J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“A Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person”

Yesterday I described how James Otis, Jr., suffered a severe mental breakdown in the months after he suffered a head injury in a coffee-house brawl in October 1769. (There’s evidence that he’d had manic episodes before then, but the injury certainly didn’t help his stability.) In 1770 Otis didn’t return as one of Boston’s representatives in the General Court, but in March 1771 he ran for that office again and was elected.

Samuel Adams started the legislative session in May protesting about how Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, on orders from London, had moved the General Court from Boston to Cambridge. Instead of seconding that complaint, Otis insisted that shift was within the governor’s authority and even that Hutchinson was “a good Man.”

On 2 June, John Adams wrote in his diary that some people were grumbling about Otis’s “Conversion to Toryism” and that he was “distracted.” It was fairly common in eighteenth-century politics to complain that someone disagreeing with you must be insane, but there were real fears that Otis’s madness had returned.

By 25 November, Otis’s behavior was so erratic that Hutchinson intervened in his capacity as judge of probate for Suffolk County. He sent the selectmen of Boston a legal warrant stating:
It having been represented to me by the Relations & Friends of James Otis of Boston Esq. that the said James is a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person & a proper Subject for a Guardian.

Pursuant therefore to the Directions of the Province Law in such case provided. You are hereby desired and impowered to consider the case of the said James & upon the Evidence you may have Report to me whether you find him to be a Non Compos Distracted or Lunatick Person or not, and such Report to be made under the hands of the major part of you.
A group of selectmen, who included Otis’s General Court colleague John Hancock, gathered that day and the next. They “Agreed to see the said Mr. Otis immediately” and then determined they were “fully of Opinion that he is a Distracted Person.”

Then came a mysterious episode in early December. Two young men, Lendell Pitts and John Gray, were in court after a fight. Months before, Pitts had been flirting with a young lady he’d met on the street only to discover that young lady was a teen-aged boy in a dress and that all his friends were laughing at him. Pitts held Gray responsible for that embarrassment—perhaps Gray was in the dress, perhaps he’d organized the prank. Pitts clubbed Gray over the head. Gray sued for assault, and the case worked its way up through the appeal process.

John Adams represented Pitts, and his very brief notes on the 2-3 Dec 1771 trial include witness testimony and a couple of lines from “Otis” on an episode of cross-dressing in ancient Rome. This was probably James Otis, who was recognized as a classical scholar.

What do those lines mean? One possibility is that Adams repeated some allusions Otis had dropped in a discussion of the case and noted them down with Otis’s name attached. The editors of Adams’s legal papers interpret these lines to mean Otis spoke in court, though he wasn’t representing either side or a witness to the events. G. B. Warden’s 1970 history of Boston goes further and says, “Otis climbed through a window of the Court House and gave a short, hysterical brief on sexual deviations,” but I’ve found Warden not to be reliable on details.

Whatever happened in that court case, on 3 December Otis was “carried off…in a post chaise, bound hand and foot,” according to a letter from Hutchinson to Sir Francis Bernard. The two royal governors no doubt felt some pleasure in the fall of the man who had once been their chief political tormentor.

TOMORROW: So what does this have to do with the North End Caucus?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“Otis is in Confusion yet.”

On 6 May 1772, a Boston town meeting elected four men to represent the town in the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial legislature: Thomas Cushing, the House’s longtime Speaker; Samuel Adams, its Clerk; John Hancock; and William Phillips.

There were a couple of notable details about that election. One was how many votes Adams received relative to the other three men; I’ll deal with that later, around Election Day.

But the first thing to note is that James Otis, Jr. (shown here), was not on that slate of representatives. As a Boston representative, he had led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard through most of the 1760s.

Then in October 1769 Otis got into a coffee-house brawl with Customs Commissioner John Robinson and suffered a head injury. On 16 Jan 1770, John Adams wrote in his diary: “Otis is in Confusion yet. He looses himself. He rambles and wanders like a Ship without an Helm.”

Otis sat out the General Court election in March 1770. On the slate he was replaced by James Bowdoin, whom Gov. Bernard had pushed out of his usual seat on the Council. When the new governor, Thomas Hutchinson, let Bowdoin join the Council again, Boston had a special election and chose John Adams as its fourth representative.

