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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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dr. James Thacher’s Story of the Egg

In 1832, Revolutionary War veteran Dr. James Thacher (1754-1844) published a History of the Town of Plymouth that included this anecdote:
An innocent trick was devised by some persons in this town, which occasioned at that time a general surprise and agitation. An egg was produced with the following words imprinted on the shell by the artifice of some tories. ‘O America, America, Howe shall be thy conqueror.’

The egg being taken from the hen roost of Mr. H. on Sunday morning, and exhibited to a concourse of people assembled for public worship excited the greatest agitation, and the meeting was for some time suspended. The tories affected to believe that the phenomenon was supernatural, and a revelation from heaven favoring their cause and predictions; and some whigs were ready to fall into the delusion, when one less credulous, observed that it was absurd to suppose that the Almighty would reveal his decrees to man through the medium of an old hen.

Thus ended the farce; but the story of the egg was the subject of newspaper speculation in various parts of the country, and the alarm which it occasioned in the minds of some people here was truly astonishing.
This story appears to be independent of the first-hand account I quoted yesterday from Elkanah Watson. Thacher inserted the story among anecdotes from before the war while Watson linked it to a Sunday in late 1776 or early 1777 when word of the Battle of Trenton reached Plymouth. Watson misspelled the name of the town’s Whig minister, which appears several times in Thacher’s book: Chandler Robbins.

The two writers also show different attitudes toward the event. Watson had to be convinced by “an ingenious painter” that the message could have been put onto the egg artificially. Thacher, on the other hand, suggested the notion of divine messages by that channel was prima facie “absurd” and a “farce.” Watson and his friends thought the egg was a Tory’s dirty trick. Thacher called it “an innocent trick.”

Both authors independently agreed on one detail: that the egg came from a hen owned by a family with the initial H.

TOMORROW: Tracking back to 1777.

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