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.

Follow by Email

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Jacob Barker: “the portrait was taken by Mr. Depeyster and myself”

When Charles Carroll of Bellevue’s son claimed that his father had saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington in the White House in 1814, Dolley Madison wasn’t the only person who responded.

In 1847 Jacob Barker (1779-1871), a businessman in New Orleans, wrote a letter confirming that he and Robert DePeyster had carried the painting away from the presidential mansion at the First Lady’s behest. Barker also wrote: “Several persons assisted in taking down the portrait, and the most active was the venerable Mr. Carroll.”

That wasn’t good enough for the younger Carroll, who wrote a newspaper article niggling at Barker’s mistaken details. Barker then replied with a much longer account of the event, dated 8 Feb 1848. This extract picks up as Barker rushes back to the White House after the American defenses have broken:
As soon as our troops broke and retreated, the President sent his servant express to warn his good lady of her danger, with directions to leave immediately. . . . The messenger preceded me five or ten minutes, having passed me on the Pennsylvania avenue, and given the information, with a request that I would repair to the house and assist in their departure. . . .

Whether I found your father there, or whether he came in subsequently, I do not know; but I do know that he assisted in taking down the portrait of Washington and left the house with the President, leaving the portrait on the floor of the room in which it had been suspended to take care of itself, where it remained until the remnant of our army, reduced to about 4,000, passed by, taking the direction of Georgetown, when the portrait was taken by Mr. Depeyster and myself, assisted by two colored boys, from the said room; and with it we fell into the trail of the army and continued with it some miles. Overtaken by night, and greatly fatigued, we sought shelter in a farm house.

No other persons assisted in removing or preserving the picture. I acted at the special request of Mrs. Madison, and Mr. Depeyster co-operated with me in carrying her wishes into effect. I always supposed the praiseworthy solicitude originated with her; it would require very positive and clear proof to induce me to change that opinion. It certainly did not originate with me or with Mr. Depeyster; nor have I ever intimated that any other than Mrs. Madison was entitled to the least credit therefor.
The younger Carroll responded with more angry accusations, so in Barker’s next public letter, later in 1848, he cited Dolley Madison’s authority to assert that Charles Carroll deserved no credit at all, not even for helping to get the painting down from the wall. So there.

COMING UP: The servants speak.

(The photograph about shows Charles Carroll’s 1801 Bellevue mansion in Washington, D.C., now known as Dumbarton House and the headquarters of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Dolley Madison: “I have ordered the frame to be broken”

Among the most famous legends of Dolley Madison is that she saved Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from the White House as the British army approached the capital in 1814. Thomas Fleming’s Smithsonian article “How Dolley Madison Saved the Day” does a good job of retelling this story.

A major source for that episode is Madison’s own letter to her sister dated 23 Aug 1814, which says in part:
Our kind friend, Mr. [Charles] Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.
However, that letter exists only as a manuscript Madison created in the 1830s for a biographer. In a 1998 article “Dolley Madison Has the Last Word” (readable here), David Mattern notes that this text has a different tone from a letter she definitely wrote after fleeing Washington, more brave and less self-pitying. As a result, historians think that Madison might have composed that account from memory or reshaped an authentic contemporaneous letter to tell the story as she wished it made public.

In the mid-1840s Charles Carroll of Bellevue’s son began to assert publicly that his father had been responsible for saving the Washington painting. In 1848 Dolley Madison wrote that Carroll didn’t deserve such credit. She reiterated that saving the painting was her idea: “I directed my servants in what manner to remove it from the walls, remaining with them until it was done.” She also identified the two New York gentlemen who received the painting as Jacob Barker and Robert DePeyster—the latter being the father of the newspaper publisher to whom she wrote.

COMING UP: Other eyewitness statements.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Legends of the Lansdowne Portrait

Yesterday I mentioned Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne portrait” of George Washington now hanging at the Smithsonian. While researching the posting, I stumbled across some small controversies involving that portrait.

Some articles on the web (including its Wikipedia entry until I edited it) say that portrait was the one saved from the White House as the British army approached. But that painting was commissioned for the first Marquess of Lansdowne (formerly Earl of Shelburne) and shipped to his home in England before he died in 1805. It didn’t come back to the U.S. of A. for many decades.

Rather, Stuart painted multiple copies of his Washington portraits, which are classified in three groups, called “Vaughn,” “Athenaeum,” and “Lansdowne” after the owners of their most prominent examples. The “Lansdowne” of 1796 was a full-figure painting, obviously the most expensive.

The U.S. government bought a copy of Stuart’s “Lansdowne” pose for $800 in 1800. That went into the President’s mansion and hangs in the twice-rebuilt White House today.

However, there have been whispers that Stuart himself didn’t paint that canvas, that it’s a copy by a younger artist named William Winstanley. Stuart told a story about Winstanley copying his work and inviting him to touch the copies so they could be sold as coming (at least in part) from the more famous artist’s hand.

But Stuart had a strong reason to claim that there were unauthorized copies of his work floating around. Just three years before the U.S. government bought the White House copy (from a dealer he secretly worked with), Stuart had taken $500 from the government for a copy that he appears to have never delivered, according to this article at Revolutionary War and Beyond. So had he sold the same painting twice?

The mystery of who painted the White House portrait bubbled up again in 1975 when former National Portrait Gallery director Marvin Sadik told ARTnews that Winstanley had created that painting. Sadik didn’t appear to have new evidence; rather, his argument was based on the aesthetic judgment that the face in the portrait was “dead.” (Ironically, decades earlier authors had claimed that Stuart had painted that face but Winstanley had painted the somewhat mismatched body—also apparently based on no evidence.)

As ARTnews reported in 2004, Sadik’s comments caused the government to clean and study the White House portrait anew. Its experts agreed that it was by Stuart, though not his best example of the pose. The head and body don’t make a good match on the other “Lansdowne” portraits, either. Nevertheless, Sadik remained unconvinced. And the painting remained in the White House.

TOMORROW: Four ways to save Washington’s portrait from the British army.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Buying George Washington’s Books

After George Washington died in 1799, his library of 900+ volumes was catalogued and divided among family members. Like about 300 more volumes he had owned at some time, many of those copies included the first President’s bookplate, signature, or notes. Washington’s heirs treated them like relics. Until then they needed money.

In the late 1840s, Vermont-born bookseller Henry Stevens bought most of the books still at Mount Vernon. Stevens had established his main office in London and become the British Museum’s agent for acquiring American material, so people suspected he was ready to ship the Washington books overseas. The Boston Athenaeum offers its take on what happened next:
In the spring of 1848, a group of patriotic Bostonians, horrified that the largest surviving portion of George Washington’s library from Mount Vernon might be sold to the British Museum, created a subscription fund, at $50 a share, to secure the collection for Boston. They succeeded. When the new Boston Athenæum building opened at 10½ Beacon Street just a few months later, the Washington Library became one of its principal and best-loved treasures.
According to LibraryThing, of 1,284 known volumes from Washington’s library, the Athenaeum owns 881.

