Lowell Mason was born in Medfield, Mass. in 1792 and while he wrote neither the music nor the lyrics to Joy to the World, he is the main reason Americans have been singing the Christmas carol it for nearly 200 years.
Born in 1792 in Medfield, Mass., Mason was musically gifted as a boy, and both parents belonged to the church choir. He started his career, though, in banking, establishing himself in business in Savannah, Ga.
But he was always drawn to music and he continued to study music as an adult. Working with a German teacher perhaps explains his preference for European-style hymns over home-grown, American music.
The Lowell Mason Hymn Collection
He came out with his first collection of hymns in 1822, but he had to get over some hurdles. A number of publishers rejected the 350-page volume. The Boston Handel and Haydn society finally agreed to publish it as The Handel and Haydn Society’s Collection of Church Music. Mason didn’t attach his name to the book, perhaps out of fear that it would hinder his banking career.
But the book immediately succeeded. Mason drew the tunes from classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and Americans ate it up. He and others helped use the success of the collection to push for inclusion of music education in public schools. Mason then became a music teacher and founded his own music school.
Joy to the World
By the 1830s, Mason had moved beyond being a simple banker with an interest in music. He had become a tastemaker and director of the Handel and Haydn Society – and he had decidedly European tastes. While America had produced its own musical styles, Mason looked to Europe for inspiration. And his Better Music Movement gradually pushed American composers and musical styles aside – a development mourned by many music historians.
Mason followed his first publishing success with a collection of hymns for children. And in 1839 he published The Modern Psalmist, and included Joy to the World in it. He probably discovered the song on his travels in Europe.
The lyrics to Joy to the World were written by English minister Isaac Watts. He based them on the 98th Psalm from the Bible. The origins of the tune, called Antioch, aren’t clear. Mason attributed the music to German composer George Frederic Handel. While Handel probably didn’t write the song in the form it is performed, it does lift passages from his music arranged into the tune we now know. But exactly who did the arranging is not clear.
Regardless, the song quickly become a classic in churches across America. The Dictionary of North American Hymnology reports that is far and away the most frequently published Christmas hymn, appearing in 1400 hymnals and you may feel like you’ve heard it that many times already this holiday season.
Mason would eventually move his base of operations to New York City. He died in Orange, N.J., in 1872.
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The Christmas holiday actually began in ancient Rome — and so did Italian cookies. The New England Historical Society’s new book, 24 Historic Italian Christmas Cookie Recipes, tells you how to make those delicious treats. It also bring you the history of the Italian immigrants who brought them to New England. Available now on Amazon; just click here.
This story updated in 2022.
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Eugene O’Neill lay dying in Room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel in Boston just before Thanksgiving in 1953. For years he had suffered from depression and what doctors diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease. They later determined he had cerebellar cortical atrophy.
The rare illness caused hand tremors that prevented O’Neill from writing.
No wonder he was depressed.
Ultimately, pneumonia killed him in that residential hotel suite on Nov. 27, 1953, at the age of 65.
Eugene O’Neill’s third wife, Carlotta Monterey, and his doctor, Harry Kozol, stayed by his deathbed. They heard him whisper his last words:
I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and, goddammit, died in a hotel room.
Eugene O’Neill was born in the Barrett House on what is now Times Square in New York City on Oct. 16, 1888. His alcoholic father, James O’Neill, was a well-known actor who immigrated to the United States from Ireland. His mother, Mary Ellen Quinlan, also Irish, suffered from mental illness.
Because his father traveled so much, O’Neill attended boarding school. He then entered Princeton, and left it after one year. He spent summers at his family’s home, the Monte Cristo Cottage, in New London, Conn. (which you can now visit in the summer).
Depressed and drinking heavily, O’Neill went to sea aboard a tramp steamer for several years. He joined the Maritime Transport Workers Union of the IWW, or Wobblies, and wrote plays.
He found his stage in 1916 with the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod. Four years later he published his first play, Beyond the Horizon, and won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Over his lifetime he steered American theater away from the frothy comedies of George M. Cohan and Charles Hoyt. His characters often belonged to the working class and used vernacular to express hope, despair, disillusionment and pessimism.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature during his lifetime as well as three Pulitzer Prizes. Only the plays of George Bernard Shaw were more widely produced.
Eugene O’Neill left written instructions not to publish his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, until 25 years after his death. His wife published it three years after he died, and O’Neill received another Pulitzer Prize for it posthumously.
The story is a semi-autobiographical account of one day in the life of his mother, father, brother and himself at their seaside cottage. Tension escalates throughout the day as they spar over addiction, blame and regret while trying to show love and sympathy for each other.
BU students say they’ve heard or felt O’Neill’s ghost. The elevator sometimes opens for no apparent reason. They hear strange scratching sounds. Lights dim suddenly and toilets flush themselves.
O’Neill’s ghost is described as benevolent. Perhaps it really is the specter of the playwright, at last at peace. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his autobiographical character Edmund recalls the bliss of getting lost in fog during his sailing days:
The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
The floor was named ‘Writer’s Corridor’ in 1984, and every spring its residents put out a collection of writing called Eugene’s Legacy.
