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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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Dr. Thacher’s Diagnoses

On 7 June 1780, Dr. James Thacher served as a Continental Army surgeon during the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey. In his diary, published decades later, Thacher described one casualty like this:
In the heat of the action, some soldiers brought to me in a blanket, Captain Lieutenant [Alexander] Thompson of the artillery, who had received a most formidable wound, a cannon ball having passed through both his thighs near the knee joint. With painful anxiety, the poor man inquired if I would amputate both his thighs; sparing his feelings, I evaded his inquiry, and directed him to be carried to the hospital tent in the rear, where he would receive the attention of the surgeons. "All that a man hath will he give for his life." He expired in a few hours.
After the battle, Gen. Nathanael Greene reported to the commander-in-chief: "The Artillery under the command of Lt Colonel [Thomas] Forest was well served—I have only to regret the loss of Capt. Lt Thompson who fell at the side of his piece by a cannon ball."

Dr. Thacher recalled having to leave another casualty of the British artillery fire:
While advancing against the enemy, my attention was directed to a wounded soldier in the field. I dismounted and left my horse at a rail fence, it was not long before a cannon ball shattered a rail within a few feet of my horse, and some soldiers were sent to take charge of the wounded man, and to tell me it was time to retire.

I now perceived that our party had retreated, and our regiment had passed me. I immediately mounted and applied spurs to my horse, that I might gain the front of our regiment. Colonel [Henry] Jackson being in the rear, smiled as I passed him; but as my duty did not require my exposure, I felt at liberty to seek a place of safety.

It may be considered a singular circumstance, that the soldier above mentioned was wounded by the wind of a cannon ball. His arm was fractured above the elbow, without the smallest perceptible injury to his clothes, or contusion or discoloration of the skin. He made no complaint, but I observed he was feeble and a little confused in his mind. He received proper attention, but expired the next day. The idea of injury by the wind of a ball, I learn, is not new, instances of the kind have, it is said, occured in naval battles, and are almost constantly attended with fatal effects.
As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition:
Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.
As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Confiscation of John McWhorter’s Gun

On 16 July 1775, the Taunton Patriot leader David Cobb (shown here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society) wrote to his brother-in-law, Robert Treat Paine, about the Battle of Bunker Hill, smaller skirmishes, and a local conflict:
John McWhorter from a trifling incident that happen’d in the Weymouth Alarm, in which I was oblig’d to take his Gun by force, has wag’d an eternal war with the Neighbourhood and now lives in a surly, morose, malicious, damn’d Scotch looking manner without conversing with his Family or Friends.
John McWhorter was a big man in Taunton. He owned a tavern where John Rowe visited (calling him “McQuarters”), the local Sons of Liberty reportedly met, and attorney and near neighbor Daniel Leonard supped after his wife died. It contained upscale tea tables and was still referred to as “McWhorter’s Inn” years after his death—probably because his wife kept it running most of the time. McWhorter also owned at least one slave, and he had interests in shipping.

Most important for the war effort, McWhorter was part-owner of an ironworks in Stoughton. (David Cobb’s father had also been in the iron business.) Responding to a resolution of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in February 1775, Stoughton’s committee of inspection
stopped upwards of a Ton of Iron, the Property of John McWhorter of Taunton, by seizing and storing the same in the Town of Stoughton, which Iron they had every probable Reason to suspect was designed for the Use of the British Army.
Whether or not that suspicion was accurate, as war approached people clearly regarded McWhorter as a potential Loyalist. And he no doubt perceived Patriot officials as infringing on his property.

That was the situation when there was an alarm about the Royal Navy threatening Weymouth in the summer of 1775. With many of the region’s fighting men off at the siege of Boston, the task of defending the coast fell to militia companies, including the men of Taunton. A “trifling incident” during that tense time prompted Cobb to confiscate McWhorter’s musket.

In December 1776 Taunton’s militia commander noted that McWhorter was one of twenty men on the town’s “alarm list” who hadn’t turned out to protect Rhode Island from the return of the British military. Of course, McWhorter couldn’t have turned out for militia service if Cobb still had his gun.

McWhorter’s feuds continued. On 5 May 1777 the town’s committee of correspondence considered “the verbal complaint of Mr. [John?] Porter [a committee member] respecting the abuse he received from Mr. McWhorter[;] after hearing both parties, the Chairman was desired to give Mr. McWhorter a reprimand which was accordingly done.”

Back in 1776 the Stoughton committee had sold the confiscated iron, offering McWhorter “24s. per Hundred for said Iron, and Interest from the Time it was seized and stored.” But he refused and sued the committee members for “£486, Lawful Money.”

Just before the case was to be tried in June 1779, the committee brought the Massachusetts General Court into the dispute. In September the legislature ordered the Stoughton committee to pay £30.7s.4p. for the iron—basically the initial offer, nowhere close to what McWhorter had demanded.

