MYSTERY DOUBLE-FEATURE: The Secrets of the Old Buildings & The Case of the Missing Theologians

This week has been a most exciting time in the DSSI world! We’ve hit the halfway mark of the internship (!!!), which means that most of our time moving forward (and most of our time this past week) will be focused on research–and gosh, am I excited! I really enjoy research. To me, it’s an adventure, a mystery, a fantastic journey that is just waiting for you to discover something new and exciting. I grew up reading all sorts of mystery novels–everything from Nancy Drew to A Series of Unfortunate Events to Sherlock Holmes and every obscure Young Adult Mystery-Fiction title out there–and have held a secret desire to be a detective ever since. Perhaps that’s why I’m so enticed by research… I can finally be a detective to mysteries that I stumble upon myself! Sometimes I begin with a mystery (as in, a research question) and sometimes I just happen to collect a ton of clues that eventually spark a mystery when lumped together. For example:

Beginning With Research Questions

Last week, I was doing more research on college architecture (big surprise) and thought it would be a good idea to collect information on each of the early college buildings into a spreadsheet. I’ve been learning so many data-driven technologies lately that I figured I could do something with the data I collected. So I created a spreadsheet that focused on each of the buildings, with categories like “Year Constructed,” “Architect,” and “Building Materials.” I realized that, despite all that I’d already learned about the buildings, I had more information on some buildings than others, and much of my spreadsheet was lacking. In a desperate attempt to get some answers, I ended up Googling something like “Amherst College architectural history” and, long story short, ended up finding an amazing website. And by amazing, I mean I was literally close to tears when I stumbled upon it, because there was just so much amazing nd information suddenly at my fingertips! It’s called the Amherst Property Viewer and, among other things, it allows you to use GIS software to find information on various buildings throughout Amherst and the surrounding area. Some buildings have more info than others, but to my delight, practically every building in Amherst with some sort of historical significance has a historical PDF record attached to it–which means that all of the early college buildings I needed information on had records! YAY! I found answers to a lot of my spreadsheet questions, and even added in some new spreadsheet categories due to the information that I found on record. There are some downfalls to the APV–such as not-so-intuitive interfaces and the fact that many of the architectural records haven’t been updated since the 1970s–, but what I eventually discovered definitely made all of the digging worth it. Nancy would be proud.

Beginning with Clues

On the flip side, I also came across some exciting discoveries by means of deduction and having some clues in my arsenal (I was apparently unintentionally channeling my inner Sherlock here, and I am not ashamed). Earlier in the week, I spent a lot of time with the 1861 Olio and created a spreadsheet that inventoried each Amherst College student from the year 1861, their home state or country, and all of the clubs/societies/fraternities that they were involved in during that year. Upon checking off the last student, I went back through my spreadsheet and noticed that there were two names who I had noted as being part of a club, Josiah Ayres and Henry F. Hills, but who didn’t match any names of students. After doing some spell-checking, rereading the entire Olio twice over, and using command-F about fifty times, I still didn’t have a clue who these people were. Stranger still was the fact that both of these “ghost sherlocknames” were part of the same club–the Bible Society–and, to make matters even more odd, there was only one other person listed as being a member of that club, a senior named Horace Parker. For a moment, I wondered if they’d died during the semester, but then remembered that a senior actually did pass away during that school year, and it was noted within the Olio at various points. So, who were these people??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!

My first thoughts were that I shouldn’t be spending time worrying about two random people who probably weren’t going to have an impact on my research overall, and that I was just going to be wasting time looking for them. But my curiosity got the best of me, and I was bound and determined to find out at least something about them. After spending so much time inputting data about everyone else, I felt that I owed it to Josiah and Henry to at least acknowledge more about their existence than I was able to from the 1861 Olio.

I instinctively went to the bio file books in the little Archives reading room/library/awesome space; perhaps Josiah and Henry dropped out of school that semester, and I knew that the biographical books listed whether or not people graduated from Amherst or merely passed through as non-graduates. To my dismay, I couldn’t find them anywhere.

I then went to the Archives desk and inquired of any other resources that might help me find them, and was directed to another amazing book that contained student files (shoutout to Rachel! You’re awesome!)… But again, no luck. I even looked for alternate spellings of their last names (such as “Ayers” or “Hill”) since I noticed a few discrepancies throughout the Olio, but I still couldn’t find anything about either of them. To say that I was dissatisfied was an understatement–I was more heartbroken than anything else. I mean, they couldn’t have just randomly dropped off the face of the earth, could they? Well, even if they did, I wanted to know.

