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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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Elkanah Watson’s Magic Egg

This anecdote is from Men and Times of the Revolution, the posthumously assembled memoirs of Elkanah Watson (1758-1842). It starts in December 1776 just after young Watson and some friends were inoculated against smallpox:
About the time we left the hospital, Major Thomas, of the army, arrived at Plymouth, from head-quarters. He had left Washington retreating through New-Jersey. I spent the evening with him, in company with many devoted Whigs. We looked upon the contest as near its close, and considered ourselves a vanquished people. The young men present determined to emigrate, and seek some spot where liberty dwelt, and where the arm of British tyranny could not reach us. Major Thomas animated our desponding spirits by the assurance that Washington was not dismayed, but evinced the same serenity and confidence as ever. Upon him rested all our hopes.

On the ensuing Sunday morning, as the people were on their way to church, I suddenly witnessed a great commotion in the street, and a general rush to the back door of Mrs. H—’s dwelling. Supposing the house to be on fire, I darted into the crowd, and on entering the house, heard the good woman’s voice above the rest, exclaiming, with an egg in her hand—“There, there, see for yourselves.” I seized the magic egg, and to my utter astonishment read upon it, in legible characters formed by the shell itself, “Oh, America, America, Howe shall be thy conqueror!”

The agitation and despondency produced, will hardly be appreciated by those unacquainted with the deep excitability of the public mind at that period. We were soon relieved from our gloom and apprehension, by ascertaining from an ingenious painter, who happily came in, that the supernatural intimation was the effect of a simple chemical process. We were convinced it was a device of some Tory to operate on the public feeling.

In the afternoon, an express arrived from Boston; a hand-bill was sent into the pulpit, and at the close of the service our venerable Whig Parson [Chandler] Robins, read from his desk the heart-thrilling news of the capture of the Hessians at Trenton—a happy retort upon the Tories.
Watson’s memoir was published in 1856, or nearly eighty years after this reported event.

TOMORROW: An earlier version of the same anecdote.

(Click on the portrait above or here for the Princeton University Art Museum’s exploration of John Singleton Copley’s 1782 portrait of Elkanah Watson.)


Charles Bahne said...

Should that be EIGHTY years after the event (not "eight") at the end?

J. L. Bell said...

Either my math or my typing deteriorated after midnight.

John L. Smith said...

The Magic Egg apparently wasn't hooked into the magic of Breaking News.

J. L. Bell said...

Eggs don’t like breaking things in general, I suspect.