This story about Eugene O’Neill was updated in 2022. Images: Monte Cristo cottage By Ntiprog – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64209889. Kilachand Hall By ForksForks – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86395697.
In January 1794, Elias Hasket Derby was eagerly awaiting the return of his ship the Grand Sachem in Salem, Mass. Capt. Jonathan Carnes had sailed away more than a year before on a voyage to India, and Derby wanted news. But the news he got that January was bad
The ship was lost. The crew was safe, but the vessel and its contents were almost all destroyed off Bermuda. These were the risks of Salem traders. A ship could return with a fortune or it might be a total loss.
On October 7, 1794 Carnes himself arrived back in Salem and enjoyed a brief – very brief – rest. Because while Carnes had lost the Grand Sachem and its cargo, what he had brought back was worth far more.
John and Jonathan Carnes
Carnes had information. But he didn’t share it widely, apparently not even with Derby, the man whose ship he had just sunk. Instead, he went to his wife’s relatives with his incredible information: pepper grew in abundance in the west of Sumatra.
While the ships going to the region had in the past brought the precious spice back as part of their cargo, they never had it in large quantity.
There were hints that the Carneses and the Derbys weren’t always best friends. Jonathan and John Carnes were both sea captains – brothers. John, a year older, distinguished himself as a privateer in the Revolutionary War. Jonathan, too, won his share of praise, but John’s exploits were legendary.
John Carnes commanded seven ships between 1778 and 1782, capturing multiple prizes until he was captured by the British ship Enterprise in 1782.
At war’s end, however, the two men’s fortunes apparently went in different directions. Both men chose brides. John married Lydia Derby, Elias’ sister. The Derbys had enormous wealth, thanks to Richard Derby’s successes as a privateer in the Revolution. The Derby family and her friends opposed the marriage.
Salem diarist William Bentley, without being specific about the nature of John Carnes’ shortcomings, makes no bones about the fact that he was a ne’er-do-well. John Carnes died in 1796.
Writing in the obituary for Carnes’ widow several years later in 1800, Bentley noted: “She was early attached to Mr. Carnes and all the entreaties of her friends could not prevent the marriage. But he was a Villain, and by his vices, to waste her patrimony and to bring her to abject dependence. Still she never forsook him and in her dying moments made provision for his mother out of such estate as by the death of her brother had fallen into her hands.”
Peeles and Vans
Jonathan, meanwhile, married Rebecca Vans. Her family was identified with the Boston banking firm Freeman & Vans. And she had relatives in the Peele family of prosperous Salem merchants, as well. The Peeles and Carneses had done well teaming up to back privateering ventures during the war. Jonathan Carnes chose to tell Jonathan Peele the secret of his pepper find.
They wasted no time in arranging for Jonathan to make another trip to Sumatra. Joining with Ebenezer Beckford of Salisbury, they outfitted him with the ship, Rajah, and in November of 1795, he was off. The men had managed to keep their plans a secret. When the Rajah set out, no one thought anything other than that she was headed toward Sumatra.
It would be more than 18 months before Carnes would return, and he came close to never returning at all. Carnes arrived in Sumatra, near the end of the pepper growing season. He procured what he could, but decided he needed to wait for the next season to make the voyage profitable. In January of 1797, the Rajah came under attack.
The attackers boarded the Rajah and Carnes’ men began fighting. The two sides quickly realized that the matter was a case of mistaken identity. The attackers were French and they believed the Rajah was a British ship, while Carnes thought he was under attack by local Malayans.
The fight cost a French lieutenant his life and a member of the Rajah’s crew lost a hand. But the matter ended with an apology from the French ship.
Fully loaded with pepper—140,000 pounds worth—the Rajah set off for America. No one had ever brought so much pepper to America before. The load the Rajah carried dwarfed any other shipments. There was a chance, Carnes feared, that so much pepper pouring onto the market at one time would kill the price.
It did not. There are varying accounts of Carnes’ return. Some say he first stopped in New York to sell some of his cargo, setting the gossip in motion so that there was a huge clamor for his final arrival in Salem. Others make no mention of this.
In any event, his arrival in Salem shocked the town. The customs office charged more than $8,000 for the cargo (at 6 cents per pound) and Carnes’ backers realized a 700 percent return on their investment. The merchants, meanwhile, lined up to buy. Much of the pepper was sold throughout the United States, but the majority was exported to Europe.
The Cat Got Out of the Bag
Carnes again kept his mouth shut about where he had gone, and he arranged a return trip. As he left the harbor, several other shipowners sent ships to follow him and see where he went. The crafty Carnes eluded them, however, and returned to Salem with another bonanza. He had all but cornered the U.S. pepper trade.
By his third trip, however, the secret had come out. Carnes found the ports in Sumatra crowded with competitors. It’s not clear how the others deduced the location. Perhaps one of the sailors on Carnes’ second trip paid closer attention to their destination, or it maybe someone found out by asking around Sumatra.
Either way, Carnes’ journey kicked off an era when Salem reigned as the world’s pepper capital. It lasted into the 1840s. Even well into the 1900s, whole black peppercorns in places were known as Salem Pepper in places like Australia.
This story was updated in 2022.