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.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hercules Posey, Cook in New York

Craig LaBan’s article for the Philadelphia newspapers about the mysteries surrounding George Washington’s escaped cook Hercules didn’t stop at debunking the claim that he was the black man wearing a tall white hat in a widely reprinted portrait.

LaBan also reported new information about what really happened to Hercules. The last known trace of him had been a 15 Dec 1801 letter from Martha Washington to the mayor of New York, thanking him for seeking Hercules and concluding, “I have been so fortunate as to engage a white cook who answers very well. I have thought about it therefore better to decline taking Hercules back.”

That hinted that the Washingtons, having previously sought Hercules in Philadelphia, came to suspect he was in New York.

Back in 2016, a children’s book about Hercules was abruptly canceled just before publication, as discussed back here. The author who had been recruited to write that book, Ramin Ganeshram, had already been working on a novel about the cook and the painter Gilbert Stuart, inspired by the mistaken belief that LaBan wrote about. That book, The General’s Cook, was published last year.

Ganeshram is also the executive director of the Westport Historical Society in Connecticut, and as doubts arose about the “Hercules portrait” that inspired her fiction she wanted to find out more about the real man. Ganeshram and her colleague Sara Krasne, an archivist, looked at New York records for traces.

The crucial clue was that Washington had bought Hercules as a young man from another Virginia planter named John Posey. We know that William Lee, the general’s body servant during the war, continued to use the surname of his first owner throughout his life. Had Hercules done the same?

The New York city directory for 1812 listed a black man named Hercules Posey living on Orange Street. On 15 May of that year, that Posey died of consumption. The death record stated that he was sixty-four years old and had been born in Virginia, which is a reasonable match for what little we know about Hercules the cook.

As described in this blog post, New York City archivists found evidence from a few years later that Posey’s address was in a neighborhood of black workers.

I’m adding another breadcrumb to this cook’s trail. The 1812 directory listed Posey as a laborer. The 1808 edition of Longworth’s American Almanac: New York Register and City Directory listed him at another address on Orange Street, and identified him as a cook.

ADDENDUM: After I wrote about this posting on Twitter, Sara Krasne replied that she and Ramin Ganeshram had just found Hercules Posey listed as a cook in an 1807 New York city directory.

Monday, March 18, 2019

New Findings about an Old Portrait

Earlier this month Craig LaBan reported for the Philadelphia newspapers on the portrait shown here.

In recent decades this been widely identified as showing Hercules, a cook enslaved by President George Washington. Hercules achieved high status in the Mount Vernon workforce, but then he secured his freedom by leaving in 1797.

The painting has been attributed to Gilbert Stuart, apparently because he’s the most famous painter known to have painted the Washingtons around that time.

One detail which should have made people wonder, I think, is that this painting is at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. An odd place to find an American painting linked to an American President, wouldn’t you say? (To be sure, there are reproductions in many American museums now.)

LaBan reported some important conclusions about the painting and Hercules:
  • Experts in Stuart’s art agree that this canvas doesn’t match his technique. The only link to that artist is wishfulness.
  • The tall white cylindrical hat that we know as a toque didn’t become standard for chefs in France until the early 1800s, spreading from that country to others. Hercules surely didn’t wear one at Mount Vernon or the Presidential mansion.
  • The headgear in the painting looks similar to the hat of a man in a painting of free black people on Dominica made by the Italian artist Agostino Brunias (d. 1796) around 1770. 
Thus, the painting is most likely a portrait of a man on Dominica or another Caribbean island. An unnamed man by an unnamed artist—at least for now.

TOMORROW: A real trace of Hercules the cook?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

“The more I think of our Enemies quitting Boston…”

Here’s how Abigail Adams experienced the British evacuation of Boston on 17 Mar 1776. She was at the family home in Braintree, writing to her husband John in Philadelphia. (And she had a cold, but I’m skipping that.)
I find the fireing was occasiond by our peoples taking possession of Nook Hill, which they kept in spite of the Cannonade, and which has really obliged our Enemy to decamp this morning on board the Transports; as I hear by a mesenger just come from Head Quarters.