In one final attempt to gather more clues, I decided to Google their names and see what I could find (honestly, I often forget that Google exists when I’m surrounded by all of these primary sources… I’m failing you, my fellow millennials). Aaaaand… LO AND BEHOLD! DISCOVERIES ABOUND!! nd2

I found a digitized version of a family genealogy that noted Josiah Ayres as being a janitor at Amherst College. Sounds great, right? But the problem was that the book also noted that he died in 1860. So, four options:

  1. The book mislabeled Josiah’s death year
  2. The Olio mislabeled Josiah’s involvement year
  3. Josiah died during the 1860 part of the ’60-’61 school year and was still labeled as having been involved in the society
  4. Josiah is a ghost

Next, I moved on to Henry F. Hills, and found a bit more information. After looking through several digital resources via the Googlenator, I pieced together that Henry was a part of the famous (well, back then at least) Hills Family of Amherst. His family owned the Hills Company, which forged a fortune from their hat factory which was on present-day Dickinson Street, right between the Dickinson Homestead and today’s Amherst College Police Department building. This was exciting to me, since I had come across an 1886 map of Amherst a couple of weeks ago and noticed some sort of factory on Dickinson Street–sure enough, I looked back at the map and noticed that the factory was labeled as the Hills Company.

BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE! Some of my digging actually landed me back at the Archives–it turns out that the College holds a collection called the Hills Family Papers, which, you guessed it, is the same family. Looking at the finding aid, I found that Leonard (Henry’s dad) built a house on the corner of Triangle and Main Street, and that Henry built his own house next door. This is where it gets really exciting… Upon reading those street names, I was pretty sure that I knew exactly which houses these were, and that they were still standing! A quick Google Maps search confirmed my hunch.

Leonard’s home currently houses the Amherst Women’s Club, and I only know this because I went on a “Let’s Explore the Town We’re Living In For the Next Four Years” walk with a friend during my freshman year at Amherst. We stumbled upon the Women’s Club and, both of us being lovers of all things old and architecturey, fell in love with the house. We then continued down the street, saw what I now know to be Henry’s house, and immediately decided that we were somehow going to buy it and turn it into a cafe-bookshop-art gallery one  day. Anyways. Henry’s house is listed in the finding aid as being the home for the Amherst Boys & Girls Club, but I remembered that, when my friend and I saw the house almost four years ago, it was pretty dilapidated–and I’ve also noticed that, a couple of years ago, it seems to have been renovated and, I’m assuming, is a private home now. Doing some research, I found that the AB&GC has moved to a rented space in the town center as of several years ago.

The Leonard M. Hills House
The Leonard M. Hills House

After looking a little more into Henry, I also found that he was involved in the Christian community in Amherst, and then remembered three short words that I’d written down earlier in the day from data in the AC Biographical Record about Horace, the senior in the Bible Society: “Studied theology privately.” When I’d read this originally, it didn’t mean much–but now, it might be the key to linking my “ghost names” to the Bible Society. What if Josiah and Henry had been doing a bible study with Horace, and ended up calling it the Bible Society? I can’t find any records of this concretely, but all of these little clues seem to at least point in that direction. This possibility is especially exciting to me, since I was involved in multiple bible studies during my four years at Amherst–perhaps we should have called them Meetings of the Bible Society!

There are still questions that I have about Horace, Josiah, and Henry, and if time allows, I’d love to do some more digging. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the mystery that I partially seem to have solved.

All in all: research is fun, being a detective is awesome, and I think I need to buy myself a magnifying glass and deerstalker cap now.


5 thoughts on “MYSTERY DOUBLE-FEATURE: The Secrets of the Old Buildings & The Case of the Missing Theologians”

  1. Amanda! I love this story. Your sleuthing skills are definitely going to come in handy as we move forward. Finding these little details is vastly important– it helps us paint a more complete picture of the time and to be as honest and authentic as possible with that portrayal. Just with this one exploration, you’ve already found evidence for that town-college interaction we’ve been musing about for weeks!

  2. Wow, Amanda! Your findings are as interesting as your meticulous method of piecing together everything from at least four years ago! Connecting the dots seems fulfilling once your findings point to some conclusion. But it may seem a pointless use of time, as you mention, during the process of collecting research. We may not use all the information we have been gathering. However, I think opening up to possibilities, detective style, will lead to a fulfilling project.

  3. I am so impressed by the persistence in your approach to research! I know you say that finding out what happened to these two random guys won’t necessarily be relevant in the final project, but I think that the drive and incredible research skills you used to get here will totally be relevant to where we all go next! 🙂

  4. what a super fun and informative post! I’m totally going to spend some time this afternoon on APV. My favorite part of being a metadata librarian is being a little pseudo sleuth. We don’t get to spend a lot of time doing the actual research, but we do sometimes have to do our own side research so that we describe things well enough for them to be found, accessed, and used. Rebecca, our rare book cataloger who’s out right now, did a good blog post on the joys of being a library detective that reminds me of your post too-

    Y’all are both such good writers! I’m always trying to communicate this wonderful part of my job to friends and fam and often fail in trying to articulate it.

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