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, March 16, 2020

Michael Angelo Warwell, Bit Player in the Boston Massacre

In 1741, in the English market town of Totnes, a baby was baptized with the name Michael Angelo Warwell.

The reason for such a baroque name was that the boy’s parents, John and Maria Warwell, were artists. According to the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, writing in 1740, John Warwell was “a painter and a player.” He was the first professional visual artist to confirm the “very great genius for drawing” of the minister’s son Joshua.

Warwell wasn’t a portraitist, as Sir Joshua Reynolds would be. Instead, he specialized in decorative painting, particularly as architectural accent. In the 1750s he did some sort of work for the the shellwork grotto at Goldney Hall, shown above.

Michael Angelo Warwell followed his father’s other career path, into the theater. Sometime before 1765, he sailed for North America. We know this because his parents followed, putting an advertisement in the 19-31 Oct 1765 South Carolina Gazette:
THIS IS TO INFORM Mr. MICHAEL ANGELO WARWELL…that his father and mother are arrived in the Planters Adventure, Miles Lowley, commander, at Charles-Town, South Carolina, with intent to settle there…
The Warwells set up a household in Charleston near Gov. Thomas Boone’s. John advertised that he painted “HISTORY PIECES: HERALDRY: ALTAR PIECES: COACHES, LANDSCAPES: WINDOW BLINDS, SEA PIECES: CHIMNEY BLINDS, FLOWERS: SKREENS, FRUIT: GILDING.” He also offered to mend and clean pictures, paint rooms, and construct “Deceptive Temples, Triumphal Arches, Obelisks, Statues, &c. for Groves or Gardens.”

On 9 June 1767, the South Carolina Gazette reported that “Mr. Warwell, Sr., a noted limner,” had died. The “Sr.” indicated that the younger Mr. Warwell, still only in his mid-twenties, had made a name for himself locally.

On 11 August, Maria Warwell announced that she was planning to leave South Carolina and wanted to settle her debts. She added:
And while she waits for a passage, she will be much obliged to those who will employ her, in mending in the neatest and most durable manner, all sorts of useful and ornamental china, viz. beakers, tureens, jars, vases, and busts; statues, either in china, glass, plaster, bronze, or marble; should a piece be wanting, she will substitute a composition in its room, and copy the pattern as nigh as possible.
By April 1768, the Warwells’ Charleston house had become the new Customs House. That agency might have been expanding as it collected new revenue through the Townshend duties. I have no idea whether the Warwell family owned the house and thus dealt with the Customs service themselves, but that link seems notable in light of Michael Angelo Warwell’s future friendship with a Customs officer.

The younger Warwell became part of David Douglass’s American Company, a set of theatrical entertainers who came together to perform plays and also offered concerts solo or in small groups. The company was in New York in July 1769.

Warwell collaborated with an actor named Hudgson and a tavern owner named Burns to deliver, “By Permission of his Excellency the GOVERNOR,…an Attic Evenings ENTERTAINMENT.” The two performers read extracts of poetry and plays and sang songs. Admission cost five shillings. According to advertisements in the New-York Gazette and New-York Journal, Warwell’s repertoire included “Bright Author of my present Flame,” “A Song in the Anacreonick Taste,” “A Song set by Dr. Henry Purcel,” “A Martial Song, in Character,” and “a Two Part Song by Mr. Warwell and Mr. Hudgson.”

Warwell then headed north. New England wasn’t a fertile field for theater. In fact, in Boston it was illegal. But that meant there was an upper-class set curious about theater-adjacent entertainment. Performers like Warwell could offer “lectures” and “concerts” that gave people just a taste of the London stage.

On 5 Jan 1770, the New-Hampshire Gazette ran this item, sent from Marblehead on New Year’s Day:
Mr. Hall, by giving the following a Place in your useful Paper, you will oblige one of your Readers.


ON Monday the 18th Instant, in the Evening, Mr. M. A. Warwell, Gent. read (at the Assembly Room in this Town) the Beggar’s Opera, to a Number of Gentlemen and Ladies, and to universal satisfaction. His Tickets amounting to £.7-6-9 lawful Money, the whole of which he generously gave as a Charity to the poor and distressed Widows & Orphans of this Place, who are real Objects of Pity and Commiseration.—May the above Example excite others, in their several Capacities, to go and do likewise.
The next month, Warwell was in Plymouth, sitting in on the 7 February meeting of the Old Colony Club. The record of the next day’s meeting says:
This evening was read at the Hall the “Provoked Husband,” a comedy, by Mr. M. A. Warwel, to a company of about forty gentlemen and ladies, by invitation of the Club.
Warwell sat in on two more club meetings that month.

But on 5 March, he was in Boston. And that’s how Warwell got involved in the legal maneuverings around the Boston Massacre.

(I haven’t found any trace of Michael Angelo Warwell after March 1770. However, in the spring of 1771 a Thomas Warwell read The Provoked Husband and sang songs on the Caribbean island of St. Croix—maybe that was a brother.)

COMING UP: Warwell’s memorable fifth of March.

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