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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Friday, September 01, 2017

Solomon Davis and the Fatal Plum Cake

John and Dolly Hancock were known for hosting dinner parties in their mansion on Beacon Hill (shown here shortly before it was torn down).

According to James Spear Loring’s Hundred Boston Orators (which cribbed freely from older sources), they even built “a lofty and spacious hall on the northern wing of his mansion, extending sixty feet, devoted to festive parties, and built of wood.” That wing was removed in the early 1800s, so it’s not in this photo.

On 6 June 1791, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company had its annual election and dinner at Faneuil Hall, a major social occasion for Boston’s elite men. That evening, Hancock hosted a supper party. Loring wrote:
Among the company present, were Col. Azor Orne, and Solomon Davis, Esq., a merchant who resided in Tremont-street, opposite the Savings Bank. He was very facetious.

A superb plum-cake graced the centre of the table. It was noticed by the guests that Mr. Davis partook very freely of this cake; and, moreover, that the silver tankard of punch was greatly lightened of its liquid, by liberal draughts through his lips. As was the natural habit of Mr. Davis, he set the table in a roar; and in one of his puns being specially felicitous, Col. Orne remarked, “Go home, Davis, and die;—you can never beat that!”

Mr. Davis, on his way home, fell dead, in a fit of apoplexy, near King’s Chapel, and his pockets were found filled with plum-cake.
Davis was a couple of weeks shy of turning seventy-seven.

Loring tended to print the most dramatic version of a story, and not always accurately. In this case, we have different details from the letters of Davis’s widow as Barrett Wendell summarized them in his article “A Gentlewoman of Boston” in the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings.

Catherine (Wendell) Davis stayed home that evening because she had received a letter from a relation “with particulars of his melancholy disaster.” So her husband went to the Hancock supper alone.
Freed from conjugal observation, Mr. Davis appears to have supped imprudently; what he drank is not mentioned, but he ate more plum-cake and fruit than was good for him. On his way home, he was seized with a fit in the street. Carried to his house, and there helped by the doctor, he so far recovered himself as to go cheerfully up stairs; but once in his chamber he was again overcome by sickness, and instantly expired. 
In addition, Amos Otis’s Genealogical Notes of Barnstable Families (1888) said of Davis, “On his way home he was taken suddenly ill, and sat down on the steps of King’s Chapel, from whence he was removed to his house in the vicinity, where he shortly after died.” So there’s the King’s Chapel detail.

Finally, one of Hancock’s successors as governor, John Brooks, used to counsel another, William Eustis, about his diet by saying, “Don’t you remember that Solomon Davis died after eating plum cake?” So even if we have no confirmation for the plum cake in Davis’s pockets, people definitely remembered that dessert as why he died.

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