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, July 31, 2011

Redcoats and Rebels in Sturbridge, 6-7 August

This weekend, 6-7 August, Old Sturbridge Village is hosting its annual “Redcoats & Rebels” Revolutionary War reenactment. The museum village, which usually depicts the 1830s, promises this will be “The largest Redcoats & Rebels in OSV history!”

The announcement reads:
See the largest military re-enactment in New England—nearly 1,000 soldiers portraying British, Irish, Welsh, German, Scottish, French and Colonial troops. The Village is transformed into a military camp from the time of the War for Independence, as it was known in early New England. . . .

Daytime events include a mock battle each afternoon (at 2:00 p.m.), cannon-firing demonstrations, fife and drum music, and marching and drilling demonstrations. See how laundry was done, and meet the surgeons who tended to the wounded and administered smallpox inoculations.

Learn more about the military life during a reconnoiter, a prisoner exchange, a court martial trial, and a Sunday Service for the troops. Visitors will also learn about the fashions and customs of the time during programs that explore 18th-century fashion (both military and civilian), music, and social activities.
The village will stay open from 5:00 until 8:00 P.M. on Saturday for “Twilight Encampment,” an evening program when visitors can visit troops in their camps. That program is included in the regular admission cost that day.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Washington Documents on Display for One Day Only

A loyal Boston 1775 reader alerted me to this event in Philadelphia.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania will host a display of documents related to George Washington on one day only this week: Wednesday, 3 August, from 12:30 to 7:30 P.M. The display will include:

The H.S.P. event is free to all, and comes in conjunction with the exhibit “Discover the Real George Washington” at the National Constitution Center.

For those of us not able to visit Philadelphia on short notice, the society will make digital images of the documents and artifacts and create an online display by the end of the summer.

Friday, July 29, 2011

American Art at Yale

An exhibit opens today at the Yale University Art Gallery in Connecticut: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” [Let’s see if that link survives now that the exhibit actually opens.]

The gallery has been closed for a couple of years for renovation, and many of its best pieces of American art have been touring the country in this exhibit.

The collection will be displayed in New Haven in three stages:
  • “We the People,” 29 July–31 Dec 2011
  • “Defining the Nation,” 31 Jan–8 Apr 2012
  • “America Rising,“ 8 May–8 July 2012
The gallery’s “Upcoming Exhibits” page explains:
This exhibition draws upon the Gallery’s renowned collection of American paintings, decorative arts, and prints to illuminate the diverse and evolving American experience from the time of the settlements of the late 17th century to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
There are more than 200 works overall, including John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence (shown above) and Winslow Homer’s Morning Bell. And the museum is free and open to us the people.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Matrimonial Story

On 30 Nov 1762, John Adams recorded an anecdote in his diary:
Last Thurdsday Night, at [Richard] Cranch’s Wedding, Dr. [Cotton] Tufts, in the Room where the Gentlemen were, said We used to have on these Occasions, some good Matrimonial stories, to raise our spirits. The story of B. Bicknal’s Wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to Bed. But she recollected she had put her Hand to the Plow and could not look back, so she mustered up her Spirits, committed her soul to G[od]. and her Body to B. Bicknal and into Bed she leaped and in the Morning she was amazed, she could not think for her Life what it was that had scared her so.
I’m guessing this tale—if true—involved Mary Bicknell, born Mary Kingman in 1729. She married Benjamin Bicknell, Jr., of Weymouth in 1747, had four children with him, and died in 1766. Unlike about a quarter of New England women marrying for the first time in this century, Mary Bicknell did not have a child within seven months of her marriage, so her wedding night, when she was only seventeen, could well have been her first time lying with a man.

Of course, if the story had circulated long enough, the woman could have been Benjamin’s mother, born Susanna Humphrey in Weymouth in 1695 and married in 1717. She, too, had four children, and outlived her daughter-in-law, dying in 1767. The elder Benjamin Bicknell then remarried the widow Bethiah Hunt, one of John Adams’s paternal aunts, showing how these families were all part of the same circle.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The New Old South Bell (Which Is Old)

Old South Meeting House is displaying its “new” bell from Paul Revere’s foundry for a few weeks before the instrument is hoisted into its tower.

Old South had a bell from 1731 to 1876, when the congregation moved to Old South Church in the Back Bay and the older building became a speaking venue and historic museum. The organization recently restored the Gawen Brown clock in its tower, and will soon once again have a bell to ring out the hours.

The new bell is actually 210 years old, made by Revere and Sons for a meetinghouse in Westborough, Massachusetts. Since 1849, it hung in the tower of that town’s Baptist church, which closed in 2007. Clock restorer James Storrow sent some articles about the bell from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and the Metrowest Daily News. Here’s the Boston Globe’s take, and WBUR’s.

According to the History Blog, the Revere foundry charged $2.69 for the bell in 1801, but that’s far too low. At the typical rate of $.45 per pound, it should have cost about $400. (Reports differ as to whether the bell weighs 865 pounds or 876.) The Westboro’, Mass., Baptists bought it used for $173 in 1849. Old South credits a “generous donor” with making it available to the meeting house since “other organizations…reportedly had offered as much as $200,000 for it.”

Old South has also shared a list of other surviving church bells from the Revere foundry. The Massachusetts Historical Society is displaying a business card from the family’s bell and cannon factory.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More Digital Resources about the Siege

Yesterday’s posting listed the links we’re using right now in a Massachusetts Historical Society workshop on the siege of Boston. Those all come from the M.H.S.’s own holdings and digital resources. But I think we might want to check other online sources for day-by-day records of 1775-76 to fill those out.

Starting at the top, George Washington’s official papers from the siege are at the Library of Congress, with searchable texts, transcriptions, and document images (taken from microfilm). Their volume can be overwhelming, so I sometimes prefer to start with the University of Virginia’s chronological archive of the early-20th-century edition of Washington’s writings: 1770 through September 1775, and September 1775 through May 1776.

Before Washington arrived in Massachusetts, the general in charge was Artemas Ward. The M.H.S. has digitized some crucial days from Gen. Ward’s orderly book as Washington took over. In the late 1800s, the society published a longer transcription of Col. William Henshaw’s orderly book. Henshaw was Ward’s adjutant, and then top deputy to Gen. Horatio Gates, so this contains useful information about the running of the American army in 1775.

What about the other side? For obvious reasons, the M.H.S. doesn’t have a lot of papers from British military officers, or from Loyalists who left Massachusetts for Canada and stayed there. One published source is Gen. William Howe’s orderly book, the equivalent of Washington’s official orders for the latter months of the siege and beyond.

