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, August 31, 2007

New Cider

After learning about the epidemic of the “bloody flux” in Massachusetts in the summer of 1775, I wondered whether that affected Gen. George Washington’s planning. I found one mention of the problem in his writings. He apparently saw the disease as being brought into the camps from outside, rather than being spread by the soldiers from the camps, as others suspected.

Washington’s general orders for 28 Aug 1775 stated:

As nothing is more pernicious to the health of Soldiers, nor more certainly productive of the bloody-flux; than drinking New Cyder: The General in the most possitive manner commands, the entire disuse of the same, and orders the Quarter Master General this day, to publish Advertisements, to acquaint the Inhabitants of the surrounding districts, that such of them, as are detected bringing new Cyder into the Camp, after Thursday, the last day of this month, may depend on having their casks stove.
I can’t resist the segue from that document to this announcement from Graeme Marsden:
The Guild of Historic Interpreters announces its first “Cider and Song” event on Sunday, 16 September.

We will be having an artisan pressing cider, and we will be holding an “open mike” session (as it were) with musicians and songsters in the Hartwell Tavern taproom. [That’s in Minute Man National Historical Park, the battle road section.]

It’s a freewheeling end-of-season event, and if you have a flair for 18c song or if you have an 18c musical instrument, bring it along to ‘jam’ with us.

Planning of “Cider and Song” is unfolding as we speak. Event is likely to run from 10:30am to 4:00pm. [Please call the park in advance to confirm.]
If one dares to drink “new cider,” this seems like a fine occasion for taking that risk.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Epidemic Behind the American Lines

Today Boston 1775 welcomes Judith Cataldo as a guest blogger. She is researching an event occurring at the same time as the British and American military maneuvers in late August 1775: a summer epidemic of the “bloody flux,” or dysentery, in Middlesex County.

That outbreak may well have been related to the sudden concentration of men from all over New England in military camps around Boston. In his memoir, Lt. David Perry (1741-1826) wrote:

In the heat of Summer, the men were attacked with the Dysentery, and considerable numbers of them died. The people flocked in from the country, to see the camps and their friends, and took the disorder; and it spread all over the New-England states: it carried off a great many more in the country than in the camp, which seemed to dishearten the people very much.
Judy writes:

This was how I got interested in Rev War history. I was documenting the gravestone epitaphs in my home town cemetery, Needham, and found a higher number of stones for 1775 than for other years. In my travels of other graveyards I found the same pattern. Eventually, I tripped upon the Dedham Register, which had serialized a book documenting the town epitaphs with genealogical notes, and it mentioned an epidemic at that time.

Here’s the gravestone that started it all:
In memory of Mrs Esther wife of Mr Joseph Daniels who died Aug’st 1775 in ye 34th year of her age & 7 children of Mr Joseph Daniels & Esther his wife.

Martha Died August 31 in the 5th Year [she had been born 8/19/1770]

Sarah Died Sep’r 2nd in her 9th Year [born 4/9/1767]

Esther Died Sep’r 4th in her 12 Year

Anna Died Sep’r 7th in her 2th year [baptized 5/10/1773]

Josiah Died Sep’r 7th in the 6th year [born 4/9/1769]

Elizabeth Died Sept 12th in her 11th year 1775 [born 7/17/1765]

Joseph Died June 1st 1777 in his 16th year [born 2/24/1762]
The Rev. Samuel West, minister of Needham in 1775, mentioned this epidemic and the Daniels family in his autobiography:
The Dysentery soon prevailed in the American Army & Extended itself more of less through the country. Although it prevailed most in the Town near camp My parish partook largely of this calimity. We buried about 50 persons in the course of the season. Some families were dreadfully. One in particular a Mr Joseph Daniels buried an amiable wife & 6 promising children in about 6 weeks—we often buried 3 or 4 in a day. My time was wholly devoted to visiting the sick, attendance on the dying and dead.
Proportional to population, four deaths in Needham in 1775 would be about 200 people a day today.

Thanks for sharing that work, Judy!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Provincial Army Moves Forward

Two days ago, I quoted Capt. John Barker of the King’s Own (4th) Regiment on how on 26 Aug 1775 the Continental Army had started to entrench Ploughed Hill in Charlestown, one rise closer to the British lines. That advance was led by Gen. John Sullivan (shown here), and involved 1,000 men in a “fatigue party” to do the digging and 2,400 soldiers to guard them.

The Royal Artillery started to reply on the 27th, and kept up their fire for several days, as recorded by Boston selectmen Timothy Newell.

27th Sabbath. Cannonading from the lines at Charlestown on new works—a nearer approach, also much firing of small arms.

29th. Several bombs from Do. [i.e., Charlestown] on Do. [new works] in the night.

30th. Do. in the night—Do. Bombarding from the lines on Bunkers Hill.

1st Sept. Do. almost constant firing from the Centinels at each other. New works arise upon the Neck by the Provincials who approach very near.
Augustus Mumford, the adjutant of Col. James Mitchell Varnum’s regiment, and another soldier had their heads shot off in this barrage. They thus became the first men from Rhode Island to die in the war.

The Continental artillery used a nine-pounder cannon and other guns to take out some of the British floating batteries, as Gen. Sullivan proudly described in his letter to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety (which historian Richard Frothingham noted should be dated 29 August instead of 29 July.)
on Saturday morning,...I was preparing to take possession of Ploughed Hill, near the enemy's encampment at Charlestown. This was done on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning a heavy cannonading ensued, which lasted through the whole day.

The floating batteries and an armed vessel attempting to come up and enfilade us as I expected, I opened a battery which I had prepared on purpose; cut away the sloop’s foresail; made her shear off; wounded one floating battery, and sunk another yesterday. They sent round a man-of-war to Mistick River, drew their forces from Boston, formed a long column, and prepared to come out; but finding our readiness to receive them, declined the combat.

Last evening they began to throw bombs, but have as yet done no damage. Their cannon has been more successful, having killed three or four. . . .

The powder you write for, gentlemen, it is impossible to obtain at present. We have had but six tons from the south ward, which is but half a pound per man for our army, and what we had before was a shocking store. We hope for some every day...
Sullivan said the army didn’t have enough gunpowder to send some north to New Hampshire, but he was certainly using what was available.

In contrast, Gen. George Washington emphasized the need for gunpowder in a letter to the New York Provincial Congress the next day:
Our Situation is such, as requires your immediate Assistance and Supply in that Article. We have lately taken Possession of a Hill considerably advanced towards the Enemy, but our Poverty prevents our availing ourselves of any Advantage of Situation. I must therefore most earnestly intreat, that Measures may be taken to forward to this Camp, in the most safe and expeditious Manner whatever Amunition can be spared from the immediate and Necessary Defence of the Province.
Washington wrote much the same to the Continental Congress on the 31st, describing the advance and the British barrage, but not the cannon fire from his own army. Describing that detail as Sullivan had done might have made his desire for more gunpowder seem less urgent.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

No Harm from Fire at the Boston Tea Party Museum

Adam Salsman has posted a bunch of photos of the fire at the Boston Tea Party Museum site last night, including this one. (Thanks to Universal Hub for the link.)

