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 14, 2017

Women in Debt

I’m about to embark on a summer road trip, so I’ve stockpiled a bunch of interesting items from various corners of the web.

First up is an essay by Alex Wakelam on the Early Modern Prisons site about “The Persistent Presence of the Eighteenth-Century Female Debtor”:
On the 11th December 1742, the young Samuel Foote arrived at London’s imposing Fleet debtors’ prison. At the age of twenty-two the eccentric and extravagant failed lawyer had already been thrown out of Oxford under a cloud of debt, married into money, spent all his wife’s money in London’s premier coffee houses and tailors, and exhausted even the most patient of his creditors. He was thus committed to prison until he came up with the money he owed, amounting to over £650, the equivalent of about £60,000 today.

Foote eventually wrote his way to solvency, cashing in on a highly public family scandal, subsequently taking the London comic scene by storm and ending his life as one of London’s wealthiest theatrical figures as master of the Haymarket theatre. . . .

Behind the young actor entering the Fleet that day was Mary Walpole, a Westminster widow, committed to answer two debts, £20 to William Oakley and £60 to William Harris. Nor was she alone, women made up 9% of commitments to the Fleet that year. They were hardly a majority group though they were certainly far more frequent and representative than artists like Foote. Indeed, other years experienced almost twice as large a female share of commitments.

Even if Foote had somehow not noticed Mary, or (improbably) failed to meet any of the rest of that 9% of prisoners, a letter that arrived shortly after his arrival made him only too aware. The letter, written by his mother Eleanor back home in Truro, must have raised Foote’s hopes upon its arrival, though its contents dashed any hope of rescue, simply reading: “Dear Sam, I am in prison for debt. Come and assist your loving mother – E Foote”. Samuel, without much choice, wrote back “Dear Mother, so am I”.
Dr. Joseph Warren’s mother Mary Warren never went to prison for debt, but she was one of the many people who declared bankruptcy in the mid-1760s after the business failure of Nathaniel Wheelwright. Debt was so widespread in that period that Massachusetts rewrote its bankruptcy law because the prison method clearly wasn’t going to settle enough debt.

Ironically, probate court judge Thomas Hutchinson appointed Dr. Warren to settle Wheelwright’s estate, a knotty task still unfinished when he died at the Battle of Bunker Hill and for several years afterward.

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