History Guide



THOREAU IN PHANTOM BOG takes place in the spring of 1848.  James Polk is President.  The U.S. war with Mexico has ended with America acquiring control over 500,000 square miles in the Southwest and West.  Over three million people in America are in bondage as slaves.  There are fervent reform movements to end slavery, give women voting and legal rights, and provide better conditions for workers, prisoners and the mentally ill.  The economy of New England is shifting.  Although it is still predominately agricultural, manufacturing and trade are growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to the creation of railroads, canals, and steamship lines.  Due to the potato famine in Ireland, a million and a half Irish will immigrate to America over the next several years and supply the labor for the expanding mills and factories.  At the same time many farmers are leaving New England to "go westering" in Ohio and beyond, where land is cheap and the topsoil rich.

When THOREAU IN PHANTOM BOG opens Henry David Thoreau is living with Lidian Emerson and her three children while Lidian's husband, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travels in Europe for ten months.  



Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts and christened David Henry.  (He later reversed the two names.)  He had an older sister Helen, an older brother John, and a younger sister Sophia.  His father John was a pencil manufacturer and his mother Cynthia was an active abolitionist. 

Thoreau attended the Concord Academy and at age sixteen he entered Harvard, graduating in 1837.  He became a public school teacher in Concord but not for long.  When he was directed to use corporal punishment on his students, he resigned.  In 1838 he and his brother John opened their own progressive school.  Louisa May Alcott was one of their students.  The school closed in 1841 because of John's poor health.  

In the years that followed, Thoreau worked on mastering the craft of writing and supported himself by surveying land, making pencils, tutoring, and taking on odd jobs.  On July 4th, 1845 he moved to a cabin he built on Walden Pond because, in his words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

While living at Walden Pond Thoreau went to town to have a shoe repaired and was jailed for one night by the constable for refusing to pay his poll tax.  Thoreau's refusal was to protest slavery and the Mexican War, as he eloquently explained in an 1848 lecture at the Concord Lyceum called "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government," later published as Resistance to Civil Government.  It was only after Thoreau's death that the work was published under the title Civil Disobedience.  

Between 1847 to 1854 Thoreau wrote and revised his masterpiece Walden.  He studied nature and traveled to Cape Cod, Maine and Canada.

Thoreau became ill in 1860 after camping out on Mt. Monadnock and contracting a severe cold.  He developed consumption and becomes steadily weaker over the next two years.  When a visitor to his bedside asked if he had made amends with God, Thoreau answered, with typical dry humor, "I did not know that we had ever quarreled."  He also stated, as more and more soldiers died in the Civil War, that he could never recover while the war lasted because he was "sick for his country."  
On May 6, 1862 Thoreau died in the parlor of his family home in Concord.  He was forty-four years old and far from being famous.  According to his obituary "the name of Henry Thoreau is known to very few persons beyond those who personally knew him."  His long-time friend Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in his eulogy "the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."

Thoreau is now acknowledged as one of America's greatest writers and millions of copies of Walden have been sold since his death.  The book, a celebration of life, relates how he experienced the divine through nature.  Thoreau had great optimism and faith that if we advance in the direction of our dreams, and try to live the life we imagine, we will succeed.  He most certainly did


Thoreau took an active part in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.  He was such a fervent supporter of the abolitionist cause that to his dying day he declared John Brown a hero despite Brown's cold-blooded murder of slave owners in Kansas.  He despised Northern complicity with slave owners.  He believed that Massachusetts should secede from the Union rather than support slavery and if that could not happen, why, he would secede from Massachusetts!  He refused to pay a yearly tax and spent a night in jail because he believed that tax supported slavery.


In 1848 doctors knew little more about the true nature of disease than the Greeks in the 5th century BC.  Hippocrates codified a system that stated the body was controlled by four basic substances, called humors, and an imbalance between these humors was the cause of all disease.  These humors were called black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood and corresponded to the four earth elements of earth, fire, water, and air.  

This system dominated medical thinking for more than 2,000 years, until the mid-19th century, and had no basis whatsoever in reality.  Patients were bled, had leeches applied to their bodies and were given murderous doses of mercury, opium, and other poisons in the attempt to rebalance the body humors, all to no effect.  In fact, the cure often killed the patient before the disease had a chance to do the same!  George Washington had a severe cold and to cure it his doctors bled him so severely he died from loss of blood, called exsanguination.

A public sewer system was not installed under Boston's streets until 1875 while in the country flush toilets were not common until the 1920s.  Until then human waste regularly polluted public water systems and the private wells in small towns like Plumford and on the farm.  Chamber pots and outhouses, the pits of which had to be constantly filled over and relocated, were what most people used throughout the 19th century.

There were a few medical colleges in the United States but any individual could declare himself a doctor and practice medicine without a degree.  There were no legal requirements to become a physician.  The vast majority of doctors were trained by simply following a more practiced physician on his rounds.