A few years ago, something similar happened with Gilbert Stuart’s “Landsdowne portrait” of Washington, which had hung in the Smithsonian for decades. Rumors circulated that it, too, would be shipped overseas and end up in the hands of foreigners! (Never mind that portrait had been commissioned as a gift to the first Marquess of Landsdowne, the British prime minister who had signed off on American independence. His heirs had loaned it to the Smithsonian in the 1960s, but were thinking of selling it at auction.)

The retired newspaper executive Fred W. Smith, then president of his late boss’s Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, sprang into action. The foundation donated millions of dollars for the Smithsonian to buy the portrait and refurbish its gallery.

Over the next few years, Smith developed ties to Mount Vernon, and in 2010 the Reynolds Foundation gave that institution $38 million to build a research center. It will become the repository of documents from the Papers of George Washington, an ongoing publishing project at the Unversity of Virginia. The library website describes some other projects.

Among them, earlier this spring Mount Vernon announced plans to replicate Washington’s entire library. The Washington Post reported:
Mount Vernon has fewer than 50 of the original books and 450 duplicate additions [i.e., editions] — same book, same printing. The rest will hopefully come from the Boston Athenaeum, through purchases or donations, or they will be replicated with pages scanned from the Athenaeum’s collection and put into an 18th-century-style binding with endpaper and leather and gold tooling.
Like me, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America read that story to indicate that Mount Vernon hopes to obtain the Athenaeum’s treasured Washington collection. That would be an interesting story to watch.

Reynolds Foundation money was also behind the Mount Vernon Ladies Association’s purchase this month of Washington’s copy of the 1789 Acts of Congress, shown above. That book includes the text of the new Constitution (with Washington’s notes on presidential duties) and Rep. James Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights. At $9,826,500, it’s the most expensive single item Mount Vernon has ever bought. According to Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos, that’s also the second-highest auction price ever for a printed book, and the highest for one without pretty color pictures.

One more mystery: Who was the underbidder for Washington’s Acts of Congress, the other party willing to pay over $9 million? Who else has the money?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

“And extraordinary indeed it was!”


The Houghton Library at Harvard has devoted a blog posting to a notable item among its rare books: George Washington’s copy of A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, published by James Monroe in 1797.

Monroe had been the U.S. of A.’s minister in Paris in the mid-1790s. Meanwhile, John Jay was in London negotiating a treaty that moved the country closer to Great Britain. Monroe disliked that policy, resigned, and wrote this book criticizing not only the treaty but “the Executive” who had brought it about—who was, of course, President Washington.

What’s most remarkable about this copy of the book is that Washington wrote notes in his copy criticizing the young diplomat back. As the library describes:

The tone of Washington’s response is obvious from Monroe’s very first sentence. Monroe writes “In the month of May, 1794, I was invited by the President of the United States, through the Secretary of State [Edmund Randolph], to accept the office of minister plenipotentiary to the French Republic.” Washington ripostes “After several attempts had failed to obtain a more eligible character.” . . .

Due to the fragility of the paper and the corrosive ink Washington used to write his notes, this volume is restricted from use. Fortunately, Washington’s notes were transcribed, in a late 19th century edition of his works that is freely accessible online.
Many of Washington’s comments take the form of questions, a polite way of disagreeing. Every so often he cites letters of particular dates. But sometimes he responds directly. “Such was my conduct upon the above occasion, and such the motives of it,” Monroe writes, and his old boss adds, “And extraordinary indeed it was!”

TOMORROW: More news of Washington’s books.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Running the Numbers on the Tea Party Meetings

The latest issue of the Old South Meeting House newsletter contains a new article by Alfred F. Young, author of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, Masquerade, and Liberty Tree, about the public meetings that led up to the destruction of the East India Company tea on 16 Dec 1773.

The article discusses the quantity of people in those meetings: did the building contain 5,000 or more, as activists like Samuel Adams claimed? Was that the figure for all people who participated in the meetings at any time? How does it compare to other crowds in colonial Boston?

Young also discusses the quality of the interaction at that public gathering. Because it wasn’t an official town meeting, there was no property or residency qualification for attending, and there was also a new etiquette:
At these extraordinary meetings, ordinary people were being asked, in effect, to participate in judgment of their betters, very much aware that their very presence made them indispensable. When the political straddler John Rowe, after apologizing for being part owner of a tea ship, asked “whether Salt Water would make as good Tea as fresh,” the crowd roared its approval, and a conservative overheard a few men brag that “now they had brought a good Tory over to their side.”

For those men among the lowest ranks who had never set foot in a town meeting—much less voted—these gatherings where “all had an equal voice” were empowering. [Gov. Thomas] Hutchinson said the protest meeting at Old South the morning after the Massacre “has given the lower sort of people a sense of their importance that a Gentleman does not meet what used to be called civility.” He was right. Civility was another word for deference.
Read the rest of the article by downloading the P.D.F. version of the newsletter.

I’m highlighting this article even through the Tea Party anniversary is half a year away. That’s because today the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum opens to the public! Its website offers to take reservations, including a dual offer of admission to the new museum (normally $27.50 for an adult) and the real Old South (normally $6 for non-members) for $32.50.

(The image above shows the interior of Old South Meeting House according to a 1909 postcard.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Notice on Gen. Lee’s Door

A while back, I quoted Pvt. Simeon Lyman’s account of the Connecticut troops’ dispute with Gen. Charles Lee over when exactly they would leave the Continental Army in December 1775 and how many of them would reenlist.

Lee said the departing soldiers were no better than deserters and threatened to send them up against the British positions on Bunker’s Hill. Finally he posted this notice on the door of his house, saying he was going to send copies to all the taverns southward:
To the Publicans and other Housekeepers residing on the different roads betwixt Cambridge, Newlondon, and Hartford.

Fellow Citizens: It is hoped and expected that as you value the sacred right and liberties of your country, you will show a proper contempt and indignation towards those disaffected miscreants who are at this crisis deserting her cause. Those who for want of zeal or courage, at a time when everything conspires to give us victory over our wicked enemies and tyrants, can so basely abandon their colors, those who by a traitorous desertion in the hour of trial would open a possibility to the enemy of enslaving you, have forfeited all title to be treated not only [as] fellow citizens but as men. You therefore, gentlemen, are most earnestly entreated and conjured to give testimony of your virtue and patriotism by punishing to your utmost those vile refugees.

In short, you are requested not to admit into your houses or furnish with any refreshment those bands of deserters now sneaking homeward to infate [i.e., infect] their relations and neighbors with cowardice and every bad quality, but to consider them as reprobates to virtue, honor, God, and their country, for in these lights they may justly be considered, particularly when it is known that it was only requested of them to remain three weeks longer, which they (oh scorn to the name of Amarica) have most basely refused to comply with.

