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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Friday, October 06, 2006

Paul Revere Woos a Young Woman

Yesterday I attended a Massachusetts Historical Society seminar on a study of stepfamilies in 18th- and 19th-century New England by Connecticut College professor Lisa Wilson. At the start of the discussion she noted that gazing down on us was the portrait of Rachel Revere, stepmother of Paul Revere’s oldest children.

That put me in mind of an anecdote about the Reveres that I wrote about for an issue of AppleSeeds magazine a few years ago. It’s not a myth about Lexington and Concord, but I seem to have gotten into a little run of postings about poetry linked to Paul Revere. [How much longer can I keep that up?]

Revere’s first wife, Sara, died in May 1773. It was rare at the time for widowers with young children to remain unmarried—not necessarily because they were such a great catch, but because they were so very eager to find a woman able to keep the household running.

That summer, the silversmith wrote this rhyming riddle on the back of a bill:

Take three fourths of a Paine that makes Traitors confess
With three parts of a place where the Wicked don’t Bless
Join four sevenths of an Exercise which shop-keepers use
And what Bad men do, when they good actions refuse
These four added together with great care and Art
Will point out the Fair One nearest my Heart.
This riddle is quoted in both Jayne Triber’s A True Republican and Esther Forbes’s Paul Revere & the World He Lived In. Here’s the best guess of several generations of historians as to the solution.
  • A “pain that makes traitors confess” is the rack, and three-fourths of that word is RAC.
  • A “place where the wicked don’t bless” is Hell, and three parts of that is HEL.
  • Shopkeepers were often on their feet all day walking, and four-sevenths of that participle produces WALK.
  • To refuse to do good is to ERR.
Put those sets of letters together, and you get RACHEL WALKERR. And indeed Paul Revere married twenty-seven-year-old Rachel Walker in October 1773. They were a couple for nearly forty years until her death.

Whenever I reread that riddle, I’m struck by how hideous the imagery is. No turtledoves and flowers and twin compasses for Paul. No, his “Fair One” made him think of torture instruments, daily toil, sin, and everlasting torment. New England's strong Puritan heritage perhaps?

(Click on the image above to reach a Clements Library page about a note from Rachel Revere back to Paul in April 1775. He never got to read it because of Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.)

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