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, November 25, 2020

Samuel Plummer and His Father’s Sword

Here’s one more story from my foray up the coast from Boston to Gloucester.

Dr. Samuel Plumer, the man who was keeping George Penn enslaved in 1770, had a son, also named Samuel. The younger man tended to spell his surname Plummer.

Young Samuel Plummer attended Dummer Academy and then Harvard College, graduating in 1771 with a nearly spotless record. He was awarded his master’s degree from Harvard in July 1774. Plummer set out to train in medicine with his father.

Here’s the legend he left behind, as told by John J. Babson in his 1860 History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann:
A female negro slave, belonging to his father, had been discovered to be in a state of pregnancy; and not returning one night from the Poles pasture, to which she had gone for the cows, a diligent search for her revealed the horrible fact that she had been murdered. A sword, with which the deed was done, was found in a crevice in a large rock. It was known to belong to Dr. Plummer; and the name of his son was immediately associated with this act of double wickedness.

As no legal measures were taken to investigate the case, he did not leave home immediately; but the increasing mutterings of the people at length aroused apprehension of arrest, and he was obliged to flee to escape the possible consequences of the awful deed which had been committed. He left the town by the way of Squam Ferry and the Ipswich Road, and never again but once returned to it.

Thirty years afterwards, on a Sunday morning, he made his appearance in his native place once more, and stopped at a tavern at the Harbor. His stay was short, extending only to the next day. No disguise was necessary, of course, after this lapse of time, to make him seem to others, as he must have felt himself, a stranger. It is not known that he avoided recognition, or that he sought to exchange greetings with the friends and acquaintances of his youth whom death had still spared. In company with a cousin, to whom he made himself known, he visited the spot of his birth and the haunts of his early years. Around these scenes he lingered several hours: but no visible emotion disclosed the state of feeling which they awakened; and he took his departure from them and from his companion, without leaving any information of himself by which his previous or subsequent career can be traced.
According to Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Samuel Plummer was reported as dying in 1815, the year he would have turned sixty-three.

The local tradition Babson recorded didn’t preserve the victim’s name or the date of her death. Dr. Samuel Plumer died in 1778 intestate; his probate file doesn’t mention his son Samuel or any human property, so the killing probably happened in the four years between 1774 and 1778. I’ve found no reference to such a murder in the Gloucester vital records or the Massachusetts newspapers from the late 1700s.


particle_p said...

Is the Pole's pasture part of Dogtown now?

J. L. Bell said...

This story is associated with the Dogtown part of Gloucester. (It’s fictionalized in Anita Diamant’s book.) But I was unable to confirm where Pole’s pasture was. That seems to have been an informal nineteenth-century name for an area originally owned by a settler named Powell and pronounced “Pole.” I found very few other print references to the place, even in the same book. An expert in Gloucester real estate might be able to trace it better.