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In the 19th century it was not uncommon for the U.S. President to attend the Georgetown College commencement—not to speak, but to hand out diplomas and prizes to students. The tradition seems to have begun with John Quincy Adams, who was present at both the 1825 and 1829 commencements. James Buchanan attended in 1857 and 1859, but declined in 1858 for health reasons. In a letter to the Georgetown President Bernard Maguire, S.J., President Buchanan assured Father Maguire that, while “it would afford me very great pleasure to be with you,” he felt “obligated to be with the Ladies [graduating students at the Georgetown Visitation Academy] the following day” and that he “could not think, in this hot weather, of passing two days in succession in a crowd.” 

Harriet Lane Letter 1858 page 1This letter (click to enlarge), addressed to the Georgetown President and dated July 7, 1858 (apparently the actual day of the commencement), also declines the invitation to the ceremony on behalf of President Buchanan. It is signed H. Lane and written on stationery headed by a monogram made up of the overlapping letters H, R, and L. 

Harriet Lane Letter 1858 page 2

The writer was Harriet Rebecca Lane, who was James Buchanan’s niece and who acted as his First Lady. Note her comment that “. . . you will not allow me to distribute the Diplomas or Premiums or make myself useful in any way.” The passage of almost 160 years since this letter was written makes it difficult to interpret this sentence. While the words may have been jokingly penned, the underlining which is absent from any other portion of the letter could also be taken to convey a sense of indignation, despite the polite expressions that follow. Whatever the motivation behind the words, they were written because of Harriet Lane’s sex. Women played little active part in the workings or events of Georgetown College at this time. The first women did not enroll at Georgetown until 22 years after Harriet’s letter was written, when Jeannette Rice and Annie Sumner attended the Medical Department during the 1880-1881 academic year. The first women to graduate and so participate in any graduation ceremony, other than as audience members, were students in the Training School for Nurses Class of 1906. And the first honorary degree was not awarded to a woman until 1934, when Mrs. Nicholas Brady, National Chair of the Girl Scouts of America and Vice Chair of the Women’s National Committee of Welfare and Relief Mobilization, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws.  

The 1858 commencement ceremony went forward in the absence of President Buchanan and Harriet—presumably Father Maguire handed out the diplomas and prizes. Nine Georgetown students received the degree of Bachelor of Arts, six Master of Arts degrees were awarded, and students entertained the audience with speeches on topics ranging from “The Poetry of Life” to “The Division of Poland.” 

--Lynn Conway, University Archivist

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On January 11, 1963, barely a year after his historic orbit of Earth, John Glenn spent a day at Georgetown University. He came to the hilltop to film an episode of “The Experts Answer,” a program sponsored by the United States Information Agency, to be aired in South America. During the filming, Glenn was joined by two journalists and two Georgetown students to discuss the United States space program, its economic aspects, and the current space race with the Soviet Union. After the taping, Glenn was interviewed by WGTB director Jack Burgess, who asked Glenn questions related to his work on the Gemini and Mercury projects. Glenn also spent time with University administrators and staff and delivered remarks to a gathering of students.

Ann Galloway, Assistant University Archivist


The following photographs were taking by University Photographer Bob Young, Jr., who documented Glenn’s day on campus:

John Glenn, Vera Rubin and Fr. Martin McCarthy

Glenn with Vera Rubin and Martin McCarthy, S.J., Professor of Astronomy

John Glenn speaks at Georgetown

Glenn speaks to a group of students and University staff

John Glenn, Fr. McCarthy and Dr. William Thaler

Glenn with Fr. McCarthy and Dr. William Thaler, Professor of Physics

John Glenn interview

Glenn being interviewed by WGTB’s Jack Burgess

John Glenn, Mark Phillips, Vera Rubin and Fr. McCarthy

Glenn with Mark Phillips, Vera Rubin and Fr. McCarthy


John Glenn and Edward Bunn, S.J.


Glenn with GU President Edward Bunn, S.J.

John Glenn filming

Glenn during filming of “The Experts Answer” in Copley Lounge

John Glenn filming

Glenn during filming of “The Experts Answer” in Copley Lounge

John Glenn filming

Glenn during filming of “The Experts Answer” in Copley Lounge

John Glenn

Glenn during lunch

John Glenn

Glenn speaking to group of students and University staff

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Danny Lyon (1942­—) is an American photographer famous for his coverage of the American Civil Rights Movement. Lyon was raised by German and Russian Jewish parents in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens in New York City. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history and philosophy from the University of Chicago.

All of Lyon’s published series are part of the trend known as New Journalism, which emerged in the 1970s. New Journalism encouraged journalists to immerse themselves in their stories rather than trying to remain objective and removed—which had been the only acceptable form of journalistic photography before. Lyon is one of the most acclaimed New Journalist artists, focusing on feelings and often befriending his subjects.