John McWhorter stayed in Taunton through the war and died in 1800. By then he had probably reconciled himself to his neighbors and they to him, but people might still have been surly and morose.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Call for Studies of Biography and Celebrity in the 1700s

Prof. Kristina Straub of Carnegie Mellon University and Prof. Nora Nachumi of Yeshiva University have issued a call for contributions to a scholarly volume entitled "Making Stars: Biography and Eighteenth-Century Celebrity."

They say:
A celebrity is not a person, exactly, but a construct established through the public discourse and representation that we now think of as celebrity culture. During the long eighteenth century, biography was key to an earlier form of celebrity culture that anticipates what we experience as modern celebrity.

This volume proposes to explore the relationship between biography and celebrity in the long eighteenth century. In inviting essays, we keep that relationship open to definition: are biography and celebrity mutually constitutive? Does one drive the other? Are there contradictions as well as connections between biography as a genre and the celebrity culture that is manifest in a wide range of print, visual materials, and embodied performances? Similarly, we maintain an open definition of celebrity to include the many different variations in the period: theatrical, criminal, aristocratic, royal, and even the freakish.

We welcome work that clarifies and gives nuance to the prehistory of the celebrity bio as a genre and that thinks about ways in which particular material and ideological conditions shaped the formal and experiential effects of celebrity during the period roughly between 1660 and 1830. Essays might focus, for example, on comparing biography’s relationship to celebrity representation in other genres and media; a specific challenge or problem posed by a person or text or a particular form of representation; or contested representational forms.

We also are interested in work that grows out of or reflects on the process of writing a modern biography of an eighteenth-century celebrity. How do biographies create celebrity? How do various rhetorics of biographical discourse contest or refuse celebrity? How might attention to the formal rhetorics of biographical studies provide us new ways to think about celebrity culture in the long eighteenth century and conversely how might the terms of celebrity studies allow us new insights into biography? What case studies allow us to see the constitutive work of celebrity and biography in action?
The editors invite abstracts 300-400 words long, accompanied by capsule biographies of the authors no more than 150 words long, by 15 Sept 2018. Material should be sent to both ks3t@andrew.cmu.edu and nachumi@yu.edu.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Online Collections of Engravings and Samplers

Here are a couple of online databases of visual interest.

The Anderson House library of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., has created an online collection of engravings and prints from and relating to the Revolutionary War. The website explains its contents:
Works of art on paper featuring engravings of Revolutionary War battle scenes, allegorical and commemorative prints, and portraits of original members of the Society of the Cincinnati. A significant collection of satirical prints includes caricatures of major figures on all sides during the Revolutionary War and political cartoons of relevant events of the longer Revolutionary era from the Seven Years' War through the War of 1812.

Highlights include: an extremely rare wartime mezzotint of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale; a pair of rebus letters skewering the Carlisle Peace commission; and images of leaders such as George III, John Wilkes, the marquis de Lafayette, and Louis XVI.
The website format lets viewers magnify the images to study details.

Turning from warfare to the domestic sphere, the Sampler Consortium unveiled the Sampler Archive, an online searchable database of American schoolgirl samplers and related embroideries. The archive begins with material from the Winterthur Museum, the D.A.R. Museum, and the Rhode Island Historical Society. Images from a dozen other collections and recent events will follow.

The samplers are catalogued with detailed information on their physical characteristics, history of the maker and her family, and provenance. The collection can be browsed according to the contributor, type of object, maker's age, place, and date.

As an example, the sampler shown above bears the name of "Nancy Tucker aged 8 1791." Curators at the D.A.R. Museum think it may have been made in Essex County, Massachusetts. Below an alphabet it bears the motto:
This Work In Hand my Friend may hav
When I am Dead And in My Grave
Which may have been meant well but rather reminds me of the dire warnings against theft that schoolboys used to write in their schoolbooks.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Watching the Native Northeast Portal Grow

The Native Northeast Portal is still in early development but offers great promise. It addresses the challenge of how many primary-source documents about New England Native communities are unpublished, scattered, and difficult to access. As the website explains:
The Portal represents a scholarly critical edition of New England Native American primary source materials gathered presently from the partner institutions into one robust virtual collection, where the items are digitized, transcribed, annotated, and edited to the highest academic standards and then made freely available over the Internet, using open-source software. By providing annotated transcriptions, the Project’s editors provide the Series users with useful information within a well-researched and balanced context necessary to understand the complexities of the historical record.
As an example of this portal's resources, here's a petition from Jonathan Capen seeking the release of Isaac Williams from the Suffolk County jail in December 1776. Crisp images of the document with the Council's response written on it are accompanied by a transcription and a map showing the pertinent location.

