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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Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Original Molly Pitcher

As quoted yesterday, two publications from 1835—one in English and one in German—appear to be the first print appearances of the name “Molly Pitcher” in stories about a female artillerist at the Battle of Monmouth.

But that name had already appeared in print attached to a completely different person: a fortune-teller active in Lynn in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

An article about “Witchcraft” in the October 1825 issue of the Boston Monthly Magazine, edited by Samuel L. Knapp, mentioned “Moll Pitcher, of Lynn,” and stated: “she was so well known to most persons, that their recollections will be better than any description.” Pitcher was such a celebrity, at least locally, that she needed no introduction.

In 1829 Bernard Whitman published A Lecture on Popular Superstitions in Boston. He wrote:
Not many years ago, a man was suddenly missing from a certain town in this commonwealth. The church immediately sent one of her members to consult the far famed fortune telling Molly Pitcher. After making the necessary inquiries, she intimated that the absent person had been murdered by a family of negroes, and his body sunk in the deep waters behind their dwelling. Upon this evidence, the accused were forthwith imprisoned, and the pond raked in vain from shore to shore. A few days previous to the trial, the murdered man returned to his friends safe and sound; thus giving the naughty skeptics occasion to say, that the fortune teller, instead of receiving from the devil information of distant and future events, had actually played the very devil with the superstitious church.
I have no clue about the accuracy of that story, which Whitman told with a frustratingly low number of specifics that can be tracked down.

In that same year, a more complimentary description of Pitcher appeared in the first edition of Alonzo Lewis’s History of Lynn:
The celebrated Mary Pitcher, a professed fortune teller, died on the ninth of April, 1813, at the age of 75 years. Her grandfather, John Diamond, lived at Marblehead, and was for many years celebrated for the exercise of the same pretensions. She was married to Robert Pitcher of Lynn, in 1760, and had several children.

This person has been more celebrated than any individual of her class in modern times. Not only was her name known in most towns throughout the United States, but probably there is not a port in Europe, visited by American ships, that has not heard of the skill of “Moll Pitcher.” Many persons came from places far remote, to consult with her on affairs of love or loss of property, or to obtain her surmises respecting the vicissitudes of their future fortune. Every youth who was not assured of the reciprocal affection of his fair one, and every maid who was desirous of anticipating the hour of her highest felicity, repaired at evening to the humble dwelling of Molly Pitcher, which stood on what was then a lonely road, near the foot of High Rock, with a single habitation nearly opposite, at the gate of which stood two bones of the great whale, which the waves of ocean, in the liberality of their power, had cast upon the beach.

To that place also were seen repairing sailors from the neighboring commercial towns, who were desirous of ascertaining the probable success of their future voyages. Many a reputable merchant too, of whose treasures on the faithless waves, the courier of intelligence had not brought the expected information, and being fearful of betraying the nature of his business by inquiring directly for “Moll Pitcher,” has raised a smile by asking in what part of the town he should find the bones of the great whale.

Her skill was principally exercised for the discovery of things lost, either material objects which had been mislaid or purloined, or the affections of some disconsolate fair one, which had taken the advantage of some favorable opportunity to elope. Her power of evil, if she possessed any, was never exerted, unless to punish such delinquents as refused to pay her for the knowledge which she pretended to impart. Some instances have been related, in which she has evinced an unusual degree of discernment; while in others her assertions have had no relation to facts, but appear to have been the result of mere guess work and presumption.

Her only ostensible means of obtaining secret knowledge, was the simple use of tea-grounds poured into a cup; and as the grains were disposed in a peculiar manner, or assumed a particular form, so she judged of the things to which she fancied a resemblance. She also availed herself of every ordinary mode of information, particularly by causing one of her domestics to talk with her visitors, to elicit the nature of their business, while she remained in an adjoining room, pretending to be absent. These arts, added to her natural shrewdness, and readiness to seize the slightest hint which might assist her in her surmises, appear to have constituted the whole amount of her power.

Her sagacity bore no proportion to the infatuation of those who trusted to it. She seems even to have admitted this, especially in one instance, when some gentlemen offered her a large sum, if she would inform them what ticket would draw the highest prize in a certain lottery. “Do you think,” said she, “if I knew, I should not buy it myself?”

Whatever may have been the witchcraft recognised in the Hebrew law, whether an actual communication with evil spirits, or the practice of deception by the means of false pretensions, an impartial investigation of the facts respecting “Moll Pitcher,” justify the conclusion, that her skill had no other foundation, than the practice of uncommon arts, assisted by an unusual degree of shrewdness and discernment.
In the next decade other authors appropriated Mary Pitcher for literary creations. In 1832 John Greenleaf Whittier published a poem, Moll Pitcher, which described her as stereotypical old witch. (The image above comes from a copy of that book owned by the University of Texas; in it someone has drawn several pictures of Pitcher talking back to Whittier.)

Two years later Samuel G. Goodrich’s Token and Atlantic Souvenir included a fictional story called “The Modern Job” with Pitcher as a character: “Moll Pitcher, or, as she is still called in the neighborhood where she resided, Molly Pitcher, was no ordinary woman. . . . In short, poor Molly, by degrees, was made to be a fortune-teller, and a diviner, in spite of herself.”

Thus, when American authors referred to the Monmouth artillerist as “Molly Pitcher” in 1835, they were echoing a name already well known among American sailors and New Englanders in general. Was that echo some kind of inside joke or allusion lost on us? Or had Revolutionary soldiers nicknamed the artillerist after the fortune-teller from Lynn, and why?

Again, Ray Raphael already noted this curious concatenation of Molly Pitchers in his book Founding Myths and in this Journal of the American Revolution article. Because Pitcher lived in Revolutionary New England, I’m going to dig a little deeper into her curious career.

TOMORROW: Moll Pitcher in the flesh.

1 comment:

The Greenockian said...

What an interesting story!