In addition, the New-York Historical Society published the diary of Col. Stephen Kemble, aide and brother-in-law to Gen. Thomas Gage. In 1877 The Atlantic Monthly published a transcription of the diary of a British officer, later identified as Capt. John Barker. (A better edition has been published since as The British in Boston, but that’s not available to all online.)

For what the civil authorities were up to, there are The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, with Committee of Safety papers at the back. That legislature reverted to being the Massachusetts General Court in the summer of 1775, and I don’t think its records are online after that. The Library of Congress has digital versions of two important collections: Letters of Delegates to Congress, and Journals of the Continental Congress. Those websites don’t make it easy to find what you’re looking for, though.

Often letters and newspapers refer to events happening “last Tuesday,” or the like, and in colonial New England it’s useful to know when Sundays fall. So when I need to pin down a date, I turn to calendars for 1775 and 1776.

Back to the Massachusetts Historical Society website. It has many more digitized documents in:


That ought to keep us busy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Teachers’ Workshop on the Siege of Boston

This week I’m working with the Massachusetts Historical Society and Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on a workshop for history teachers. (The workshop is funded in large part by the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati.)

Our topic is the siege of Boston, but the participants’ real task is developing ways to use primary-source documents in classroom lessons. I’m just there to distract them with facts and complications. There will be twelve teachers, divided into three teams. One of my early tasks was to choose documents from the many that the M.H.S. has preserved and digitized for the teams to study.

To start with, we’ll all use Henry Pelham’s map of Boston during the siege. It’s also available through the Boston Public Library and the Library of Congress.

For the team looking at military strategy and confrontations:

For the team looking at life in besieged Boston:

For the team studying life in the American camps:

Follow along at home!

TOMORROW: What’s missing?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Are We There Yet?

In today’s Family Circus strip by Jeff and Bil Keane, the family visits the historic sites of greater Boston.

Sort of. My favorite detail is how the Freedom Trail is rendered as a walk through a pastoral landscape, like an English hiking trail.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Architectural Tour at Shirley-Eustis House, 24 July

This Sunday, 24 July, Rick Detwiller will lead an in-depth tour of the architecture of the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury. Rick is an architect and preservation planner for New England Landmarks, and served as the Restoration Director for this mansion’s exterior and interior restoration.

Rick’s shown me around parts of the house, originally built by Gov. William Shirley in 1747-1751 and remodeled by later owners. I recommend it. I don’t know if he’ll be able to take anyone up to the cupola, but if that’s open I urge people to take in the view. Though the house has been moved from one side of its hill to another, you really get a sense of the vista Gov. Shirley wanted to enjoy.

The site owner’s announcement says:
This is a wonderful time to truly understand the differences between the Georgian and Federal Styles of architecture while understanding why the Shirley-Eustis House Association decided to place its focus on Federal-style restoration.
The tour starts at 1:00 P.M., and people should probably call the association to reserve space. Admission is $5 for people not already members of the Shirley-Eustis House Association and free for members, though donations will be gratefully accepted.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Joseph Reed and “the property of the Horse”

Yesterday I transcribed a letter from the Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth (New Bedford), who in the fall of 1775 served as a chaplain and code-buster for the Continental Army.

West asked George Washington if he had to return the horse that the general’s secretary, Joseph Reed (shown here), had provided when he needed to return home from Cambridge.

Washington turned that letter over to Reed, who replied on 17 October:

The General received your Letter of the 11th. Inst. [i.e., of this month] and has directed me to answer it. Mr. [Robert] Pierpont was mistaken in his notion of the Loan of the Horse, which we understood was only requested to accommodate you in your Journey home. I was not at Liberty to go farther. We also understood you proposed to return to the Army shortly; the General having given me no farther Direction upon the Subject, I can only say that if your Business should again call you up here, you can make application, if you do not, you can keep the Horse you have, until you hear farther on the Subject from this. But the property of the Horse in the mean Time is not changed.
Which I interpret as, “I’m not authorized to say the horse is yours, but you can keep it indefinitely if you please please please don’t write us another letter.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Horse for the Rev. Dr. West

In early October 1775, the Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth (New Bedford) came to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge with a deciphered copy of a letter Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., had tried to send into Boston.

West had seen that the symbols Church had used to write his letter (shown back here) came in the same frequency pattern as the letters of the alphabet in ordinary prose—i.e., Church had used a simple substitution cipher, one symbol for each letter. West presumably then tried replacing the most common symbol with E, the next most common with T, and so on, looking for common letter groupings. By that method the minister uncovered the complete text.

After West delivered his work, the commander called his generals together for a council of war. The documents showed that Dr. Church, director of the Continental Army’s medical wing, member of the Massachusetts House, and top-level organizer of the Boston Whigs, was secretly sending information to the enemy. This was obviously an intelligence crisis.

At some point in those discussions, news came that the Rev. Mr. West had lost his horse.

When I read that fact in the start of the correspondence that followed, I thought that loss was a result of West’s legendary absent-mindedness. But it turns out losing the horse wasn’t his fault. Even so, the letter he wrote to Washington from Plymouth on 11 October suggests a certain insensibility to how he was coming across:
Sire, When I was at Head quarters the other Day, my good friend mr [Robert] Pierpoint informed your Excellency, that I had lost my horse, and proposed that I should have one of the provincial horses presented to me to supply my loss: the manner in which mr Pierpoint introduced the Subject gave Me a great deal of pain and uneasiness: because I thought it had the Appearance of a design to beg a favor of the Gentlemen of the Army; when therefore Colonel [Joseph] Read offered to Send me an horse to ride home; I was under so much confusion as not to know certainly whether the horse was only lent me to ride home, or whether it was designed to be presented to me for my own: Mr Pierpoint thought that the horse was presented to me as a gift, but I judged from Several things that it was only lent me to ride home; and accordingly had fully determined as soon as I had gotten home to send the horse back by the first opportunity: But several Gentlemen of my Acquaintance upon hearing the Account of the matter judgd that I had a just right to have Satisfaction made me by the continent for my loss, inasmuch as I had preached in the camp five Sabbaths and a fast, and expected no reward for my Services, they thought that I had a right to be made whole by the continent for any Damage I might suffer while I was doing duty in the camp

Colonel [James] Warren of Plymouth Speaker of the house of representatives was so full in this sentiment, that he advised me to present a memorial to your Excellency; and to represent the matter with proper light; not doubting but that your Excellency would judge it proper that the continent should make good the damage that I have sustained. It is in consequence of his Advice, that I have now written this letter to your Excellency. In order, that your Excellency may form a true judgment of the matter, I must briefly state the fact which is thus—Mr. [Samuel] Spring, who is now gone chaplain to Quebec, had liberty granted him by Dr [Nathaniel] Cogswell to take his horse and ride him to Newbury port and to sell him for Nine Pounds, he thro a Mistake took my horse and sold him in the journey to a man belonging to Salem; hearing of this I went to Salem, and when I came there was told that the horse was gone off, the stable door being left open—diligent search was made but he could not be found: Now as there is no person, of whom I can legally demand satisfaction for my loss, except mr Spring, and as it is very uncertain when he will return from Quebec, and as I stand in need of an horse every Day almost when I am at home, if your Excellency thinks my request to be rational and that the publick ought to make good the Damage that I have sustained; I should be glad to have liberty granted me to keep the horse that Colonel Read lent me, till I have proper satisfaction made me by mr. Spring for the loss I have suffered. If your Excellency will send a line to me by the bearer of this Mr. Joseph Howland to let me know whether I must return the horse back by the first opportunity, or whether I may keep him till I am otherwise satisfied it will lay a peculiar obligation upon your Excellencys most humble and obedient Servant Samuel West
And all in rather bad handwriting crowded into uneven sloping lines.