Other sources fill out the story. Williams was "a Molatto" from Dedham who enlisted in Capt. Joseph Guild's company in May 1775 and served until the end of the year. Early that November Williams married Elizabeth Will, a member of the Punkapoag community in Stoughton.

Williams must have reenlisted in the Continental Army or was drafted for it in some way because on 14 Aug 1776 he was listed as a deserter from Guild's company. He was then said to be twenty-three years old and 5'10" tall. The army still listed him as coming from Dedham.

Apparently Williams had gone to his wife in Stoughton because the selectmen of that town had him arrested as a deserter and put in the Suffolk County jail. (That didn't mean the jail in Boston since Suffolk County then included all of modern Norfolk County.)

Capen was the agent for the Punkapoag community in its dealings with the government, so he petitioned on behalf of Elizabeth Williams. Capen wrote that her young husband was "in a very poor State of Health," which might well be why he had left the army. The Massachusetts Council approved that petition and ordered the selectmen to release Williams.

As for the end of Williams's story, I'm pleased to report that he recovered. According to genealogists David Allen Lambert and Jennifer Pustz, he lived until 1831. The Stoughton Historical Society owns the pieces of his gravestone. Elizabeth Williams lived until 1848, long enough to apply for a pension as a Continental Army widow. (Her application doesn't mention any service or arrest in 1776.) Among the people supporting the Williams pension claim with a shaky signature was Jonathan Capen, evidently the elderly son of the man who filed the 1776 petition.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Free Peek into the American Ancestors Databases

Since I'm on the road this week, I'm going to highlight some online databases that have caught my eye.

The New England Historical Genealogical Society has announced that all the databases at its American Ancestors website will be free through Tuesday, 17 July. People need to sign in as guest members to access the back issues of the New England Historic Genealogical Register, the Suffolk County probate records, biographies of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, the world's largest database of Mayflower descendants, Boston's Catholic records starting in 1789, and much more.

This is of course a push to induce people researching their ancestors to get hooked on those N.E.H.G.S. databases and become regular members. And that online access really is useful. Just this month I looked up the probate inventory of a Continental Navy veteran, discovering that he owned no real estate but a quarter of a ship and 3,000 pounds of coffee. He was, I conclude, a merchant captain who died unexpectedly before that last cargo was sold.

Among the N.E.H.G.S. databases available is the Early Vermont Settlers, 1700-1784 project directed by Scott Andrew Bartley. This week the society added 74 new profiles of heads of families from Hartland, Springfield, Hartford, and other towns in Windsor County, Vermont. For info on exactly who those people are, see these blog posts.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Representing Washington in Cambridge, 14 July

On Saturday, 14 July, the Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site in Cambridge will welcome three guests representing Gen. George Washington in different ways.

Washington used that Georgian mansion, originally built by friend of government John Vassall, from mid-July 1775 to early April 1776. Martha Washington joined him there in December. In those months the commander-in-chief made plans to reorganize the Continental Army for a wider campaign (including a reversal of his initial decision not to enlist any black soldiers), launched unusual attacks on the Crown at sea and in Canada, and learned crucial lessons about using his staff, working with civil governments, managing intelligence and counterintelligence, and more.

From noon to 4:00 P.M., John Koopman will portray Gen. Washington at the site, and Sandy Spector will join him as Martha. Visitors can converse with the Washingtons and ask questions about their wartime experiences, take and/or pose in photographs, play historic games, and enjoy other activities. Koopman plays the title role in Mount Vernon’s short movie “Washington’s War,” now available through various streaming services. (Alas, this presentation lacks the “snow” that falls in the Mount Vernon theater during winter scenes.)

From 1:00 to 2:00 P.M., Roxane Orgill will read from and speak about her new book Siege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution. This is a novel in verse about Washington’s time in Cambridge. Though written with young people in mind, it evokes the difficult moments and decisions for all readers. Orgill is the author of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, and other books.

At 2:30, a National Park Service ranger will lead a “Road to Revolution” walking tour of nearby sites involved in the “Powder Alarm,” the siege of Boston, the housing of the Convention Army, and other moments in the move toward American independence.

All these events are free and open to the public, as are tours of the mansion. The Longfellow–Washington site is at 105 Brattle Street, only half a mile from Harvard Square. Parking in this part of Cambridge is extremely limited, so plan to walk.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Rehabbing Colonial Massachusetts’s Granite Positioning System

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently announced the completion of its project to preserve the remaining milestones along the old Upper Boston Post Road.

Those stones were initially put in place as early as 1729 by rich men vying for political acclaim, such as justice Paul Dudley (1675-1751), soon to be chief justice. In 1767 the Massachusetts Council ordered more markers. Traffic, urban growth, and highway projects have moved or removed a lot of the stones so that by 1971 only forty were still around to be listed in the National Register.