Fortunately, today’s Boston Globe report says, nothing of value was damaged. The building has been empty for years, and was slated for demolition anyway. The reconstructed tea ship Beaver was removed for repair a few years ago. And, as this site explores in exhaustive detail, the museum isn’t even on the original site of Griffin’s Wharf, which is now quite inland.

When the museum reopens, it will probably feature the Robinson tea chest, which appears to be an authentic relic of Boston’s tea trade before the Revolutionary War. Today’s newspaper report also says:

The plans for the new museum call for the addition of replicas of the Dartmouth and the Eleanor, the two other ships raided by colonists in 1773.
That will be three times as impressive, and a considerable expense.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lt. John Barker Observes the Siege

I’ve been quoting a lot of New England sources on the siege of Boston in 1775-76. There are also some great contemporaneous accounts from the Crown side, particularly diaries and letters written by British army officers. (We have few detailed sources from British enlisted men, alas. One exception is Thomas Sullivan’s journal—but he switched sides later in the war.)

Unfortunately for my purposes, many of those officers’ writings weren’t published until after 1922, which means that they’re still protected by copyright. So, while I feel free to quote them briefly on specific points, I can’t extract from them as extensively as from the diary of Timothy Newell (published 1852) or the letters of George Washington (published in many growing editions since the 1830s).

One exception to that pattern is a British army officer’s journal published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1877. The diarist was later identified as Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment, and the document was transcribed again and republished as The British in Boston in 1924. These entries are from the earlier published form of the diary—the one in the public domain.

In his diary, Barker tended to vent almost as much about the incompetence of his own commanders and men as about the perfidious rebels.

24th [Aug 1775]. The expedition talked of was to attack Dorchester Hill, and was to have been to day at 6 oclock in the morng. All the Troops on this side were drawn out and paraded on the Hill, and some march’d into the road; this was to alarm the Rebels on this side and keep off their attention; but soon after we heard it was put off, the Genl. [William Howe] hearing they had got intelligence and had reinforced that place with 4000 Men.

Several shells fired from the Lines into Roxbury to set it on fire, but did not answer; the same day two Men came in as far as Brown’s House, when a Serjt. and a Party was sent to meet them, as it was thought they wanted to deliver themselves up, but when the party got near, the two men fired and run away, but were shot by the Party and their Arms brought in.

Aug. 26th. The Rebels perceived throwing up Entrenchments on Winter Hill [actually Ploughed Hill, one rise to the east] about 12 or 1300 Yards from our Works on Bunker’s hill; after wasting a good deal of time we at length got four long twelvers [i.e., twelve-pounder cannons] to the Lines and fired several shot at them, but without preventing them from continuing their Work; they had likewise made a Battery near the water side at a Mill on Mr. Temple’s farm, a great way off, from which they fired several shot at the Gondolas, but without doing any harm.
Barker was still using “Brown’s house” as a landmark on Boston Neck, though it had been burned in July. Interestingly, if Gen. Howe had managed to seize “Dorchester Hill” in August 1775, the Continental Army could not have put a large battery up there in March 1776, the move that finally forced the British to depart.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How Things Looked from London

Today I’m availing myself of the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room blog to share quotes from two publications that express the British/Loyalist side of the conflict. Both examine the primary mystery that baffled imperial politicians of the period: how could Britain’s American colonists could be so blind and/or selfish as to fight to get out of the finest form of government that humanity had ever developed (and, by implication, would ever develop)?

John Andrews (1736-1809) was a London historian and pamphleteer. (He is different from the Boston merchant John Andrews whose letters I like to quote.) Andrews’s four-volume History of the War with America, France, Spain; and Holland; commencing in 1775 and ending in 1783, published two years after the Treaty of Paris, shows how the London establishment viewed the colonies as the political conflict started.

The state of the British Colonies at the Aera of the general pacification [after 1763], was such as attracted the attention of all the politicians in Europe. Their flourishing condition at that period was remarkable and striking; their trade had prospered in the midst of all the difficulties and distresses of a war, in which they were so nearly and so immediately concerned. Their population continued on the increase, notwithstanding the ravages and depredations that had been so fiercely carried on by the French, and the native Indians in their alliance. All this shewed the innate strength and vigour of the constitution of the British Colonies.

The conclusion of the quarrel between Great Britain and France, placed them immediately on such a footing as could not fail to double every advantage they already possest. — They abounded with spirited and active individuals of all denominations. They were flushed with the uncommon porosperity that had attended them in their commercial affairs and military transactions. The natural consequence of such a disposition was, that they were ready for all kind of undertakings; and saw no limits to their hopes and expectations.

As they entertained the highest opinion of their value and importance, and of the immense benefit that England derived from its connection with them, their notions were adequately high in their favour. They deemed themselves, not without reason, entitled to every kindness and indulgence which the mother-country could bestow.

Though their pretensions did not amount to a perfect equality of advantages and privileges in matters of commerce, yet in those of government, they thought themselves fully competent to the task of conducting their domestic concerns, with little or no interference from abroad. Though willing to admit the supremacy of Great Britain, they viewed it with a suspicious eye, and with a marked desire and intent speedily to give it limitations.
Today’s second extract is from a pamphlet titled Plain Truth; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America. Containing Remarks on a late Pamphlet, Intitled Common Sense; Wherein are shewn, that the Scheme of Independence is ruinous, delusive, and impracticable.

This pamphlet was advertised for sale by the Pennsylvania Ledger in March 1776, a few months after Thomas Paine’s republican manifesto. It was signed “Candidus,” who has since been identified as James Chalmers (1727-1806), a Maryland planter. Born in Scotland, Chalmers went to the Caribbean as a teenager and earned enough to bring several enslaved people and £10,000 to the mainland when he decided to settle there in 1760. As the war moved closer to his colony, Chalmers wrote:
I have now before me the pamphlet intitled Common Sense; on which I shall remark with freedom and candour. It may not be improper to remind my reader, that the investigation of my subject demands the utmost freedom of enquiry; I therefore entreat his indulgence, and that he will carefully remember, that intemperate zeal is an injurious to liberty, as a manly discussion of facts is friendly to it.

“Liberty, says the great Montesquieu, is a right of doing whatever the laws permit; and if a citizen could do what they forbid, he would no longer be possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power.” In the beginning of his pamphlet the author asserts, that society in every state is a blessing. This in the sincerity of my heart I deny; for it is supreme misery to be associated with those who, to promote their ambitious purposes, flagitiously pervert the ends of political society. . . .