Some of the [Boston] Select Men have been to the lines and inform that they have carried of[f] [every]thing they could [po]ssibly take, and what they could not they have [burnt, broke, or hove into the water. This] is I [believe fact,] many articles of good Household furniture having in the course of the week come on shore at Great Hill, both upon this and Weymouth Side, Lids of Desks, mahogona chairs, tables &c.

Our People I hear will have Liberty to enter Boston, those who have had the small pox. The Enemy have not yet come under sail. I cannot help suspecting some design which we do not yet comprehend; to what quarter of the World they are bound is wholy unknown, but tis generally Thought to New york. Many people are elated with their quitting Boston. I confess I do not feel so, tis only lifting the burden from one shoulder to the other which perhaps is less able or less willing to support it.—
(You know, that sounds like a dig at New York.)
To what a contemptable situation are the Troops of Britain reduced! I feel glad however that Boston is not distroyed. I hope it will be so secured and guarded as to baffel all future attempts against it.— . . .

From Pens Hill we have a view of the largest Fleet ever seen in America. You may count upwards of 100 & 70 Sail. They look like a Forrest.

It was very lucky for us that we got possession of Nook Hill. They had placed their cannon so as to fire upon the Top of the Hill where they had observed our people marking out the Ground, but it was only to elude them for they began lower upon the Hill and nearer the Town. It was a very foggy dark evening and they had possession of the Hill six hours before a gun was fired, and when they did fire they over shot our people so that they were coverd before morning and not one man lost, which the enemy no sooner discoverd than Bunker Hill was abandoned and every Man decamp’d as soon as he could for they found they should not be able to get away if we once got our cannon mounted.

Our General may say with Ceasar veni vidi et vici.
On Monday morning Adams returned to the topic of the British departure and the end of the siege:
The more I think of our Enemies quitting Boston, the more amaz’d I am, that they should leave such a harbour, such fortifications, such intrenchments, and that we should be in peaceable possession of a Town which we expected would cost us a river of Blood without one Drop shed. Shurely it is the Lords doings and it is Marvelous in our Eyes.
Like Gen. Washington, Adams didn’t know that the British commanders had been wanting to leave Boston for months, harbor and entrenchments or no.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

“His Excellency is apprehensive”

On 16 Mar 1776, the British military still hadn’t evacuated Boston.

To be fair, that wasn’t for lack of trying. The previous day, Capt. John Barker wrote in his journal:
The Wind being fair at 12 oclock in the day, the Troops were order’d under Arms in order to embark; but after waiting some time returned to their Quarters, the Wind having shifted.
As far back as 9 March, a British officer wrote: “I have slept one night on board [a transport ship]; the troops are embarking as fast as possible.”

But that wasn’t fast enough to reassure Gen. George Washington. Within a few days of the Continental move onto Dorchester heights, Gen. William Howe had signaled through the Boston selectmen that he was pulling out. Washington had responded by ordering the Continental artillery to hold back, as his military secretary Robert Hanson Harrison wrote to Gen. Artemas Ward:
It is his desire that you give peremptory Orders to the Artillery Officer commandg at Lams Dam [in Roxbury], that he must not fire upon the Town of Boston tonight unless the Enemy first begin a Cannonade, and that you Inform the Officer at Dorchester heights that he is not to fire from thence on the Town—If they begin, and we have any Cannon on Nuke Hill, his Excellency wou’d have the fire to be returned from thence among the Shipping and every damage [don]e them that possibly can.

Notwithstanding the accounts received of [the] Enemy’s being about to evacuate the Town with all seeming hurry & expedition, his Excellency is apprehensive that Genl Howe has some design of having a brush before his departure and is only waiting in hopes of findg us of[f] our Guard
What Harrison called “Nuke Hill” was more commonly known as Nook’s Hill or Foster’s Hill. It was the corner of the Dorchester peninsula closest to Boston. The Continentals had started to fortify that position, but then backed off after a British artillery attack killed a man and the commanders reached their “tacit agreement.”

