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, November 17, 2009

The Premiere of “Count Rumford”

Last night I attended the Woburn Historical Society’s premiere of its new video, “Count Rumford: Scholar, Soldier, Spy, Statesman and Scientist.” I was startled to arrive at Woburn High School and find every parking space filled. Must be because of the soccer game, I thought. But after I found an arguably legal space and made it to the auditorium, there were about 200 people waiting for the movie. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, would have been pleased at the turnout.

The style of the film would look familiar to anyone who’s seen historical documentaries on TV in the past twenty years: pans and zooms of period portraits and edifying illustrations from the late 1800s, views of historic sites and statues, footage from reenactments (some showing men with anachronistic beards).

But the narration by writer-director Kathy Lucero reveals that this film is a home-town labor of love. We just don’t hear good Boston accents on the History Channel! (Especially when actors pretend to be Kennedys.)

The movie is a good example of how digital filmmaking lets dedicated people produce professional-looking work on specialized projects—as long as they’re willing to put in hours of work. It runs a little less than half an hour, plus an epilogue about the recent fix-up of the Rumford birthplace in north Woburn.

When the Rumford Historical Society was founded in the late 1800s to preserve that house, admiring Benjamin Thompson was relatively easy. True, he became a Loyalist who led a troop of British dragoons late in the Revolutionary War. But standard histories said he did so only after Americans had driven him away out of jealousy and misplaced suspicion.

Then in the early 1900s evidence came out that Thompson was sending secret reports to Gen. Thomas Gage during the same period he was assuring Patriots of his good intentions. He was, it appears, an important confederate of Dr. Benjamin Church (meaning this posting fits in “Dr. Church Week” after all). And the fading of Victorian prudery let more authors write openly of Rumford’s many affairs in Europe. The man was suddenly less admirable—though more interesting.

This video acknowledges Thompson’s less noble, opportunistic side—there’s even a quick roundup of those affairs. But it still gives him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. For instance, it presents Thompson’s statement that in 1774 he helped some deserters get back to the British army simply out of kindness after they decided they were working too hard in the New Hampshire countryside.

The movie doesn’t say that on 2 Nov 1774 Gov. John Wentworth stated in a letter of introduction to Gen. Gage that Thompson:

has been active in persuading Soldiers deserted from His Majesty’s Regiments at Boston, to return to their duty, and thinks he had a prospect of further success.
Or that Thompson himself wrote the next month that he was employing a soldier named William Bowdidge to find more deserters and persuade them to return to the ranks.

Because this “Count Rumford” video is an effort at public history, particularly for young students (there was a whole elementary class at the showing), it also keeps away from potentially confusing speculation about Thompson’s shadiest activities.

Thus, the four undocumented years between Thompson’s arrival in London and his appointment as an Under Secretary of State zip by in a few words. Biographers suspect that during that time he was busy ingratiating himself with Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State, through amorous favors for his wife, his daughter, and/or himself. Needless to say, that won’t be on the quiz.

Instead, “Count Rumford” celebrates Thompson’s scientific discoveries and energetic management of Bavaria in the decades after the Revolution. He was unquestionably the most important American-born scientist of his generation, and one of the most successful Yankees abroad ever. How he got some of those opportunities—well, we don’t have to know everything.


Heather Rojo said...

Wow! I would love to see this film. Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, is my first cousin 6x removed. I am also first cousin 6x removed to Benjamin Franklin. I always loved to compare their lives: both were born about 15 miles apart, lived around the same time, were scientists, writers, were politically involved in the American Revolution and international affairs, yet represented different sides of the conflict.

Nat Taylor said...

Hi John. As a resident of Rumford, Rhode Island (named after the Rumford baking powder plant, which was named by its founder, Eben Horsford, after his own endowed chair in Chemistry at Harvard, which was named after Count Rumford), I'm glad to hear of the new flick. -- Nat Taylor

Chris the Woburnite said...

Thanks for the review of the Rumford video. I think we are learning to come to terms with Benjamin Thompson's legacy in a good way.

I just want to point out that the Woburn Historical Society routinely draws large crowds. It's great local history - with good free refreshments.

And for Heather, (if you don't mind the [non]commercial plug, Jon), I confirmed the Rumfurd DVD is now available by mail from the Woburn Historical Society. Just print the DVD Order Form on their website and write in "Count Rumford DVD." Or get it at their table at the "Woburn Faire" at the Woburn Mall on Dec 5 (10AM-2PM).


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the news about the Rumford DVD. I assume it costs $18, the same as the others listed on that webpage.

My dad’s a chemist, and scientists have a particular fondness for Rumford because he made important scientific contributions, he managed to exercise political power, and he got the girl! Many girls, in fact, though not always happily. So even if he could be a rascal, I can’t help admiring him.

We might have learned too much about Rumford for him to remain a model hero, but the more we learn, the more gosh-darn interesting he becomes.