Thanks however to God Almighty, who has hitherto so manifestly prospered our cause, this vile dastardly spirits is so far from being general that our army will the very day of their desertion be stronger than ever, but the spirit and virtue of the major part serve to render the infamy of those particulars more conspicuous.
As I quoted before, Lyman reported, “the paper was took down as soon as it was dark, and another put up that General Lee was a fool and if he had not come here we should not know it.” Below the text itself he wrote, “Thus much may suffice for General Lee.”

Lyman wrote little in his diary about his own actions during this confrontation. It’s clear that he didn’t volunteer to serve extra days or reenlist, so we know which side he was on. And somehow the text on the notice taken from Lee’s door “as soon as it was dark” ended up in Lyman’s papers.

(The image above shows the door of the house where Lee slept, as discussed here.)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Caught on Camera

Today I’m in Deerfield, delivering a paper about the British soldiers caught up in the Boston Massacre. That’s part of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife’s conference on “The Irish in Boston.”

If that news makes you unaccountably eager to watch me speak in front of an audience, folks have sent links of a couple of videos of me doing just that in recent months:
  • From Jim Cunningham and Lincoln cable television, I speak to the Lincoln Minutemen about what the British army hoped to find in Concord on 19 Apr 1775.
  • From Edward Roche, I’m caught in the middle of several short videos from the Bunker Hill Day debate between Paul O’Shaughnessey of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment and Thomas Coots of Gardner’s Regiment, hosted by the Bunker Hill Monument Association.
These aren’t professional videos with careful setups, just audiovisual records of a couple of events. Enjoy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Visiting William Carpenter at the Worcester Art Museum

This is Ralph Earl’s portrait of William Carpenter, an English lad about twelve years old in 1779. It’s not the most graceful painting, but it conveys a lot of personality. It’s also one of many pieces of visual evidence that the preferred hairstyle for British and American boys in the 1770s was, alas, the mullet.

William Carpenter lives at the Worcester Art Museum, which has just reopened its grand front doors and is offering free admission in July and August.

Here are articles on the museum from the Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Its Early American Art collection includes paintings by John Singleton Copley, Joseph Badger, Joseph Blackburn, and the mind-blowing Edward Savage.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peter Lowell: “asked permission to retire”

Yesterday I quoted from the account of the Battle of Bunker Hill in an 1852 history of New Ipswich, New Hampshire, focusing on the experiences of Capt. Ezra Towne’s company. Citing “Lt. [Josiah] Brown’s relation to his grandson,” that book includes this anecdote of Bunker Hill in a footnote:
One Peter Lowell, not a native of New Ipswich, who had always been the greatest braggart in the company, upon reaching the “Neck” where the shot were flying, was suddenly taken with a severe belly ache, and asked permission to retire; no one listened to his complaint for some time, but at last Capt. Towne, fearing his disorder might become contagious, gave him leave to go—but Peter was afraid to go alone, and asked that some one might accompany him.

This was asking quite too much, and Capt. Towne, drawing his sword, told him if he did not instantly scamper he would run him through. Peter took to his heels and was never seen in camp afterwards. It was said he never stopped running till he reached home.
According to Capt. Ezra Towne’s August payroll, Peter Lowell was formally discharged in July—the only man taken off the rolls that way.

A later history of New Ipswich was also eager to assure readers that Peter Lowell wasn’t from that town, even if people there were still telling this story about him. He actually came from nearby Camden, which in 1776 changed its name to Washington.

Triangulating from genealogical webpages suggests that Lowell was born in Groton in 1752. He was one of the first settlers in the area that became Washington but by 1787 moved to Lempster, where he died in 1840.

In 1833, the U.S. government granted Peter Lowell a pension as a Revolutionary War veteran, accepting that he had served eleven months in the Continental forces. That means he must have gone back into the service after 1775 and stuck around for a while. Not that people in New Ipswich paid attention.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

“They had left their coats and packs”

The recent posting about the New Hampshire regiments housed on Charlestown Neck in June 1775 prompted a comment from reader Peter Fisk, which sent me searching for the account he mentioned of Capt. Ezra Towne’s regiment. Those men came mostly from New Ipswich, and the story appears in the 1852 History of New Ipswich:
…about ten o’clock issued an order for the two New Hampshire Regiments, under Colonels [John] Stark and [James] Reed, to make the necessary preparations, and march to the Hill.

The Regiments being nearly destitute of powder and ball, were marched to the building occupied as an Arsenal, where each man received a gill cup full of powder, fifteen balls and one flint; the several captains were then ordered to march their companies to their respective quarters, and make up their powder and ball into cartridges, with despatch. As there were hardly two muskets of the same calibre, in any company, many of the balls had to be reduced in size; and as but few had cartridge-boxes, they mainly used powder-horns, putting their balls either in their pouches or pockets. Not a bayonet was to be found in our company, and not a dozen in the whole Regiment; the officers, like the soldiers, each carried a gun.
I interrupt here to note that although “not a bayonet was to be found in our company,” three of Towne’s men asked the colony to compensate them for bayonets lost in the battle.
About one o’clock, Col. Stark’s Regiment having arrived from Medford, joined that of Col. Reed, and both commenced their march over Charlestown Neck, exposed to a heavy fire of chain and round shot from the British ships and floating batteries. But our men safely crossed it, and, after a rapid march, formed on Bunker Hill, having first deposited their blankets, coats, and other burdens at the foot of the hill.

Just previous to the arrival of the New Hampshire Regiments, some of the Connecticut troops had been employed in making a temporary breastwork by planting two parallel lines of post and rail fence, commencing near the rear of the redoubt, and running down obliquely towards Mystic River, the spaces between the fences being filled with new mown hay. About four o’clock, the regiment of which our company formed a part, took up its position in rear of the rail fence, near the redoubt, Col. Starks’s being extended farther down towards the river.
There follows the standard story of three British advances, two repulsed before the provincials ran out of ammunition. As in many nineteenth-century American accounts, this one estimated the British force as much larger than the provincial: 3,000 men against 1,500. These days, most historians think the forces were closer to equal.
Capt. Towne’s company came off in good order, although exposed to a very heavy fire. . . . On their retreat our company found that the old house, near the Neck, in which they had left their coats and packs, had been set on fire by the hot shot from the British ships, and some of the men, among whom was Supply Wilson, ventured the attempt to save their packs, and succeeded in bringing them off, with as many more as they could carry; the rest were burned.
Which is why the Towne company’s request for reimbursement contains so many more personal goods, such as razors, than the request from other New Hampshire companies.

Supply Wilson was a corporal in the company as of August 1775. He lived until 1835, serving in town and militia offices, so he probably told this story a lot.

TOMORROW: The man who ran away.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Gravestone of James Reed

My recent postings about Col. James Reed of New Hampshire and his regiment brought a message and photo from Boston 1775 reader Robert J. O’Hara. I decided to adapt them into a guest blogger posting, letting me rest in peace on new material for another day.