But now it was a week later, and the British hadn’t left. “Still detained by the Wind,” Barker wrote on Saturday, 16 March. Selectman Timothy Newell reported only “Rain” and looting.

Gen. Washington had had enough. He ordered Continental soldiers back to Nook Hill, where they completed building an artillery emplacement without suffering any casualties from British fire. From that position they could hit both the town of Boston and the scores of ships gathered in the harbor.

TOMORROW: Gone at last.

Friday, March 15, 2019

“He would raise a thousand Men at his own expence”?

At last night’s presentation on the John and Abigail Adams and George Washington, I related an anecdote that circulated at the First Continental Congress. It raised a question, so I decided to take a closer look at the record.

On 31 Aug 1774, John Adams dined with South Carolina delegate Thomas Lynch, Sr. (1727-1776, shown here) and wrote this into his diary:
He told us that Coll. Washington made the most eloquent Speech at the Virginia Convention that ever was made. Says he, “I will raise 1000 Men, subsist them at my own Expence, and march my self at their Head for the Relief of Boston.”
Silas Deane of Connecticut heard the same story about George Washington, writing home to his wife in the middle of September:
It is said that in the house of Burgesses in Virginia, on hearing of the Boston Port Bill, he offered to raise and arm and lead one thousand men himself at his own expense, for the defence of the country, were there need of it. His fortune is said to be equal to such an undertaking.
Adams recalled his conversation with Lynch in the autobiography he wrote in the early 1800s:
Mr. Lynch a Delegate from South Carolina, who, in conversation on the Unhappy State of Boston and its inhabitants, after some Observations had been made on the Eloquence of Mr. Patrick Henry and Mr. Richard Henry Lee, which had been very loudly celebrated by the Virginians, said that the most eloquent Speech that had ever been made in Virginia or any where else, upon American Affairs had been made by Colonel Washington.

This was the first time I had ever heard the Name of Washington, as a Patriot in our present Controversy, I asked who is Colonel Washington and what was his Speech?

Colonel Washington he said was the officer who had been famous in the late french War and in the Battle in which [Gen. Edward] Braddock fell. His Speech was that if the Bostonians should be involved in Hostilities with the British Army he would march to their relief at the head of a Thousand Men at his own expence. This Sentence Mr. Lynch said, had more Oratory in it, in his Judgment, than all that he had ever heard or read.
And in an 11 Nov 1807 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adams included the story among the influential “anecdotes” that preceded Washington:
Mr Lynch of South Carolina told me before We met in Congress in 1774 that “Colonel Washington had made the most eloquentt speech that ever had been Spoken upon the Controversy with England, viz That if the English Should Attack the People of Boston, he would raise a thousand Men at his own expence and march at their head to New England to their Aid.”
It’s a pity that there’s no basis to Lynch’s story. Sources from Virginia, where people were after all most likely to have heard Washington speak, say nothing about it.

Lynch and Adams spoke at the end of August. The Virginia delegation to the Congress started to arrive on 3 September, with Washington coming the next day. Yet the story continued to spread among the New England delegates, as shown by Deane repeating it in the middle of September. Even decades later, when Adams repeated the story, he didn’t write about now knowing it was untrue.

Evidently people were so impressed by Washington’s reported promise to march a thousand men to Boston that no one actually asked him about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Massacre, Black Lives, and Boys

Before departing this Massacre season, I want to call attention to Farah Peterson’s thought-provoking article in The American Scholar titled “Black Lives and the Boston Massacre.”

Peterson, a law professor and legal historian at the University of Virginia School of Law, writes:

The trial cemented [John] Adams’s reputation as the archetypal lawyer-as-hero, a man willing to be hated in order to give individuals the chance to have their cause fairly heard. And it confirmed for Revolutionary British North Americans that theirs was a cause rooted in legal ideals. We have remembered the trial this way ever since: as a triumph of principle over self-interest or impetuous emotionalism.

