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, January 23, 2010

“Not without fears that they will be embezzled”

Abigail Adams didn’t like her husband John being away in Europe for years at a time, but as long as he was there, she asked him to send her fabrics and other goods that were scarce in wartime Massachusetts. Some of those things she used and most she resold at a profit. Woody Holton’s new biography of Abigail examines her investment activity in detail.

In a letter dated 12 May 1780, John wrote to Abigail that he had sent a chest of goods her way:

I have this day a Letter from Mr. Moylan, that he has delivered to Dr. [Amos] Winship in the Alliance a Chest with the Things you desired and others.
As Dr. Ephraim Eliot wrote in his posthumous profile of Windship, “For years he was employed in the Navy of the United States, was first Surgeon of the Alliance.” As a naval surgeon, Windship traveled somewhat regularly between the U.S. of A. and France, and he was of the genteel class, worthy of trusting with valuable items.

Abigail’s feelings about Dr. Windship were more mixed. She knew him as a squatter in her house in Boston in 1777. But in June 1779, after John had sailed to Europe, the doctor’s wife Desire shared a letter from him, so the Windships also represented a lifeline to her husband.

Then in the fall of 1780 the Alliance arrived in Massachusetts without the goods for Abigail, and without Dr. Windship. On 24 November Abigail wrote to John:
Dr. Winship...neither came in the vessel or sent the things. I am not without fears that they will be embezzled. I have taken every opportunity to let you know of it, but whether you have got my Letters is uncertain.

The cabals on Board the Ship threw the officers into parties, and Winship chose to involve my trunk in them. He certainly sent goods by the same vessel to other persons. General [James] W[arre]n, my unkle and others examined and went on Board, but could find no Trunk for me.
The “cabals” Abigail referred to started with Capt. Pierre Landais of the Alliance becoming irrational and paranoid, as related in this American Heritage article from 1960. During the battle between John Paul Jones’s Bonhomme Richard and H.M.S. Serapis on 23 Sept 1779, Landais kept the Alliance out of the fighting for a long time, and then attacked Jones’s ship.

In the following year, Jones had taken over the Alliance, and Dr. Windship served under him. Then in July 1780 Landais had grabbed the ship back and sailed it to Boston. On the way, his officers and crew had turned against him. In all the tussles over who was in charge of what, and who was loyal to whom, the Adamses’ goods were moved and mislaid.

They ended up reaching Philadelphia early the next year, where Continental Congress delegate James Lovell unpacked the boxes and then sent the goods north in batches, including “two small Packages” entrusted to…Dr. Windship! He visited Abigail in Braintree in the spring of 1781, and she described his explanations this way:
Dr. Winship whom I have seen, says that when Mr. Moylan requested him to take them; he refused them, unless he would repack them, and purchase a hair Trunk for them; he replied that he had no money in his hands, that he had sent the account to you, and you had paid it, and that if he would not take it, he would deliver it to Capt. Jones, which he accordingly did; when Mr. L[ovel]l received them together with a Box for Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry, they were in a smoaking state.

He examined his [goods], found them rotton upon which Mr. L[ovel]l unpacked mine and found them so wet as to oblige him to dry every thing by the fire. The linnings, the diaper all damaged, Mrs. [Mary] Cranchs cambrick mildewed, happily the wollen cloths were only wet, the leather Gloves quite rotton. I could wish you to repeat that article by the first opportunity and order a peice of wollen between every pair as they are the most liable to damage by wet.
This enterprise fits a pattern in Dr. Windship’s affairs: he would build a connection to someone influential, promise to do that person an impressive favor, and then, through some combination of chicanery, overreaching, and bad luck, screw it up entirely.

TOMORROW: Which brings us back to Maj. Pitcairn’s body.

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