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, March 23, 2014

Molly Stark, Medford, and Myths

Gen. John Stark’s wife Elizabeth, nicknamed Molly, became a very popular historical figure during the Colonial Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

She served New Hampshire and (given the Battle of Bennington, though it was actually fought inside New York) Vermont as a local heroine. Anecdotes managed to portray her both as a gentle hostess and nurse and as a brave, hardy frontier woman.

Among those anecdotes was her own tale of watching Col. Stark climb Copp’s Hill at the end of the siege of Boston to be sure that the British had actually evacuated, as I quoted yesterday. In 1909 the Daughters of the American Revolution’s American Monthly Magazine recounted that story as it had appeared in the Stark family memoir. However, other books and periodicals retold the story in new ways.

The center of those retellings was Medford’s Royall House (shown above). Col. Stark appropriated that mansion in the spring of 1775 as his headquarters, though the details of his family’s story of that move are unreliable. I can’t tell how long Stark lived there. His regiment was eventually stationed on Winter Hill. Gen. George Washington’s letters and other documents show that Gen. Charles Lee and later Gen. John Sullivan used the Royall house as their headquarters later in the siege, but it had room for lots of officers. By bringing Molly Stark into the mansion full of military men, its guardians made both her and the site seem more domestic.

In retelling the story of how Mrs. Stark had watched her husband’s military action from afar, those authors took her off her horse and put her in (or on) the Royall House. In 1915 House Beautiful told its readers, “The steep, narrow staircase to the attic is called the ‘Molly Stark’ staircase, because it was up these steps she ran to watch the evacuation of Boston by the British.” Robert Shackleton’s Book of Boston (1916) stated:
In this house General Stark early made his headquarters; and his wife, pleasantly remembered as “Molly Stark,” watched from the roof the topmasts of the British ships, in the distance, as they moved out of the harbor at the evacuation of Boston.
That wasn’t precisely what the Stark family memoir had described Mrs. Stark watching, but at least it was on the same date.

Other authors changed the event. In Historic Shrines of America (1918), John T. Faris wrote:
Under the direction of Molly Stark the house maintained its reputation for hospitality, and she did her best to make the place the abode of patriotism. On the day when the British evacuated Boston she promised her husband to signal to him from the roof the movements of the enemy. Passing on with his soldiers to Dorchester Heights, he anxiously awaited the news sent to him by his faithful Molly.
The Continental Army moved onto the Dorchester peninsula on the night of 4-5 March, almost two weeks before the evacuation. Stark’s New Hampshire regiments weren’t involved; they were helping to hold the northern wing of the siege lines. And if it’s hard to imagine Molly Stark seeing the British fleet sail from Boston harbor, picture her signaling to her husband all the way over in Dorchester.

Meanwhile, in 1913 the Massachusetts Library Club Bulletin said of the Royall House, “It is rumored, but not confirmed, that Molly Stark watched the battle of Bunker Hill from its windows.” In March 1921 the Medford Historical Register noted a particular upper window as where, “it is said, Molly Stark looked anxiously on the eventful day of Bunker hill.” That was, of course, months earlier.

Obviously, I don’t think those disparate stories are reliable, and I’m still looking for solid evidence that Col. Stark’s wife visited him in the Royall House.


Joe Bauman said...

And I'm sure you know about Gen. Stark's supposed comment regarding Molly at Bennington.

J. L. Bell said...

I've started to gather material for an essay on that.