Doctor Adam Walker, a main character in THOREAU IN PHANTOM BOG, received his training at Harvard Medical School.  He could competently set bones, amputate limbs, sew up cuts, assist in childbirths and alleviate pain with opiates, but much beyond that depended on luck and a doctor's common sense.  Medical science was in a primitive state.  Instruments as simple as the medical thermometer did not come into practical use unit the 1870s.  Before that, it was up to the doctor, his hand and his experience, to determine if and how severe a fever might be.  The ivory or brass stethoscope was just coming into general use in the 1840s.  The hypodermic syringe was not invented until 1853.  Attempts at giving blood transfusions using the syringe often ended in death because blood types were not discovered until the early years of the 20th century.  

The practice of surgery was in a similar primitive state.  Anesthesia did not come into use until 1847 and was rarely available to surgeons as late as the Civil War years of 1861-1864.  The awful pain of an operation necessitated the surgeon work as fast as possible.  No matter how skillful the surgeon, infection often killed the patient since wounds were rarely cleaned before and after an operation and doctors seldom bothered to wash their hands and surgical instruments.  Doctor Walker does clean his surgical kit and wash his hands before performing an operation but more from a sense of personal cleanliness and a respect for his patient than any specific knowledge concerning infection.

Why, then, were doctors consulted at all when there was scant evidence they helped a patient?  In fact, oftentimes calling in a doctor was avoided until the situation was so dire even modern medicines and techniques could not save the patient!  But doctors did save lives with their limited knowledge and personal skill.  Patients and their families believed a doctor's medicines and skills were better than nothing – especially his surgical skills.  A leg infected with gangrene was certain death and although an amputation was risky, it was worth the gamble.  And oftentimes a confident hand, a calming presence, a sympathetic ear, and an understanding heart, worked to alleviate fear and bring real comfort to the afflicted and their loved ones. 

Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a character in THOREAU IN PHANTOM BOG, besides being a prominent Boston literary figure, was a leading medical reformer of his time.  He wrote of his medical education in Paris, “I have learned at least three principles … not to take authority when I can have facts, not to guess when I can know, not to think a man must take physic because he is sick.”  This seems but common sense to us today but the scientific method of applying reason to careful, measurable observation to reach a conclusion was yet rarely practiced in the medical profession.  Holmes's proposal that  doctors were capable of carrying infection from one patient to another because they did not wash their hands was denounced by fellow doctors as nonsense and only reluctantly accepted until after Pasteur in the 1860's proved that infection was caused by agents foreign to the body rather than by spontaneous generation.   



Chapter 272, Section 14 of the General Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides that:
A married person who has sexual intercourse with a person not his spouse or an unmarried person who has sexual intercourse with a married person shall be guilty of adultery and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.



"Two days before embarkation, the head of every male and female is neatly shaved; and, if the cargo belongs to several owners, each man's brand is impressed on the body of his irrespective Negro. This operation is performed with pieces of silver wire, or small irons fashioned into the merchant's initials, heated just hot enough to blister without burning the skin. When the entire cargo is the venture of but one proprietor, the branding is always dispensed with. "On the appointed day, the barracoon or slave-pen is made joyous by the abundant 'feed' which signalizes the negro's last hours in his native country. The feast over, they are taken alongside the vessel in canoes; and as they touch the deck, they are entirely stripped, so that women as well as men go out of Africa as they came into it-naked. This precaution, it is understood, is indispensable; for perfect nudity, during the whole voyage, is the only means of securing cleanliness and health. In this state they are immediately ordered below, the men to the hold and the women to the cabin, while boys and girls are, day and night, kept on deck, where their sole protection from the elements is a sail in fair weather, and a tarpaulin in foul. "At meal time they are distributed in messes of ten. Thirty years ago, when the Spanish slave trade was lawful, the captains were somewhat ceremoniously religious than at present, and it was then a universal habit to make the gangs say grace before meat, and give thanks afterwards. In our days, however, they dispense with this ritual… This over, a bucket of salt water is served to each mess by way of 'finger glasses' for the ablution of hands, after which a kidd-either of rice, farina, yams, or beans-according to the tribal habit of the negroes, is placed before the squad. In order to prevent greediness or inequality in the appropriation of nourishment, the process is performed by signals from a monitor, whose motions indicate when the darkies shall dip and when they shall swallow." (Debow's review, Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources./ vol. 18, iss. 3, Mar 1855, New Orleans,The African Slave Trade (pp. 297-305) )