Our political quack avails himself of this trite expedient, so cajole the people into the most abject slavery, under the delusive name of independence. His first indecent attack is against the English constitution, which, with all its imperfections, is, and ever will be, the pride and envy of mankind. . . . This beautiful system (according to Montesquieu) our constitution is a compound of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But it is often said, that the sovereign, by honours and appointments, influences the commons. The profound and elegant Hume agitating this question, thinks, to this circumstance, we are in part indebted for our supreme felicity; since, without such controul in the crown, our constitution would immediately degenerate into democracy.
Anything but that.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thompson’s Timely Tale of the Revolution

For analyzing popular attitudes toward the past in a given period, I think it’s more rewarding to look at hack writing than at either historical studies or good literature. Hack writing is pounded out at speed for as large an audience as possible, often using stereotypes for characters and plots that don’t challenge readers’ assumptions. It therefore reflects the writer’s first instincts and understanding of what the public wants rather than a more deeply researched or thought-out consideration of the past.

That’s why I find the Liberty Boys of ’76 dime novels to be informative as well as amusing, and why today I’m highlighting “How a Lad of 1776 Surprised the Redcoats”, a short story featured by Hungry Tiger Press. The young writer, shown here, was Ruth Plumly Thompson, the first author to continue L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

Thompson wrote this tale for the Philadelphia Public Ledger in 1916, when she was editing the newspaper’s kids’ page. At that time Woodrow Wilson was successfully running for reelection on the platform of not helping the British in the world war against Germany. And Thompson has no problem portraying a British sympathizer as a war profiteer: “Long live King George! Ha! Ha! Long live anybody that can pay me good honest crowns!” The young hero, an orphan naturally named Jack, saves the day and earns his own freedom by preserving American livestock to the American army.

The story also contains some telling anachronisms, especially in its treatment of time itself. Thompson wrote:

Tiptoeing into the room where Derry slept, [Jack] reached for the clock which stood on a chair beside the bed. Scarce daring to breathe, he took it to the window and by the pale moonlight, turned it forward one hour. Derry’s watch he treated in similar fashion. Downstairs he hurried next, fixing the old clock in the hall and the clock in the kitchen one hour fast. Now upstairs again went Jack, this time to the room of Gates, a British private, who had been slightly wounded and was being cared for in the inn. Quietly as a mouse he removed the man’s uniform from the closet, then tarrying only long enough to set his watch forward, too, tiptoed downstairs, slid the bolt aside and hurried out into the night, never stopping till he had come to the house where the young American lieutenant was lodged.
Jack changes five separate timepieces in one house—probably more than twice what there would have been. In the 1770s, many British privates were still poor and illiterate, and it would have been unusual for one to have his own watch. Not to mention being separate from his unit.

Furthermore, for Jack’s plan to work, Derry must think that it’s nine o’clock in the morning, as his timepieces say, instead of eight o’clock. But as a farmer, Derry would have been used to estimating the time by the position of the Sun in the sky, or the behavior of his livestock. Thompson’s story projected a twentieth-century sense of time back into the eighteenth century.

I’ll spoil the end of the tale by revealing that it involves a personal meeting with the commander-in-chief:
Washington himself shook hands with Jack and was so impressed with the lad’s spirit and manliness that he agreed to his entreaties that he be kept on as a drummer boy.
I’ve seen that sort of close encounter with Washington as the payoff in many dubious stories: the legends of John Honeyman, Sarah Bradlee Fulton, Primus Hall, Lydia Darragh, the Hart family, even George R. T. Hewes at his least reliable. Such moments seem to have almost developed a sacred quality in the nineteenth century, a laying-on of the great man’s hands. I’m even starting to think of a scene like that as a dead giveaway that a story is, like Thompson’s “Lad of 1776,” fiction.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Open Wide

A couple of years ago, a celebrated writer turned to me at a military reenactment and said, “The fife is really the dental drill of musical instruments, isn’t it?”

He was speaking metaphorically, and from a more informed appreciation for music than mine. (He’s written a couple of books on the topic.) But, oddly enough, there is a close connection between music and dentistry in Revolutionary Boston.

Exhibit 1 is John Greenwood (1760-1819), whose memoir I’ve quoted several times on Boston 1775. As described in this posting, Greenwood started playing the fife around age nine or ten, enlisting in the provincial forces before the Battle of Bunker Hill. After the war he became a dentist in New York. Greenwood’s manuscript of music, dated 1785, is now at the New-York Historical Society.

Exhibit 2 is Josiah Flagg. The father of that name (1738-95) was a silversmith and engraver who started publishing psalm books and putting on concerts in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s. His namesake son (1763-1816) created America’s first known chair designed for dentistry—shown above, and now on display at Temple University. Grandson Josiah Foster Flagg (1788-1853) also managed a dental school.

Exhibit 3 is Paul Revere, a childhood friend of the elder Flagg. Of course, we know Revere best as a silversmith and carrier of important messages. But he also engraved many images for printers, including Flagg’s 1764 psalm collection and the frontispiece for William Billings’s first collection of original songs. Indeed, the Music Publishers’ Association has named its engraving awards after Revere. When his other businesses were slow, Revere advertised that he cleaned teeth and made dentures. What would qualify a silversmith to do all those things? Basically, Revere was good at scraping.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Daily Arrivals of Gunpowder for Gen. Washington

Back on 5 August, I posted a letter from Gen. John Sullivan reporting Gen. George Washington’s astonishment at discovering that the Continental Army had much less gunpowder than its leaders had thought. Already the commander-in-chief was working to find more. On 4 August, Washington wrote urgent notes to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut and the Committee of Safety in New Hampshire, with the message that

our Stock of Powder is so small, as in a great Degree to make our heavy Artillery useless: I must therefore request you will exert yourselves to forward what ever can be spared from your Province as soon as Possible.
By the 20th, the situation had improved. Washington wrote to Gen. Philip Schuyler of New York, “the daily arrivals of that Article give us Reason to hope we shall soon have a very ample supply.” Visitors from the Continental Congress had brought news that on 10 August the Pennsylvania Council of Safety had sent 382 pounds of musket powder and 1,754 pounds of cannon powder north. As of the 21st, that shipment had reached Albany.

Meanwhile, inside Boston, selectmen Timothy Newell was hearing the effects of the resupply in renewed cannon fire from the provincial siege lines.
16th [Aug]. Cannonade from both lines.

17th. Cannonade again.

19th. D[itt]o.—A 42 pounder split on the lines, killed a bombardier and wounded one or two men.

20th to 25th. Daily firing from the lines and from the Centinels on both sides.
Even after this crisis passed, Washington rarely let up his pressure on Congress and provincial governments to keep supplying the army. On 7 September, he wrote:
I have only to inform the Honr. Congress, that I have received a small supply of 7000 lb. Powder this Week, from Rhode Island, and in a few days expect 7 Tons of Lead and 500 Stand of Arms, A part of the same Importation, and to request that more Money may be forwarded with all Expedition; the Military Chest being nearly exhausted.
While on 20 August Washington had looked forward to “a very ample supply” of powder because he expected a little over two thousand pounds to arrive soon, when he wrote to Congress three weeks later he called seven thousand pounds only “a small supply.” He didn’t want that body to become complacent about supplies.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Firing at & Kill'g. Hogs, Geese, Cattle & Every Thing?