Meanwhile, Otis’s behavior turned wild. On the 16th, merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary: “Mr. Otis got into a mad freak to-night, and broke a great many windows in the Town House.” On 22 April, the day after Ebenezer Richardson was convicted of murder for shooting out his window and killing a boy, Rowe wrote: “This afternoon Mr. Otis behaved very madly, firing guns out of his window, that caused a large number of people to assemble about him.” Acquaintances like John Adams had complained about Otis’s florid behavior on some private occasions, but these actions were public. Otis’s family sequestered him for more treatment.

By March 1771, Otis had recovered enough to stand for office again. (Meanwhile, John Adams was suffering health problems and souring on politics; he gave up the legislature and moved back to Braintree.) That year’s Boston representatives were once again Cushing, Adams, Hancock, and Otis.

But right away people wondered if Otis was going to be reliable.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s 1771.

Monday, October 20, 2014

New Light on the North End Caucus

As Appendix C to his two-volume 1891 biography of Paul Revere, Elbridge H. Goss printed the “Proceedings of the North End Caucus,” which he said had been provided by A. O. Crane, a Boston publisher. Those documents have since disappeared, and historians have used Goss’s transcription as their best source.

This weekend I stumbled across an earlier publication of the same documents in the 25 Nov 1826 Boston News-Letter and City Record, also available through Google Books. The newspaper credited “a gentleman at the North End” for sharing his reminiscences. (The historian Richard Frothingham saw another version of those documents while preparing his 1849 history of the siege, but didn’t publish a transcription.)

There are many small deviations between the two transcriptions, such as in italicization or spelling proper names—enough to suggest that they were separate efforts and Goss wasn’t just reprinting from a newspaper provided by Crane. I also saw three significant differences.

In the first entry, dated 22 Mar 1772, the caucus appointed a committee to inquire into the “Minovery” of the town according to the 1826 transcription. Eighteenth-century dictionaries define that word as a form of trespass “by hand,” as in cutting wood or setting traps on land one doesn’t own. In the 1891 transcription that obscure word became “Minority,” which makes more sense in a political context but still raises questions. The clause appears to be about consulting with others in Boston about when to have a town meeting and what its business should be.

On 4 May 1773, the Boston News-Letter transcription says, the North End Caucus voted “the Pleasant-street [in the far South End] be not accepted as a town-street.” That item doesn’t appear at all in the Goss transcription. Perhaps that’s connected to the fact that the North Enders’ position lost when this issue came up for a vote. At the very least, it’s significant evidence that the North End Caucus couldn’t carry the town meeting on all issues—i.e., they didn’t always represent a majority.

On 9 May 1774 the caucus voted to oppose a petition from a man named Leonard. In the News-Letter he is named as “Geo. Leonard,” and in Goss he is “Gen. Leonard.” The records of the next day’s town meeting show that Boston rejected George Leonard’s petition to build a grist mill on Fort Hill in the South End. Leonard had managed the mill beside the North End earlier, but he had shown himself to be a Loyalist. [Not the most prominent Loyalist of that name, however.]

The Goss transcription includes a couple of blanks where individuals’ names have been deliberately left out. Alas, the News-Letter transcription has blanks in the same places, indicating that they were included in the North End Caucus’s original record.

TOMORROW: But some contextual study can fill them in.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Samson Occom’s Harsh Words for Eleazar Wheelock

The Occom Circle is an interesting online collection from the Dartmouth Library.

In past decades, this collection might have been presented under the name of the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, writer or recipient of most of the documents, or of the college he founded in New Hampshire.

But here they’re organized around the Rev. Samson Occom (1727-1792, shown here), a Mohegan Presbyterian missionary who studied under Wheelock in Connecticut.

Occom was quite a curiosity in the eighteenth-century British Empire. Wheelock sent him to Britain to raise funds for a new project: a seminary to train more Native American ministers to convert more Native Americans, and so on.

That project led to Dartmouth College, whose students were mostly white. In July 1771 Occom broke with Wheelock as a mentor in a dramatic letter shown and transcribed here:
I am very Jealous that instead of Your Seme­nary Becoming alma Mater, She will be too alba mater to Suckle the Tawnees, for She is already aDorn’d up too much like the Popish Virgin Mary She’ll be Naturally asham’d to Suckle the Tawnees for She is already equal in Power Honor and Authority to and any College in Europe, I think your College has too much wordly Grandure for the Poor Indians they’ll never have much benefet of it . . .