James Reed is buried in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Fitchburg, under a fine large stone carved in John Dwight’s workshop in Shirley. He might have become as well known as his fellow New Hampshireman John Stark, but the year after Bunker Hill he became ill, possibly with smallpox, and this left him almost totally blind. He retired to Keene, and then eventually to Fitchburg, where he lived in a house on the lot now occupied by the Fitchburg City Hall. He died there in 1807.


JAMES REED
Born at Woburn 1723
In the various Military scenes
In which his country was concerned
from 1755 to the superiour conflict
distinguished in our history as the
Revolution
He sustained Commissions.
In that Revolution, at the import-
ant post of Lake George,
he totally lost his sight.
From that period to his death he
receiv’d from his country the
retribution allowed to pensioners
of the rank of
Brigadier General.
died at Fitchburg
February 13th 1807.

Please visit this webpage for more information and photos about Fitchburg’s cemeteries.

Thanks, Bob! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

“Both poisoned and chewed the musket balls”

Lt. John Waller of the British Marines wrote to his brother soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill:
We had of our corps one major, 2 captains, and 3 lieutenants killed; 4 captains, and 3 lieutenants wounded: 2 serjeants, and 21 rank and file killed; and 3 serjeants and 79 privates wounded: and I suppose, upon the whole, we lost, killed and wounded, from 800 to 1000 men. We killed a number of the rebels, but the cover they fought under made their loss less considerable than it would otherwise have been. The army is in great spirits, and full of rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals, who both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal. Many officers have died of their wounds, and others very ill: ’tis astonishing what a number of officers were hit on this occasion; but the officers were particularly aimed at.
Poisoning a musket ball was thought to stop a wound from healing. Chewing a ball supposedly roughed up its surface so that it produced a rough wound that also wouldn’t heal easily. Poisoning and chewing a ball—well, that seems like a way to poison yourself.

This wasn’t an isolated complaint. Throughout the eighteenth century British officers complained about their enemies poisoning and/or masticating musket balls. Indeed, back in the 1670s the English poet Samuel Butler had launched such an accusation against Oliver Cromwell’s English army in Hudibras:
’Twas ill for us we had to do
With so dishon’rable a foe:
For though the law of arms doth bar
The use of venom’d shot in war,
Yet by the nauseous smell and noisom
Their case-shot savour strong of poison,
And doubtless have been chew’d with teeth
Of some that had a stinking breath…
Since the discovery of germs as the real factor in those deadly wounds, I don’t know if anyone’s bothered to test musket balls to see if poison could survive being fired across a battlefield.

There does appear to be evidence of British soldiers chewing or roughing up musket balls. The photo above shows a set dated to the English Civil War in the 1640s, on sale through TimeLine Originals. Another bunch is on display at Fort Ticonderoga. But I wonder if British officers ever ordered that tactic or acknowledged that their own men used it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Was Col. Paul Dudley Sargent Wounded at Bunker Hill?

The Wikipedia entry on Col. Paul Dudley Sargent of the Massachusetts and Continental Army is only the latest description of him that says he “was wounded at Bunker Hill.” (In fact, that part of the sentence comes right out of the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography for 1895.) But was he? Well, that depends on what one means by “at Bunker Hill.”

On 20 Dec 1825, Sargent sent his recollections of that battle to Samuel Swett, who was gathering information for an expanded edition of his book. Sargent wrote:
I made application three times that day to be permitted to march my regiment to Charlestown, but General [Artemas] Ward feared my post [at Ralph and Elizabeth Inman’s farm in east Cambridge] would be attacked, and for once judged right, for a large schooner, with from five to six hundred men, attempted to gain the landing, but the wind against her and the tide turning, she returned.

About 4, P. M., General Ward permitted me to march my regiment with one called his own to Charlestown, but too late to do any good. Gen. [Israel] Putnam, then on Prospect Hill, sent an officer to order me on to the hill, but finding I did not attend to his order, he sent a second, who I took no notice of. A third came open mouth, saying Gen. Putnam says the devil of hell is in you all, you will be all cut to pieces.

The words were scarcely uttered when I was left with Lieut. Col. [Jonathan] Ward and my waiter. I had before this received a scratch from a four pound shot—the same shot took off Lt. Col. Ward's catouch box, and knocked down a subaltern behind him. I returned to head quarters.
Swett relied on that letter in his History of Bunker Hill Battle (1826), saying that Sargent was “slightly wounded,” evidently in west Charlestown short of the peninsula. Swett didn’t quote or mention the letter, however.

Richard Frothingham cited Sargent’s letter with a quote in a footnote in his 1849 History of the Siege of Boston. But Swett objected that that book gave the impression that Sargent had refused Putnam’s order to go onto Breed’s Hill, where the main battle was fought. By “the hill” Sargent meant Prospect Hill, where Putnam was trying to organize a defense after the British army had taken the peninsula; in refusing to go there, Sargent was refusing to pull back to a fortified position, as well as refusing to take orders from a Connecticut man.

In fact, Swett and Frothingham both interpreted Sargent’s phrase the same way, as their dueling pamphlets eventually made clear. Swett’s two-page objection to Frothingham on this point might have been a proxy for their bigger dispute over Putnam’s role in the battle. Swett might also have been pushed to that public objection by complaints from the Sargent family, who were quite protective about the colonel’s reputation.

In any event, Col. Sargent and his regiment never made it onto the Charlestown peninsula—though not for lack of trying. His “scratch” came near Bunker’s Hill, and after the main fight. Still, it was a wound, and it was during the overall battle. I think Sargent’s recollection is most valuable in demonstrating Gen. Ward’s worry about where else the British forces might attack. While we can look back in perfect hindsight, on 17 June 1775 no one knew which direction the fighting would go.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thompson Maxwell Sets Up Stakes on Breed’s Hill

Thompson Maxwell left at least three memoirs of his life; I’ve previously puzzled over his accounts of the Boston Tea Party.

In the autumn of 1818 Maxwell reportedly dictated the first memoir of his military service to Gen. James Miller (later a character in the first chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter).

Here is the old veteran’s account of June 1775, up to the Battle of Bunker Hill:
I then took command, agreeable to [ensign’s] rank in my company under Captain Wilkinson [actually Capt. Josiah Crosby and Lt. Daniel Wilkins]. We were formed into regiments, my company in Colonel James Reed’s regiment, and engaged for eight months.

Next fight was that of Bunker Hill. On the sixteenth of June Colonel Reed was ordered to Charlestown neck. About twelve o’clock the same day a number of our officers passed us and went on to Bunker Hill. General [Artemas] Ward with the rest returned and went to Cambridge. In the evening Colonel [William] Prescott passed with his regiment. My brother Hugh Maxwell was the senior Captain in this regiment; he stepped out and asked Colonel Reed and myself if we would come on to the Hill that night. We did so, we went on to Breed’s Hill.

We found Colonel [Israel] Putnam there, with Colonel Prescott’s command. Colonel Prescott requested my brother Hugh to lay out the ground for the intrenchment. He did so; I set up the stakes after him. Colonel Prescott seemed to have the sole command.

