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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Monday, September 22, 2014

A Clue to the Poet in Ezekiel Russell’s Print Shop?

The September 2014 issue of the American Antiquarian Society’s Almanac magazine reports on the recent acquisition of a 1787 broadside headlined “A Poem, Descriptive of the Terrible Fire, which Made such Shocking Devastation in Boston.” (The picture here is the Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s diagram of the area of that fire in the South End.)

Ezekiel Russell printed three versions of this broadside, all featuring the same woodcut of a fire but with different type layouts below that. The magazine says:
Two versions (one owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the other by the John Carter Brown Library) were documented in early bibliographies. The third version was unrecorded before it was acquired by AAS this April.

The authorship of the poem is credited on all three broadsides to “H.W.” The AAS printing significantly reveals that the author was an unmarried woman by crediting the text to a ”Miss H.--- W.---.” Consequently, all three sheets can be added to the just over 200 texts written by women in the United States before 1788.
When looking into that further, I came across WorldCat’s description of the broadside, which includes the line:
Responsibility: Composed by H----h W----n.
I can’t reconcile those final Ns with the magazine’s commentary, though.

Putting that mystery aside, longtime Boston 1775 readers might recall how Isaiah Thomas, printer and founder of the A.A.S., wrote about a woman writing memorial verses for Russell to publish. In the first edition of his History of Printing in America, Thomas credited those verses to Russell’s wife, who I found was named Sarah. In notes incorporated in that book’s posthumous second edition, Thomas changed that reference to “a young woman who lived in Russell’s family.” Was Thomas referring to “H.W.”?

Personally I suspect that Sarah Russell also wrote verses for her husband. She certainly helped keep the shop running from the early 1770s, and it was issuing those sorts of poetic broadsides back then.

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