But an honest look at the transcript complicates the story by showing how racial prejudice contributed to the outcome. A critical part of Adams’s strategy was to convince the jury that his clients had only killed a black man and his cronies and that they didn’t deserve to hang for it.
Peterson underscores how Adams’s trial argument made the most of Crispus Attucks being a tall, muscular man of color, just as apologists for some recent dubious law-enforcement shootings have insisted that young black men or children looked dangerous.

That’s an compelling parallel to think about, and not necessarily new. Twenty years ago, the Massacre reenactment took place a month after New York police officers killed Amadou Diallo, and some people in the crowd called out the similarities.

Ironically, Peterson undercuts the argument with the way she presents the start of the confrontation on King Street:
This is how the massacre began, with a group of “boys”—that is, teenagers—surrounding a young soldier named Hugh White, who was standing stiffly in his red coat on sentry duty at the Custom House. They started shouting at him, calling him a “son of a bitch” and a “lobster” and screaming to each other (hilariously), “Who buys lobster?” They made a game of pitching snowballs and debris at him and joked about picking up the sentry box and lobbing it into Boston Harbor.
That description has (white) teenagers picking on Pvt. White for no reason. But the sentry was the first to use violence, clubbing an apprentice named Edward Garrick for speaking disrespectfully of an army captain. The article refers to “a rumor that a soldier had hurt a young boy,” immediately suggesting that rowdies might have concocted that story to rile up other Bostonians. In fact, there’s a lot of testimony about the interaction between the sentry and the apprentice.

Peterson quotes Adams reminding the soldiers’ jury about “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars.” Genteel society worried about all those classes of people, seeing them as on the boundaries of society and prone to impetuous violence.

Peterson rightly notes how Adams’s argument as a defense attorney and a Whig depended on casting such a mob as unrepresentative of Boston. That was a common stance for Boston politicians; the year before, Loyalist printer John Mein had complained about their “usual sayings” that any violence “was done by Boys & Negroes, or by Nobody.” The blame never fell just on blacks—those men were always grouped with boys and/or sailors.

Thus, while rightly noting how Adams played on the prejudice against men of color like Attucks, Peterson’s recounting of the Massacre trips into replicating the similar prejudice against teenagers.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A Mad March with the Junto and History Camp

The Junto Blog is hosting its annual March Madness brackets, a way to bring attention to articles, books, and (this year) digital projects in early American history.

Boston 1775 was generously nominated in the category of “Blogs and Online Publications,” bracketed against the highly respectable Age of Revolutions blog. That’s currently running a series of essays by different scholars on “Revolutionary Material Cultures.”

Check out Round 1 of the Junto’s March Madness and the many digital projects highlighted this year. If you feel like it, vote for your favorites to see which advance to the second round.

In other news, on Saturday, 16 March, I’ll speak at History Camp Boston on “Tales from Boston’s Pre-Revolutionary Newspaper Wars.”

This event is already at capacity, so I can’t encourage you to show up unless you’re already registered. There may still be seats left for the evening performance of “The House of Hancock,” an “immersive living history performance” that somehow uses the music of Hamilton to explore the lives of John and Dorothy Hancock.

I recommend keeping an eye out for History Camps in other locales, and for next year’s Boston gathering, which might expand into multiple days to accommodate more attendees.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

‘“When John & Abigail Met George” in Cambridge, 14 Mar.

On Thursday, 14 March, I’ll speak at the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge on the topic “When John & Abigail Met George: The Adamses' Earliest Encounters with General Washington.”

Here’s our event description:
John Adams met George Washington in Philadelphia in 1774, and the next year Abigail Adams was highly impressed by the new general in Cambridge. Those meetings grew into a strong political partnership in the 1790s, but the first interactions were not entirely smooth.

This talk delves into the relationship between Washington and the Adamses in the first year of the Revolutionary War. Is John’s story of nominating Washington to be commander-in-chief reliable? How did John’s stolen mail lead to Abigail shaking a dog’s paw in Medford? Which Native American leaders dined with Washington and Adams in Cambridge in 1776? And did Abigail Adams ever visit George and Martha Washington in the Vassall house?
When John Adams met Washington at the First Continental Congress, it was the first time the lawyer had ever been outside of New England. Washington, in contrast, had explored the near west, spent a season on Barbados, and even visited Boston in early 1756, when Adams was off in Worcester teaching school while trying to decide on a profession.

