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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Saturday, April 11, 2015

“Elizabeth went from hence with the said Leonard Brown”

Elizabeth Otis was born in Boston on 28 Mar 1757, the oldest child of James Otis, Jr., and his wife, the former Ruth Cunningham. Betsy was a small child when her father broke with Massachusetts’s “court party” and the royal patronage system in favor of championing Boston’s Whig merchants through electoral politics. She was twelve years old when her father had his first serious bout of insanity.

As I discussed way back here, Ruth Otis remained politically Loyalist. And as her husband became non compos mentis, she naturally took an even bigger role in raising the children. Ruth and Betsy Otis remained in Boston during the siege while James was outside under doctor’s care.

On 25 Feb 1776, Betsy Otis married Lt. Leonard Brown of the King’s Own (4th) Regiment. According to an inscription in the church in Pinchbeck, Lincolnshire, Brown was born in 1749. He might have been in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and he was definitely wounded at Bunker Hill.

Boston town records of this marriage identify Brown as a gentleman (“Esq.”), but not an officer. The officiating minister was the Rev. Moses Badger, not one of Boston’s pastors but perhaps acting as a Royal Navy chaplain. Badger was a Harvard graduate from Haverhill who had converted from New England Congregationalism to the Anglican Church years earlier.

According to family traditions, Ruth Otis supported Betsy’s marriage, but James Otis was upset when he learned about it. Within a month, the couple evacuated with the royal army to Halifax. During the war, Brown was promoted to captain and reportedly “placed in command of one of the fortresses on the coast of England.”

In 1782, Betsy’s cousin Harrison Gray Otis later recalled, he brought James Otis down from his asylum in Andover to Boston, “at a period when my father [Samuel Allyne Otis] and his friends thought he was recovered.” During this journey, James Otis shared “delightfully instructive” observations about the law and as an exercise for his nephew started to compose his will.

That will, completed the next year, had little to offer his oldest child:

whereas the said Elizabeth went from hence with the said Leonard Brown at the evacuation of Boston to Halifax & thence for England & with him settled at Steaford [actually Sleaford] in Lincolnshire, and as I hear he has left his wife & joined the British Arm[y] again, and the last I hear is that she was in a consumption I give the said Elizabeth five shillings if alive.
James Otis died later in 1783, leaving the rest of his property to his widow, who had remained in Massachusetts, and his younger daughter, Mary, who married a son of Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. But what about Betsy?

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

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