In 1969, Lyons published the book The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, which captures structures that were going to be destroyed to make space for expansion and the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in 1967. In the book are photographs of buildings and streets, locals, construction workers, and demolition sites.

Of the four photos below, two depict the neighborhood and two depict workers whose job is to demolish the structures.  In the city photos, there are no people—all have been cleared for the demolitions. According to the The New York Times, Lyon was the only photographer to photograph the area before it was demolished. In the same article, those interviewed about the shoot said that no one cared that this neighborhood was going to disappear. In the other two photos, Lyon photographs construction workers who are carrying out the razing of the area. I picked the photographs of the workers because of their composition, but there are other photographs in the series that imply Lyon had been talking with them. The four photos selected show the two main subjects of The Destruction of Lower Manhattan: the people who carried out the work and the buildings that no longer exist. If it were not for Danny Lyon, perhaps neither the workers nor the buildings would be remembered. 

Deniz Citak (F'2017), Booth Family Center for Special Collections Student Assistant

Washington Street New York

Washington Street; View North from Chambers Street.


Washington Street New York

258 Washington Street at the Northwest Corner of Murray Street.


Demolition workers


"Huey and Dominick, foreman. Both men have brought down many of the buildings on the Brooklyn Bridge site. Dominick directed the demolition of 100 Gold Street."


Demolition workers

"Ben and his brother Junior on the walls."





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Georgetown traditionally played a football game on Thanksgiving Day. In 1894, the opponent was the Columbia Athletic Club (C.A.C.). The game was expected to be a close one. Ten thousand people gathered at National Park, the home of the Washington Senators baseball team at Georgia Avenue and 5th Street, N.W., to watch.  Anticipation grew as the start time approached and the crowd had a festive air.  Fish-horns, cow-bells, and every device for making noise known to the small boy at Christmas time and the Fourth of July was forced into service to supplement the refined efforts of lung power to give expression to the pent-up feelings of the excited multitude, according to the Georgetown College Journal, November 1894.

on the way to the Thanksgiving football game 1894

On the way to the Thanksgiving football game, 1894.

The C.A.C. won by a score of 20-0 in what The Washington Post described as the fiercest football game ever played in Washington. Four Georgetown players were carried off the field injured, including right-half and captain George Bahen and quarterback Bob Carmody; one CAC player broke his collarbone. At one point, a sideline fight broke out between the substitutes for both teams.

The Post attributed many of the injuries to the hardness of the ground; Georgetown supporters thought otherwise and the Georgetown student body passed a resolution the following day stating that, in view of the methods employed by the C.A.C. in the game, no member of the Georgetown Athletic Association would compete in any athletic contest with representatives of the Club. A later decision by University President J. Havens Richards went further and suspended all football.

George Daniel Bahen, known as “Shorty,” was the most seriously injured player.  Medical assessment after the game suggested that his spinal injury would result in permanent paralysis, assuming he lived.  His family kept a constant vigil at his bedside. Friends from Georgetown College visited as did, to their credit, every member of the C.A.C. team after they had been assured by Bahen’s brother than he bore them no ill-will. 

Bahen benefit program

A benefit, organized by the Law Department, was held for Bahen on March 7, 1895 to raise money to cover his medical costs. Nineteen days later he died. A memorial to him made of Virginia blue granite stands in Mount Calvary Cemetery, close to the James River, in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. It bears the following inscription: George D. Bahen, born Jan. 12, 1874, died on the 26th of March, 1895, at Washington, D.C., from injuries sustained on Thanksgiving Day, 1894, in heroically upholding the Blue and Gray of Georgetown, on the field of athletics. 

Georgetown students did not field a football team again until 1897 when intramural play resumed.  Varsity play restarted in 1898.

Lynn Conway, University Archivist

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November 4 is the birthday of artist Eugene Berman (American, born Russia, 1899 – 1972).
A leader among the Surrealist and Neo-Romantic artists, Berman often combined the two styles in his imaginary landscapes: architectural forms in deserted vistas, with romanticized figures that allude to classical figure studies. His imagery provides a commentary on the decay of the modern world, which Berman portrayed as being in ruins.
Eugene Berman
Nocturnal Cathedral, 1951
Lithograph, 10/100
13 x 9 inches
Art Collection purchase
In this print from 1951, he approaches familiar themes from a different direction. Here is an imaginary classical building, yes; but instead of a lonely structure in a desolate scene, it’s a massive cathedral completely removed from context. Is it a ruin? A mirage? We can’t know for sure, because we’re captive behind a towering brick wall that shifts in and out of focus around the picture frame. Lowering darkness prevents a clear view; a shivering tiny moon is no help at all. 
Berman has deftly swapped the visual vocabulary of vast loneliness for that of claustrophobia, to the same effect of profound isolation. The cathedral may be real; it may be a memory; but we will never reach it.
Christen E. Runge, Assistant Curator, University Art Collection
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Art Collection
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Among its extensive collections documenting the history of the Panama Canal, the Booth Family Center for Special Collections contains the John L. Stephens–Henry Chauncey collection. That particular collection includes 15 letters from Stephens to Chauncey concerning the construction of the Panama Railroad, the world’s first transcontinental railroad and the precursor of the Panama ship canal.  Stephens and Chauncey were business partners in the Panama Railroad venture, and their correspondence sheds light on the planning and building of the railroad.

