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, September 24, 2014

Tracking Another Early American Female Poet

Folks from the American Antiquarian Society alerted me yesterday that its catalog entry for the broadside I’ve been discussing is the source of the credit “Composed by H----h W----n.” I’m not sure how that matches the newsletter article saying the document credits “H---. W---.,” but it does suggest a stronger tie to Hannah Wheaton.

We know that broadside came from the print shop of Ezekiel and Sarah Russell because its last line reads:
Sold next Lib. Pole: Where may be also had, the particulars of the late fire, and a poem composed by Miss J---y F--o, a sufferer.
That line thus offers evidence for another American woman publishing poetry by 1787, though her own broadside apparently doesn’t survive. So who was “J---y F--o”?

The name “Jenny” seems like a good guess, and fortunately it was a lot less common in eighteenth-century Boston than “Hannah.” A quick search took me to this page about Jenny Fenno, which appears to have been plagiarized from this Oxford Reference page behind a paywall. So I read the information, tsk-tsk’ing all the while over piracy.

“Jennet Fenno” was born on 26 May 1765, daughter of John and Katharine Fenno. Before the Revolutionary War that John Fenno was the keeper of the town granary, which stood on the site of the Park Street Church (shown above), and gave its name to the neighboring Granary Burying Ground. The 1787 broadside suggests that by that date Jenny Fenno was living in the South End, where the fire spread.

In 1791, “Miss J. Fenno” published Original Compositions in Prose and Verse on Subjects Moral and Religious from the press of Joseph Bumstead. That book included remarks on the fire of 1787, as well as elegies, pious verse, didactic essays, and praise for the British author Elizabeth Singer Rowe. Some remarks in that book indicate that Fenno was a member of Boston’s Second Baptist Church.

On 11 Nov 1794, that church’s minister married Jenny Fenno to James Ames of Bridgewater, a man six years younger than she and with an even more rhyming name. Nahum Mitchell’s history of Bridgewater (1897) and Ann Theobold Chaplin’s Descendants of William Ames (2004) indicate that James and now Jane Ames had children starting the next September, with sons Leonard (who died as a baby), another Leonard (“killed by the falling of a tree”), Franklin, and James, Jr.

Jane Ames’s book was republished in Wrentham in 1803, still credited to her maiden name. Two years later, the Boston printer and Baptist preacher Ensign Lincoln issued Compositions, Original and Selected, by “Mrs. Jane Ames.” It was a collection of Christian essays and poems. Three years after that, Lincoln and his new partner Thomas Edmands published Compositions, Original and Selected…Part Second.

Thus, Jenny Fenno/Jane Ames wrote for the public from 1787 to 1808, at least, while marrying and raising children. I don’t think anyone has indicated those two authors were the same before. According to Chaplin, the widow Ames died in Mansfield on 16 Sept 1849, aged eighty-four.

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