Here’s an incendiary account of the British actions in Lexington on 19 April 1775, apparently written in Hartford four days later and then printed in the Pennsylvania Mercury five days after that. The letter’s description of events in Concord was fairly accurate, but as for Lexington:

the Regulars fired without the least provocation about fifteen minutes, without a single shot from our men; who retreated—in which fire they killed six of our men & wounded several, from thence they proceeded to Concord:

on the Road thither, they fired at & killed a Man on Horseback, went to the House where Mr. [John] Hancock lodged, who with Samuel Adams luckily got out of their way by secret & speedy Intelligence from Paul Revere—when they searched the house for Mr. Hancock & Adams, & not find them there, killed the Woman of the house & all the children & set fire to the house;

from thence they proceeded on their Way to Concord, firing at & kill’g. hogs, geese, cattle & every Thing that came in their Way, & burning houses.
Among the inaccuracies:
  • The British volley at Lexington was short, not fifteen minutes long.
  • Some locals fired back, though without much effect.
  • The British soldiers didn’t shoot up the countryside on their way from Lexington to Concord; only on the return trip, as they were being surrounded by provincial militiamen, did the regulars start firing.
  • The British never went to the Lexington parsonage where Hancock and Adams had lodged (shown above, courtesy of BattleRoad.org); despite American suspicions, arresting those men was never part of Gen. Thomas Gage’s orders.
  • The regulars therefore didn’t kill any woman, children, or animals at that house. (The only child killed by British fire on 19 Apr 1775 was Edward Barber of Charlestown.)
The letter writer might have heard an exaggerated account of what happened at the house of Joseph and Hannah Adams of West Cambridge, and shifted that action to Lexington. I’ll tell that story one day. But no one was killed in that incident, either.

In sum, this letter from Hartford reflects not what the British soldiers had actually done, but what New Englanders were telling each other those troops had done—which was significant in its own right in motivating men to join the besieging provincial army.

Whoever wrote this account seems to have been well informed otherwise. For example, the letter mentions Paul Revere by name as the man who brought news of the British march to Lexington. Revere was being singled out among the alarm riders more than eighty years before Longfellow’s poem.

Another interesting detail appears in a portion of the letter I haven’t transcribed: it said the provincials “Made eight prisoners. Ten more clubbed their firelocks & came over to us.” In other words, ten British soldiers deserted while eight captives wanted to go back to their army. The prisoner exchange on 6 June sent two officers and six enlisted men back to Boston—but another officer had been traded earlier. (More about him later.) So those numbers need reconciling. The deserters are even harder to count because they were already fading quietly into New England society.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Samuel Danforth and the Philosopher's Stone

In June I wrote about Dr. Samuel Danforth, a Loyalist suspected of supplying hay for the British military from his farm in Chelsea. Dr. Danforth’s father was also named Samuel and was also interested in medicine, of a sort.

According to this article in Alchemy Journal by Mark Stavish, Samuel Danforth (1696-1777) probably became intrigued by alchemy as a student at Harvard College in his teens. In its library was

the curious manuscript Compendium Physicae by Charles Morton. Morton, a Puritan, received his M.A. from Oxford in 1652, and emigrated to Massachusetts in 1686. His Compendium was a strange blend of the science of the period with Aristotle. A lengthy section was devoted to the “Artifice of Gold by Alchymy” or “the finding of the Phylosophers stone”, even stating, “Some have done it, such are cal’d the Adepti”. He listed among them, Lully, Paracelsus, and his disciple, van Helmont.
Danforth settled in Cambridge, just a few blocks from the college. At that time, learned gentlemen often dabbled in many fields. Danforth not only became a probate judge but read enough about medicine to try offering the smallpox inoculation in 1730, only eight years after the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather and his enslaved man Onesimus introduced the practice into Massachusetts. Cambridge voted its disapproval and asked Danforth to remove his patients to where they couldn’t infect anyone else. However, he kept enough respect in the community to be elected to the Council, the upper house of the Massachusetts colonial legislature, in 1739; he remained a member of that body for over thirty years.

Meanwhile, Samuel Danforth was collecting alchemical books and making extensive notes inside them. In 1773 he wrote to an old acquaintance, Benjamin Franklin, with news of discovering the philosopher’s stone; as Harry Potter fans know, that substance was supposed to confer immortality. Franklin wrote back on 25 July 1773:
I rejoice, therefore, in your kind intentions of including me in the benefits of that inestimable stone, which curing all diseases (even old age itself), will enable us to see the future glorious state of our America, enjoying in full security her own liberties, and offering in her bosom a participation of them to all the oppressed of other nations.

I anticipate the jolly conversation we and twenty more of our friends may have a hundred years hence on this subject, over that well replenished bowl at Cambridge commencement.
It’s disappointing to report that Danforth died four years later, in 1777. The Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport, who was interested in many fields and many secrets (however outlandish), had this to say in his diary.
(I’m reproducing the image since I can’t reproduce the Hebrew.)

Dr. Samuel Danforth inherited his father’s library, and in 1812 he donated twenty-one volumes on alchemy to the Boston Athenaeum.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dendrochronology and the Fenno House

I’ve been hoping to write about dendrochronology, simply because I like the word “dendrochronology.” And now the Old Sturbridge Visitor (the magazine for Old Sturbridge Village members) has published an article about dendrochronology. So today I’m going to write about dendrochronology.

Some of you might be wondering what dendrochronology is. (Some of you might already be sick of hearing about it.) Here’s a description for a presentation on the subject by William Flynt and Anne A. Grady:

Tree-ring dating (dendrochronology) is a scientifically accurate means of dating historic buildings by the tree-ring patterns in construction timbers. Dendrochronology was developed in the 1920’s and refined in succeeding decades but only recently has the technique become available for studying the early buildings in the northeast.
The scientific basis of dendrochronology is that all the trees in an area experienced the same weather over the course of a year. And, as we know, for each year a tree trunk grows another ring. Thus, all trees in a single region underwent, say, three lean years in which they didn’t grow much, then a year with lots of water which created a fat tree ring, then two medium years, another fat year, and so on. Those variations create a pattern that appears in all the nearby trees growing at that time. And that pattern is unique enough to that span of years in that place that a dendrochronologist looking at a piece of wood from a known region could say, “This part was growing from 1814 to 1832,” or whatever. (Just like a readout from a mass spectrometer, okay?)

Before dendrochronology was refined, many of New England’s historic houses were dated based on local traditions, spotty real estate records, and architectural features. One example was the Fenno House from Canton, Massachusetts (formerly part of Stoughton), which was moved to Old Sturbridge Village in the 20th century. At least as early as 1893, it was said to have been built in 1704, though there was no documentary evidence one way or the other.

Last fall, Old Sturbridge asked William Flynt, Building Conservator at Historic Deerfield, to examine the Fenno House. He
took samples from 13 different locations within the Fenno House, from timbers that appeared to have their outermost edges still intact (that is, the wood with the last annual growth ring still in place).
It turned out all the samples Flynt could date came from trees chopped down in 1724. That means the Fenno House must have been built after that year, probably soon after. Those logs certainly couldn’t have been assembled into a house in 1704 since they were still growing after that time.