In 2011, a marker in Brighton was damaged by a truck. That prompted the Transportation Department to explore conserving all the known remaining milestones. In 2014, the Watertown firm Daedalus Inc. was contracted to survey and preserve the markers. The company identified twenty-nine stones that needed repairs, cleaning, cracks filled, resetting, and/or moving back to their original locations. That work is now complete.

The department’s blog post contains a complete list of the surviving markers and their locations. As an example, here’s a stretch of stones in central Massachusetts:
  • Milestone Marker #35 is located at Dean Park on Main Street in Shrewsbury. This granite marker is inscribed with “Boston 35 Springfield 65 Albany 165”.
  • Milestone Marker #43 is located on Main Street at the I-290 ramp in Shrewsbury. This granite marker is carved with the inscription “43 Mile to Boston”. Marker #43 has been moved to a more accessible location on the Shrewsbury Town Common adjacent to Main Street.
  • Milestone Marker #47 is located on Lincoln Street in Worcester. This brownstone marker is carved with the inscription “47 Miles from Boston 50 Springfield”.
  • Milestone Marker #48 was formerly located at the Worcester Historical Society, but, as part of the project, has been reset at Wheaton Square Park on Salisbury Street in Worcester. This brownstone marker is carved with the inscription “48 Miles from Boston”.
  • Milestone Marker #53 is located on Main Street in Leicester. This brownstone marker is carved with the inscription “53 Mile from Boston”.
  • Milestone Marker #54 was formerly located inside the Leicester Public Library, but has been relocated to Washburn Square in Leicester, which is within the vicinity of its original site. This brownstone marker is carved with the inscription “54 Miles from Boston”.
Markers 56 to 74 (the numbers indicating the miles to Boston) have all survived. In contrast, only one marker to the west of that stretch remains, and it was moved into the Springfield Armory Museum.

For more about Massachusetts milestones, see this guest blogger post from Charles Bahne.

Monday, July 09, 2018

The World War of 1778 to 1783

An exhibit on “The American Revolution: A World War” just opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. There is also a website showing some of the artifacts.

This exhibit focuses on the siege of Yorktown which, when we count sailors as well as troops on land, involved more Frenchmen than Americans.

Among the items on display are paintings of The Siege of Yorktown and The Surrender of Yorktown, both from 1786, and a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington from the early 1780s. All three originally hung in the Comte de Rochambeau’s chamber as a reminder of his partnership with the American general. This is the first time the canvases have been together in more than two centuries.

Shown here is another early artistic celebration of the Franco-American alliance: a French porcelain figurine from the 1780s of King Louis XVI and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.

This exhibit is scheduled to remain on view until next July.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Robert Burns’s “damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy”

Last month the B.B.C. reported on a published paper by Moira Hansen, Daniel J. Smith, and Gerard Carruthers about the moods of Robert Burns (P.D.F. download).

Specifically, the paper is titled “Mood Disorder in the Personal Correspondence of Robert Burns: Testing a Novel Interdisciplinary Approach.” Hansen is a graduate student at the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts while Smith is a Professor of Psychiatry and Carruthers co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

As for the “Testing” aspect, it’s important to note that people have been writing about Burns’s periods of depression since, well, Burns. He described himself in November 1793 as feeling “altogether Novemberish, a damn’d melange of fretfulness and melancholy…my soul flouncing & fluttering.” Since his first biographer, Burns scholars have debated the causal links between his moods, his art, and his drinking. In the past few decades scholars have come back to interpreting Burns through the lens of psychological depression.

This team of researchers used Burns’s letters from November 1793 (and lack of letters in the following month) as a benchmark for depression. They had an independent party choose three random points elsewhere in the poet’s correspondence for further assessment and comparison—apparently by Hansen. As for the method of analysis:
Any of these symptoms [manic, hypomanic and depressive] might be evidenced in the text of the letters by a range of features including, but not limited to: explicit discussion; descriptive and figurative language; allusion; tone; coherence of flow of ideas; and length and quantity of letters written in any given period.
I wish the paper had more detail about the measurement of those qualities and how the researchers avoided subjective judgments.

The researchers concluded that there’s ”evidence to suggest Burns' mood cycled between depression and hypomania.” But really, I think, this was a test whether their methodology matched what they and others already knew. The real disputes here are probably whether (a) scholars can reputably diagnose mental disorders over a wide chronological and cultural gap, and (b) whether such conclusions are meaningful to the literary work.

This paper is part of a larger project with its own website. Hansen will go into more detail on Burns’s changing moods, how they affected his behavior and relations with others, and how they affected his poetry. She has the advantage of a large body of writing, collected early and kept reasonably intact. Can the method work with figures whose correspondence was not so assiduously assembled?