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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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bringing Up the Boston Pearl

Investigating what Hezekiah Wyman did on 19 Apr 1775 meant finding the story about him published in the Boston Pearl sometime before 1840. That’s all that Henry Smith Chapman’s History of Winchester could say about the tale’s earliest source.

Not very long ago, that would have required someone to find every issue of the Boston Pearl from that period and read through them, hoping not to miss anything. This was time-consuming work with limited rewards. Usually it was left to the class of people called “grad students.”

Nowadays, digital archives make searching much, much quicker—though still not perfect, the quirks of rare publications, old type, and optical character recognition software being as they are.

In this case, a couple of years back I used Readex’s Archive of Americana service to find an item about Hezekiah Wyman in the Vermont Gazette for 6 Oct 1835; it was titled “The White Horseman” and said to be reprinted “From the Boston Pearl.” More recently I found the same article in the 14 Oct 1835 Rhode Island Republican.

Since then, Google Books digitized the first volume of the Army and Navy Chronicle, which reprinted “The White Horseman” on 8 Oct 1835. That cluster of reprints suggests that the story had appeared in the Pearl some weeks earlier.

Then it was up to Charles Bahne, using another database at a local university library, to find the original. “The White Horseman” made its debut on pages 398-9 of the 22 Aug 1835 issue of the Boston Pearl and Literary Gazette, credited to “A Soldier of the Revolution” and labeled as “Original” to that magazine. Charlie and I have gone through those early texts and found no significant differences among them.

TOMORROW: But there are some telling details.

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