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, October 15, 2020

A Portrait of Parson Wibird

In the letter discussed yesterday, Mary Cranch wrote about how “mrs P——l——r was brought to Bed” with a mysterious new baby. Cranch heard that news from “mr wibird.”

That was the Rev. Anthony Wibird (1729-1800), the minister for the north precinct of Braintree (later Quincy). He was an excellent gossip, entertaining and careful not to take sides in town feuds.

In fact, he was a better gossip than he was a minister, because he had a tendency to repeat his sermons over and over (though John Quincy Adams felt he did an excellent job reading psalms).

Back in 1759 John Adams tried to assess what made Wibird popular locally:
He plays with Babes and young Children that begin to prattle, and talks with their Mothers, asks them familiar, pleasant Questions, about their affection to their Children. His familiar careless way of conversing with People, Men and Women. He has Wit, and Humour.
The minister’s personal popularity was notable because he also had a neurological condition that affected his posture and gait at a time when many people looked down on such a disability. That same spring Adams wrote uncharitably:
P[arson] W[ibird] is crooked, his Head bends forwards, his shoulders are round and his Body is writhed, and bended, his head and half his Body, have a list one Way, the other half declines the other Way, and his lower Parts from his Middle, incline another Way. His features are as coarse and crooked as his Limbs. . . .

But his Air, and Gesture, is still more extraordinary. When he stands, He stands, bended, in and out before and behind and to both Right and left; he tosses his Head on one side. When he prays at home, he raises one Knee upon the Chair, and throws one Hand over the back of it. With the other he scratches his Neck, pulls the Hair of his Wigg, strokes his Beard, rubbs his Eyes, and Lips.

When he Walks, he heaves away, and swaggs on one side, and steps almost twice as far with one foot, as with the other.

When he sitts, he sometimes lolls on the arms of his Chair, sometimes on the Table. He entwines his leggs round the Leggs of his Chair, lays hold of the Iron Rod of the stand with one Hand. Sometimes throws him self, over the back of his Chair, and scratches his Hed, Vibrates the foretop of his Wigg, thrusts his Hand up under his Wigg, &c.

When he speakes, he cocks and rolls his Eyes, shakes his Head, and jerks his Body about.

Thus clumsy, careless, slovenly, and lazy is this sensible Man.

It is surprizing to me that the Delicacy of his Mind has not corrected these Indecent, as well as ungraceful Instances of Behaviour. He has Wit, and he has Fancy, and he has Judgment. He is a Genius. But he has no Industry, no Delicacy, no Politeness. Tho’ he seems to have a sort of Civility, and Cleverness in his Manners. A civil, clever Man.
Young Adams didn’t get that Wibird’s behavior and appearance weren’t a matter of intellectual or moral choices.

To be sure, Adams may have been feeling sour about the parson because that year they were rivals for the attention of Miss Hannah Quincy.

TOMORROW: Bachelors in Braintree.


Mike said...

Adams's 1759 description sounds a bit like cerebral palsy.

Charles Bahne said...

John, the first sentence had me a bit confused. At first I thought it meant that the "mysterious new baby" was from "mr wibird". It took me a while to realize that, in fact, the news had come from Mr. Wibird, and that the baby's father was someone else.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Wibird’s gait (if Adams described it accurately) does seem like cerebral palsy. The twitching at his wig and other tics might indicate something like Tourettes syndrome, or just nervousness.

J. L. Bell said...

I changed the first paragraph to make clear for newcomers that the Rev. Mr. Wibird had nothing to do with the Palmer baby. After knowing Wibird for thirty years, I’m sure that Mary Cranch would never have been confused on that point.