Your having So many white Scholars and So few or no Indian Scholars, gives me great Discouragement — I verily thought once that your Institution was Indtended Purely for the poor Indians with this thought I Chearfully Ventur’d my Body & Soul, left my Country my poor Young Family all my Friends and Relations, to Sail over the Boisterous Seas to England, to help forward your School, Hoping, that it may be a lasting Bene­fet to my poor Tawnee Brethren, with this View I went a Volunteer — I was quite willing to become a Gazing stock, Yea Even a Laughing Stock, in Strange Countries to Promote your Cause — we Loudly Proclaimd before Multitudes of People from Place to Place, that there was a most glorious Prospect of Spreading the gospel of the Lord Jesus to the furtherest Savage Nations in the wilderness, thro’ your Institution, we told them that there were So many Missionaries & So many Schoolmasters already Sent out, and a greater Number woud Soon follow

But when we got Home behold all the glory had decayd and now I am afr’aid, we Shall be Deem’d as Liars and Deceivers in Europe, unless you gather Indians quickly to your College, in great Numbers and not to have So many Whites in the Charity, — I understand you have no Indians at Present except two or three Mollatoes — — this I think is quite Contrary to the Minds of the Donors, we told them, that we were Beging for poor Miserable Indians
In addition to this dispute over the Dartmouth student body, Occom also resented how his family had not received the support Wheelock had promised.

For the rest of his life, Occom lived with his Christian Mohegan community, moving from Connecticut to the Oneida lands in New York in 1785.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jack Tar on the Web

British Tars, 1740-1790 is a blog with a nicely specific focus: images of British sailors in those busy decades of the eighteenth century. The creator, Kyle Dalton, is a Revolutionary War reenactor who worked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

Each entry is based on an image from that period that includes a sailor as either subject, background figure, or emblem. Dalton then offers a detailed analysis of maritime clothing, head to toe.

This collection of pictures reflect the same cultural figure that Jesse Lemisch wrote about in “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” an influential William and Mary Quarterly article from 1968:
Here comes Jack Tar, his bowed legs bracing him as if the very Broadway beneath his feet might begin to pitch and roll. In his dress he is, in the words of a superior, “very nasty and negligent,” his black stockings ragged, his long, baggy trousers tarred to make them waterproof. Bred in “that very shambles of language,” the merchant marine, he is foul-mouthed, his talk alien and suspect.
Lemisch then wrote, “Clothes don’t make the man, nor does language; surely we can do better than these stereotypes.” He wanted historians to get beyond the upper-class notions of the time to consider those sailors as individuals with economic and political ideas of their own.

Likewise, Dalton’s blog starts with the common figure of the common sailor and then looks at the variety and evolution of those men over time. It’s quite a voyage.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Celebrating Abigail and John Adams, 24-26 October

Saturday, 25 October, will be the sestercentennial of the marriage of Abigail and John Adams.

The Abigail Adams Historical Society, Adams National Historical Park, and First Church in Weymouth will commemorate that 250th anniversary with a series of events over the weekend. Those events will take place at the Abigail Adams Birthplace and First Church in Weymouth and at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy. The schedule includes:

Friday, 24 October, 11:00 A.M.
Reenactment of the Wedding of Abigail and John Adams
First Church in Weymouth

Descendant Abigail Elias LaCroix will portray Abigail Smith preparing for her wedding at her home, then traveling by horse and carriage to the church, where reenactor Michael LePage will be waiting for her as groom John Adams. Henry Cook IV will act the part of Abigail’s father, the Rev. William Smith, and officiate at the marriage. Rain or shine, free to all, but reservations are highly recommended. Organizers invite the public to wear eighteenth-century attire to the wedding reenactment and reception that follows at the Abigail Adams Birthplace.

In the evening, there will be another reception at the Abigail Adams Birthplace in Weymouth. Admission to that is $125, or $100 for members of the Abigail Adams Historical Society.

