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, June 03, 2008

Tracking the Tale of Joel Adams

Yesterday I left nine-year-old Joel Adams in his Arlington home shortly after some British soldiers had marched on toward Boston on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775. Four of Joel’s siblings were hiding in the house, their parents were hiding outside, and those soldiers had set the furniture on fire.

Joel and his siblings hurried to douse the flames with water from a cask outside, and with their father’s home-brewed beer. There was some damage to the family pewter, but the house survived and no one was injured.

Joel’s mother, Hannah Adams, gave an indignant deposition about how the soldiers had treated her to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. His father, Joseph Adams, and a fellow deacon eventually bought the local meeting’s communion service back from a silversmith in Boston. And the Adams children grew up to tell their story of the redcoat home invasion to their baby sister Ann, their own children, and their grandchildren.

Samuel Abbot Smith printed this story in his West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775, published in 1864. (The Arlington Historical Society has reprinted this short book, as shown above. Smith did a good job of collecting his town’s lore.) Smith cited:

Mrs. Thomas Hall, grand-daughter of Mrs. Adams. Rev. Mr. Brown’s sermon on James Hill. S. G. Damon’s article in Christian Register, Oct. 28. 1854.
It’s always wise to seek the earliest printed version of a story, so I began looking for that sermon and article (since Mrs. Hall is probably no longer available).

Locating an undated sermon by a man named Brown about a man named James Hill isn’t easy. I got lucky and stumbled across a reference to its publication in 1852 under the title “Old Age.” So that went onto my to-do list the next time I visit the American Antiquarian Society, which has a great collection of such things.

As for the article, I thought I’d gotten lucky when I found Harold Murdock’s footnote for this same anecdote in The Nineteenth of April, 1775:
This is the story as repeated in 1854 by Mrs. [Ann] Hill, then in her eightieth year, to Samuel Griffin Damon: see Christian Register, October 28, 1854, vol. 39, p. 169.
Clearly Murdock had traced back the article since he included more detail than Smith had.

I learned that the Christian Register was a weekly newspaper published for Unitarian churches from 1821 to 1957, and that the Harvard library system has a full run on microfilm. So a couple of years ago I went into Cambridge to find this story.

The staff at the university’s main library told me this microfilm was in the collection of the Divinity School library, on the other side of campus. So I had a pleasant walk over there, found the right building, found the right desk, asked for the reels, and started cranking away.

And the first thing I discovered was that Murdock’s citation to “vol. 39, p. 169,” had no visible link to the date of 28 Oct 1854. Volume 39 covered the year 1860. Cranking and scrolling and peering at the closely set columns, I still couldn’t find Ann (Adams) Hill’s recollection in October 1854. By then my eyes were beginning to swim, so I’m going to check again later. Until I read the earliest printed versions of his tale, Joel Adams stays on my list of Lost Youth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful story. I was uneasy after the first installment, but heartened by the survival of the clock. Great cliffhanger!