Colonel Reed and I returned to our command on the neck about eleven o’clock, P.M. At day in the morning, we again went on to the Hill, found Putnam and Prescott there. Prescott still appeared to have command; no other regiment was there but Prescott’s through the night.

Captain Maxwell after day suggested, in my hearing, to Colonel Prescott the propriety of running an intrenchment from the N. E. angle of the night’s work, to a rail fence leading to Mystic River. Colonel Prescott approved, and it was done. I set up the stakes after my brother.

About seven o’clock I saw Colonels Putnam and Prescott in conversation; immediately after Putnam mounted his horse and went full speed toward Cambridge. Colonel Reed ordered all his men to their commands; we returned and prepared for action. At eleven o’clock, A.M. we received orders from Colonel Prescott to move on. We did so. We formed by order of Prescott down by the rail fence, and part on the entrenchmemt. We got hay and wadded between the rails after doubling the fence by post and rails from another place.
It’s obvious that Maxwell was trying to provide evidence on the question of whether Prescott or Putnam was in command during the battle, a burning historiographical question in the early 1800s. But I think the real value of his account is showing the improvised nature of the provincials’ planning, with officers hurrying back and forth.

Thompson Maxwell’s niece Priscilla wrote a memoir of her father, Capt. Hugh Maxwell. That book described how Hugh was badly wounded at Bunker Hill, but said nothing about him having helped to lay out the American defense lines. However, Hugh Maxwell had experience as both a rural surveyor and a military officer, so that detail in his younger brother’s recollections strikes me as credible.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Finding Room for the New Hampshire Troops

On 15 June 1775, Col. James Reed [often spelled Read] wrote back to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety from the siege lines outside Boston. On 2 June, Read had followed orders from Gen. Nathaniel Folsom and mustered “a number of men” from “the westward part of the Province of New-Hampshire.” He reported:
On the twelfth of June, I arrived at Cambridge and waited on General [Artemas] Ward; he informed me that Cambridge was so thronged with soldiers, that he had given orders to Captains Spalding, Walker, and Crosby, to march to Medford. Then I repaired to Medford, and there I met with Captains Hinds, Whitcomb, Town, Hutchins, Man, Marcey, and Thomas. Whitcomb and Thomas I took out of Colonel Stoke’s [Stark’s?] Regiment for the two Companies that were assigned me. Then I was informed by Colonel [John] Stark that Medford was so full of soldiers that it was necessary for some to take other quarters; then I applied to General Ward and received orders in these words:

GENERAL ORDERS.
Head-Quarters, June 12, 1775.
That Colonel Read quarter his Regiment in the houses near Charlestown Neck, and keep all necessary guards between his barracks and the ferry, and on Bunker Hill.

J[oseph]. WARD, Secretary.
Then, Sirs, I marched my Regiment from Medford to Charlestown Neck, and, with the assistance of Mr. [Peter or Timothy?] Tufts, one of the Selectmen of Charlestown, I got my men into good barracks, and then raised my guard, consisting of one Captain, two subalterns, four sergeants, four corporals, and forty privates; this ended the thirteenth day of June.
Housing soldiers on Charlestown Neck just a few days before 17 June 1775. What could go wrong?

It’s notable that at this point in June 1775 American commanders felt there were too many soldiers in Cambridge and Medford. Soon they would be ordering more men to those locations.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Col. Jonathan Burnham Wins the Siege Through Music

One of the more curious analyses of the siege of Boston comes from Jonathan Burnham (1728-1823), a colonel in the New Hampshire militia.

As many of the Connecticut troops prepared to go home in December 1775 at the end of their enlistments (as discussed back here), Gen. George Washington asked Massachusetts and New Hampshire to mobilize militia regiments for a couple of months to fill the gap. Burnham was in charge of bringing the New Hampshire troops down to the siege lines.

Decades later he published a folksy memoir which said:
In a few days the committee of safety that set at Portsmouth, in recess of Congress, sent for me to bear two letters, rec’d from Gen. Washington and Gen. [John] Sullivan. The contents that they expected the British would give them battle, and for the committee to send me to Mistic [Medford] with thirty one companies of New Hampshire Militia.

We marched that day and three days after were in Mistic with four companies from the fort, and twenty seven companies to follow on. The committee delivered me two letters to carry to the two Generals at Winter hill and Cambridge. I mounted my horse and rode to headquarters and delivered my letters. Washington smiles and says “New Hampshire forever” and orders Sullivan to mount his horse and ride with Col. Burnham to Mistic and open all your stores to New Hampshire Militia without weight or measure, And go to the good men in Mistic who will be glad of Col. Burnham’s men, for they are afraid that the British who burned Charlestown will come and burn Mistic And Says to Col. Burnham “do your best for the honor of Newhampshire and kill the British if they dare come.”

But they were affraid of my Brigade—Toward the last of January ’76 I received orders from Gen. Washington that he would meet Newhampshire Militia tomorrow at Winter hill to review them. I mounted my horse at 9 o’clock, Formed my Brigade and marched to Winter hill with my band of music, Fifty fifes and drums that the British might hear and see we were come to Winter hill to try our skill, Which gave the British a fright to quit Bunker hill in the night, and the British army and fleet made a quick retreat. And the Boston people were glad to see it.
As Burnham told it, the British military evacuated Boston not because Gen. William Howe had already convinced the government in London that there was no value in holding Boston, and not because of the cannon the Americans moved onto Dorchester Heights in March, but because of a parade of New Hampshire militiamen at the end of January. I’ll give Burnham the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he might have told this tall tale with a wink.

What does Col. Burnham’s story have to do with my talk tonight at the Concord Museum about the Ephraim Moors powder horn? I’ll present evidence that Moors was a young militia private who came to Massachusetts in one of those thirty-one New Hampshire regiments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Immoderately Proud to Be Moderating Two Events

I have to take this week in moderation because I find myself moderating two events that touch on Revolutionary history.

First, tonight at 7:00 P.M. is Ted Widmer’s talk on “A Test Case for America: Washington, Longfellow, and the Jewish Community at Newport” at Cambridge Forum. [ADDENDUM at 2:00: I’m sorry to report that this event has been canceled because Widmer is ill. We hope to reschedule in the fall.]

Widmer is director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, and author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City, Ark of the Liberties: Why American Freedom Matters to the World, and Martin Van Buren. He’s been both a presidential speechwriter and the lead singer of the Upper Crust rock band. His oped “Reagan at the Wall” appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.

My job as moderator this evening will be to introduce Ted Widmer, try not to take notes too conspicuously, and manage the question period. The overlap of religion and government in America has always been a delicate topic, and this election cycle has already brought up more issues. Cambridge Forum events are free and easily accessible in First Parish, Cambridge, right across the street from one entrance to the Harvard subway station.

Sunday, 17 June, is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill and the occasion of the annual meeting of the Bunker Hill Monument Association. That afternoon I’ll moderate an event for members, a healthy debate between Paul O’Shaughnessey, representing His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, and Thomas Coots, representing Col. Thomas Gardner’s regiment of Middlesex County militia. Who actually won the battle? What might the commanders have done differently?

