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, October 14, 2011

“Making Fine Music to My Ear”?

Yesterday I quoted a January 1776 letter from William Palfrey about his modified Anglican service in Christ Church, Cambridge. On 30 Dec 1875, the Boston Daily Advertiser published another account of that event, quoting what the newspaper’s editors understood was the transcription of a letter that Lydia Biddle had written on 1 Jan 1776.

It described the service at Christ Church in detail, with particular attention to the music:
Unfortunately, the organ could not be used; some of the leaden pipes had been taken out to furnish ammunition for our men at the fight in Charlestown last June, and it was quite out of order, but a bass viol and clarionet, played by some musical soldiers, led the singing, which was very good, the strong voices of the many men who thronged the church making fine music to my ear; and when part of Psalm cxviii. and a verse from the cxix. was rolled out, I saw some tearful eyes…
As soon as this letter appeared, people wrote to the newspaper to express doubts about its authenticity.

The letter was addressed “To Mrs. Sarah Morris Mifflin,” wife of Continental Army quartermaster general Thomas Mifflin, at Philadelphia. (The couple appears above in a pre-war portrait by John Singleton Copley.) Right away that made me dubious for two reasons:
  • That woman was known during her married life as “Sarah Mifflin.” Not until the nineteenth century did it become common to preserve a married woman’s maiden name as her middle name.
  • Sarah Mifflin was actually in Cambridge with her husband over the winter of 1775-76.
And back in 1876, Boston newspaper readers offered other reasons for skepticism.

There was still no definite information about the source of the letter, however. The Cambridge historian Samuel F. Batchelder spent some time around the turn of the century trying to solve the mystery. In a 10 May 1905 letter, he wrote (with a little pique) about having just learned that it had been composed by a local lady named Isabella James—his own aunt.

James also contributed a nonfiction article to the Cambridge of 1776 volume that included Mary Williams Greeley’s “Diary of Dorothy Dudley”—another literary attempt to recreate life in Cambridge during the Revolutionary War. And, just like the Dudley diary, James’s fiction continues to be quoted as a reliable source, particularly by historians of music. But, alas, our only source on the New Year’s service in Cambridge’s Christ Church is Palfrey’s letter.

TOMORROW: An authentic look at Christ Church from about 1781.

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