea Party,” Goold’s will read. “It has never been owned by one not spelling the name ‘Goold.’ Robert Goold’s instruction to me was to make this gift and to attach an inscription to it setting forth its history.” 

While Goold’s language left some ambiguity, Massachusetts Historical Society authorities generally interpreted her words as a contention that the tea chest had been taken, post-dumping, from one of the three ships, the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth,  ransacked on that fateful night in December 1773. 

The eminent MHS librarian Julius Tuttle, who had been at MHS since 1878 and was approaching 70, was incredulous. Tuttle was a decided authority on all things Massachusetts, having written books like The Library Mathers, Massachusetts and Her Royal Charter, Dedham Town Record, and Point Connett in Ancient Mattapoisett

Tuttle quickly recognized the unlikelihood that the chest’s contents had been dumped into Boston Harbor. The Mahogany chest was twenty inches long and contained three relatively intricate metal tea caddies. In sharp contrast, the 342 hefty tea chests emptied during the Tea Party were large boxes with thin wooden boards. Furthermore, leaders of the Tea Party forbade participants from bringing keepsakes off the ship, even searching their persons when they disembarked from their act of civil disobedience. At the time of the bequest, all of the chests from the ships were believed destroyed. 

When newspapers caught wind of the discourse over the chest, they quickly got in on the sleuthing. “‘Tea Chest Tempest’ Follows Bequest,” read a headline in the October 21st, 1927 Christian Science Monitor. 

Tuttle was soon offering statements to explain the historical attention to the gift. He clarified to the Boston Globe: ‘The Goold heirloom’ is really a tea caddy, not a chest–the sort in which tea was kept in dining rooms in those days.” 

Tuttle had a hypothesis: “Suppose he had this mahogany tea caddy in his home at the time. Don’t you see how easily the tradition that it actually came from the Boston Tea Party might have arisen in after years, from the stories he told about what he had seen on that night?” 

Even as Tuttle and his staff parsed the dimensions and explanations of the chest, the actual artifact remained in absentia, languishing in Honolulu. 

The reasons for the chest’s Hawaiian sojourn – and the larger story of Frances Goold’s life – reveal an American story just as varied and instructive as the Tea Party itself. 

Although Goold had come into ownership of the chest from a Robert Goold in Cambridge – a figure who remained obscure during the 1920s debate as well as now – she was born in 1863 in Athens, Ohio. Her father, George T. Goold, had moved West from Maine in the 1850s to work as a contractor in the construction of the Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad. At some point around the turn of the 20th century, Frances Goold moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, not too long after the 1893 American annexation. 

The 1910 Annual Report of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association reveals that Goold was teaching sewing at Honolulu’s Kawaiahao Seminary. The Seminary, founded in 1865 by missionary Louisa Lewis Gulick, had an integrated enrollment of 134 students when Goold worked there and had become the Girls’ Department of the larger college preparatory school the Mid-Pacific Institute. Goold even took over as Acting Principal in 1911. 

In 1912, Goold served as part of founding NAACP Executive Secretary Francis Blascoer’s “social survey” of Honolulu, orchestrated by the powerful Kaiulani Home for Girls. Goold was a member of the “Subcommittee on the Social Evil,” which investigated prostitution on the island. 

The 1913 Report of Hawaii’s Superintendent of Public Instruction included a glowing letter from Goold about Kawaiahao, which she described as, “A school which brings all races together under one roof, where love and good fellowship abound as in one family, partakes of Nature’s method, and where could a more fitting location be found than among mountains and valleys where the power of the Great Artist is proven by blending all into perfect harmony.” 

By 1914, Goold  had left the Principal role and was serving as head of the “Domestic Arts” department at Kawaiahao, offering a prize to “the girl graduate who would make the prettiest and neatest dress at the smallest cost,” according to the Christian newspaper The Friend. 

Goold was seemingly devoted to social causes and education beyond Hawaii. In October 1914, she wrote an article in The Friend called “How Pittsburgh Has Solved the Problem of the Down and Out,” in which she detailed her tour of the Pittsburgh Association for the Improvement of the Poor during a trip that year to the mainland. “The very name of the institution is notable. No ‘public charities’ mark you; and finest of all, the word ‘improvement!” Goold praised. “There is hope there, and a quickened pulse because of it.” 

Beyond her Hawaiian educational pursuits, public information on Goold is scant. She moved back to the Northeast at some point in her final decade, living in New Brighton, Pennsylvania and East Orange. She also traveled in Japan and China. 

The Goold chest, albeit a fascinating piece of revolutionary memorabilia, was not what Goold had seemingly advertised. By the early 1950s, however, leading American museums and historical societies had testified to the authenticity of one other Boston Tea Party-affiliated tea chest. 

A 12-year-old boy and Tea Party participant named John Robinson allegedly picked the chest up on a beach in Dorchester Heights the morning after the Party. Robinson’s widow gave the chest to her son John Robinson Jr.’s brother-in-law, Solomon Shaffstall, who had taken care of the younger Robinson during an illness. Shafstall passed the chest down through his family.

By 1951, when the Boston Globe offered a feature on the chest, the artifact was in San Antonio, at the home of Solomon Shaffstall’s great-granddaughter, Helen Ford Waring. 

“All my life I have heard the story of this historic chest told and retold,” Waring told the Globe. “I still remember my great grandfather, Solomon Shaffstall, who died in 1902 at the age of 82 when I was four and a half years old.” Waring’s genealogical efforts to trace the chest back up to John Robinson effectively proved the artifact’s authenticity. 

The Globe offered a stirring – albeit decidedly jingoistic – interpretation of the chest’s journey. “Maybe it is only fitting that such a relic of early Massachusetts should now rest within the sight of the Alamo. For the same spirit which animated the Colonial patriots who lit the spark of freedom in the harbor of Boston in 1773, inspired and fortified the little band which fought to death behind the adobe walls of the little mission in far off San Antonio in 1836.”

Today, the “Robinson Half Chest” resides at the Boston Tea Party Museum, which opened in 2012. Meanwhile, the Goold chest remains in the MHS collections as an heirloom from the period, despite the doubtfulness of its direct involvement in the Tea Party. 

The search for historical truth in the two artifacts – and the swirling American stories in which their owners participated – shows just how much our objects carry our national history, even if they are sometimes a bit less glamorously significant than initially anticipated. 

For more on the cultural and political impact of theBoston Tea Party, check out Benjamin L. Carp’s 2010 Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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