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, March 11, 2009

Questions on a Silver Mug

Yet another news story with Revolutionary roots appeared in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, this time in the arts news. As Linda Matchan reported, officials in the Massachusetts Treasurer’s office found a mug made in the early eighteen century by Boston silversmith Andrew Tyler in an abandoned safe-deposit box. The Museum of Fine Arts has now acquired the item from the heir of the couple who had rented that box.

The article states:

The mug, it appears, was made by Tyler sometime in the early to mid-1700s for a highly-placed local judge named Robert Auchmuty Jr., famous for being one of the defense attorneys during the Boston Massacre, with co-counsel John Adams.

For reasons unknown, Auchmuty relinquished it. “He had to leave Boston in a hurry because he was a loyalist; he got the boot,” said Harris. “It’s possible the mug went from his family to mine when he had to leave. It might have been a fire sale situation.”

Somehow it ended up in the possession of Harris’s ancestor, Thaddeus Mason Harris, a Unitarian minister who grew up in Charlestown [shown above, courtesy of the Dorchester Atheneum]. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British burned Charlestown and the family fled from their home with only a few prized possessions, including the mug.
The source of that information appears to be the handwritten note found with the mug, which goes all the way back to...1976. And I see a number of reasons to do some more research. The details of that story don’t connect.

First, in the video that accompanies the Globe story, M.F.A. curator Gerry Ward estimates that Andrew Tyler made the mug about 1730; at the latest, he must have finished before 1741, when he died. The Robert Auchmuty described above was born about 1723, so he was still in his teens when Tyler made the mug. Perhaps the first owner was actually that man’s father, also called Judge Robert Auchmuty (but a judge on the Massachusetts Superior Court rather than the Vice Admiralty Court).

Yet another complication: Ward states on the video that the initials on the mug’s bottom are “M over T E,” and obviously expects those to be the initials of its first owner. So how is Auchmuty connected?

Then there’s the fact that the Loyalist Robert Auchmuty was living in Roxbury until 1774. The Harrises were living on the other side of Boston and the other side of the Charles River. It seems unlikely that their paths would casually cross, and I don’t see any sign of a family relationship.

The Harris family fled from Charlestown before the Battle of Bunker Hill, as did most of their neighbors; nobody wanted to be caught in the war zone. This is how the move is described in what appears to be the earliest biography of Harris, a letter written in 1849 by a clerical colleague:
After the first hostile demonstrations on the part of the mother country, at Lexington, fears were entertained for the safety of Charlestown; so that, just before the battle of Bunker Hill, Mr. [William] Harris fled, with his family, in the hope that they might somewhere find a refuge from the threatening danger.

Accordingly, with a few necessary articles of clothing, such as they could carry in their hands, they set out on foot,—Thaddeus, then not quite seven years old, leading his twin sisters next in age to himself, the father and mother each carrying a child, and an aged grandmother also making one of the company. They spent the first night at Lexington with a remote relative [another biography says at Munroe’s Tavern]; and, while there, an empty wagon was about leaving, in which they bespoke a passage to any place to which the owner was bound.

Accordingly, they were carried to Chookset, part of Sterling, where Mr. Harris took a small house, and supported his family by keeping a district school. Meanwhile, he went to Charlestown, and brought away a few articles of value which he had left behind. But soon the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, Charlestown was laid in ashes, and the house of Mr. Harris, with whatever of its contents remained, was demolished.

Shortly after this, he joined the Army as Captain and Paymaster; and, on a visit to his family, died of a fever, October 30, 1778, aged thirty-four years.
So even if William Harris did acquire the silver mug before Bunker Hill, it wasn’t there during the battle.

Furthermore, those biographies go on to describe Thaddeus Mason Harris’s poverty after his father died: living with one relative or benefactor after another, begging lunch from schoolmates after giving his own food to his mother, and making brooms, axe-handles, and cat-gut to pay his way toward Harvard. If the family had recently acquired a silver mug with no sentimental value, why didn’t they sell it?

It seems more likely to me that Harris came by the mug in middle age, when he was a minister in Dorchester. During that time he wrote many books and was a leading Freemason. He later served as Librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society. If I’d had a bit of old silver from Roxbury to sell, the Rev. Mr. Harris might well have struck me as a likely customer.

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