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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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mary and Catherine Byles: Boston's last Loyalists

From the wonderful online history magazine Common-place, I recommend Edward M. Griffin’s profile of two of the most intriguing characters from Revolutionary Boston: Mary and Catherine Byles, unmarried daughters and heirs of the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr. They remained in Boston through the war and for many years afterward, but remained Loyalists to the end.

Griffin quotes a description of a visit to the ladies in 1833 by author Eliza Leslie (shown here, courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia):

Then Mary turned to Catherine and asked, “Have you no curiosities to show the ladies?”

“Nothing, I fear, that the ladies would care to look at.”

“To the contrary,” said Mary, “my sister has a box of extraordinary things such as are not to be seen every day.”

Thereupon, Miss Leslie’s companion begged the sisters to permit their Philadelphia visitor a glimpse of Miss Catherine’s collection of curiosities. After a little coaxing, Catherine produced a square bandbox. She took from it the envelope of a letter to their father addressed by Alexander Pope himself. There were four commissions, each bearing the signature of a different British sovereign at the top of the document. . . . The last was an artificial mulberry that looked surprisingly real.

“And now,” said Catherine, “I will show you the greatest curiosity of all.” She removed an inner pasteboard box that fit within the larger one, set it on the floor, and took from a round hole in the lid an artificial snake. With some mysterious twist, she set it in motion, and it ran about in the neighborhood of Miss Leslie’s feet. After all had remarked on its ingenuity, Catherine told the snake that it was time to go home. As she returned it to its box, it seemed to wiggle away.

“What!” said Catherine, giving the snake two or three smart taps, “Won’t you go in? Are you a rebel too?” Immediately, the serpent straightened and scurried back into its box.
The Byles sisters got their habit of showing off their curiosities from their learned and fun-loving father. Here’s what people recalled about him from Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, this entry written by Clifford K. Shipton:
Byles made a large and fantastic collection of curiosities. Besides mathematical and scientific toys (his interest in science was not very deep) it included worthless accumulations such as five or six dozen pairs of spectacles, about twenty walking sticks, a bushel of whetstones, a dozen jestbooks (worn), and several packs of cards (new and clean). When the grandchildren came to the house, the parson would take them on his knee and ask, “What is the Chief End of Man?” If they rattled off the answer properly, he would play with them among his curiosities for hours. . . .

[Once the minister’s wife Rebecca] had been at housework when guests arrived, and she had hid in a closet to avoid being seen. They asked to see Byles’s curiosities, and he obliged by exhibiting them, at last throwing open the closet and showing his wife as his “greatest curiosity.”
Prof. Griffin’s article about the Byles sisters continues, “In an upper room, they displayed portraits of themselves at ages seventeen and eighteen, painted by the famed English portraitist Henry Pelham.” Since they were born in the early 1750s, those portraits would have been painted around 1770. The artist wasn’t an Englishman, therefore, but John S. Copley’s little (half-)brother Henry, a fellow Bostonian. (Henry’s father, Peter Pelham, had engraved a portrait of the Byles sisters’ father during his brief Boston career, and Copley had painted the man and his son, both ministers.)

Griffin refers to the women living in “the old family house” in the old South End. They refused to pay taxes on that property, in part because they would not acknowledge the authority of any government but Britain’s. I also recall reading that because the house had been the parsonage of their father’s meeting-house, it had never been taxed then. In any event, the sisters seem to have had very little money to pay their taxes anyway.

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