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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Friday, December 04, 2009

Looking Back on Dr. Church and Mary Lobb

I started investigating Dr. Benjamin Church’s last years because I’d made an error in an old posting about him, and wanted to be more accurate. And I admit to hoping to find new information to make up for the lapse.

In that respect, I think I filled out details of the abortive attempt to trade Dr. Church for Dr. James McHenry, prisoner of war, future aide-de-camp to George Washington, and future Secretary of War.

There are more Dr. Church mysteries to clear up. Though documents confirm that his widow was named Sarah, some early sources say he “married Miss Hannah Hill, of Ross, in Herefordshire, a sister of his early friend, a young student in London.” So Sarah Church might have been the doctor’s second wife. And we still don’t know the name of his mistress.

What really tickled me about that inquiry was how it spiraled off in a direction I never imagined. I looked up Capt. James Smithwick’s name in hope of tidbits about Dr. Church’s departure, and stumbled into the life of the captain’s widow, Mary Lobbseparated from her next husband, joining Boston’s first Catholic church, doling out real estate in her dotage.

Those topics fit Boston 1775 promise of “unabashed gossip,” my cheeky term for intriguing facts about individuals’ lives. They taught me a lot, and offered a great reminder of how the approximately 16,000 people in Revolutionary Boston were interconnected in so many ways. Because of that social network, looking through historical keyholes at individuals helps to illuminate the broad social movement behind the launch of the U.S. of A.

That movement also spiraled off in directions that people of the time never imagined. In the late 1760s, Dr. Benjamin Church joined other Massachusetts gentlemen in protesting Parliament’s new taxes, an attempt to restore autonomy to their traditional, Congregationalist-dominated society. Fifteen years later, their movement had led to Mary Lobb’s freedom to worship in a Catholic church in the heart of Boston. Amazing.

(Above is an image from the Massachusetts Historical Society showing the bustling center of Boston in 1801, as painted by James Brown Marston.)


Corporal Dalton said...

My girlfriend and I have found this string of posts absolutely fascinating. Keep up the good work!

J. L. Bell said...

Glad you liked them! It was quite a journey.