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A bust of the great Boston historian Walter Muir Whitehill

In 2016, I was approached by sculptor Marcia Zonis who wished to donate a superb 1971 plaster bust of Walter Muir Whitehill (1905-1978), the eminent Boston historian and library director, to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, an institution where he had presided as chairman of the board many years earlier.

The artist made two copies of this bust: one is found in the collections of the Boston Athenaeum and this one was kept by Zonis as a token of her friendship with Whitehill until she generously donated it to NEHGS in his memory. Today, the Whitehill bust is on view on the third floor of the NEHGS house on Newbury Street in Boston.

The bust is made from plaster, has a faux aged bronze finish, and is mounted on a solid oak plinth. Zonis explained to me that she seldom took private commissions and often selected her subjects from random members of the public when she noticed a person with an interesting head or face she admired and wanted to sculpt. She enjoyed the process of sculpting Whitehill and in the process of several sittings became a personal friend of the historian and his family.

Well known as librarian of the Boston Athenaeum from 1946 to 1973, Walter Muir Whitehill also served as chairman of the Board of Trustees of NEHGS, 1963-1971, and was the author of the classic "Boston: A Topographical History," among other works. In July 1976, he spoke as part of the American Bicentennial Celebrations at the Old State House in Boston in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, the governor of Massachusetts, the mayor of Boston, and a large public assemblage. His wife, Jane Revere Coolidge, was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, and Whitehill was keenly interested in genealogy.

I have long relied on Whitehill's excellent topographical history of Boston in my research on pre-Federal Boston, although I had occasion to correct a rare mistake by Whitehill in my book, "Witches, Rakes, and Rogues." In the 1970s, Whitehill erroneously claimed that the Greenleaf murders of 1750-1751 in Boston were a myth. Sadly, the murders did happen and the story is fully revealed in chapter 16, "Murder by Arsenic: The Ill-fated Greenleaf Children and Their Portraits, 1750-1751" in "Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1775."

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