When this arrived, Gen. Washington was still dealing with the fallout from Church’s treachery, anticipating the arrival of three Continental Congress delegates come to review his progress, considering an attack on Boston, trying to launch schooners from Beverly, and looking ahead to the dissolution of his army at the end of the year. But West wanted an answer about that horse.

TOMORROW: The reply from Washington’s headquarters.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Rev. Samuel West: “remarkable for absence of mind”

When Gen. George Washington wanted to decipher the mysterious letter from Dr. Benjamin Church (transcription posted yesterday), he asked provincial officials for advice about who was good at such things.

The locals recommended the Rev. Samuel West (1731-1807), the Congregationalist minister of Dartmouth (now New Bedford), then attached to the army as a chaplain. In 1865, Harper’s published this profile of West in an article titled “Anecdotes of Unitarian Divines”:
He worked upon a farm until his twentieth year, when he spent six months in preparing for college, and in 1750 started for Harvard College barefooted, carrying his shoes and stockings under his arm. On being examined for admission, he had a dispute with the Professor in regard to a Greek reading, in which he is said to have carried his point.

He was settled in 1761 on a salary of £66.13s.6d., which, small as it was, was not paid. He was twice married. His first wife was very tall, and her Christian name was Experience [Howland], a common one at that time. After her death he said he had “learned from long experience that it was a good thing to be married,” and so he took another wife.

He was an ardent patriot from the beginning of the difficulties with England, and was unsparing in his denunciations of those who were unwilling to come out on the side of their country. Immediately after the battle of Bunker Hill he joined the army to do what he could as a minister to keep up the courage of the soldiers, and to promote their welfare. . . . He was an influential member of the Convention that adopted the Constitution, and it was through his influence that Governor [John] Hancock was induced to give his assent to the adoption of the Federal Constitution.

Dr. West was remarkable for absence of mind. During the sessions of the Convention to adopt the Constitution of the United States he spent many of his evenings abroad, and generally returned with his pockets filled with handkerchiefs, silk gloves, silk stockings, and other small articles, and was greatly distressed on finding them there, thinking that he bad taken them up and slipped them into his pockets. In fact they had been placed there by friends who took this method of making him presents, well knowing that he was too much engaged in conversation to take any notice of it.

While he was a pastor his friends would sometimes find him on his horse, which had stopped to graze by the wayside, the bridle loose, the Doctor’s hands folded on his breast, and himself wholly absorbed in his own thoughts. Once he went out to drive a cow from his yard, and striking at her with a long board missed the cow, and was himself brought to the ground, and split his small-clothes nearly the whole length of the leg. He knew nothing of this latter accident; but gathering himself up, and forgetting entirely where he was, he went on without a hat three miles, entered a friend’s house, and passed the night talking with him to the consternation of his wife, who, on his return, saw in what a plight he was for a visit to one of the most genteel families of the parish.

He once met a friend, and told him that he and his wife were on their way to make him a visit. “Your wife?” said his friend. “Where is she?” “Why,” replied the Doctor, “I thought she was on the pillion behind me.” She had got ready to accompany him, and the absent-minded Doctor had gone off without her. He would sometimes at the church stop at the horse-block for his wife to dismount, when she had been forgotten and was still at home.

Once he went to mill, leading his horse and carrying the grist on his own shoulder. One who saw him on his way, states that when before his second marriage he went to ask the town-clerk to publish the bans, he walked the whole distance leading his horse, and passed directly by the house of the town-clerk, and did not halt until he was brought up by a log at the end of a wharf.

Once, upon a Saturday afternoon, when on his way home from Boston, he was overtaken by a violent shower as he was riding on horseback. His family at home were anxiously expecting his return, but he did not make his appearance until the last moment on Sunday morning, when he was seen hurrying his horse onward, with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out of his bosom through the open vest, which he usually kept buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterward could tell how he came by them then.

It was too late to make a change, the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest so as to hide the ruffles of the bosom, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well, but probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them until the ruffles were flourishing about, and then growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. . . .

His absence of mind increased upon him as he became advanced in years, and at length his memory failed, although his intellect, when excited, retained much of its vigor. He had preached the same sermon to his congregation three Sabbaths in succession, but no member of his family was willing to distress him by informing him of what he had done.

The fourth Sabbath his daughter saw with a heavy heart that he had his Bible open at the same place, the Parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Fortunately be left the room for a minute; she opened the Bible at another place, and put it back with the leaf turned down just as he had left it in his own place. When he took up the book on his return he seemed for a moment lost, then fixed his attention upon the passage to which she had opened, and from that preached a discourse which to some of his people seemed the ablest that he had given for years.
This article was created by pulling fun bits from William B. Sprague’s Annals of the American Unitarian Pulpit, leaving out the theology and religious disputes. The Unitarian-Universalist Historical Society offers a biography of West that focuses on his liberal religious views rather than his eccentricities. The Harvard Square Library has another, from Heralds of a Liberal Faith.

After reading these tales, I wondered if later generations might have exaggerated West’s absent-mindedness. Perhaps these stories came mostly from late in his life, when his memory was failing, rather than from his prime. Or perhaps folks hung jokes about absent-mindedness on West’s name in the same way that Benjamin Franklin got credited with all witty remarks, and the Rev. Mather Byles, Sr., got blamed for all bad puns.

TOMORROW: Then I looked into West’s visit to Gen. Washington’s headquarters.

(The picture above shows Harvard College in 1767, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hey, Kids! Here’s a Puzzle for You!

E. J. Witek posted this version of the letter from Dr. Benjamin Church that the Newport baker Godfrey Wenwood (or Wainwood) brought to Gen. George Washington’s headquarters at the end of September 1775. For clarity, each handwritten character has been replaced with a typographic equivalent.


Can you break the code?