Old Sturbridge Village depicts New England life in 1837, so it presents the Fenno House as the antique home of an antique widow, a householder who still spins her own yarn and dyes it with plants rather than buying machine-made materials. Therefore, losing twenty years from the life of the building doesn’t affect the interpretation one way or another. And now we have a solid scientific basis for stating that house is over 280 years old.

And what is that science? Dendrochronology, dendrochronology, dendrochronology!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ebenezer Stevens's Punchbowl

From the collection of the Metropolitian Museum of Art in New York:

This extraordinary punchbowl features a remarkably faithful replica of an engraved certificate, dated December 1785, issued to Ebenezer Stevens (1751-1823) by the Society of the Cincinnati. Stevens was a major-general in command of the New York artillery and was vice president of the New York branch of the society. . . .

A related bowl, a polychrome [this kind, not this kind] version, was made for Colonel Richard Varick (1753–1831). Varick was president of the New York branch of the society while Stevens was vice president.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Thomas Paine: gone but not forgotten

Around Independence Day, Counterpunch ran Charles Modiano’s article titled “History’s Hit Job on Thomas Paine”, which he also reprinted on his blog, Kill Bigotry! Modiano starts his paean to Paine this way:

Unlike George Washington, there is no holiday in his honor. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, there is no memorial in the Washington mall. And unlike many other of his dead revolutionary peers, you won’t find his picture in your wallet no matter how big a spender you are.
Of course, all the individual monuments in Washington and most of the portraits on coins and bills honor U.S. Presidents, not just Revolutionary activists. And only the most influential Presidents are so treated. Where, for example, is our white stone monument to James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution? What bill does he appear on? (The defunct $5,000 bill, in fact.) We could ask the same about John Adams and his cousin Samuel, and they don’t even have bills.

Modiano also asserts:
Had Paine not escaped near execution in a Luxemburg jail he was committed to in 1793, he may have very well gone on to become our country’s most iconic founder.
Certainly Paine’s memory in American culture would have been enhanced if he’d become a political martyr and never gotten to use his prison time to finish writing The Age of Reason; many Americans’ notion of religious freedom wasn’t broad enough to include deism as a possibility. But the very fact that Paine was in France in 1793 offers a better explanation of why Americans don’t treat him as a hero of the highest order.

Paine, more than any of his peers in the American Revolutionary movement, was a citizen of the western world. He was born in England, coming to Pennsylvania with a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket only in 1774. He then wrote Common Sense and The Crisis—and some bitter criticism of slave-owning Patriots like Washington. He served as secretary for the Continental Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, becoming the source of some sensational leaks before he was dismissed.

After the war Paine didn’t stay in the new republic, but returned to Britain to promote his idea for a bridge built of iron. While there, he published several proposals for reforming the British government, which the British government didn’t appreciate. Then Paine went to Revolutionary France, even serving in its legislature. After the democratic reform there dissolved into dictatorship under Robespierre and then Napoleon, he returned to the U.S. of A.

Thus, Paine was usually an outsider. He was a natural activist, not a natural government official. He produced proposals for reform and brilliant calls for change and commitment to the cause, but he didn’t have the political skills to build a government. Paine was one part of the American Revolution, yet bigger than it as well. So the idea that he “may have very well gone on to become our country’s most iconic founder”—more iconic than Washington or Franklin—is a leap far longer than any iron bridge.

Modiano is correct that Paine’s legacy makes a lot of conservatives nervous—but not libertarian conservatives. That same legacy also makes a lot of progressives proud, and as a result there’s been no shortage of Paine literature over the years: Amazon lists 360 titles on him and his ideas. (Comparable count on Samuel Adams: 104.) If history has tried to carry out a “hit job” on Thomas Paine, it’s failed spectacularly.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Medical Men and Revolutionaries

At the beginning of July, after two men drove a flaming S.U.V. into Glasgow’s airport, there was a wave of news stories announcing that all eight people the British government had detained in connection with that case were doctors or medical technicians. That was enough to inspire various fulminating analyses about the supposed paradox that some healers might become attackers.

At the height of the fervor, some right-wing magazines and television commentators even suggested that this case showed how a universal health-care system would bring terrorists into the U.S. of A. The logic of that claim was, to be charitable, far from clear.

All that reporting was historically amnesiac. To begin with, recent history should make people wary about assuming anything about people the British government detains as connected to terrorism, even whether they can actually be charged with any crimes at all. A 26 July New York Times article reported:

Figures released by the Home Office recently showed that between Sept. 11, 2001, and March of this year, 1,228 people were arrested on suspicion of terrorism offenses. Of those, 669 [i.e., 54%] were released without charge.

The data also showed that only 241 [i.e., 20%] had been charged with offenses under terrorism legislation.
In addition, in the past year, the British government held six suspects without charge for 27 or 28 days, the maximum under its harsher 2001 law; three were charged, and three were released.

In sum, recent history shows there’s a greater than 50% chance that a person arrested or detained by the British government on suspicion of involvement in terrorism will be released without charge. Only one in five of such people will be charged with “terrorism offenses.” An individual detainee is two and a half times more likely to be deemed free of all suspicion than to be charged as a terrorist. We should therefore be wary of drawing any conclusions about terrorists from the traits of British detainees—and that’s even before we consider our legal systems’ presumption of innocence.

So far the “terrorist doctors” investigation fits that pattern, though the accuracy of the arrests was increased by the simple fact that two men were caught in the burning S.U.V.—an unquestionably incriminating situation. Of the eight people arrested or detained:
  • Two were pulled out of that vehicle. British police later said those same men were responsible for two car bombs found in London. One of those men has been charged while the other has died.
  • Two other men have been charged, one for “conspiracy to cause explosions” and the other for “failing to disclose information.” The evidence against them won’t be known until their trials. [UPDATE: The case against the latter man “appears to be weakening,” according to the New York Times on 21 August: it rested on the fact that his brother had sent him an email about the Glasgow attack before carrying it out. However, the man didn’t open his brother’s email until ninety minutes after that attack.]
  • Three more detained people—two medical students and the lab tech married to one of the indicted men—were released by the British government without charges. The students weren’t part of a “doctors’ plot”; rather, they were probably arrested only because they had professional contact with the suspects and happened to be Muslim.
  • The case against the eighth person in Australia collapsed once it became clear that prosecutors presented evidence they knew was false; the only real sign of criminality they could offer was that this doctor was second cousin to two suspects in the U.K. The Conservative government’s Immigration Minister tried canceling the doctor’s visa and locking him up for not having one, obviously exploiting immigration policy for political ends—but that’s what Australian Conservative governments do.
So rather than eight doctors involved in this plot, only four men might be involved. And the man who died of his burns wasn’t a medical doctor at all. He was an aerospace engineer who once worked for an outsourcing firm that had contracts with Boeing and Pratt & Whitney. Oddly enough, I can’t find media pundits suggesting that the U.S. defense contractors endanger security by sending work to engineers in developing countries.