"At sundown, the process of stowing the slaves for the night is begun. The second mate and boatswain descend into the hold, whip in hand, and range the slaves in their regular places; those on the right side of the vessel facing forward, and lying in each other's lap, while those on the left are similarly stowed with their faces towards the stern. In this way each negro lies on his right side, which is considered preferable for the action of the heart. In allotting places, particular attention is paid to size, the taller being selected for the greatest breadth of the vessel, while the shorter and younger are lodged near the bows. When the cargo is large and the lower deck crammed, the supernumeraries are disposed of on deck, which is securely covered with boards to shield them from moisture. The strict discipline of nightly stowage is, of course, of the greatest importance in slavers, else every negro would accommodate himself as if he were a passenger. "In order to insure perfect silence and regularity during night, a slave is chosen as constable from every ten, and furnished with a 'cat' to enforce commands during his appointed watch. In remuneration for his services, which, it may be believed, are admirably performed whenever the whip is required, he is adorned with an old shirt or tarry trousers. Now and then, billets of wood are distributed among the sleepers, but this luxury is never granted until the good temper of the negroes is ascertained, for slaves have often been tempted to mutiny by the power of arming themselves with these pillows from the forest." (Debow's review, Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources./ vol. 22, iss. 6, June 1857, New Orleans, The Middle Passage; or, Suffering of Slave and Free Immigrants: pp 570-583 )


For the 240 years from the first African slave until 1860, slaves ran and some escaped to freedom. In 1850, the value of a trained slave was around $2500 - an enormous sum at a time more than ten times the average person's annual earnings. Thus, slaves were chased by their masters or bounty hunters. Because intelligence agencies placed single men and women in domestic jobs in cities like Syracuse and towns as Geneva, the transportation of slaves to freedom obviously had to be done under the utmost secret of conditions. The transport worked much like a railroad and so it was called The Underground Railroad. Once a slave escaped and managed to make contact with sympathizers, he or she became a part of the underground railroad and would hopefully be transported to freedom.  Similar to an actual railroad, the act of transporting the escaped slaves incorporated all the terms used during a railroad journey. The routes from safe-house to safe-house (houses where fugitive slaves were kept) were called lines and were roughly 15 miles long, but the distance shortened considerably the further north one got. Stopping places were called stations. (Those who aided fugitive slaves were known as conductors. In order to keep terms as clandestine as possible, the fugitive slaves were known as packages or freight.     Source: THE CIRCLE ASSOCIATION'S African American History  www.math.buffalo.edu/.../UndergroundRailRoad.ht...



I can fancy that it would be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp a whole summer day, scenting the wild honeysuckle and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes!  - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. - Walking

The fog ... in whose fenny labyrinth
The bittern booms and heron wades;
Fountain-head and source of rivers ...
Spirit of lakes and seas and rivers, ...
Bear only perfumes and the scent
Of healing herbs to just men's fields! - A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men. It is a sound admirably suited to swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped nature which men have not recognised. They represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts which all have. All day the sun has shone on the surface of some savage swamp ... but now a dismal and fitting day dawns, and a different race of creatures awakes to express the meaning of Nature there. – Walden

I love to hear their wailing ... as if it were the dark and tearful side of music ... They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions. They give me a new sense of the variety and capacity of that nature which is our common dwelling. – Walden

The woods were not tenantless, but choke-full of honest spirits as good as myself any day, not an empty chamber, in which chemistry was left to work alone, but an inhabited house and for a few moments I enjoyed fellowship with them. – The Maine Woods


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself  by Harriet Ann Jacobs  

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad  by Ann Hagedorn
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad by Fergus Bordewich
Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad by Betty DeRamus
To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord  by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis
Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger
Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South  by Deborah Gray White


Louis Agassiz – revolutionized the study of natural history
Catharine Beecher – encouraged the education of women
John Brown - avid abolitionist leader who died for the cause
Cassius Clay – southern anti-slavery crusader
Dorothea Dix – advocate for the mentally ill
Frederick Douglass – abolitionist leader born into slavery
Ralph Waldo Emerson – Transcendentalist philosopher
John Charles Fremont – explorer and politician
Margaret Fuller – women's rights advocate
William Lloyd Garrison –antislavery activist and newspaper editor
Horace Greely – radical politician and newspaper editor
Susan Josepha Hale – poet and editor who made Thanksgiving a national holiday
Nathaniel Hawthorne – author of The Scarlet Letter
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. – medical reformer
Elias Howe – inventor of the sewing machine
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – beloved American poet
James Russell Lowell – influential literary critic
Horace Mann – reformed public school education
Herman Melville – author of Moby Dick
Samuel F. B. Morse – invented the telegraph and Morse code
William Sidney Mount – painter of American life
Brigham Young – leader of the Church of Latter-Day Saints
Lucretia Mott – Quaker reformer and women's rights advocate
Edgar Allan Poe – wrote tales of mystery and horror
Wendell Phillips – activist against all injustices of the era
Henry David Thoreau – naturalist and philosopher
Cornelius Vanderbilt – shipping and railroad industrialist