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, August 29, 2016

The Fleeting Facts of Moll Pitcher’s Life

Authors disagree about Mary (Moll) Pitcher’s family background. When she died in 1813, she was said to be seventy-five years old, meaning she was born around 1738. No birth or baptism records have been found to match or confirm that.

In his 1844 revision of his History of Lynn, Alonzo Lewis wrote: “Her grand-father, John Dimond, lived at Marblehead, and for many years exercised the same pretensions [to foretelling the future]. Her father, Capt. John Dimond, was master of a vessel from that place, and was living in 1770.”

However, James R. Newhall wrote in his description of Lynn in the 1888 History of Essex County that Mary Pitcher’s father was named Aholiab Diamond while her grandfather was “Captain John Diamond, of Marblehead.” Newhall later edited and revised Lewis’s book, reproducing Mary Pitcher’s signature but leaving out most details about her.

Samuel Roads, Jr.’s The History and Traditions of Marblehead (1880) hints in yet another direction. It suggests that “the famous ‘old Dimond’ of whom such fabulous stories were told and believed” was named Edward Diamond. “It was said that he was a wizard, and possessed the ‘black art’—which enabled him to foretell coming events, to avert disasters from his friends, and bring distress upon his enemies.” Subsequent authors identified Edward Diamond as inhabitant of the house shown above and Moll Pitcher’s fabled grandfather. More recently, John Hardy Wright’s Marblehead says he was her great-uncle. Or he could have been her great-grandfather by that name, who reportedly lived until 1732.

Writing in the Essex Antiquarian in 1899, Sidney Perley agreed with Newhall that Mary’s father was Aholiab Diamond. The vital records of Lynn say that Aholiab Dimond, “cordwainer, s[on of]. Aholiab, of Marblehead, shoreman,” married Lydia Sillsbee on 11 Dec 1735. The groom was then twenty-five years old, his birth having been recorded in Marblehead.

Perley appears to have rested his case for this paternity on real estate records. In 1738 Lydia’s father conveyed to Aholiab Diamond some land in Lynn in an area known as Wood-end Rocks. Aholiab built a small house there on what would become Essex Street, and Mary inherited that house around 1768. That’s where she received clients for decades until her death.

On 2 Oct 1760 Mary Dimond married Robert Pitcher in Lynn, according to the town’s vital records. Lewis identified Pitcher as a shoemaker, and Perley speculated that he had been one of Aholiab Diamond’s apprentices. Lewis stated that the couple had “one son, John, and three daughters, Rebecca, Ruth, and Lydia.” They don’t appear in town vital records, however, until the daughters start to marry in 1785.

A John Pitcher of Lynn married Lydia Twison of Marblehead in 1799 and died of consumption at the age of twenty-five in 1803. If that was Robert and Mary’s son, he was born in 1778 when his mother was about forty. The couple might well have had other children who didn’t survive.

In his 1844 book Alonzo Lewis, who was born in Lynn in 1794, described Mary Pitcher this way:
She was of the medium height and size for a woman, with a good form and agreeable manners. Her head, phrenologically considered, was somewhat capacious; her forehead broad and full, her hair dark brown, her nose inclining to long, and her face pale and thin. There was nothing gross or sensual in her appearance—her countenance was rather intellectual; and she had that contour of face and expression, which, without being positively beautiful, is, nevertheless, decidedly interesting—a thoughtful, pensive, and sometimes down-cast look, almost approaching to melancholy—an eye, when it looked at you, of calm and keen penetration—and an expression of intelligent discernment, half mingled with a glance of shrewdness.
By that point John Greenleaf Whittier had promulgated a much less flattering description in the poem Moll Pitcher. Whittier wasn’t from Lynn and had never known Pitcher; he was simply replicating the stereotype of a witch, and Lewis wanted to correct that notion.

Lewis also justified Mary Pitcher’s profession, writing, “She took a poor man for a husband, and then adopted what she doubtless thought the harmless employment of fortune-telling, in order to support her children.” And, “She supported her family by her skill, and she was benevolent in her disposition. She has been known to rise before sunrise, walk two miles to a mill, purchase a quantity of meal, and carry it to a poor widow, who would otherwise have had no breakfast for her children.”

TOMORROW: What did people ask Mary Pitcher to do?

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