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, August 19, 2015

Phillis Wheatley and Susanna Wooldridge

Yesterday I proposed that Phillis Wheatley wrote her “Ode to Neptune” about Susanna Wooldridge (sometimes spelled “Woolridge”). Here’s my argument.

On 29 Aug 1771, the New-York Journal ran this piece of news from London:
Saturday last was married, Thomas Wooldridge, Esq; Provost Marshal General, and Receiver General of his Majesty’s province of East-Florida, also Fort Adjutant and Barrack-master of Fort St. Marks, to Miss Kelly, daughter of William Kelly, Esq; of John street, Crutched Friers.
“Crutched Friars” was a newly fashionable neighborhood in the City of London near Tower Hill, named after a monastery closed by Henry VIII and burned in the Great Fire. Kelly later moved into “The Crescent” nearby, shown above in its modern form.

That wedding notice was meaningful for New Yorkers because the bride’s father did a lot of business in the city, and in America. William Kelly was a partner of Abraham Lott, treasurer of New York colony. He invested in the Great Dismal Swamp Company. In the summer of 1773, the East India Company invited Kelly along with select other merchants to discuss shipping tea to America. His business associates and executors included Brook Watson of shark fame.

Kelly’s August 1774 will, written when he was “in Bath for the recovery of a Numbness that has attacked me in my feet,” gives the name of the daughter who married Thomas Wooldridge as Susanna. It also indicates that before the marriage Kelly had promised Wooldridge “£3,000 in lands in the Provinces of New York and New Jersey” while arranging £2,000 for Susanna “free from the debts and control of her husband.”

Thomas Wooldridge has already made an appearance on Boston 1775. My description of him back then was based on his correspondence with the Earl of Dartmouth, mostly about patronage positions in Florida mentioned in the wedding notice above. In 1772 Wooldridge was back in America, traveling around and currying favor by sending Dartmouth various dispatches, an effort that promised to pay off when the earl became Secretary of State.

Among the people Wooldridge met in America, as I described before, was Phillis Wheatley. On 24 Nov 1772 he sent Dartmouth a letter telling how she’d answered his challenge to compose a poem as he watched. He enclosed the result, “To the Earl of Dartmouth,” and Wheatley’s personal letter. Those documents are dated 10 October—the same date as her “Ode to Neptune.” Later that month, he stood sponsor for a baby during a baptism at King’s Chapel and then he went back to New York to write his report to Dartmouth.

I don’t have evidence that Thomas Wooldridge had brought his bride to America and that she was planning to sail back home to London toward the end of 1772. But I think that was the case. She’s certainly a “Mrs. W——” who could be addressed as “Susannah.” Perhaps Susanna Wooldridge came to Boston with her husband and met Wheatley. Perhaps Thomas asked the enslaved poet for a special composition which he could bring back to his wife in New York. But this seems like a more logical story for that poem than that Wheatley wrote it for Susannah Wheatley (who never sailed abroad) or Patience Wright (who never went by “Susannah”).

Under my scenario, “Ode to Neptune” isn’t Phillis Wheatley’s plea for smooth sailing for her beloved mistress or for an artistic colleague, but a well-crafted commission in classical style created for a well-connected patron. Wheatley was adept at that aspect of an eighteenth-century author’s life, just as she was adept with words.

TOMORROW: Thomas and Susanna Wooldridge in London during the war.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Great sleuthing as usual, John!

Joe Bauman said...

Brilliant sleuthing, Mr. Bell!

J. L. Bell said...

Vincent Carretta, latest and most thorough biographer of Phillis Wheatley, adds that Mrs. Wooldridge did accompany her husband to America. The 12 July 1773 New-York Gazette reported that “Thomas Woolridge, Esq; and his Lady” sailed from the city that month. Still a question about whether she ever came to Boston.