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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Thursday, December 11, 2014

James Otis in Hull

Back in October I left James Otis, Jr., “non compos mentis” in 1772, with Boston’s voters finally concluding that he lacked the mental stability to remain in office.

Otis’s family sent him out to the South Shore town of Hull. In 1866 someone writing in the Historical Magazine under the pseudonym “Shawmut” described what he had heard about Otis from his father, who grew up in that town:
He occupied a front chamber of the mansion of Captain Daniel Souther [1727-1797], formerly of the Royal Navy. . . . Being a restless person, and disturbed with sleepless nights, he would, for exercise, gather, at twilight, large flat blue stones from the beach, and pave the yard around the house. Vestiges of this labor, partly overgrown with grass, and an embankment of stones, which, with his own hands, he erected at the foot of the elevation behind the mansion, are yet remaining, and are preserved unaltered, with peculiar veneration, by the occupants.

James Otis often wandered to adjoining towns. One time, Captain Souther found him on the five-mile beach that leads to Hingham. On dismounting from his horse, Otis jumped upon it, and returned to the village with lightning speed, leaving the naval veteran to find his way home on foot. Being lame and infirm, on his arrival home he remonstrated with Otis at such conduct, who replied, with a smile, that the horse raced as if he had a thousand legs. At another period, Otis fired a gun up the old-fashioned chimney, making a tremendous racket, which he regarded as a very amusing act.

The father of the writer of this article has often related that when he was about ten years of age, his birth-place being on the estate adjoining Captain Souther’s mansion, our patriot, who was fond of children, instructed him in the polite art of dancing in the captain’s yard; and, often imagining himself a military officer, Otis would gather the boys of Hull in a body to march around the village, and many were the youthful games in which he would initiate them, which made him a great favorite with young people.
Among those young people of Hull was Susanna Haswell, ten-year-old daughter of another Royal Navy retiree. When she died in 1824, having become the best-selling novelist Susanna Rowson (shown above), the Port-folio reported about her childhood:
While she resided in Massachusetts, she had frequent opportunities of seeing that great orator, and lawyer, James Otis, then one of the most influential men in America. Much pains had been bestowed on her education, and this learned and enthusiastic scholar was delighted with her early display of talents, and called her his little pupil. This intimacy she recollected with pleasure and pride, in every period of her life.
In later retellings of this story, “little pupil” changed into “little scholar,” but the sentiment remained.

TOMORROW: More Otis anecdotes from Hull.

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