(Highlight this line if you want a hint: It’s a simple substitution cipher, so every symbol stands for one letter of the alphabet. But you could have figured that out, right?)

TOMORROW: The minister who deciphered the message.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mercy Warren and the “Primary Object of All Government”

On Sunday, 7 August, author Nancy Rubin Stuart will speak at Adams National Historical Park on her biography The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation.

Last year, Stuart took note of a bumper sticker attributing this statement to Mercy Warren: “The rights of the individual should be the primary object of all governments.” That’s a misquotation from a longer sentence in a pamphlet Warren published in 1788, arguing that the proposed U.S. Constitution needed a Bill of Rights (and had other problems as well):
We are told by a gentleman [James Bowdoin] of too much virtue and real probity to suspect he has a design to deceive—“that the whole constitution is a declaration of rights,”—but mankind must think for themselves, and to many very judicious and discerning characters, the whole constitution with very few exceptions appears a perversion of the rights of particular states, and of private citizens. But the gentleman goes on to tell us, “that the primary object is the general government, and that the rights of individuals are only incidentally mentioned, and that there was a clear impropriety in being very particular about them.” But, asking pardon for dissenting from such respectable authority, who has been led into several mistakes, more from his prediliction in favour of certain modes of government, than from a want of understanding or veracity. The rights of individuals ought to be the primary object of all government, and cannot be too securely guarded by the most explicit declarations in their favor. This has been the opinion of the Hampdens, the Pyms, and many other illustrious names, that have stood forth in defence of English liberties; and even the Italian master in politicks, the subtle and renouned Machiavel acknowledges, that no republic ever yet stood on a stable foundation without satisfying the common people.
Warren published her pamphlet Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions under the pseudonym “a Columbian Patriot.” In the late 1800s, scholars credited it to Elbridge Gerry, another Massachusetts Anti-Federalist. Now it’s attributed to Warren, but misquoted. Google counts over 600 webpages with the version up above, only sixty with the correct phrasing.

Stuart apparently feels that even the properly worded clause boils down Warren’s political philosophy too much:
The voice of the people, she observed, was not necessarily immune to error. For “Public opinion,” Mercy warned in her History, “when grounded on false principles and dictated by the breath of ambitious individuals, {which} sometimes creates a tyranny, felt by the minority more severely, than that usually inflicted by the hand of the sceptered monarch.”

To remedy that and maintain a sound government, she hoped that “The principles of the revolution ought ever to be the pole-star of the statesman, respected by the rising generation.” Above all, “The people may again be reminded that the elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not to be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony.”
For more on Warren and the evolution of her political writings, Stuart’s talk will begin at 2:00 P.M. on 7 August in the Adams Carriage House at 135 Adams Street in Quincy. Call 617-770-1175 for additional information.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Getting a Peek at Jefferson’s Original Language

Last July, the Washington Post reported on how Dr. Fenella France investigated a word that Thomas Jefferson erased and wrote over in his earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence:
Jefferson sought quite methodically to expunge the word, to wipe it out of existence and write over it. Many words were crossed out and replaced in the draft, but only one was obliterated.

Over the smudge, Jefferson then wrote the word “citizens.” . . .

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.
France scanned the document using different wavelengths of light, and then combined and compared those scans on a computer. That allowed her to decipher the erased word: “subjects.” For Jefferson and the Continental Congress he wrote for, that was a significant verbal shift in understanding how people related to their state.

This month the Post published another article on Fenella France:
France, 44, now a leading cultural heritage preservation scientist at the Library of Congress, was named one of four finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Science and Environmental Medal for her work in developing imaging techniques that won’t harm documents. Considered the federal worker’s Academy Awards, the Service to America medals are awarded annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Notably, France is an immigrant from New Zealand, once part of the “Second British Empire” that the U.K. assembled after losing half of its North American colonies. (New Zealanders made the formal shift from “subjects” to “citizens” with a new law in 1948.) That country is clearly proud of her work.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

CSI Annapolis Royal

From Nova Scotia comes news of the possible identification of a British soldier who died in the late 1700s. The Annapolis County Spectator reports on a “Cold Case at Fort Anne”:
Lillian Stewart, of Parks Canada, was there when the bones were found. . . . Of special interest to researchers was the added treasure of almost perfectly preserved artifacts ranging from shoes and regimental buttons, to an unidentified piece of leather.

The bones were sent to the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, where scientists thought it was likely an 18th century soldier in his thirties, about 5'6" in height. . . .

At that time, they believed the man had died during a siege against the fort in 1711. However as Denise Hansen was processing the artifacts in Halifax, she noticed that the buttons were from three different regiments.

This in itself wasn't unusual because it was common for soldiers to swap buttons, but buttons weren't marked until 1768 suggesting the soldier died about 50 years later than originally thought. . . .

Finally Hansen had a breakthrough when she consulted Don Hagist, a Rhode Island scholar who specializes in researching soldiers from that period. He was able to find muster rolls for the 57th Regiment in Ireland.

The records show that of the eight men who died at Fort Anne during this time frame, only a Private James Simpson, who died on Oct. 13, 1784, had served in both the 57 and 36th Regiments. The regimental buttons found on the body were from 57th, 36th and 43rd Battalion.
While not conclusive, Don’s documentary evidence suggests that this soldier was most likely Pvt. Simpson.

The remainder of the article discusses other ways that Parks Canada has been trying to shed more light on this individual soldier.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Whoa, Brown Beauty!

It’s a sign of the power of celebrity, and perhaps a slow season, that the news that Johnny Depp might make a movie about Paul Revere got so much attention this week.

The story started with an item at the Deadline website:
Disney and Johnny Depp's Infinitum Nihil are teaming up on two new projects: a feature version of the '70s TV movie The Night Stalker, and a drama about the Midnight Ride made by Paul Revere to warn Colonial militia of the impending British invasion [sic]. . . .

Dembrowski and Depp set up the Paul Revere film at Disney with Batman Forever scribes Lee and Janet Batchler writing the screenplay. The film will focus on the Boston silversmith and that 24-hour period in which he made the risky "midnight ride" from Charlestown to Lexington [sic], becoming a seminal figure in the American Revolutionary War.
Entertainment Weekly picked up the story, followed by local newspapers, radio stations, and so on. By the end of the chain, people were reporting that Depp would star.

That’s a possibility, and one that increases the value of the project—like Revere in 1775, Depp’s now a family man in his forties, and he’s been very successful in eighteenth-century costume (Pirates of the Caribbean, Sleepy Hollow). But both articles actually said that Depp wasn’t committed to act in the film. If it even gets made—many more Hollywood projects stall out at this early stage than reach theaters.

Furthermore, speculation that the movie might be filmed in this area falters on the fact that almost nowhere Revere went looks like it did in 1775. You remember when H.B.O. filmed John Adams here in Boston and Quincy? Neither do I.

