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, June 06, 2010

“Lingered for a Moment to Aid in a Plot”

In summarizing “The White Horseman,” the first published account of Hezekiah Wyman’s ride on 19 Apr 1775, I left out part of a paragraph that describes what he did in (west) Cambridge:

Hezekiah had only lingered for a moment to aid in a plot which had been laid by Ammi Cutter, for taking the baggage waggons and their guards. Ammi had planted about fifty old rusty muskets under a stone wall, with their muzzles directed toward the road. As the waggons arrived opposite this battery, the muskets were discharged, and eight horses, together with some soldiers, were sent out of existence. The party of soldiers who had the baggage in charge, ran to a pond and plunging their muskets into the water, surrendered themselves to an old woman, called Mother Barberick, who was at that time digging roots in an adjacent field. A party of Americans recaptured the gallant Englishmen from Mother Barberick, and placed them in safe keeping.
This apparently refers to an incident reported as early as April 1775 in Massachusetts newspapers:
At Menotomy, a few of our men attacked a party of twelve of the enemy, (carrying stores and provisions to the Troops,) killed one of them, wounded several, made the rest prisoners, and took possession of all their arms, stores, provisions, &c., without any loss on our side.
The Rev. William Gordon (shown above) also described that episode in his 1788 history of the Revolution:
Before they [the redcoats] reached this place [Menotomy], a few Americans, headed by the Rev. Mr. [Samuel Phillips] Payson, of Chelsea, who till now had been extremely moderate, attacked a party of twelve soldiers, carrying stores to the retreating troops, killed one, wounded several, made the whole prisoners, and gained possession of their arms and stores, without any loss whatever to themselves.
”The White Horseman” thus connects its hero, Hezekiah Wyman, to an already known anecdote of 19 Apr 1775.

In doing so, the writer drops a couple of names: “Ammi Cutter” and “Mother Barberick.” The text doesn’t introduce Ammi Cutter with any detail, implying that readers should already recognize him. The narrator, so overwrought in other passages, goes into little detail about this capture of wagons and men, again implying that many readers had already heard the full story. Did the writer pose Wyman next to those figures to add verisimilitude to an otherwise long-haired and overly interesting narrative? That’s a common tactic for writers of historical fiction.

Yet as far as I can tell, the piece in The Boston Pearl was the first printed source to describe the soldiers dunking their muskets and surrendering to an old woman, and the first to attach the names of “Ammi Cutter” and “Mother Barberick” to the attack. Perhaps there’s an earlier publication that doesn’t show up in the digital databases I searched. But that situation implies that the author of “The White Horseman” did draw on at least one circulating oral tradition about 19 Apr 1775.

TOMORROW: Ammi Cutter and the “Old Men of Menotomy.”

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