On the other hand, Washington had never been to college or received the classical education that Adams had. He didn’t have Adams’s breadth of reading or depth of thought about law and government.

Each man had experience in his own colony’s legislature, and both saw benefits in a colonial union against the London government. To that end, their different strengths and experiences complemented each other. Washington and Adams became allies and worked closely together until the end of Washington’s political career more than two decades later.

For this talk I’ll focus on the personal details of the relationship between the men and their wives from the fall of 1774 to the spring of 1776.

Space in the Longfellow carriage house is limited, and I understand most of it has been spoken for already. Please call 617-876-4491 or email reservationsat105@gmail.com to ask about a seat or a spot on the waiting list.

This talk is cosponsored by the Friends of the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters with support from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Copies of The Road to Concord will be available for purchase and inscription.

Monday, March 11, 2019

More of Mary Clapham’s Massacre Memorials

In the early 1770s, Mary Clapham managed the Royal Exchange tavern on King Street, near the center of Boston.

In this 1801 view of State Street, as it was renamed, the tall white building was the one that housed the tavern. The Boston Massacre had taken place in front of the red building across a small street. That made Clapham’s tavern an appropriate place for Massacre memorial displays, the Boston Whigs decided.

Yesterday I quoted the Boston Gazette description of the first such exhibit in 1772. The large “lanthorn” the Whig activists built, with strikingly painted scenes illuminated from inside, was similar to what the South End and North End gangs carted around on Pope Night, and to the paper obelisk made in 1766 to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act.

The Massacre exhibit was back at the Royal Exchange tavern in 1773, as described by the 11 March Massachusetts Spy:
At night a select number of the friends of constitutional liberty, met at Mrs. Clapham’s in King-street, and exhibitted on the balcony a lanthorn of transparent paintings, having in front a lively representation of the bloody massacre which was perpetrated near that spot on the 5th of March 1770, over their heads was inscribed, the fatal effects of a standing army being posted in a free city.

On the right, America sitting in a mourning posture, looking down on the spectators, with this label, Behold my Sons.

On the left, a monument, sacred to the memory of
Messrs. SAMUEL GRAY,
SAMUEL MAVERICK,
JAMES CALDWELL,
PATRICK CARR, and
CRISPUS ATTUCKS,
Who were barbarously murdered by a party of the 29th regiment, on the 5th of March, 1770.

At a quarter after nine, the time of the evening when the bloody deed was acted, the paintings were taken in, and most of the bells in town tolled till ten.
That was the same display, described in the same words, as the previous year. The Boston Gazette reported one new feature: in a “Window East of the Balcony” was a translucent sheet decorated with a 24-line poem on the Massacre. I’ve decided to spare you that until another year.

In 1774 the exhibit was a little delayed, as the 7 March 1774 Boston Gazette explained at the end of its report on that year’s oration:
As this Anniversary happened on Saturday, the Evening of which is considered by many Persons as the Commencement of the Sabbath, the Exhibition Portraits of the Murderers, and the slaughtered Citizens, was put off till this Evening, when they will be exposed to publick View at Mrs. Clapham’s in King-Street.
When the exhibit finally appeared, it included a new visual element, reflecting the new political controversy over the salaries and letters of royal appointees Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and Chief Justice Peter Oliver. The Gazette stated:
On Monday evening the horrid tragedy of the 5th of March was observed with the usual solemnity, by exhibiting to pubic view a portrait of that inhuman and cruel Massacre perpetrated by [Capt. Thomas] Preston, and his infamous butchers;

on the right, a figure of America pointing to her slaughtered sons, on the left, a monument to the memory of Gray, Attucks, Maverick, Caldwell, and Carr.