Lastly, I don’t think the Batman Forever screenplay is a great cinematic achievement (despite introducing Robin the Boy Wonder into that version of the mythos). So I’m not getting excited until this project is much further along.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Old Corner Burrito Shop

The four-story brick building at the center of this photo was built around 1712 as an apothecary’s shop. It sits on land owned decades earlier by William and Anne Hutchinson. In the mid-1800s, it became the Old Corner Bookstore and headquarters for the important Boston publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields.

The building was put onto the Freedom Trail, but its function has varied. For a long time it was the Globe Corner Bookstore, more recently a jeweler. According to yesterday’s Boston Globe, a Chipotle Mexican Grill just signed a lease to move in. Presumably the lease will have stringent requirements on preserving the building’s historic structure. But the historical message is that Boston’s commerce keeps evolving.

Faneuil Hall was built to have market stalls underneath its meeting-space, and the Old State House was a commercial building for decades after the state government moved to Beacon Hill. Paul Revere ran his businesses out of his North End house. [CORRECTION: Although that house has had commercial uses, Charles Bahne reminds me that Revere had a shop a short distance away where he did most of his work, even the dentistry.] The Globe reports that this building was a pizza restaurant selling slices shortly before its current owner, Historic Boston, Inc., bought it to restore in 1960.

It would be nice if the Old Corner Bookstore could survive as, you know, a bookstore, but that business is evolving faster than most. The big Borders bookstore across the street is said to be closing, a victim of the parent company’s financial problems. (That particular outlet is thought to be profitable.) Around the corner, Commonwealth Books under the Old South Meeting-House offers a fine selection of used books. Maybe one day the business of publishing or bookselling will be steady enough to justify renting such prime real estate. For now, at least it won’t be an empty building.

In Lewiston, New York, I saw a building erected in 1824 used as a McDonald’s. In Oxford, England, I like to visit a restaurant old enough to preserve wall paintings from Shakespeare’s time; it now functions as an upscale pizzeria. While it can seem funny to see historic structures used that way, that’s usually better than having empty buildings in the center of the city.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

“The secret of Chancellor Lansing’s fate died with him”

Newspaper publisher and political organizer Thurlow Weed died in 1882. Soon afterward, his grandson published a memoir of him, which described John Lansing’s disappearance in New York in 1829 and offered an explanation of how Weed had come into information about that mysterious event:
In Mr. Weed’s nature there was a certain wonderful quality which invited sympathy and confession. Children, as well as men and women, made him their confidant. He was, in his day, a sort of “father confessor” for the greatest and the least among the people of New York. Presidents, governors, diplomats, speculators, clergymen, doctors, and lawyers sought him, when yearning to speak freely of their errors, perplexities, or expectations.

Years after that event, the mystery surrounding Chancellor Lansing’s fate was communicated to Mr. Weed, by a gentleman of high position, who submitted also certain papers, not only showing that, and by whom, the Chancellor was murdered, but explaining the motives which led to the crime, and describing the circumstances under which it was committed. At the same time an injunction was added that he should make all the facts public in case he survived those whom his information implicated, — men who lived useful lives, and died with unblemished reputations. . . .

Not knowing exactly how to act, he [Weed] submitted all the facts to his friends R. M. Blatchford and Hugh Maxwell, on whose joint judgment he felt that he could place unquestioning reliance. These gentlemen, after carefully considering the question in all its aspects, came to the conclusion that if Mr. Weed’s informant were living he would revoke his request for publication. . . .

When he [Weed] died, therefore, the secret of Chancellor Lansing’s fate died with him, for except to Mr. Blatchford and to Mr. Maxwell, whom he survived, it never passed his lips.
Except that in August 1869 someone at the New York Times did know that Weed had this information, and that the conditions set for disclosing it had been met with a recent death. So there was a leak of some kind. In fact, the Times item about the case might have been an attempt to pressure Weed into disgorging his secret.

Many months later, Weed acknowledged that he knew something, but refused to say anymore. All Weed’s account leaves us is that his informant was a “gentleman of high position” in New York who died shortly (by some scale) before August 1869.

Curiously, a few months before Weed died in 1882, he did set down in writing what he said someone had confessed to him about another mysterious disappearance of the 1820s—that of William Morgan. That man’s presumed murder led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party, which was also Weed’s entrance into political power. Weed made sure what he (supposedly) knew about that case got into the public record even as he concealed what he’d heard about Lansing.

And there don’t appear to have been any further revelations. According to Joseph Reese Strayer, who edited Lansing’s notes on the Constitutional Convention for publication in 1939, “descendants of Lansing who investigated [Weed’s] story were satisfied that it had no basis of fact.” To be exact, that information came to Strayer from Lansing’s grandson’s nephew’s widow.

It’s hard to see how the chancellor’s descendants could investigate the story if Weed never disclosed it. John Lansing Livingston clearly wanted to hear more from Weed in 1870. Nonetheless, by the twentieth century John Lansing’s descendants said they believed he had fallen into the Hudson or been killed in a random robbery.

By that point Judge Crater had disappeared, and our culture has mental room for only one missing New York jurist at a time, so the mystery of Chancellor John Lansing, once a member of the Constitutional Convention, has faded away.

Of course, that’s what any conspirators would want, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“Mr. Weed should give to the world the facts”

The argument over whether Thurlow Weed should disclose his information about the alleged murder of state jurist John Lansing four decades earlier naturally prompted more attention to the mystery of that man’s disappearance.

On 18 Dec 1870, the New York Times announced news that broke upstate the day before:
The Schnectady Star this evening contains an article relating to the mysterious disappearance of Chancellor LANSING. The writer says that the Chancellor hung himself in his room at the City Hotel, New-York [shown above]; that his body was secretly removed to his brother’s, buried in the family vault in that City, and that the manner in which he came to his death was hushed up. Insanity, caused by the loss of his property, is ascribed as the motive for his suicide. The writer’s information was obtained from a minister of this city, who expressed himself sincere and confident that the assertions made are true.
However, on 26 December, the Times ran a smaller item in the middle of a column:
Upon further investigation, the Schenectady Star finds that the statement in regard to the alleged suicide of Chancellor LANSING cannot be sustained.
That upstate paper said sheepishly that its informant had heard the suicide story “nearly thirty years ago,” and had no reason to doubt it, but had “no clear evidence or proof to sustain this version.”

On the other hand, the Star said:
we have the statement made by Thurlow Weed that the Chancellor was murdered, and that he, Weed, had evidence in his possession which, in his own opinion,…is sufficient to establish the fact not only that he was murdered, but to convict certain persons now dead, of the crime. . . .