The concept of joining the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean was a long-standing dream.  Because the distance between the oceans is relatively small on the Isthmus of Panama, many people looked for a route in that area.  Although several sites were studied, Stephens and Chauncey selected the Isthmus of Panama as the most viable option. Interest in the Panama route between the seas rose when gold was discovered in California in 1848.  If somehow the oceans could be connected, a favorable route could be made across Panama, saving time to the California gold fields and replacing the long ship route around the tip of South America or the arduous land route over the American west.  In January of 1849, a group of prospectors successfully traversed the Isthmus of Panama through a combination of mule, canoe, and foot travel.

On April 21, 1849, John L. Stephens, the first president of the Panama Railroad Company, wrote a letter to his business partner Henry Chauncey about the construction of the Panama Railroad.  The letter is preserved in box 1 folder 2 of the Stephens-Chauncey collection.  Stephens began on an optimistic note:

Judging from the conversation between us this morning in walking up Broadway, that you look upon our Rail-road project as weighty and burdensome, I am induced to throw upon paper my views for carrying it out, which if I am not grossly in error make the whole matter simple, and easy of accomplishment.

Stephens described the initial steps in creating a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama:

We have, as you know ordered a steamer, which will navigate the Chagres river up to the point where our road will cross the river on its way from Panama to Navy Bay. From that point, I would build a horse rail road to the Bay of Panama, distance about twenty miles.  The steamer will cost ten or twelve thousand dollars; the road about $10000 per mile.  Three hundred thousand dollars or thereabouts would probably give us a communication which would satisfy all the wants of the travelling public, and would transport quite as many passengers, as if we had a rail road through, costing $3.000.000….  A communication of this kind could probably be put into full operation by the end of … June 1850.

In his letter, Stephens calculated the proceeds of a horse rail road.

Horse rail road proceeds

Stephens closed his letter by saying, “I am sure that if we will go on with the same spirit, and cordial cooperation with which we began and will be content with feeling our way, the whole will result successfully, and most creditably, for all concerned.”

In the postscript, Stephens listed estimated receipts for a macadamized road across Panama as calculated by Mr. Lewis, British Vice Consul of Panama in February 1845.  That particular prediction was made before the California gold rush.

Receipts for macadam road across Panama

In 1850, construction actually began on the Panama Railroad. Construction workers battled malaria, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and extreme heat. For his part, John L. Stephens died of fever in 1852.  When it finally opened for business, the Panama Railroad covered 47 ½ miles from shore to shore. The Panama Railroad was built in 5 years at the cost of $8 million1. When it was eventually built, the Panama Canal followed essentially the same path as the railroad.

Scott Taylor, Manuscripts Archivist


1David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977), 35.

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During a recent shift of rare books in Lauinger Library, I came upon a treasure trove of waste. Not quite what you might imagine when you hear the word “waste,” but more along the lines of an unexpected surprise to the literary imagination.

A few days later a set of questions was posted to a listserv that I follow:

What if you had a book, or set of books, of minor importance but discovered that the lining consisted of at least a portion of a highly important and rare text? Or some manuscript not previously known but of great importance? Or that the series of books each contained some portion of this manuscript? Would it then be prudent to remove the more “valuable” (in historical terms at least) material, even if you had to rebind the original volume(s) in more recent materials? Has this been known to happen?

In John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors, waste is defined:

Spoiled or surplus printed sheets are called waste. Binders have often used these in the back of a volume, for making up boards, or in earlier days for endpapers. Such waste might derive either from a printing house (proofs, trial sheets, over-running the desired quantity) or from a bookseller (surplus quires or spoiled copies of recent books, discarded fragments of old ones). Bookseller’s waste might have come from anywhere, and few conclusions can be automatically drawn from the presence of an identified piece of it found in a binding. But printer’s waste was normally disposed of nearby and can often be helpful evidence for localising the binding in which it was used.

What does one do with these hybrid creatures? Bookbinders often used “waste” material from broken books or discarded sheets to help make new ones. When manuscripts were replaced with printed copies (gasp!) the discarded manuscript was recycled to become new material for bindings. Today, this is regarded as an invaluable part of a book. Yet it raises questions: Where did the manuscript come from? Who owned it? When was the manuscript created? How do you catalog this waste that binds the text inside? It’s all a mystery until you start looking with a sharp eye.

