Town Historian's Annual Lecture Will Focus On Collection Of Presidents John And John Quincy Adams
As Town Historian, Dan Cruson has opportunities to handle relics hundreds of years old, from antique tools to ledgers, to diaries and leather shoes.
During the summer of 2014, a collection that came to the town from Bill Zilinek of San Diego, Calif., gave him the chance to do something neither he nor many people today ever get to do: touch the hair of the second President of the United States.
Among the 52 pieces belonging to President John Adams (1797-1801), his son John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the US (1825-1829), and a great-great-grandson, John Quincy Adams Johnson, are a finger ring, a bracelet, and a brooch, each containing woven locks of hair from President John Adams. According to documentation that came with the artifacts, the jewelry was worn by his wife, Abigail.
The collection had been passed down through generations until it came into the possession of descendant Abigail J. Kelly of Redding. With no heirs to whom she could pass on the relics, Ms Kelly gave the collection to her friend and neighbor, Charles Zilinek. When he died, his son, Bill Zilinek, became the guardian of the precious collection.
Newtown became the recipient, said Mr Cruson, when Bill Zilinek decided he wanted the artifacts to return “home” to the East Coast.
“He also wanted the collection maintained intact, and be somewhere that the pieces would be displayed occasionally,” Mr Cruson said. Mr Zilinek reportedly felt Newtown Historical Society would do well by the Adams’ family antiquities, and Mr Cruson agreed to accept them.
There is also a very loose Newtown connection to the collection, he noted. Judge William Edmond, the grandfather to town benefactress Mary E. Hawley, served in the House of Representatives during the presidency of John Adams, and records show he actually dined with the president.
Several of the pieces have great monetary value, Mr Cruson said, but it is the historical value that holds the most attraction.
“It’s a fabulous collection, and makes a connection to John Adams, a founding father. People exist in the pages of history books, but this kind of thing makes them real,” he said. The personal items give the beholder a different perspective on a man, who while he served just one term, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and who moved the creation of a new democratic nation forward, Mr Cruson explained.
Attendees at the Annual Town Historian Lecture, scheduled for Monday, January 11, at C.H. Booth Library, will have the opportunity to cast eyes upon a selection of the items — but the hair jewelry is now framed, so there will be no petting of the braided locks.
Hair jewelry was not uncommon in the era of John Adams, and grew to its greatest popularity in Victorian days, Mr Cruson said. Generally it was mourning jewelry made from the hair of a deceased person, but not in this case, as the president outlived his wife.
The bracelet is made of the woven hair, with a gold clasp at either end. Each clasp has a crystal, also containing woven strands of hair, and the crystals are surrounded by a ring of tiny seed pearls. The brooch and ring are of similar design, most likely the workmanship of the same jeweler, Mr Cruson said, “But we just don’t know.”
Another piece of great interest is a small round box containing John Quincy Adams’ inaugural medal. What makes it stand out is that the medal is cast of white metal, usually used only for the trial strikes, before being cast in gold, silver, or bronze, for the public to buy. The medals cast in white metal were always a very small run, making this particular piece fairly valuable, said Mr Cruson.
In addition, inside the cover of the box, an inscription explains that the wooden box is made from “the timber of the United States Frigate Constitution,” and presented to John Quincy Adams in 1836.
Signet seals used for pressing into sealing wax, one of gold and one of pewter, belonged to John Adams. The gold seal is quite elaborate, while the pewter seal simply is inscribed “JA.” The third seal, of gold, is said to have belonged to Mrs John Quincy Adams.
Many of the pieces are rather insignificant, and items that will require more research to verify the authenticity and answer questions, said Mr Cruson. As with so many old pieces, there is always a bit of mystery.
“The broad question is how the collection was accumulated. Why were these particular things saved?” Mr Cruson asked.
Two miniature painted portraits, in particular, beg identification. One is of a mature gentleman, the other of a younger man. The portraits do not seem to be of either president, nor has research to date identified them as any known descendants. The portraits are both in frames from a later time, and while neither may turn out to be directly related to the Adams family, they are beautiful examples of the artistry of the pre-photography period, Mr Cruson said.
Another question involves a certificate signed by King George I of England. It is a commission appointing a gentleman named John Collins as lieutenant in the colony of New York, and signed on January 28, 1714/15. (The duplicate date refers to the differences between the Julian calendar then in effect and the Gregorian calendar, also in use at that time.)
“Who is John Collins? Why is this document here?” wondered Mr Cruson, adding it to the list of mysteries to be solved.
Presidents John and John Quincy Adams may never have set foot in Newtown, nor are direct descendents known to have lived here. Nonetheless, the town is honored to hold this collection, Mr Cruson said.
“Coming in intimate contact with things these presidents touched makes them a significant addition to the historical society collections,” Mr Cruson said.
Mr Cruson will present his lecture, “The Charles & Helen Zilinek Donation of Adams Family Memorabilia” on January 11. Registration is not necessary for the 7:30 pm program, which will take place in the meeting room of C.H. Booth Library, 25 Main Street. The annual lecture is hosted by Newtown Historical Society.
Following Mr Cruson’s lecture, items from the collection will be on view in display cases on the main floor of the library until February 1.