Mr. Weed should give to the world the facts in his possession, and we hope the press of the whole country will continue to demand this of him, until public opinion forces the “old man” to divulge.
Instead, Weed sent a letter to the Commercial Advertiser refuting that suicide theory and dismissing another “story about the misapplication of trust funds, as well as that of alleged pecuniary difficulties.” But he offered no other information.

TOMORROW: Taking the secret to the grave?

Monday, July 11, 2011

“Wishes of the descendants of Chancellor LANSING”

On 15 Nov 1870, the New York Times reprinted Thurlow Weed’s letter about the disappearance—and alleged murder—of former Constitutional Convention delegate John Lansing. That naturally caught the attention of John Lansing Livingston (1830-1904), one of the missing man’s grandchildren.

On 7 December, he wrote his own letter to the Times about Weed’s decision not the share the confession of some unnamed man:
These reasons for refusing to fulfill a solemn promise made to his deceased friend, may be satisfactory to Mr. WEED and the gentlemen with whom he consulted, but will hardly be accepted as sufficient by the public, and certainly not by the descendants of Chancellor LANSING. It cannot escape remark that, according to Mr. WEED’s own statement, he has been for many years in possession of evidence, implicating certain parties, living, at the time, in the crime of murder, and that the failure to disclose such evidence while justice could reach the guilty, made him in the eye of the law particeps criminis, and guilty as principal.

The persons named to Mr. WEED as guilty are now dead and beyond the reach of human tribunal, but his solicitude for their feelings of their descendants and associates is so great that he cannot bring himself to disclose the evidence placed in his hands, in trust, under promise to make the same public. No such thoughtful consideration has been given by him to the natural feelings, or wishes of the descendants of Chancellor LANSING, to none of whom, the parties in the world most interested, has he thought proper to communicate any of the facts in his possession, respecting the death of their relative, although his attention has been drawn to their claims both by letter and at a personal conference. It is to be hoped that Mr. WEED will, upon further reflection, see the propriety of making known all the facts and circumstances communicated to him. . . .

I dissent altogether from the conclusions at which Mr. WEED has arrived, and confidently believe that his course, in suppressing the evidence in his possession regarding the murder of Chancellor LANSING, will not be sustained by public opinion, to which he appeals for justification with so much seeming confidence.
John Lansing Livingston was also the grandson who found his ancestor’s unedited notes of the Constitutional Convention, which the New-York Historical Society just purchased.

TOMORROW: New attention to the case.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

“Chancellor Lansing was murdered”

Thurlow Weed was a powerful newspaper publisher and leader of the Republican Party in New York in the mid-1800s. The December 1870 issue of The Galaxy magazine ran this letter from him:

The following letter, though written several months ago, as seen by its date, I only now send for publication:

New York City, Feb. 18, 1870.

To the Editor of The Galaxy:

Since our conversation the other morning, in which you assumed that an article in the “New York Times” some months since, relating to the mysterious fate of the late Chancellor [John] Lansing of Albany, referred to myself, as possessing information that the public might look for at no distant day, I have concluded to submit what I have to say on that subject, with your permission, through the pages of THE GALAXY.

Twenty-three years ago an eminent citizen of this State, now deceased, put me in possession of information which in his judgment clearly demonstrated that Chancellor Lansing was murdered through the agency of parties whom he named, asking and receiving my promise to publish the facts, should I survive the parties implicated—parties who lived useful lives and died leaving unblemished reputations.

By a strict or literal construction of my promise, the contingency on which it was based has occurred. My distinguished informant and the persons whom his proofs implicated have gone to their final account. As the time therefore had arrived when it became necessary to act upon this question, I found it surrounded by great difficulties. The facts and circumstances, if given to the public, would reach further, as I believe, in their consequences than my informant contemplated—certainly further than I was myself aware when I gave him my promise.

While it is true that the parties named are beyond the reach of human tribunals, as of public opinion, yet others, immediately associated with them and sharing in the strong inducement which prompted the alleged crime, survive, occupying high positions and enjoying public confidence. To these persons, should my proofs be submitted, public attention would be irresistibly drawn. This fact, independent of the circumstance that a large circle of immediate descendants of the deceased persons more directly accused would suffer, led me not only to pause, but to seek advice. Several months ago I submitted the question to two enlightened, experienced, and calm-minded professional gentlemen, the Hon. Hugh Maxwell and Richard M. Blatchford, Esq., on whose judgment and friendship I knew that I could safely repose.

Mr. Maxwell, after weighing all the facts and circumstances maturely, stated that they might and probably would produce upon the minds of those who read them moral conviction; yet, that if the accused parties had been placed upon their trial, the testimony would have been insufficient to satisfy a court or jury. In his judgment, therefore, in a case which would occasion so much anguish among the families and friends of those who were not here to defend themselves, and where the ends of justice could in no sense be promoted, he could see no useful or wise purpose to be accomplished by the publication.

Mr. Blatchford, having carefully considered the whole question, came to the conclusion that if my informant were now living to look the question in all its bearings in the face, he would promptly absolve me from my promise.

Nor is this all. I was fortunate in meeting, a few weeks since, the widow of my friend and informant, a lady of high intelligence, cultivation, and good sense. This lady, who enjoyed to the fullest extent the confidence of her distinguished husband, had been informed by him of the trust he had reposed in me. She was prepared, therefore, to speak understandingly on the subject; and while she could not bring herself to advise me to disregard the injunctions of one whose views, suggestions, and wishes had been the law of her life, she evidently hoped that I would see my way clear to withhold the statement, and was as evidently gratified to learn that Mr. Maxwell and Mr. Blatchford had advised me to suppress it.

If I needed other evidence of the propriety of the course I have concluded to adopt, it would be found, I think, in the recent infelicitous experience of a distinguished literary personage who, under circumstances somewhat similar, felt called upon to reveal what had been communicated to her affecting the reputations of eminent persons long since deceased. In the remarkable unanimity of disapproval which that revelation encountered, there is a lesson and a moral too significant to be disregarded.

Thurlow Weed.
So according to Weed’s account, some powerful and prestigious people in New York murdered Lansing because he was getting in their way—and a later generation of powerful and prestigious people, including Weed, chose to keep the secret.

Of course, not everyone was satisfied.

TOMORROW: Lansing’s relatives speak out.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

John Lansing: “His place on earth had been made vacant”

In December 1829, more than four decades after John Lansing served as a Constitutional Convention delegate from New York, he disappeared in New York City.

In March 1869, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published an article titled “Missing” by E. Crapsey. It was a round-up of stories about people who had mysteriously vanished, and included this passage:
The case of Chancellor Lansing is now preserved only in the traditions of a generation that in a few years will be unrepresented among men. It is full forty years since he left a New York hotel one afternoon to take the Albany boat for his home. He left carrying a small carpet-bag; and the porter who handed it to him at the door was long remembered as the last person who had seen him, knowing who he was. He never reached the boat, for he was perfectly well known to all of its officers; but notwithstanding the most strenuous efforts, no knowledge of his fate was ever obtained.