Saturday, 25 October, 9:00 A.M. to 12:00 Noon
Symposium: Abigail & John: 250 Years Together
First Church in Weymouth

The scholars sharing papers will be:
  • Steven C. Bullock, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, “Power and Politeness in the ‘Remember the Ladies’ Exchange”
  • Sara Martin, Adams Papers, and Neal Millikan, George Washington Papers at the Library at Mount Vernon, “Reflections on the Courtship Writings of John, Abigail, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams
  • Andrew Wehrman, Marietta College, “Inoculations of John and Abigail Adams and the Politics of Smallpox in Revolutionary Massachusetts”
  • Robina Mitchell, Museum of Fine Arts, “Adams Family Objects at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts
Admission is free; reservations are recommended because seats are limited. This symposium is co-sponsored by the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

At noon, there will be a luncheon at the Abigail Adams Birthplace with Stanford professor Edith Gelles speaking on “Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage.” Admission is $25, $20 for members; reservations are recommended.

Saturday, 25 October, 3:00 P.M.
“Songs on Letters of John and Abigail Adams”
Carriage House, Adams National Historical Park

The Lydian Quartet and soloists Clara Osowski and Paul Max Tipton perform the world premiere of James Kallembach’s seven-song cycle inspired by the couple’s correspondence. Admission is free, but seating is first-come, first-served; limited to capacity. Parking available on Adams Street.

Sunday, 26 October, 10:00 A.M. to 12:00 Noon
Celebration of Independence Service
First Church in Weymouth

An ecumenical service celebrating American independence, featuring readings from some of the nation’s founding documents. Admission is free; seating is first-come, first-served and limited. A coffee reception follows immediately at the Abigail Adams Birthplace. Following the reception, guests will be invited to proceed to the adjacent North Weymouth Cemetery for the laying of wreaths at the graves of Abigail Adams’s parents, Elizabeth and William Smith.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“History of Boston” Online Course Starts 20 Oct.

Suffolk University is offering a free online course on the “History of Boston” with Prof. Robert Allison, chair of the college’s History Department and author of several short, solid books about local history.

I believe this qualifies as a “M.O.O.C.,” though that acronym has been losing a bit of its buzz.

In the course topics list, the section titled “Revolutionary Boston” promises:
  • Road to Revolution
  • Struggle for Power
  • Boston Massacre
  • Scavenger Hunt Game
  • Committees of Correspondence and Communications
  • Boston Tea Party
  • Road to Independence
  • Massachusetts State Constitution
  • Shays Rebellion
The press kit includes the picture above, which is not how I’ve ever seen Bob Allison dress, but now I’m hoping that animated figure pops up in the videos.

Registration is now open, and the videos become available on 20 October.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Woman’s Work for “Gentility and Consumerism” in Newport, 16 Oct.

On Thursday, 16 October, the Newport Historical Society will host a lecture on “Gentility and Consumerism in Eighteenth-century Newport: A Widow’s Story” by Christina J. Hodge. Hodge’s new book Consumerism and the Emergence of the Middle Class in Colonial America focuses on Rhode Island widow and shopkeeper Elizabeth Pratt.

The event announcement says:
Between 1733 and 1734 Elizabeth Pratt finds herself battling a series of lawsuits in the courts of Newport surrounding years of consumer purchases of everything from silk riding hoods to silver spoons. Pratt, once a shopkeeper and tastemaker in Newport society, eventually finds herself losing her business, her home on Spring Street, and her freedom. Worse yet, Pratt loses her status in the “middling sorts:” the class of property-owning entrepreneurs who begin to expand colonial America’s class system, eventually leading to the rise of the middle class.

Through the study of court records, as well as significant archeological evidence from Pratt’s own home, the effect of changes in material culture on class and gender relationships takes shape. Hodge will explore this emergence and the “Genteel Revolution” led by middling sorts, like Pratt, through their consumer and commercial practices.
Hodge is Collections Manager and Academic Curator for the Stanford Archaeology Center Collections. She holds degrees from Boston University.

This talk is scheduled to begin at 5:30 P.M. at the 1739 Colony House in Newport. Admission costs $5 per person, $1 for Newport Historical Society members; to reserve a seat, call 401-841-8770. A book-signing will follow, though the book is priced as a scholarly monograph and therefore may not be in everybody’s price range. But spending simply to show that one can is what eighteenth-century consumerism was all about, wasn’t it?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Welcoming Three Documents to the Paul Revere House, 16 Oct.

