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 30, 2011

“Heroic pieces found in his pocket”

One of my doorways into eighteenth-century history was Christopher Seider, the young boy fatally shot in a riot in Boston on 22 Feb 1770.

After Christopher’s death, the Boston Evening-Post reported the event in unusual detail and concluded:

…all the friends of Liberty may have an opportunity of paying their last respects to the remains of this little hero and first martyr to the noble cause, whose manly spirit (after the accident happened) appeared in his discreet answers to his Doctor, his thanks to the clergyman who prayed with him, and the firmness of mind he showed when he first saw his parents, and while he underwent the great distress of bodily pain, and with which he met the king of terrors. These things, together with several heroic pieces found in his pocket, particularly Wolfe’s Summit of human glory, give reason to think he had a martial genius and would have made a clever man.
For years I hunted for “Wolfe’s Summit of human glory.” Given the context, it was almost certainly a publication about Gen. James Wolfe (shown above), killed during the British conquest of Québec City in 1759. But none of the many poems and articles written about the man included the phrase “summit of human glory.”

I checked Readex’s Archive of Americana database in many ways; it’s based on microtext collections of what was supposed to be basically every newspaper published in colonial America, and every “imprint”—i.e., book, broadside, pamphlet, handbill, lottery ticket, &c. The latter part is often called the “digital Evans” after the American Bibliography catalogue of all that material by Charles Evans and his successors. But even within that vase amount of scanned stuff, there was no “summit of human glory.”

Evans and his team didn’t find every broadside, however. Some entered archives, or came to light, after the last volume of that series in 1959. But many items printed in colonial America simply didn’t survive.

This fall I tried my keyphrase on a catalogue I know well—that of the Massachusetts Historical Society. And up popped a broadside with this title:
Major-General James Wolfe, who reach’d the summit of human glory, September 13th, 1759: with a particular account of that gloriously dangerous work, the taking the city of Quebec, the capital of the French settlements in North-America.
So of course I asked to look at that.

This broadside is a 17" by 24" sheet with four columns of tiny type around a 9" x 12" engraving of Wolfe surrounded by clouds, a booming cannon, and a frame decorated with leaves, swords, and banners. There’s no indication of who published it or for how much, but a broadside of this size was expensive. The copy at the M.H.S. is stamped and perhaps painted in blue and red—an embellishment that cost extra.

The text is a detailed, sometimes technical, description of the taking of Quebec, written by Vice Admiral Charles Saunders and Gen. George Townshend, who took over after Wolfe’s death. Not the sort of thing one would expect a ten-year-old to be carrying around, even with the big colored picture.

But that’s what was reportedly in Christopher Seider’s pocket on the day he died, along with other “heroic pieces.” That’s one of my favorite discoveries of the past year.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you able to view things online at the MHS?

J. L. Bell said...

The M.H.S. has a lot to see online, including the letters of John and Abigail Adams, other documents about the coming of the Revolution and the first campaign of the war, and so on. But this particular item isn't online. I'm not sure anyone has recognized its significance in the history of politcally-minded ten-year-olds before.

Hock said...

I can only imagine your joy when you found that broadside. Research fever rewarded! Huge fun.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that was a very good day.