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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Thursday, May 03, 2018

More Glimpses of Sylvia and Worcester

Yesterday I left Sylvia and Worcester, a mother and grown son enslaved to John Chandler when he died in 1762, in the household of Sarah and Timothy Paine, Chandler’s daughter and son-in-law/stepson.

The town chroniclers of Worcester left a couple of glimpses of Sylvia and Worcester—not enough to see them in full, but enough to remind us of their individuality.

A Harvard graduate with powerful connections, Paine held many offices, appointed and elected, in Worcester. In 1774, for example, he was in is twenty-third year as clerk of the county court and his thirteenth year as register of deeds.

In the pre-Revolutionary turmoil, Paine favored the Crown. The government in London rewarded his support by appointing him to the new governor’s Council in the summer of 1774. He took the oath as a “mandamus councilor” in late August.

And then all hell broke loose. Crowds in the western part of the province started closing the county courts. The “Powder Alarm” mobilized thousands of militiamen and showed that the royal government had no power outside Boston. And on 6 Sept 1774, more than 5,000 men flooded into Worcester to make sure its courts wouldn’t open, either.

As a court official and a councilor, Paine was the main target of the crowd. He wrote out a resignation for the five-man committee representing those thousands. The committee deemed that sufficient, and one read the document aloud, but the crowd insisted that Paine read his resignation himself—and with his hat off, as a sign of respect.

According to Caleb A. Wall’s Reminiscences of Worcester from the Earliest Period (1877):
Mr. Paine hesitated, and demanded the protection of the Committee; finally he complied, and was allowed to go to his dwelling. Tradition declares, that in the excitement attendant on the scene, Mr. Paine’s wig was either knocked or fell off.

Be this as it may, from that day he abjured wigs, as much as he had done whigs, and never wore one again. The now dishonored wig in question, he gave to one of his negro slaves, named ‘Worcester.’
Worcester thus benefited from the Revolution to the extent of a used wig. I haven’t found any more references to him, but the fact that he was named after the town he lived in makes that search a lot harder.

As for Worcester’s mother Sylvia, she was remembered in the town for two things. Based on the memories of Eliza Bancroft Davis, a great-granddaughter of John Chandler, George Chandler’s The Chandler Family (1883) described how Sylvia welcomed the “young children of widows” who came to her master’s house on legal matters:
She would sit swaying to and fro with them in her arms, and sing, “Pretty baby, pretty baby! Looks jist like its farder, dear! Who is his farder, dear?”
Through the dialect we can see a woman with a maternal instinct. Perhaps that feeling helped inspire John Chandler’s bequest that Worcester be kept “at as little distance from his Mother as may well be.” It also makes me wonder who Worcester’s father was, and what happened to him.

The Chandler Family twice describes Sylvia rocking those babies. One version says she did it when enslaved to Chandler, who was a probate judge before he died in 1762; the other said it was a habit of “her last days,” decades later. One version also spells her name “Silvia.” The details might be foggy, but there’s a sight of a real woman there.

As for Sylvia’s “last days,” they came in 1805, over forty years after John Chandler died, almost thirty years after his widow did, and more than twenty years after Massachusetts’s highest court ruled slavery unenforceable. The 25 May issue of Boston’s leading newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, reported that “In Worcester, Sylvia, a female African, [died aged] Æt. 105.” Worcester’s National Aegis reported the same four days later.

Sylvia may have still been living with Sarah Paine, who survived to 1811. Eliza Bancroft Davis recalled that at age fourteen she had made a shroud for the old family retainer, marveling at how Sylvia had lived about a century longer than she had.

TOMORROW: Another family connection to slavery.

(The building shown above is Worcester’s 1803 courthouse, designed by Charles Bulfinch.)

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