In one of the windows was a representation of H[utchinso]n and J[udg]e O[live]r, in the horrors, occasioned by the appeared of the two ghosts of Empson and Dudley, advising them to think of their fate. They appeared to be worshipping their ill-gotting gold the modern deity of the North.
Ye TRAITORS; “Is there not some chosen curse,
Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven,
Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the men
Who owed their greatness to their country’s ruin?
The poetry is from Joseph Addison’s Cato.

John Adams mentioned the display in his diary for 7 March:
This Evening there has been an Exhibition in Kingstreet of the Portraits of the soldiers and the Massacre—and of H[utchinso]n and C[hief]. J[ustice]. Oliver, in the Horrors—reminded of the Fate of Empson and Dudley, whose Trunks were exposed with their Heads off, and the Blood fresh streaming after the Ax.
Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were administrators for Henry VII executed for treason in 1510 under Henry VIII. They weren’t evoked often in American Revolutionary rhetoric, but one of the writers who did so was Adams himself.

In March 1775, with thousands of British soldiers stationed in Boston, the Whigs put their display away. Those troops stayed through the next Massacre anniversary. In 1777 the town of Boston once again commissioned an oration to commemorate the killings, this time from Benjamin Hichborn, but the Boston Gazette made no mention of an illuminated display.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Maintaining the Memory of the Massacre

We know that Boston kept the memory of the Massacre of 1770 fresh in people’s minds with an annual oration on or about 3 March until 1783. Those orations were published, so they remain visible.

The town had another way to highlight each anniversary of the Massacre which we can no longer see. That tradition started in 1771 when Paul Revere mounted an illuminated display in the upper windows of his newly acquired house in the North End. I quoted the full description of it from Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette back here.

There were three pictures in three windows:
  • Christopher Seider showing his wound to weeping friends, with his bust on an obelisk that also listed the names of the Massacre victims.
  • ”the Soldiers drawn up, firing at the People assembled before them—the Dead on the Ground—and the Wounded falling,” which was of course was Henry Pelham and Paul Revere had shown in their prints published the previous year.
  • “the Figure of a Woman, representing AMERICA, sitting on the Stump of a Tree, with a Staff in her Hand, and the Cap of Liberty on the Top thereof,—one Foot on the Head of a Grenadier lying prostrate grasping a Serpent.” This is similar to the figure shown above, from the lower right of Revere’s engraving of the regiments landing in Boston in October 1768. But the illuminated America held a staff with a Liberty Cap, like the allegorical woman on the Boston Gazette masthead.
I believe Revere must have copied the Seider image from a British print, but I haven’t spotted the model yet.

The next year, the nighttime exhibit moved to the Royal Exchange tavern on King Street, a couple of doors west from the Customs office where the soldiers shot into the crowd. The proprietress of that tavern was a divorcée named Mary Clapham.

The 9 Mar 1772 Boston Gazette reported on that anniversary:
In the Evening a select Number of the true Friends of Constitutional Liberty, met at Mrs. Clapham’s in King-Street, and exhibited on the balcony a Lanthorn of transparent Paintings, having, in Front, a lively Representation of the bloody Massacre which was perpetrated near that Spot.

Over which was inscribed,
“The fatal Effect of a standing Army, posted in a free City.”

On the Right, was the Figure of America sitting in a Mourning Posture, and looking down on the Spectators, with this Label, “Behold, my SONS.”

On the left Side, a Monument inscrib’d,
“To the Memory of
Messrs. Samuel Gray,
Samuel Maverick,
James Caldwell,
Patrick Carr, and,
Crispus Attucks, who were barbarously murdered by a Party of the 29th Regiment, on the 5th of March 1770.”


At a Quarter after Nine, the Painting was taken in, and the Bells muffled toll’d ’till Ten.

The whole was conducted with the greatest Regularity; and the Spectators, though amounting in the Course of the Evening to some Thousands, behaved with that Gravity as well as Decency, which evidently show’d, that their Hearts were deeply affected with the Retrospect of so horrid a Transaction.
Of course, deeply affecting hearts was the whole point of the commemoration.

TOMORROW: Two more years.