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, March 21, 2019

Seeking Out a Statement by “Samuel Savage”

On 21 Mar 1760, Bostonians were assessing the damage from the great fire that had started in Mary Jackson’s shop the night before. So this is a good day to resume The Saga of the Brazen Head.

I’ll start a peek behind the scenes of tomorrow’s posting. I really wanted to find a first-person, close-up account of that fire. I’ve quoted newspaper reports, a broadside, a sermon, and diaries from men in other neighborhoods. But all those descriptions had a distanced quality, produced by either actual physical distance or their collective voice.

I spotted a couple of short quotations in Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston (2002) which gave me hope of tracking down more. Schorow’s notes pointed me to the books that she’d (inexactly) quoted from, including Carl Seaburg’s Boston Observed (1971).

And there the trail went dead. Boston Observed is a reader made up mostly of a lot of quotations about Boston from across the centuries, Seaburg noted the sources of those long quotations reasonably well—but not the shorter quotations in his introductory essays. And that’s where the sentences in question appeared.

Seaburg credited certain comments on the 1760 fire to a man he called “Samuel Savage.” He also wrote that the fire had started in “the Brazen Head tavern on King Street.” This whole series of postings started simply because I wanted to correct the misunderstanding (which goes back to a town publication in the late 1800s) that the Sign of the Brazen Head was a tavern rather than a hardware shop. Also, that shop was on Cornhill, not King Street. So I wasn’t completely confident about Seaburg’s quoting.

I made a self-educated guess that “Samuel Savage” was Samuel Phillips Savage (1718-1797, shown above), a Boston merchant and town official in the early 1760s who then moved out to Weston. He came back to chair some of the big public meetings in Old South during the tea crisis. Some of the letters Savage received from his old colleagues and neighbors are valuable sources about what was going on in the big town during the pre-Revolutionary turmoil.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds Samuel Phillips Savage Papers. In fact, it holds four series of S. P. Savage Papers, apparently because descendants have donated those documents in batches. Unfortunately, the M.H.S. doesn’t have a finding aid for that collection, which would make it easier to look for a particular document, or at all documents from the spring of 1760. Instead, each series has its own chronological sequence.

M.H.S. reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook helped me understand those nuances of the S. P. Savage Paperses. She also suggested it was worth looking in the Catalogue of Manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a nine-volume reference printed in 1969 (with a supplement in 1980). Since Seaburg wrote in 1970, I could probably ignore manuscripts acquired after then.

And that worked! One of the items listed in the printed manuscript catalog was S. P. Savage II’s 3 Apr 1760 “Letter to [unknown] about fire in Boston.” That told me which series of Savage Papers to request in the reading room.

(The manuscript catalogue described another letter in that series this way: “Letter to Mr. Joslyn about young Savage’s conduct,” dated 5 Feb 1756. So of course I made a note to look at that, too. Just a taste: “…it seems a little Strange if they are married, they should be ashamd or afraid to say by whom . . . you have the facts as to his Conduct with Bety Wyre and his Child, whose Care is peculiar and really calls for Pitty—I wish that young Creature may be the only One he has ruined—I should be glad if you would inform me, if Mary Sharrad (for Mary Savage I really believe is not her name), is brought to bed…” Savage conduct indeed.)

TOMORROW: Samuel Phillips Savage at the Great Boston Fire.


G. Lovely said...

Paragraph eight:

"paperses" ?

J. L. Bell said...

My cheeky way of alluding to the multiple sets of S. P. Savage Papers.