In between those dates, of course, I’ll share what I’ve figured out about the Ephraim Moors powder horn at the Concord Museum on Thursday, 14 June, at 7:00 P.M.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gen. Charles Lee’s Recruiting Tactics

This is another extract from the diary of Pvt. Simeon Lyman of Connecticut, stationed on the north wing of the Continental siege lines in the fall of 1775. Although it says nothing about the powder horn Lyman carved in October, I think it has a direct connection to the military career of horn-carver Ephraim Moors, as I’ll discuss at the Concord Museum on Thursday.

The Connecticut soldiers’ enlistments were due to run out in early December. Gen. George Washington and his field commanders were worried that the departure of those men would leave the army too weak to contain the British inside Boston. They wanted those men to reenlist for the new year, or at least to stay until the arrival of fill-in militia regiments. And they weren’t above using any tactic to get the men to agree.

Lyman wrote:

December, Friday, 1th. We was ordered to parade before the general’s door, the whole regiment, and General [Charles] Lee and General [John] Solivan came out, and those that would not stay 4 days longer after their enlistments was out they was ordered to turn out, and there was about 3 quarters turned out and we was ordered to form a hollow square, and General Lee came in and the first words was “Men, I do not know what to call you, [you] are the worst of all creatures,” and flung and curst and swore at us, and said if we would not stay he would order us to go on Bunker Hill and if we would not go he would order the riflemen to fire at us, and they talked they would take our guns and take our names down, and our lieutenants begged of us to stay and we went and joined the rest, and they got about 10 of their guns, and the men was marched off and the general said that they should go to the work house and be confined, and they agreed to stay the four days, and they gave them a dram and the colonel told us that he would give us another the next morning, and we was dismissed. There was one that was a mind to have one of his mates turn out with him, and the general see him and he catched his gun out of his hands and struck him on the head and ordered him to be put under guard.

Saturday, 2th. I was on quarter guard in the morning. They was paraded before the colo[nel’s] door and he gave us a dram, and then they read some new orders to us and they said that we must not go out of our brigade without a written pass from our captain, and before night there was a paper set up on the general’s door not to let the soldiers have any victual if they would not stay 3 weeks longer, and they said that they was 50 miles in the country, and some was mad and said they would not stay the 4 days, and the paper was took down as soon as it was dark, and another put up that General Lee was a fool and if he had not come here we should not know it.
When Lee had arrived in Massachusetts in July, he was welcomed as a celebrated military expert. He was still the most respected professional soldier in the army, soon to be detailed to Newport and New York to oversee defenses there. So that message from the Connecticut men was a bold show of disrespect. But of course he was accusing soldiers who had served their promised time of being no better than deserters.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Simeon Lyman Carves a Horn

In the course of researching my talk on Thursday at the Concord Museum about the Ephraim Moors powder horn, I came across this extract from the diary of Pvt. Simeon Lyman of Sharon, Connecticut. He was stationed on the northern wing of the siege lines outside Boston in October 1775.
Friday, 13th. I went to Cambridge to get some walnuts and see the College.

Saturday, 14th. I went to carry victuals to the guard and viewing the forts and the regulars.

Sunday, 15th. Our minister preached 2 sermons. He preached from Dutrinomy 23rd and 9th verse in the forenoon and afternoon, and he preached 2 very good sermons to the soldiers how it was best for us to do and what not to do.

Monday, 16th. We built a chimney to our tent and mended our old trousers.

Tuesday, 17th. I went to tend mason to build chimneys to the barracks, and I listed to tend till the chimneys was done, and I was to be cleared from all duty and have a gill of rum a day.

Wesdnesday, 18th. I went to Mistick [Medford] and got a horn and some apples. I sent a hand to work at the chimneys, and there was some that went to the head of the works and said that we would not stay only a day or 2, so we was dismissed.

Thursday, 19th. It rained, and I worked at my horn the most of the day.

Friday, 20th. It rained, and I finished my horn and went up to Mistick and got some apples.
Lyman’s horn doesn’t survive, as least as far as I know, so I have no idea of how elaborately he carved it. But it was only three days’ work—given that Lyman had apparently gotten off other duty because he had volunteered to build chimneys, but then couldn’t build chimneys because of the rain.

Lyman’s diary is full of the details of daily life like this (especially laundry, for some reason). But he had rather little to say about military actions.

[Image of the Historic Deerfield powder horn collection, on display through the summer and fall, courtesy of The Horn Guild, a guild of contemporary horn workers and collectors.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The New Chronicles of Old Boston

Yesterday I shared the first half of an interview with Charles Bahne, long-time chronicler of Boston and author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail. Charlie has a new book this spring, published by Museyon Guides, so our conversation turned to that.

In brief, what are the eighteenth-century stories in Chronicles of Old Boston?

My editor and I strove for a mix of famous and obscure, Patriot and Loyalist. And my editor, Heather Corcoran, was really big on scandal and intrigue, sex and crime.

Paul Revere’s ride and the Tea Party were obvious choices. But I put a twist on the story of the Tea Party by making Governor Thomas Hutchinson the most important personage in that chapter. His intransigence was a major reason why the tea was dumped. And I think one reason for his stubbornness was that his family had a significant financial stake in the landing of the tea.

The case of Dr. Benjamin Church was perfect for the scandal, intrigue, and sex angle. And I included John Hancock because he’s been neglected by recent historians. We all know about his big signature on the Declaration of Independence, but not much else about him has been in the popular media recently.

Henry Knox and Dorchester Heights is an important story that’s been largely forgotten in recent years. Likewise, everyone in Boston (and every visitor) now knows about Faneuil Hall, but few know who Peter Faneuil was. Lastly, the story of the Boston Massacre is another one that’s widely mentioned, but whose details are largely unknown.

So that’s seven chapters—nearly a quarter of the book—dealing with the eighteenth century: Peter Faneuil, John Hancock, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, Paul Revere, Benjamin Church, and Henry Knox.

Chronicles of Old Boston talks about considerably more than the Revolution. What’s the full scope of the book? How did you decide what stories to include?

The book begins with John Winthrop and ends with John F. Kennedy, that is, 1630 to 1960. I ended the text with JFK’s famous speech quoting Governor Winthrop, when Kennedy was departing Boston to be sworn in as President. I thought that closing the circle in that manner was a nice concluding touch.

Thirteen chapters are devoted to the nineteenth century, which is appropriate because that was the city’s biggest era of expansion. There are two chapters on the seventeenth century, and seven on the twentieth century.

It was very easy to come up with my first list of potential chapters; many of them were subjects that I’d done research on already, or that I’d been intrigued by in the past. The hard part was winnowing that list down to something that would fit in the book. Those decisions were made jointly by Heather and myself. Sometimes the decision was made for us because I couldn’t find good sources of material to write about. Others got left on the cutting room floor due to lack of space.

Imagine that you’re preparing a revised edition of Chronicles of Old Boston twenty years from now. What Boston saga from your own lifetime would you include with the rest?