It’s quite true that medical doctors have helped to organize or run many larger and more dangerous terrorist or nationalist networks. But American journalists who find that paradoxical should consider details of our country’s own move to independence.

Doctors were among the most active Whigs in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The most radical was Dr. Thomas Young. He left Boston in September 1774, fearing physical attacks by soldiers or Loyalists, but quickly became active in the Patriot movement in Newport and then Philadelphia. He supported the breakaway government of Vermont, suggesting that name for the state, and died of a fever contracted while treating Continental Army soldiers.

Back in Boston, in January 1775 two men were at the top of the Patriot resistance movement: Dr. Joseph Warren (shown above) and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. As physicians, they were able to move around town and meet privately with many people without arousing suspicion. (Of course, one of them turned out to be working for both sides.) Dr. John Brooks led the Reading militia on 19 Apr 1775 and eventually became a general.

From New Hampshire, two of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians: Dr. Josiah Bartlett and Dr. Matthew Thornton. Henry Dearborn was a doctor in that colony before he became a military officer, also eventually a general.

None of those men were terrorists in the modern sense, but to the British authorities of the time they were rebels endangering society. Why were so many physicians drawn to radical politics and war? Personal ambition was often a reason; medicine, politics, and war were all ways for a man to become prominent. But another, more important factor was the same drive that sent those men into medicine: a wish to help others. When they saw a disease in the body politic, they tried to heal it.

What might as first glance look like a disconnect between healing and attacking probably looks quite different to the men who try to do both those things. Even people who put bombs in public places can be convinced that in the long run they’re helping, not hurting.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dr. Daniel How: prepared to receive insane patients

Yesterday I quoted Samuel Breck’s passing remark that Andover, Massachusetts, was “a town where insane people are well nursed and comfortably boarded.” That intrigued me, so I dug further. The town tradition seems to have started with Dr. Daniel How (1719-1797), a local physician who specialized in mental illnesses.

The earliest hint of this specialty that I’ve found is in the diary of the Rev. Thomas Smith of Portland, Maine. Himself subject to “hypochondriac” fits and disorders, Smith wrote with interest about a clerical colleague, the Rev. John Wiswell or Wiswall (1731-1812):

[24 Dec 1761] Mr. Wiswall taken distracted.
...
[17 July 1762] Mr. Wiswell (at New Casco [parish in Falmouth]) is close confined in the height of distraction.
...
[6 Sept] Mr. Wiswell went to Boston last night.
...
[19 Nov] Mr. Wiswell returned to this place from Dr. How, of Andover.
According to this Mental Health History Timeline and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, How’s treatment for Wiswell was a “dark chamber,” and recovery was swift—perhaps because Wiswell would have recovered anyway.

A couple of years later, Wiswell accepted a nearby Anglican church’s invitation to become their minister. From that point he leaned Loyalist, and on 11 May 1775 he was suddenly arrested by the Topsham militia under Col. Samuel Thompson. [Try saying “Thompson of Topsham” three times fast.] Wiswell was released, moved to England, and finally settled in Nova Scotia.

On 14 June 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress noted Dr. How’s work with the mentally ill by passing this resolve:
Whereas the committee are informed that Dr. How of Andover is prepared to receive insane patients and is well skilled in such disorders, resolved that Daniel Adams, a lunatic now at Woburn, be carried to the town of Andover and committed to the care of Doct. How and the said Dr. How be hereby desired to take proper care of the said lunatic at the expense of this colony.
James Otis, Jr., was another person suffering from mental illness who went to live in Andover. He first showed signs of psychosis in 1769, and had to be confined the next year, but I don’t know where he was treated then. Otis spent most of the early 1780s in Andover, perhaps receiving treatment from Dr. How. Otis lived at the home of Capt. Isaac Osgood until he was struck by lightning, on 23 May 1783. The picture above shows the Osgood house in Andover; note the lightning bolt helpfully inserted on the right.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Samuel Breck Encounters Two Insane Gentlemen

Here’s another vivid extract from the Recollections of Samuel Breck, the Philadelphia businessman who was born in Boston in 1771. In this passage he discussed William Knox (1756-c. 1797), who had been Gen. Henry Knox’s younger brother and aide during the difficult mission out to Fort Ticonderoga in 1775-76.

He was a well-bred gentleman, extremely well educated, but possessed of feelings too sensitive for his future happiness on earth. He had been American consul at Dublin, and became deeply enamored of a lady there who did not reciprocate his love. It was a wound that neither time nor absence could cure. It preyed upon his spirits until it brought him to a mad-house. He lost his reason, and such was the cause assigned.

This leads me to relate a circumstance of an affecting nature which in its conclusion was closely associated with poor Knox. In one of my rides into New Hampshire, accompanied by my sister, I passed through Andover, a town where insane people are well nursed and comfortably boarded. Suddenly a man darted through the gateway of a good-looking house and ran up to my carriage. I knew him. He was a Mr. [George] Searle [1751-1796], a merchant of Newburyport, whom I had frequently seen at Mr. [John] Codman’s [Breck’s first employer]. He recollected me immediately, and after some conversation inquired for news. I happened to have a Boston paper of that morning, and gave it to him. He thanked me and retired.

We pursued our journey, asking each other what could have brought Mr. Searle there. On our return we heard for the first time the cause. It was a singular one. Searle was connected in maritime commerce with a Mr. [Joseph] Tyler, by the firm of Searle & Tyler. In the prosecution of their business they had been so extravagantly successful that Searle’s mind was overset. The first symptoms of a disordered intellect were shown by a purchase which Searle made on his return to Newburyport from Boston of all the property between the two places—a distance of forty miles. His malady soon increased, but I thought no more about it.

A year or two after, being in Philadelphia, some members of Congress invited me to accompany them to the Pennsylvania Hospital [cornerstone shown above]. On entering the long room down stairs, the first object near the door was a man clad in a blanket with one leg chained to a block. I looked on him with pity, and immediately recognized Searle. He knew some of the gentlemen. One he called his Tully, another his Cato, but he addressed me by name. “Samuel Breck,” said he, “I have to thank you for the newspaper you lent me at Andover.”

He had scarcely pronounced my name when I heard it very loudly repeated in a distant part of the room. On looking round I saw a sick person in bed beckoning to me to go to him. I approached the bed, and to my sorrow and astonishment found William Knox in it. The occurrence was unexpected and melancholy. The poor fellow did not detain me after begging a cent to buy snuff. Both these unhappy gentlemen were soon relieved by death, Searle dying first in consequence of a wound in his thigh, and Knox following a month or two after.
This joint anecdote shows how Breck and his contemporaries tried to understand insanity. They sought causes for the men’s mental difficulties in the events of their lives, even if those explanations proved contradictory. As Breck wrote, “the cause assigned” for Knox’s insanity was that he had failed in wooing while Searle supposedly went insane because he succeeded all too well in business. Both men were more likely laid low by their brain chemistry, influenced but not created by their experiences.