He was a man full of years and honors, and of great wealth and high official and social position. There was nothing in his character, temperament, or antecedents to warrant the belief that he had been guilty of self-destruction, or had unwittingly fallen a victim to metropolitan snares. His place on earth had been made vacant, but there is not, and can never be, any record of how, or when, or where.

He may have died that day; he may have lived for years afterward. He may have become food for the fishes of Hudson River; he may have been buried under the sands of Sahara. The lapse of time since his disappearance has only brought to his descendants the consoling knowledge that he is dead. If they have been robbed of the priceless memory of having watched over his last hours, they are no longer haunted by a sense of the miseries of earth he may be enduring, and that is something worth waiting forty years for.
On 20 August, a writer at the New York Times responded in an editorial column:
We speak under authority when we say that every incident connected with the disappearance of Chancellor LANSING is well known to a gentleman now living. The secret was confided to him by a distinguished citizen of this State, now deceased, whose name always commanded and does still command respect. The survivor was enjoined to publish all the circumstances when certain persons specified were dead. This condition has been fulfilled, and it is probable that a narrative calculated to startle the public will yet be given to the world. There will then no longer be room left for a single doubt in reference to Chancellor LANSING’s fate. We do not fool ourselves at liberty to hint at the nature of the revelation to be made, but this we may say, that it will be well authenticated, and that it will form one of the most remarkable pages in the history of the public men of this country.
New Yorkers waited for the revelation. And waited. Months went by.

TOMORROW: And then one of the state’s top political leaders came forward…

Friday, July 08, 2011

“The sudden and as yet unaccountable disappearance”

John Lansing, Jr., was a Revolutionary War veteran and a delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention. As I wrote yesterday, he left early and became an Anti-Federalist, and later served as Chief Justice and Chancellor of his home state. Even after he retired from public office, Lansing continued to work as a prominent lawyer in Albany.

On 2 Jan 1830, the Farmers’ Cabinet newspaper of Amherst, New Hampshire, reprinted the following story from New York, datelined 24 December:
Notice.—On Saturday evening, the 12th inst. [i.e., of this month] Chancellor Lansing, of Albany, arrived in this city, and put up at the City Hotel; he breakfasted and dined there. Shortly after dinner he retired to his room, and wrote for a short time, and about the hour that the persons intending to go to Albany usually leave the Hotel, he was observed to leave the room. He has not been seen or heard of since that time.

He left his trunk, cane, &c., in his room. His friends in this city have heard this morning from Albany that he has not returned home. It is supposed that he had written a letter to Albany, and that he intended to put it on board the steamboat, that left here for that place at five o’clock that afternoon. He had made an engagement to take tea at 6 o’clock that evening with Mr. Robert Kay [the following article says “Ray,” which was correct], of this city, who resides at No. 29, Marketfield-street.

He was dressed in black, and wore powder in his hair. He was a man of large and muscular frame of body, and about five feet nine inches in height. He was upwards of 76 years of age. He was in good health, and has never been known to have been affected by any mental abberration.
An item datelined Albany, 28 December, said:
Perhaps no event since the lamented death of De Witt Clinton, has afforded to our citizens a more thrilling and heart-rending sensation, than the sudden and as yet unaccountable disappearance (and we fear death) of JOHN LANSING, Jr. former Chancellor of this State. . . . We fear that in approaching the steamboat he fell into the river and was drowned. Thus in a moment, (if our fears augur right,) another revolutionary patriot has gone “to that bourne from whence no traveller returns.”
Yet another item in the same newspaper said:
One hundred dollars have been offered by the friends of Chancellor Lansing, for any information which may tend to the discovery of his person, or throw any light on his mysterious disappearance.
According to the New York Evening Post, people were asked to leave information “at the bar of the City Hotel.”

On 16 January, the New Hampshire newspaper reported:
The New York papers of Monday state that the body of the late Chancellor Lansing was found in the bay of New York.
But evidently the man’s family decided that body wasn’t his. They erected a cenotaph in a cemetery in Albany. And the mystery was still unsolved four decades later.

TOMORROW: Did someone know the secret?

Thursday, July 07, 2011

John Lansing’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention

This spring John Fea shared a press release from the New-York Historical Society about the acquisition of notes on the Constitutional Convention by John Lansing (1754-1829), a delegate from New York. The society plans to digitize the notes for easy public study.

Having made only limited study of the Constitutional Convention, I looked to see what this document added to the well of sources that scholars use.

I learned that Lansing thought the convention was overstepping its mandate and would produce a too-powerful national government, so he left after six weeks. (The whole convention took a little over four months.) Lansing opposed the Constitution in the New York ratification process. Though he spent many years in state offices, he never participated in the federal government.

Lansing’s notes came to light too late to appear in Max Farrand’s monumental compilation of records from the convention, but they were published by the Princeton University Press in 1939 in a volume titled The Delegate from New York, edited by Joseph Reese Strayer.

That led me to wonder how the society’s new document compares to the 1838 volume titled Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention Assembled at Philadelphia, in the Year 1787, for the Purpose of Forming the Constitution of the United States of America, from Notes Taken by the Late Robert Yates, Esquire, Chief Justice of New York, and Copied by John Lansing, Jun., Esquire, Late Chancellor of that State, Member of that Convention. That text is here. Yates was Lansing’s legal mentor.

And just as I, unabashed gossip that I am, was about to drift off under the influence of legal prose, I read:
Lansing’s death was the most mysterious of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
TOMORROW: Wait. What?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Two Mysterious Frenchmen at the Siege of Boston

According to Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble of Gen. Thomas Gage’s military and marital family (shown here courtesy of Live Auctioneers), on 6 July 1775 a Frenchman came into Boston from the American lines.

He brought the news that another Frenchman, “one Dubue, is their [the enemy’s] Chief Engineer, as Gridley cannot Act from his Wound.” Col. Richard Gridley, head of the American artillery regiment, had been wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Various volunteers, including Henry Knox and Rufus Putnam, were filling in.

[ADDENDUM: Continental Army private Nathaniel Ober wrote in his diary on 6 July: “This Day a french man Desarted from us and went to the Regelors.” So that’s confirmation but no additional information.]