As I noted earlier, my editor wanted to include a lot of crime and scandal. She was pushing hard to include a chapter on Whitey Bulger. I’m glad I said no on that one because—as we know now—the material would have been outdated before the book could have been published. But in 20 or 25 years, Whitey would definitely be my first choice of chapters to add.

And by then the crimefighters may have solved the mystery of the Gardner Museum theft. Who knows? Maybe that involves Whitey, too.

Before I conclude, John, I want to offer my thanks to you, both for this interview (and for the opportunity to plug the book) and for making the book possible in the first place. If you recall, you’d provided my name to the publisher when they were looking for a possible author. I really appreciate that.

I also want to thank Heather Corcoran, my editor. It really was a joy to work with her. She’s taken my rough manuscript and turned it into a really wonderful book. And she was responsible for overseeing all the photos, maps, and other layout aspects.

And thank you, Charlie!

Chronicles of Old Boston will be launched at a free event at Old South Meeting House on Wednesday, 13 June, at 6:00. Here’s your chance to meet Charlie, ask your Boston history questions, and pick up an autographed copy of his book!

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Interview with Local Historian Charles Bahne

Today Boston 1775 offers the first part of an interview with Charles Bahne, local historian, tour guide, author, and (most important) occasional guest blogger here.

You can review Charlie’s essays on local milestones, the cobblestones that mark the site of the Boston Massacre, the tea in the Boston Tea Party, and the painting that might have inspired the popular name of that event. And here’s the interview.

What was your introduction to Boston and its history?

I came to Boston as a college freshman from Indianapolis, intending to study math or science. Of course, Boston’s role in the Revolution had been taught in my high school history classes, but I’d totally forgotten about that by the time I got here. A few weeks after my arrival as a freshman, some of my classmates and I went on an expedition to get produce at Haymarket, which we’d vaguely heard about. We got hopelessly lost in the North End, and then we came upon the statue of Paul Revere galloping away from the Old North Church.

A photo of that statue had been on the front cover of my eighth-grade American history textbook; I’d looked at that picture almost every day for a full school year. And now I had just chanced upon it while wandering through the city, looking to buy some fruit. That’s still one of my favorite things about Boston—history lurks around every corner, without your actively looking for it.

I ended up majoring in Urban Studies and Planning, and in one of my classes the professors and lecturers were talking about their work planning for the hordes of tourists that would be coming to town during the upcoming Bicentennial. So that sparked my interest in Boston’s history, so to speak. I did several college projects about local history, but after I graduated I went in other directions for a while.

Although I was in Boston during the Bicentennial, I wasn’t really involved with history at the time. A couple of years later, I saw an ad for Boston By Foot, which was looking for volunteer guides. I answered it, and the rest, as they say, was history.

How has the city’s approach to its Revolutionary history changed since you started working in the field? What major changes have you seen?

I began working at the Old State House in 1980, and later with the National Park Service. My understanding is that the large numbers of tourists who started coming to Boston for the Bicentennial have never really gone away since then.

The local history field became much more professional during and after the Bicentennial. For the Bicentennial, a number of academically-inclined professionals—including some city planners—created historically accurate guidebooks, museum exhibits, and other resources about the events of the Revolution. The National Park Service came to Boston about that time, too, in 1974. And over the next two decades, you really saw the professionalization of the staff at the city’s historic sites. As late as the early 1980s, some of them were still basically old boys’ clubs, run by descendants of Boston’s fabled “brahmins”.

The last decade, though, has seen an increased commercialization of tourism, and the advent of “edutainment”. Wikipedia says that term was invented by Disney; whether that’s true or not, Disney-like approaches to history are seemingly becoming the norm. Pirates, for example, were a staple of Disney’s TV shows when I was growing up; now they’ve become a favorite topic of some of the city’s tour operators. Colonial Boston never had that much involvement with real pirates, but you can’t walk the streets of old Boston today without encountering at least one swashbuckling tour guide.

How did you come to publish your first book, The Complete Guide to the Freedom Trail?

One of my roles at the Old State House in the early 1980s was to work in the museum shop. Visitors were asking if we had a good guidebook to the Freedom Trail, but the best I could recommend was a book from the 1940s—written before anyone even conceived of putting a red brick line on the sidewalk. So I saw that the market was there, and I created a book to fill that need.

A good part of that book’s first edition was written during my down time with the Bostonian Society, and later with the Park Service—especially in the winter, when things were really quiet. I guess I’m like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote much of The Scarlet Letter at the Custom House in Salem.

How has writing and researching changed since you wrote your first book 27 years ago?

It’s unbelievable. So much historic material is now available on the internet, almost instantaneously, 24 hours a day. Back then it would have taken me years of going to libraries to do the research that I can now accomplish in just a few weeks over the web. You always have to be careful with the web, of course, but the vast majority of 19th-century books are now on the web in full text.

And the writing has changed, too. When I first wrote The Complete Guide, everything had to be written first in pencil and then typed on a typewriter. If you made too many mistakes, you had to retype the entire page from scratch. And then I had to retype everything again into the typesetting equipment—there was no way to “capture the keystrokes”, as they say now.

Now I simply type everything into my computer, e-mail it to my publisher, and the book designer pastes the file into a layout program. I didn’t even make as many printouts as I used to do with my older computer.

TOMORROW: What’s new from Charles Bahne.

Friday, June 08, 2012

A Close Look at Ephraim Moors’s Powder Horn

The photo above shows part of a powder horn that’s among the remarkable Revolutionary items in the exhibit “The Object of History: Colonial Treasures from the Massachusetts Historical Society,” now at the Concord Museum.

This view includes a crude drawing of the Continental Army encampment on Winter Hill, five grenadiers, a mansion house, the head of a beast, some decorative foliage, and (upside-down at the top) the name “Ephraim Moors,” claiming the horn. Aside from what the carving itself says and the name of the sea captain who donated it to the society, almost nothing else is known about this object.

On Thursday, 14 June, at 7:00, I’ll speak about this powder horn at the Concord Museum. I’ve been investigating its details, forming hypotheses, and putting together a presentation on three questions:
  • How can we tell this horn is an authentic relic of the Revolutionary War?
  • What does the carving on this horn express about the siege of Boston?
  • Who was Ephraim Moors, and what was he doing in Cambridge at the end of 1775?
This talk is free, but the museum asks folks to call 978-369-9763 to reserve seats. The “Object of History” exhibit is on view only a few more days, until 17 June.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Jacob Osgood’s House Today

I’ve been writing about the death of James Otis, Jr., in Andover at a house owned by the Osgood family. That house still exists, and is listed on this Andover Historic Preservation website maintained by the town library. It describes the house and its history:
Isaac [Osgood]’s fourth son, Jacob, inherited the property and was a wealthy and highly respected farmer. He served in Nicholas Holt’s company during the Revolutionary War and was friend and host to James Otis, the patriot lawyer and orator. Otis spent nearly two years at the Osgood farm recuperating form a head injury and was killed here by lightening [sic] in 1783. Osgoods occupied the house until 1849; of the following owners the most historically significant has been Wadley Noyes, who kept an inn and tavern here from 1853-1863.

