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, October 14, 2020

A New Women’s History Podcast to Enjoy

Your Most Obedient & Humble Servant is a new podcast hosted by Kathryn Gehred, one of the editors working on the forthcoming scholarly collection of Martha Washington’s correspondence.

Each episode digs into one letter to or from a woman in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, highlighting the historical and personal context of that communication.

I like how Gehred and her guests are comfortable with the fact that one of the appeals of historical research is being able to read other people’s private mail.

Episode 5, “An Age of Discovery,” is a fine example. This conversation delves into a letter that Mary Cranch wrote to her younger sister Abigail Adams in 1786. As Gehred and her guest Rachel Steinberg discuss, Cranch crafted her letter to lead up to the juiciest piece of local gossip.

Go listen and come back. Or at least read the letter. Because I’m going to tack more gossip onto this episode.

Mary Cranch was married to Richard Cranch, as the podcast says. He came to America in 1746 with his sister Mary and her husband, Joseph Palmer. The Palmers and Cranches joined the locally grown Quincys and Adamses in making up north Braintree’s Whig gentry.

The Palmers’ eldest son was Joseph Pearse Palmer, who married Elizabeth Hunt across the border in New Hampshire in 1772. He was twenty-two, a recent Harvard graduate; she was seventeen. After the war, the Palmer family moved into Boston, but their fortunes fell through a combination of business failures, ill health, and general economic stress. The elder Joseph Palmer ended up in a dispute over debts with John Hancock before dying in 1788.

Joseph Pearse Palmer, through professional setbacks, psychological depression, and perhaps other personal issues, spent months at a time away from his family. Elizabeth Palmer took in boarders, including a young attorney and author named Royall Tyler (shown above).

Back in 1782, Tyler had settled in Braintree, boarding with the Cranches. During that time he wooed Nabby Adams, the Adamses’ eldest child. Her parents and the Cranches were more enthused about this than she was. Nabby put Tyler off until she sailed with her mother to Europe. There she met and married William Stephens Smith, the “Coll Smith” mentioned in this letter. Tyler came away with the first surviving volume of John Adams’s diary, eventually discovered among his papers, and looked around for new conquests.

That provided the conditions for the scene Mary Cranch described at the end of this letter, which must have taken place at Elizabeth Palmer’s boarding house in Boston. In the spring of 1786, Joseph P. Palmer had come home after many months to find his wife very friendly with boarder Tyler and a few months pregnant. The baby arrived in September 1786.

“I was determin’d to see” the newborn girl, Mary Cranch told her sister, to confirm that the baby had arrived full term. She saw Joseph P. Palmer, Elizabeth Palmer, and Royall Tyler all in a bedroom together, resolutely not acknowledging anything odd about the situation.

And this is the point I can’t stress enough: Joseph P. Palmer, the dupe of Mary Cranch’s story, was her own nephew.

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