Another interesting detail is Searle’s statement that his companions were Tully (now more often referred to as Cicero) and Cato. The first generation of American gentlemen valued the heroes of the Roman republic, so much so that those men appeared in their delusions.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Analyzing the Children of the Revolution

The book reviews from the July 2007 issue of the William & Mary Quarterly aren’t online yet, so you’ll have to take my word for it that Barry Levy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says:

J. L. Bell persuasively analyzes the central role that independent children played in patriotic Boston mobs before the Revolution.
That’s in response to my article “From Saucy Boys to Sons of Liberty: Politicizing Youth in Pre-Revolutionary Boston,” in Children in Colonial America, a book of essays and readings assembled by James Marten for New York University Press. It appears in Prof. Levy’s review of that book alongside Emmy E. Werner’s In Pursuit of Liberty: Coming of Age in the American Revolution, from Greenwood Press.

[ADDENDUM: Levy’s review is now available for downloading from this page.]

Back in 2002 I corresponded with Dr. Werner about sources on children at the Tea Party and Lexington and Concord, and I look forward to seeing what she’s chosen to discuss as part of her theme of psychological resilience.

Alas, a peek on Google Books indicates Werner fell for the “Dorothy Dudley” diary of Cambridge in 1775-76, actually composed one hundred years later by Mary Williams Greely and published as Theatrum Majorum: The Cambridge of 1776. Mary Beth Norton discussed this source in a 1976 letter to the William & Mary Quarterly and a 1998 Journal of Women’s History article titled “Getting to the Source: Hetty Shepard, Dorothy Dudley, and Other Fictional Colonial Women I Have Come to Know Altogether Too Well.” One of the giveaways that the “Dudley” diary is fictional is that it spends too much space on political and military developments that a teenage girl wouldn’t have been privy to, and too little space on her personal life. That could limit the damage to Werner’s conclusions if she’s used the “Dudley” account simply to move events along rather than to discuss a girl’s response to them.

On Friday morning, I’ll take my “From Saucy Boys to Sons of Liberty” show on the road to the Paul Revere House, where I’ll lead a workshop for elementary-school teachers. My two biggest challenges will be boiling down my material and getting up early.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Skirmishing Up Mystic River

Despite the Continental Army’s sudden realization of how little gunpowder it had, its troops continued to skirmish with the besieged British forces. Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded three notable fights in the first part of the month.

6 Aug: “Skirmishing up Mistic river, several Soldiers brought over here wounded. The House at Penny ferry Malden side, burnt.”

13 Aug: “Several Gondaloes sailed up Mistic river, upon which the Provincials said they had a skirmish, many shots exchanged but nothing decisive.”

15 Aug: “Cannonade from the lines most of this afternoon on both sides. The General’s fleet of Transports arrived from their cruise having taken from the Islands of Gardners &c. about two thousand sheep—one hundred and ten oxen, butter, eggs, &c. &c.”
The “Penny ferry” was the best way over the Mystic River before a bridge connected Malden to Charlestown in 1787.

Gen. Thomas Gage’s foraging expedition apparently went far as Gardner’s Island off the east of Long Island, New York, in its search for food for the troops in Boston.

As for “Gondaloes,” they were boats with a shallow draft and a broad deck, useful for transporting cargo out of small harbors in peacetime and for carrying artillery during war. The name was also spelled “gundalows,” and just about every variation in between. The photo of a skirmishing gundalow above comes from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s webpage on the recreated Philadelphia. Other resources on this watercraft are the Gundalow Company of Portsmouth and this page from the University of New Hampshire on the Piscataqua River’s last gundalow captain and builder.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Massachusetts's First State Seal

A Boston 1775 reader named Barry kindly shared this image from from a Massachusetts commission for Edward Procter (1733-1811), as major of the Boston militia regiment under Col. Jabez Hatch.

This commission, dated 18 July 1777, bears the imprint of the Massachusetts seal—but the seal that the new state used only for a few years during the Revolutionary War. It featured a man in contemporary clothes carrying a sword in his right hand and a scroll labeled “Magna Carta” in his left. The image had been engraved for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress by Paul Revere.

In 1780, Massachusetts adopted a seal more like the one used in colonial times, with a picture of a peaceful Native American. That has remained the content of the seal ever since, though it’s undergone many graphic changes.

As for Edward Procter, he was a merchant in Boston who politicked with the Whigs. In February 1770, he argued with Customs officer Ebenezer Richardson at the start of the confrontation that resulted in the death of young Christopher Seider. In November 1773, Procter volunteered to lead a squad guarding the first tea ships to ensure that no East India Company tea was unloaded, and he was on the first published list of men who destroyed that tea the next month. He was a captain in Boston’s militia in late 1774, as well as a master of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons. Thus, Procter was a natural person for the new government to commission as a militia officer. By 1779, he held the rank of colonel, and he later served in important town offices.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Myth of Women Burning Themselves Up

Since I led a walking tour in Cambridge today, I’ll offer only this short blog entry. Here’s a 2001 article from the Camden County [New Jersey] Historical Society on “Was Death by Fire Common in Colonial Kitchens?”:

The common belief that colonial women routinely died as a result of their clothes catching fire at the kitchen hearth is a myth, Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D., told a gathering at the Camden County Historical Society.

Appearing before the Historical Society’s Mary Cooper Gardeners, the historian from Haverford, PA, said 18th-century women were essentially protected from fire by the very nature of the era’s homespun clothing.
Woolen and linen skirts don’t catch fire easily, unlike fabrics that became popular later. Mortality reports bear out Dillon’s statement that death because of accidental burning was uncommon.

I have a pet theory that the danger of open cooking fires was played up in the 19th century by people with a financial incentive to do so: stove manufacturers. But like so many pet theories, I don’t have any evidence to back it up.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Gay-Baiting in Colonial Boston

The History News Network has posted an article by Thomas A. Foster titled “Even the Founding Fathers Had to Worry About Gay-Baiting”. The term “gay-baiting” is an anachronism, of course, but the activity it stands for was undoubtedly part of eighteenth-century public discourse. As Foster reports:

A bit of doggerel in a Massachusetts newspaper implied that the Freemasons, that venerable but secretive fraternity, were engaged in homoerotic intimacy. The satire, with a graphic engraving, appeared on the front page of the Boston Evening Post in 1751. Both image and poem mocked the Freemasons in an early version of gay-baiting. The image depicted two smiling men, one bent over receiving a trunnel, or wooden spike, the other, with a hammer raised overhead, ready to strike. It was designed to shock, as were these lines:
I'm sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’er up A—se had been;
For when we use ’em, we take care
To wash ’em well, and give ’em Air,
Then lock ’em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
The poem escaped obscenity by artfully using the term trunnel as a euphemism for the male member. The poem also declared that “we don’t use TRUNNELS with a Sister,” thus portraying the men as sodomites who were solely interested in intimacy with each other.
The woodcut illustrating this newspaper item appears on the cover of the new book Foster has edited, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. It’s notable that a printer went to the trouble of creating this woodcut, which presumably had limited use.