Georgetown has a large number of books that are bound with this recycled material, just awaiting your investigative curiosity. Who knows what hidden treasures you might find?

Ethan Henderson, Rare Books Curator

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Rare Books
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The search for a student job is as old as the need students have to work while in school—to supplement finances and/or get useful work experience in the field they wish to enter after graduation. The ideal student job, naturally, varies from person to person, but I suspect that one requiring no work, and only occasional attendance might appeal to many over-extended students. That was the kind of employment sought by Georgetown student William Joseph Holland in 1900, according to a letter written by George E. Hamilton, Dean of the Law School, to John D. Whitney, S.J., University President, on November 22nd of that year.

In Billy Holland's defense, he was a busy medical student who was also an Olympic athlete. Regarded as one of the best 40 and 50 yard runners in the country, his specialty was actually the 440 yards. He won two silver medals at the Paris Olympics in July 1900, in the 400 meters and the 100 meters handicap, and finished fourth in the 200 meters. Following his Olympic successes, he went on to become Intercollegiate Outdoor Champion in the quarter mile in 1901, with a time of 51 3/5 seconds, and in 1902, with a time of 49 3/5 seconds. He successfully completed his medical education, graduating with the degree of Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 1903. Whether or not he found the type of student employment he was seeking, records in the archives do not tell us . . .

Lynn Conway, University Archivist

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Study of a primary source such as a letter or diary is not just about performing research. You are physically, intellectually and emotionally interacting with the past. What drew you to the item in the first place? Let curiosity be the guide in finding out more about both item and creator. Ask questions about them, and set out to find the answers if you can. In a way, a researcher is a combination of detective and journalist: the former identifies the physical evidence, the latter reveals context and develops a narrative or backstory about the item and creator, with the ultimate aim of showing the world why they are important.

Letter from Christina RossettiHere is a letter written by Christina Rossetti to a Miss Crowe regarding a forthcoming visit to the Victoria Press, which was founded by Emily Faithfull in England in 1860. Questions that could be asked to reveal context and develop a narrative about this item might include:

—Can you read the letter? (Cheat: see transcription below)
—Who was Christina Rossetti?
—What is crinoline? Why was its removal required during visits to such places as the Victoria Press?
—What was the Victoria Press?
—Who was Emily Faithfull and what was her significance in the 19th-century publishing industry?
—Look for contextual markers such as writing style, punctuation, penmanship; references to dress.
—Consider looking at related subjects to establish the significance of the item in a broader historical and cultural context: women’s rights, business women, publishing industry, British history, 1815-1914, Victorian period literature. 

Page 2 of letter from Christina Rossetti

Letter transcription:

My dear Miss Crowe

Though I don’t suspect you of being an idle lady of leisure, I prefer for once troubling you with a query, rather than Miss Faithfull who must be so busy and whom I have applied to so often.

Will you very kindly inform me – I ask for a friend’s guidance – whether what I understood is true: that ladies visiting the Victoria Press must divest themselves of crinoline?

Of course if this is not the case my question must sound supremely absurd: but I really understood (or misunderstood) that so it is ruled. Anticipating thanks for your obliging answer. I remain

Sincerely yours

Christina R. Rossetti
45 Upper Albany Street, N.W.

Find help on researching primary sources in the Special Collections guide on Archival Research. Read more about researching primary sources in the “Making Sense of Evidence” series at Look out for more of my blog posts on working with manuscripts as primary sources.

Lisette Matano, Manuscripts Archivist

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One of the aspects I enjoy most about working in the University Archives is the occasional unexpected little find that I come across, serendipitously, while on the hunt for something else. This photo is an example of one of those finds.

Several months ago, while looking for pictures of former Georgetown president Coleman Nevils, S.J., I came across this delightful photograph. Tucked in amongst various headshots was this image of Nevils from his inauguration as President of Georgetown University in 1928 (Nevils is pictured third from the left). At first glance this photograph didn’t appear to be any different than the thousands of other photographs we have of University officials and guests posing together. But, upon closer inspection, I noticed that all of the men, save the one on the far right, had their eyes closed. What a wonderfully timed photograph! Or so it seemed.

When the photograph is blown up it appears that the subjects’ eyes are both open and closed. How is this possible? Photography in the 1920s had a slightly longer exposure time than we are accustomed to today. Any movements made by those being photographed within the exposure period were also captured. While this photo was being taken, five of the six men managed to blink and the developed photograph reveals an image that shows the men with their eyes both open and closed. You have to really get up close to see it but it produces quite the optical illusion.

Ann Galloway, Assistant University Archivist

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