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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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thomas Melvill and “a small parcel of the veritable Tea”

On 2 Mar 1850 the Boston Evening Transcript published a letter over the signature “Native Bostonian.” The editors described the writer as “a venerable citizen of a neighboring city, now a member of the House of Representatives, but a native of this city, whose father was an active partizan with Paul Revere, Melville, Sprague, and others, Sons of ’76.”

They then added more detail:
In a private note, the writer speaks of the new building on the corner of Essex and Washington streets, describing it with all the familiarity of his boyhood, as “near by where Ezekiel Russell’s Printing Office and Book Shop, sign of the Bible and Heart, near Liberty Pole, once was to be found.”
I think the mention of the Russell name was supposed to be a clue to the identity of the “Native Bostonian.”

Almost a quarter-century later, in 1874, an article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections named the letter writer as John Russell of Salem, son of William Russell (1748-1784) of Boston. (For more about William, see Francis Cogliano’s American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War.)

John Russell was born in 1779 and therefore had few direct memories of his father or Revolutionary events. That’s why he remembered “Liberty Pole” but not Liberty Tree, which came down in 1775. Russell used the stories and documents in his family to speak and write about that local history. One of his claims, first published in the Transcript article, concerned a medal carried by Sons of Liberty to identify themselves, which the Russells had lost and no one else in greater Boston ever claimed to have seen; I’m quite skeptical about that.

But today I’m looking at another artifact Russell wrote about in 1850:
Having ever felt an interest in the transactions of that eventful period, and knowing the late Major [Thomas] Melville had preserved a small quantity of the prohibited article, he having been, in common with my father and others, engaged in its destruction, he gratified me, a short time before his death [in 1832], with the sight of a small parcel of the veritable Tea, which he obtained at the time, although it was intended that not a particle of it should have been preserved;—he had it securely sealed up in a small phial;—it was of a coarse twist, and appeared to be in perfect order.
Russell added, “It is to be hoped that this interesting relic is now in safe hands, and that it will eventually, if not so already, be in the possession of the Historical Society.” But it never would be.

TOMORROW: The track of the tea.

(The picture above shows Thomas Melvill in old age and is from the collections of the Bostonian Society.)

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