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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Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Legend of Watson’s Corner

Check out Caitlin G. D. Hopkins’s examination at Vast Public Indifference of this historic plaque near her home in the Watson’s Corner neighborhood of Cambridge:

The language of the explanatory plaque is extraordinary. The central paragraph portrays the skirmish as a an encounter between innocent civilians and bloodthirsty soldiers. . . .

If I had to guess when this was written, I would guess 1875. I would be wrong — this sign was erected in 2002. Perhaps they just lifted the language from a 19th-century town history.
The language didn’t come from such an old book, but the details (except for the soldiers’ use of bayonets) did. Specifically, this account appears to be based on details collected in Lucius Paige’s History of Cambridge, published in 1877—so Caitlin was off by two years.

Paige names one of his sources as longtime Cambridge resident Royall Morse, saying in a footnote:
My informant was the late Mr. Royal Morse, born in 1779, whose memory of events which occurred during his life was remarkably comprehensive and accurate, and whose traditional lore was almost equivalent to authentic history.
That’s rather circular, isn’t it? I rely on Mr. Morse’s stories because those stories were reliable.

Our daily infusion of unabashed gossip: Morse was born out of wedlock to Katherine Morse, a woman who had the job of cleaning the Harvard dormitories. His father was said to be Royall Tyler.


David B. Appleton said...

"Did ye iver read histhry? Ye ought to. ‘Tis betther thin th’ Polis Gazette, an’ near as thrue." (Mr. Dooley, "On a Famous Wedding")

Anonymous said...

I think your answer as to why the language is as it is lies in the "who put this marker up" question?

The North Cambridge Stabilization Committee has long been the province of people dedicated to foolish excursions of fancy and desperate attempts to force their bizarre and unworkable suburban visions on an urban neighborhood. They have fairly recently (as in 2002)been led in many ways by a gentleman who likes to turn "patriotic" e-mails of the sort you would see on the "my rightwing dad" blog into civic expressions of glurchy patriotism on both his cable TV show and in letters to the paper glorifying violence.

Simple minded indeed.

J. L. Bell said...

I appreciate the information about how neighborhood politics can affect the presentation of history. I’m uncomfortable, however, with an anonymous comment that could be read as personal criticism, even of a semi-public figure.