The awkwardly composed design reflects its centuries of architectural growth. The original building consisted of four rooms built around a central chimney; Isaac Osgood is thought to have added the eastern part of the house (making its L shape) and the northeast corner wing. The pretentiousness of this status-conscious owner is reflected in the buildings dignified window cornices—uncommon in Andover—fine pedimented doorway, large windows, and hipped roof.
A Boston 1775 reader alerted me that house has also become the focus of a local controversy as the current owner has stored large piles of trash bags on the property. After two items in the Andover Townsman in early February pushed for action, the town board of health found evidence that those heaps were endangering the public and ordered them removed. In April the board of health went to court to enforce that order. The photograph above accompanied one of those February articles.

In May a Boston Globe article linked the problem to compulsive hoarding, a behavior that appears to be receiving extra attention lately because it’s so telegenic. Whether or not that diagnosis has anything to do with the property’s current situation is another question. But there’s some historical irony in the house where James Otis, Jr., went to recover from one mental condition being linked to another.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

“He spoke of ‘Jimmy’ Otis”

In 1897, the year after the Boston Transcript and other periodicals published a new anecdote about James Otis, Jr.’s death in Andover in 1783, prolific historian Samuel Adams Drake wrote in In Our Colonial Homes about searching for the home where that happened:
I chanced upon a villager who had been a farm-hand on the place more than seventy years before. He spoke of “Jimmy” Otis as familiarly as if he had been on terms of personal intimacy with him, and glibly told, as he walked along by the side of his oxen, such little scraps of family tradition as had been treasured up relative to one of the most gifted and unfortunate of men. . . .

How much I would have given for a few minutes with some one who had seen and could appreciate such a man as Otis! I learned that he was very fat, a great gourmand, and “Oh, such a funny man!” I was shown the spot where he stood when struck down. To paraphrase an old saying for the nonce, I have learned that in pilgrimages of this sort, one must carry his information under the folds of his mantle.

Any search for actual memorials of this most unfortunate of men would be unavailing. We may recover only a few details concerning the manner of his death.
Clearly Drake had concluded that the old “villager” didn’t have any details worth adding. And that opinion was probably reinforced when he listened to a woman inside the old Osgood house:
…the blood of Otis had formerly bespattered the door; but then—and she seemed to say it regretfully—the door had been painted over by some thoughtless person, and all traces thoroughly obliterated. As to that story, it is known that there were neither marks of any kind on the body of Otis, nor the least distortion of his features.
According to the 1823 biography of Otis by William Tudor, Jr., that is. Drake based his own description of Otis’s death on that book.

Drake’s skepticism is especially striking to me because in books like Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston he seemed willing to repeat nearly any story he had come across. But the old villager’s familiarity with “Jimmy” Otis turned him off, and he resented the woman’s regret at not showing him the Patriot’s blood. Drake clearly felt these people could not “appreciate such a man as Otis!”

Now it’s possible that the Osgood family’s description of Otis’s death cleaned up the event considerably while working-class people in Andover preserved the real details, and Drake’s snobbery caused him not to believe them. But Drake’s anecdote suggests that before the 1890s the town’s residents had become somewhat practiced at telling visitors dramatic stories about the late Patriot. Indeed, Drake’s informant might have been the same man who told the Boston Transcript writer about fetching cider for Otis. I’m therefore more dubious about that late-appearing anecdote.

[Photograph of Samuel Adams Drake’s gravestone in Melrose by “Mr. Ducke” via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.]

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Another Look at James Otis’s Death

On 28 Jan 1896, this item appeared in the New York Times, which credited the Boston Transcript:

James Otis was killed by a stroke of lightning in Andover, Mass., at the old Isaac Osgood farm, May, 1783. Mr. Otis wanted a mug of cider. The hired man went into the cellar to draw the cider, leaving the cellar door open. Mr. Otis was standing in the doorway at the side of the house looking at the clouds, remarking that a heavy shower was coming up. Scarcely had the words been spoken when the bolt came down, struck Mr. Otis and killed him instantly, then passed into a large beam to the cellar, where it went off into the ground. The hole in the beam was large enough to thrust one’s arm down, as the writer has done when visiting at the Osgood farm.
Other publications picked up the item at the same time. None named the writer of the original Transcript article, and indeed the writer’s name might never have been printed. Yet this anecdote was clearly written from the point of view of the “hired man” inside the cellar, looking out the open door.

This version of Otis’s death contradicts how William Tudor, Jr., described that event in his 1823 biography of the Patriot (quoted yesterday), which appears to derive from talks with Osgood family memories. According to them, Otis was in a doorway inside the house, telling a story. According to the hired man, he was in an outside doorway, had asked for cider, and was talking about the weather. Yet the tellers of both anecdotes pointed to lasting marks of the lightning strike on beams of the house—but what appear to be different beams.

Did the hired man or his family and friends reshape events to make him a more central figure in Otis’s death, or to create some lesson about the dangers of asking for too much cider? Did the Osgoods turn a common death into something more refined, with no mention of his drinking?

TOMORROW: Telling stories about Otis in Andover from the 1890s.

Monday, June 04, 2012

James Otis, Jr., Struck by Lightning

The first biography of James Otis, Jr., published in 1823 by William Tudor, Jr., described the Patriot lawyer’s death in Andover this way:

…on Friday afternoon the 23d day of May 1783, a heavy cloud suddenly arose, and the greater part of the family were collected in one of the rooms to wait till the shower should have past. Otis, with his cane in one hand, stood against the post of the door which opened from this apartment into the front entry.* He was in the act of telling the assembled group a story, when an explosion took place which seemed to shake the solid earth, and he fell without a struggle, or a word, instantaneously dead, into the arms of Mr. [Jacob] Osgood, who seeing him falling, sprang forward to receive him. This flash of lightning was the first that came from the cloud, and was not followed by any others that were remarkable. . . .

* His own room was on the left hand side of the front door, when looking at the plate [shown above]; and at his death, he was standing in the door way of the room to the right. The lightning struck the chimney, followed a rafter of the roof which rested upon one of the upright timbers, to which the door post was contiguous. The casing of this door was split, and several of the nails torn out all which marks still remain as they were at the time.
Tudor obviously received these details from the family of Jacob Osgood (1752-1838)—though not descendants, since that man didn’t leave any. A few pages earlier Tudor recorded an anecdote about Otis from Jacob’s younger brother, Revolutionary surgeon Kendall Osgood (1757-1801), who left children in New Hampshire. An older brother, the Rev. Dr. David Osgood (1747-1822), was a prominent minister in Medford and also had children. The house still belonged to the Osgood family when Tudor wrote, and he evidently visited the property.

But by the end of the 1800s, another story had sprung up.

TOMORROW: The hired man speaks?