Of course, the Freemasons of 1751 weren’t “Founding Fathers.” They were provincial British gentlemen, and American independence was still a quarter-century away. Foster could no doubt justify his essay’s title by saying that since this form of gay-baiting was around in 1751, the same attitudes and behavior were probably still part of the culture in 1776; thus, the U.S. of A.’s founders had to worry about being derided the same way. But by linking the “Founding Fathers” to victims of gay-baiting, Foster’s also employing a common American political tactic, especially beloved by the right but also useful for the left: tying one’s cause today to the nation’s noble founders yesterday.

In fact, the men who suffered the most from public gay-baiting in pre-Revolutionary Boston were Crown officials, the people our “Founding Fathers” opposed. In my article about Pope Night in The Worlds of Children, I wrote of how the Boston press and crowds questioned Customs official Charles Paxton’s masculinity. They pointed out with a wink and a nudge how Paxton remained a bachelor, had fawning manners, and once reportedly dressed in a woman’s cloak to escape an angry crowd.

Shortly before the war began, the Essex Gazette published doggerel about Gen. Thomas Gage that went beyond homosexuality to accuse him of molesting boys:
In truth, it’s judged by men of thinking,
That GAGE will kill himself a drinking.
Nay, I’m informed by the inn keepers,
He’ll bung with shoe-boys, chimney sweepers.
Such gay-baiting fit well into the overall political rhetoric of the Boston Whigs. One of their basic arguments against local pro-ministry politicians was: we are the great majority, and our opponents are corrupt, with secret plans to weaken our society. The 1751 attack on Freemasons—a new, somewhat secretive international association—played on the same prejudices and fears. Raising the specter of secret, forbidden sexual activity as well gave those charges even more resonance.

There were, of course, gay men and/or men accused of being gay among the Continentals. I’ll discuss a couple at some point.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Visiting Dr. Franklin in London

Another pleasant item from Common-place, the online magazine of the history of early America: Joyce E. Chaplin’s description of visiting the house in London where Benjamin Franklin lived for most of his years there, around the corner from Charing Cross Station.

The Benjamin Franklin House was restored and opened to visitors in 2006. However, it still lacks furnishings of the sort that landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Molly would have owned.

One passing remark from Chaplin:

Visitors next meet “Polly Stevenson.” I braced myself. Despite a delightful encounter with “Edward Winslow” at Plimouth Plantation many years ago, I generally hate it when some tall, well-nourished person, visibly equipped with a mouthful of gleaming white teeth, tries to convince me that he or she is a Viking, or whatever.
Though Chaplin focuses on physiology (and dentistry), her enjoyment of first-person interpretation at Plimoth might indicate that the real deciding factor is the interpreter’s level of training.

Now if only the exchange rate made it more favorable for an American to enjoy London...

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.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Maguire Brothers Find Each Other

Last month I quoted a letter from a provincial officer describing how a deserter from the British garrison at Boston discovered his brother in the American camp.

Brendan Morrissey, who actually wrote the book called Boston 1775 from Osprey Publishing, as well as Saratoga 1777 (at left), reminded me of a similar incident from the end of Gen. John Burgoyne’s push down into New York from Canada.

This anecdote comes from Roger Lamb’s An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences during the Late American War, published in Dublin in 1809. At the time he described, Sgt. Lamb and a few thousand more British troops had just surrendered at Saratoga.

During the time of the cessation of arms, while the articles of capitulation were preparing, the soldiers of the two armies often saluted, and discoursed with each other from the opposite banks of the river, (which at Saratoga is about thirty yards wide, and not very deep,) a soldier in the 9th regiment, named Maguire, came down to the bank of the river, with a number of his companions, who engaged in conversation with a party of Americans on the opposite shore.

In a short time something was observed very forcibly to strike the mind of Maguire. He suddenly darted like lightning from his companions, and resolutely plunged into the stream. At the very same moment, one of the American soldiers, seized with a similar impulse, resolutely dashed into the water, from the opposite shore.

The wondering soldiers on both sides, beheld them eagerly swim towards the middle of the river, where they met; and hung on each others necks and wept; and the loud cries of “My brother! my dear brother!!!” which accompanied the transaction, soon cleared up the mystery, to the astonished spectators.

They were both brothers, the first had emigrated from this country, and the other had entered the army; one was in the British and the other in the American service, totally ignorant until that hour that they were engaged in hostile combat against each other’s life.
No other news on what happened to the Maguires.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Why is Copley Square Named for Copley?

Recently the director of the Boston Public Library made a public case that the Copley subway station be renamed “Copley/B.P.L.” or something else that would include his institution.

There’s some precedent for that, as in the “Hynes/I.C.A.” stop. But the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Art) has moved away, and half of us in Boston never stopped calling that station by its old name of “Auditorium” anyway. Plus, the B.P.L. isn’t the only major institution or building or destination at the Copley stop: there’s also Trinity Church and the Hancock Tower, to start with.

Many Boston destinations get by just fine without subway stations named after them: the Gahden (North Station), Fenway Pahk (Kenmore, with Fenway slightly less convenient), Faneuil Hall (Government Center). And it’s not really a problem finding the Boston Public Library by subway. Ride to Copley, come up the stairs, and turn around. That big stone building, looks like a library? That’s the library. Finding the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department inside the building—that was the challenge.

In any event, during that renaming discussion I started to wonder: How did that area get named after John Singleton Copley in the first place?

After all, Copley left Boston in 1774 and settled in England. Though he had tried to be neutral during most of the political turmoil of the 1760s and 1770s and took no part in the Revolutionary War, he was undoubtedly a Loyalist. Cities don’t usually name landmarks after people who go to live in what becomes an enemy country.

So here’s the story, pieced together with help from the Friends of Copley Square. In 1870, the original Museum of Fine Arts was built on that square, which was created as part of the Back Bay landfill. (In other words, that whole area was underwater every high tide during the Revolution.) To highlight the proximity of the classy museum, real estate promoters and city planners called the area “Art Square” for the next decade. Then in 1883 the city renamed the square to commemorate the most famous and talented artist born in Boston.

The choice of Copley’s name reflected a number of factors, I think:

  • A century that had passed since the Revolution, letting passions cool. In fact, the top echelon of Boston society was feeling more sympathy for Loyalists in the late 1800s than for those violent revolutionaries.
  • One of Copley’s sons had become a top London lawyer, then a viscount. So his name also had a bit of aristocratic glamor attached to it.
  • Romanticism and the artistic movements that followed made visual artists into cultural heroes rather than expensive craftsmen. For people of the mid-eighteenth century, it would probably have seemed ludicrous to name a city square or street after a mere portrait painter. Decades later, doing so showed the city’s sophistication.
  • The city’s deposited Copley’s excellent portraits of John Hancock and Samuel Adams, which it had owned since 1863, in the museum in 1876, thus providing the start of its world-class Copley collection.
The Boston Public Library building didn’t go up at that location until 1895—so it’s always been at Copley Square, and we’ve been able to find it for over a century.

As for that statue of Copley in the public park, created by Lewis Cohen and pictured above? It's been there for (wait for it) five years.