“A Most Rare and Valuable Collection”


On May 25, 1893, Professor Jenks and some of his favored students gathered in Rhode Island Hall to unpack a collection of wooden crates recently arrived from Africa. Inside the boxes were over two hundred ethnographic and zoological specimens, collected during the previous four years by Charles Hartsock, a young Brown graduate. Now, following Hartsock’s tragic and untimely death while serving as a missionary for the American Baptist Missionary Society in Irebu (in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), his widow had donated the whole of his collection to his alma mater.

Hartsock had arrived at Brown in the fall of 1887, entering the university as a junior and quickly becoming an active part of campus life. His friends later remembered him as “a man of great steadfastness and integrity of character, pleasant and of a genial spirit.” He was one of the founders of Brown’s chapter of the fraternity Phi Delta Theta and was also visibly involved in the Y.M.C.A. Even during his time at Brown, he already found himself called to missionary work, and by the time he graduated, he had convinced subscribers within the Brown community to support his overseas work.

During the next four years, Hartsock and his young bride — who was also from Providence — were stationed in Irebu, where Hartsock “succeeded in converting to the Christian faith twenty-five of the breathern [sic], a monument to his life work.” More importantly for Brown’s museums, Hartsock’s missionary work provided him with easy access to a multitude of ethnographic and zoological artifacts. In a letter written after her husband’s death, Rose Hartsock noted that it had always been his intention to present the collection to his alma mater, suggesting that Hartsock was quite familiar with J.W.P. Jenks and his efforts to expand the collections of Brown’s museums.

Executioners' Knives

The fearsome executioners’ knives of the Hartsock Collection, preserved in the collections of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, still with their original “Museum of Brown University” labels.
Photo courtesy of Lily Benedict.

Certainly, the specimens that made up the Hartsock collection fit nicely with the eclecticism of the Jenks Museum of Zoology and the Museum of Anthropology. Hartsock’s items ranged from domestic implements, clothing, and animal skulls, to poisoned arrows and executioners’ knives luridly described as “used to do terrible work.” Several months after the collection was acquired, an article appeared in the Providence Journal that embellished the history of the executioners’ knives to state: “one of the knives […] cut off the heads of 50 men the day before it was secured [and] on the blade the bloodstains may still be seen and the timid grazer may shudder at the awful work which it has done.” Rare, bizarre, and intriguing artifacts like these from the Harstock collection were surely more likely to attract a casual Providence visitor than were Jenks’ prized natural history specimens displayed in the adjoining room.

Nkundu Pottery

This bowl is one of twenty-four pieces of Nkundu pottery collected by Charles Hartsock. Although the collection originally contained some large vessels, only the smaller pieces survived intact.
Photo courtesy of Becky Soules.

The Hartsock collection was to be the last major collection donated to the museums during J.W.P. Jenks’ tenure. With Jenks’ death in 1894, interest in the museums quickly lagged, and the collections began to be packed away in attics and basements. Eventually, the majority of the Hartsock collection ended up being haphazardly stored in the attic of Brown’s Administration Building (later renamed Van Wickle Hall under the English department’s tenure). Fortunately, a large percentage of the collection was salvaged from the building before its demolition in 1962, and in the end, the remnants of the collection ended up at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Largely intact, and still with many of the labels originally affixed by Jenks himself while accessioning the collection in 1893, the Hartsock collection provides a glimpse of what Brown’s museums were like at their heyday, containing a fantastical assortment of artifacts designed to both educate and amaze.


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