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, December 18, 2011

Jesse Harding Pomeroy’s Tea Party Poem

This poem “A Boston Brew of Tea Sir!” was written by Jesse Harding Pomeroy (1859-1932) and published in The Mentor on 25 Mar 1916. Pomeroy, born in Charlestown, was quite familiar with the patriotic mythology of his home state, and was echoing it back in an old-fashioned style.
Of ’seventy-three the tale we sing,
That famous brew whose taste did sting:
The deed on winter’s night was done, Sir.
A noble pot to make our brew
From Boston port the waves to strew.
And Johnny Bull
Did drink his full,
For relish to his taste, Sir!

The monarch proud of England’s shore,
Thought tax on tea was pence in store:
But soon his tone was changed, Sir.
For Yankees bold will pay no tax,
Where principles are found too lax:
King George did taste
And made a face,
That never yet was straight, Sir!

Not all the strength of English might,
Nor coming years in fame so bright,
Could wash his mouth of tea, Sir.
It shook his nerve as never yet,
Into his pate new ideas let:
J. B. may strive
On pence to thrive:—
We served his, piping hot, Sir!

From small beginnings much may come:—
Across the years we view their sum.
Our stamps were not for George, Sir.
Our gallant sires undaunted were,
In fight for Freedom sweet and pure.
For Johnny Bull,
Could pull no wool,
Across the Yankee’s eyes, Sir!

Their noble fame to us e’er brings
A trust and hope wroth more than kings;
A quenchless flame to guard, Sir.
In courage tried our Temples rear,
With mem’ries true to shield from fear,
Fail we do not,
(Nor rights forgot)
To twist the Lion’s tail, sir!

That brand of tea should now be named,
For spicey flavor justly famed:—
The Hub’s exclusive brew, Sir.
Pekoe, Hyson, Bohea, Oolong,
May find some praise in other song.
But for its vim,
And snap so grim,
Gundpower be its name, Sir!
As poetry, it’s nothing special. What makes this verse unusual is that Pomeroy was serving a life sentence for a murder he’d committed at age fourteen.

In an autobiographical account published around the time of his trial, Pomeroy wrote of reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. As his alibi for killing another child, James told a long, detailed story that included walking past the Granary Burying Ground and seeing what he thought was Franklin’s grave. The court convicted him anyway, and authors who researched his case think he was responsible for two other murders as well.

The governor of Massachusetts refused to sign a death warrant for such a young murderer, and eventually Pomeroy’s sentence was changed to life in prison—in solitary confinement. In 1916, when he wrote this poem, he had been serving that sentence for forty years. His signature in The Mentor, the prison magazine, was “Grandpa,” reflecting his relative age.

The following year, the state allowed Pomeroy to mingle with other prisoners. In 1929, he was transferred to a mental hospital, where he died.

The poem was transcribed by Jarett Kobek (scroll down this page to 2002).

3 comments:

rfuller said...

A prisoner in solitary confinement, but they allow him to put on a suit of civilian clothes? There must be a good story behind that one.

DebbieLynne said...

Really interesting story. Thanks!

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve been told that toward the end of his life Pomeroy was transferred not to a “mental hospital” but to a “low-level prison” that shared the same grounds in Bridgewater. His first glimpses of the modern world during his transfer attracted national coverage.