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, December 16, 2008

Seeking a Peek at Hannah Mather Crocker

Hannah Mather Crocker (1752-1829) was a descendant of the leading Puritan ministers Increase and Cotton Mather, daughter of the Rev. Samuel Mather of the North Bennet Street meeting-house during the Revolution, and niece of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. Apparently she was actually in Hutchinson’s house on 26 Aug 1765 when an anti-Stamp Act mob attacked it.

Crocker inherited the Mather family’s scholarly library. In 1827 she finished writing a manuscript titled Reminiscences and Traditions of Old Boston, which assembled stories she’d heard and read about the town’s founding with some personal experiences. It was never published. Maybe, just maybe, because she was a woman?

The New England Historic Genealogical Society, which has preserved that manuscript, announced this month that Prof. Eileen Hunt Botting and Sarah L. Houser of the University of Notre Dame are editing it for publication in 2010. I’m intrigued by the prospect of recollections of the Revolutionary turmoil from a young female perspective.

The authors are now looking for “a portrait or any image of Hannah Mather Crocker” to be used on the cover or frontispiece of that book; Prof. Hunt asked anyone who might have such a portrait up in the attic to email her. There are well-known portraits of all her famous ancestors, but none of her. Maybe, just maybe, because she was a woman?

Crocker is linked to the even less documented figure of Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727). In Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818), which Botting calls “the first book-length treatise on women’s rights in the United States,” Crocker wrote of Knight:

Among some of the early instructors of writing may be found Mrs. Sarah Knights, in the year 1706. She was famous in her day for teaching to write. Most of the letters on business, and notes of hand, and letters on friendship were wrote by her. She was a smart, witty, sensible woman, and had considerable influence at that period.
Seven years later, Madam Knight’s journal of a journey from Boston to New York in 1704-05 was published by Theodore Dwight, one of the Hartford Wits. Here’s an online edition.

The actual manuscript of Knight’s diary has never turned up, nor other significant documents from her. Dogged research has found evidence of a Sarah Knight in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but there’s still a leap of faith that she took a journey of this sort in 1704 and wrote this diary. Early on people suggested that the text was created by Dwight and his cronies. Why would those conservative Federalists wish to lampoon both Crocker as an author and a learned colonist whom she had written about? Maybe, just maybe,...

On the other hand, what might have made those early reviewers of The Journal of Madam Knight insist that no woman of 1704 could have written it, so it had to be the creation of a man? Maybe, just maybe...

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