Five days later, the Connecticut officer Samuel Blachley Webb wrote to Silas Deane, who was both one of his Continental Congress delegates and his stepfather:
a Frenchman, who came here in the character of a gentleman, was detected in stealing. The next day he deserted to the enemy; but he’s of no consequence, being simple, a foolish fellow.
That man might not have been reliable, but on 17 August Kemble stated:
The Capt. of the Man of War that Conveyed the Inhabitants to Salem returned, and brought with him Monsieur Dubuque, a French Man, who had been employed by the Rebels as an Engineer.
I can’t find any mention of this French engineer in American sources, however.

I do have accounts of a couple of minor French noblemen viewing the siege of Boston for a while before sailing to London. (One day I’ll trace their story.) But they weren’t named Dubuque—not that the engineer must have used his real name.

A man named Dubuque owned the Shirley-Eustis house sometime around 1800, but he was said to have come to America as a refugee from the French Revolution, not before. But you never know.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

General Lee Slept Here

As I described back here, when Gen. Charles Lee first came to Cambridge, he and Gen. George Washington shared the Wadsworth House near Harvard College for about a week. On 7 July, a Massachusetts Provincial Congress committee talked with Lee alone about housekeeping needs, suggesting he was about to set up his own quarters.

Lee probably didn’t need much. Since landing in America in October 1773, he had lived as if he were on a permanent campaign, traveling from one colony to another with his dogs, books, and Italian manservant, Guiseppi Minghini.

Lee’s letters in early July came from “Head-Quarters,” and on 20 July he wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush from “Cambridge.” Washington split his army into brigades two days later, assigning Lee to command the northern wing.

Lee’s next surviving letter, dated 27 July, went to Robert Morris from “Winter Hill.” From 12 August to 9 December, he datelined his letters from the “Camp on Winter Hill.” Is that change significant? It might suggest a move closer to camp, or it might mean nothing.

Our best clue about where Lee lived in late 1775 actually comes from after he left Massachusetts to design defenses for New York. On 19 Feb 1776, Washington wrote to Gen. John Sullivan, one of Lee’s brigadiers:
I am a little surprizd, and concern’d to hear of your Moving to Colo. [Isaac] Royals House. I thought you knew, that I had made a point of bringing General Lee from thence on Acct. of the distance from his Line of Command, at least that he should not Sleep there. The same reasons holding good with respect to yourself, I should be glad if you could get some place nearer, as I think it too hazardous to trust the left Wing of our Army without a General Officer upon the spot in cases of immergency. I do not wish you to return to your old House, any other tolerably convenient will satisfy me, and I am sure be pleasing to yourself, as I know you would not easily forgive yourself if anything wrong shd. happen for want of your presence on any sudden call.
Unfortunately, there’s no documentation of when Lee moved out of the Royall House in Medford, or where he moved next. Instead, we have tradition and guesswork.

Lee didn’t help by referring to his quarters only with a facetious nickname. In October, the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap recorded hearing about a letter the general had written from “Hobgoblin Hall.” On 10 December, Lee invited Abigail Adams to dine with him at that “Hobgoblin Hall.” (She declined.) And on 21 Jan 1776, Lee’s other brigadier, Gen. Nathanael Greene, wrote to him that
Mr. Eustace lodges at Hobgoblin Hall, he says by your Order—should be glad to know your pleasure in the matter.
(Someday I’ll write more about young John Skey Eustace, and what brought him to Cambridge.)

Nineteenth-century authors said that Lee’s “Hobgoblin Hall” was the Royall House. If so, the general must have continued to use that mansion for work and dinner parties, perhaps because of “the distance from his Line of Command,” but he slept closer to the front. Alternatively, the house where Lee moved after the Royall House might have been his “Hobgoblin Hall,” and the historians guessed wrong.

That building closer to Winter Hill, nineteenth-century histories said, was the old farmhouse now called the Oliver Tufts House in Somerville. During the Revolution, it was reportedly the home of John Tufts (1754-1839) or his father Peter (1728-1791). The old photograph above shows that building about a century ago, after it had been expanded and moved “a few rods” from its original location. Charles Bahne alerted me to this new photograph. And here’s a whole website about the house, based on those later histories.

Similarly, Greene was said to have used the house of Samuel Tufts (1737-1828) as his headquarters. (That man’s wife was, incidentally, a half-sister of little Joel Adams.) That building doesn’t survive. I don’t think anyone’s identified where Sullivan lived before he moved into the Royall House so briefly.

I wish I could find contemporaneous documents confirming that the Tufts men arranged for the generals, the Provincial Congress, or the Continental Army to use their houses. But the best information available suggests that Gen. Lee slept in, in turn, the Wadsworth House in Cambridge, the Royall House in Medford, and the Oliver Tufts House in Somerville.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Things Americans Used to Complain About

So what did George III and his government do that was so wrong?

Restrictions on immigration! “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

A permanent military not accountable to local governments! “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

A questionable judicial system situated in a foreign country! “For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences”.

Military contractors! “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

And, worst of all—Canada! “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies”.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

“The residence of his excellency General Washington”

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s records say that on 26 June 1775 the body voted

That the president’s house in Cambridge, excepting one room reserved by the president for his own use, be taken, cleared, prepared, and furnished, for the reception of General [George] Washington and General [Charles] Lee, and that a committee be chosen immediately to carry the same into execution.
Most of the time that congress used “the president” to refer to its presiding officer, who at that point was James Warren. However, Warren’s own house was in Plymouth, and he was staying somewhere in Watertown, so this must mean another “president’s house in Cambridge.”

The only president who lived in Cambridge was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Langdon of Harvard. And with the college closed, he didn’t need the whole building, right? That house still stands on the edge of Harvard Yard, and is officially called the Wadsworth House (shown above).

The generals arrived in Cambridge on 2 July. Four days later, the congress ordered its Committee of Safety “to desire General Washington to let them know if there is any house at Cambridge, that would be more agreeable to him and General Lee than that in which they now are.” That suggests its members had heard murmurs that the generals weren’t fully satisfied.

By the next day, it was clear that the two generals would be living separately, and on 8 July the Committee of Safety decided that “it is necessary the house of Mr. John Vassal, ordered by Congress for the residence of his excellency General Washington, should be immediately put in such condition as may make it convenient for that purpose.” It looks like he moved in a week later; at least his aide Thomas Mifflin paid the cleaning bill on 15 July.

John Vassall had left that mansion when he moved his family into army-occupied Boston in September 1774. In the 1790s Andrew Craigie, who back in 1775 had worked for the Provincial Congress as an apothecary, bought the house and expanded it. After his widow’s death it became the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and family, and it’s now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.

Thus, Prof. Cornelius Conway Felton was correct in telling Washington Irving that what he called “the Cragie House” was Gen. Washington’s headquarters and residence for most of the siege of Boston. But Irving had been correct when he originally wrote that the Provincial Congress had first put Washington and Lee up in the Harvard president’s house.

COMING UP: Where did Gen. Charles Lee live?