On the afternoon of Thursday, 16 October, the Paul Revere House will welcome three documents related to the silversmith and early industrialist into its collection.

The first of these is a letter that I quoted in 2012 when it was treated by the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Paul Revere wrote that note to his second wife, Rachel, in late April 1775 when the couple was separated by the siege lines around Boston. Elbridge Goss transcribed the letter in his biography of Revere over a century ago, but then the document was thought to be lost until an heir and the Revere House staff recognized its significance.

The second document is a receipt from April 1778 when Revere was a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts artillery corps commanding at Castle Island. The site says, “It is one of only few surviving documents that are both written and signed by Revere using his military rank.” It came down in the same branch of the family as the letter to Rachel Revere.

Last is a copy of the 10 June 1775 Pennsylvania Ledger with a supplement printing “An Account of the Commencement of Hostilities between Great-Britain and America” by the Rev. William Gordon of Roxbury. That detailed report mentioned Revere by name. The newspaper was donated to the Paul Revere House by historic tour guide Ben L. Edwards and his family.

At 2:30 on Thursday, the Paul Revere Memorial Association, which runs the house, will host a ceremony titled “My Dear Girl: A Revere Letter Returns.” An actress portraying Rachel Revere will read the letter as she did in 1775. All three documents will then be available for public viewing in the Pierce-Hichborn House while tours go on next door inside the Revere House.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Daigler Speaks on Intelligence at Minute Man Park, 15 Oct.

On Wednesday, 15 October, Kenneth Daigler will speak on the topic of his book Spies, Patriots and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War at the Minute Man National Historical Park’s Visitor Center in Lexington. This event will start at 7:00 P.M. and end with a book signing.

Daigler is a retired career C.I.A. operations officer who has degrees in history from Centre College of Kentucky and the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. C-SPAN recorded one of his earlier talks.

One of our early first-hand sources on Revolutionary War espionage is a letter that Paul Revere wrote in 1798 to the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among many other things, he said
In the Fall of 1774 & Winter of 1775 I was one of upwards of thirty, cheifly mechanics, who formed our selves in to a Committee for the purpose of watching the Movements of the British Soldiers, and gaining every intelegence of the movements of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green-Dragon Tavern. We were so carefull that our meetings should be kept Secret; that every time we met, every person swore upon the Bible, that they would not discover any of our transactions, But to Messrs. Hancock, Adams, Doctors Warren, Church, & one or two more. About November, when things began to grow Serious, a Gentleman who had Conections with the Tory party, but was a Whig at heart, aquainted me, that our meetings were discovered, & mentioned the identical words that were spoken among us the Night before. We did not then distrust Dr. Church, but supposed it must be some one among us. We removed to another place, which we thought was more secure: but here we found that all our transactions were communicated to Governor Gage. (This came to me through the then Secretary [Thomas] Flucker; He told it to the Gentleman mentioned above).
The M.H.S. has shared the images and text of that letter.

Some of the details of that letter have become distorted in the retelling. For example, Revere said that his group started meeting in the Green Dragon Tavern, but moved out after “About November” because it didn’t seem secure enough. He didn’t say where the group met in 1775, but we know it wasn’t the Green Dragon. Yet that tavern gets all the credit.

William Hallahan’s The Day the American Revolution Began says that Revere’s group was “called the Committee of Observation.” Boston 1775 readers may recall how little I think of that book, and that’s yet another statement with no basis in eighteenth-century documents. New York Patriots formed a “Committee of Observation” to enforce the boycott on British goods. New England Patriots talked about creating an “Army of Observation” in early 1775, which was a euphemism for not quite going to war, like “military advisors.” But neither Revere nor anyone else used that term for this self-appointed committee.

Daigler’s book refers to Revere’s group as “the Mechanics,” as if that were their formal name. That’s rather like calling a small group “the Working Class” or such. In fact, Revere’s phrase “cheifly mechanics” suggests that not all those men came from that social stratus, though whether the exceptions were genteel merchants, mariners, or something else isn’t clear. Again, Revere named no names, even fifteen years after the war ended. Such secrecy makes the topic of Revolutionary War espionage all the more intriguing.