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, November 20, 2014

John Trumbull: “this weird urchin”

Last week I shared a portrait of John Trumbull (1750-1831), the author of M’Fingal and Connecticut jurist. He was a child prodigy, according to the biographical introduction to the 1820 collection of his work (which he apparently wrote himself):
Being an only son, and of a very delicate and sickly constitution, he was of course the favorite of his mother. She had received an education superior to most of her sex, and not only instructed him in reading, from his earliest infancy, but finding him possessed of an extraordinary memory, taught him all the hymns, songs and other verses, with which she was acquainted.

His father’s small library consisted mostly of classical and theological books. The Spectator and Watts’ Lyric Poems were the only works of merit in the belles-lettres, which he possessed. Young Trumbull not only committed to memory most of the poetry they contained, but was seized with an unaccountable ambition of composing verses himself, in which he was encouraged by his parents.
Trumbull appears to have offered more detail in 1788 to the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles (shown above), who took detailed notes on their conversation, eventually published in his Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies:
Aet. [i.e., age] 2, began [New England] Primer & learned to read in half a year without School. Mother taught him all the Primer Verses & Watts’ Children’s Hymns before read.

Aet. 4. Read the Bible thro’—before 4. About this time began to make Verses. First Poetry, Watts’ Lyrics, & could repeat the whole—& only poetical Book he read till Aet. 6.

Aet. 5. Attempted to write & print his own Verses—Sample large hugeous Letters. This first attempt of writg. by himself—& before writg. after Copy. Scrawls.

Aet. 6. In Spring began to learn Latin & learnd half Lilly’s Grammar before his Father knew it—catchg. it as his Father was instructg. [William] Southmayd: same Spring as six y. old. Learned Quae genus by heart in a day. Tenacious Memory.

Aet. 9. On a Wager laid—to commit to memo. one of Salmon’s Pater Nosters in a quarter of an Hour—he effected it—recitg. by Memo. the Pater Noster in Hungarian and Malebar: & retains it to this day. I heard him repeat the Hunga.
In 1897 Moses Coit Tyler added this anecdote in The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, citing Trumbull’s manuscripts:
Emulous, no doubt, of the laurels of the heavenly and much desired Watts, he began at about the age of four to make verses for himself, as much as possible in the true Wattsian manner; but not having as yet advanced so far in learning as to be able to write, he could only preserve these valuable productions by storing them away in his memory.

At five, being still unable to write, he hit upon the device of transcribing his verses by imitating printed letters. His first attempt of this kind consisted of four stanzas of an original hymn, and his “scrawl of it filled a complete sheet of paper.” Having perceived a want of connection between the third and the fourth lines of one of his stanzas, this weird urchin was greatly perplexed thereby; but “after lying awake some nights,” meditating upon the problem, he finally solved it by the proper verbal corrections.
So what do you do with a boy like that?

TOMORROW: Take him to Yale, of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“32 of which years he dressed as a woman”

From the 6 August 1764 Boston Evening-Post:
We hear from the Vineyard, that one Deborah Lewis, of that Place, about 32 Years of Age, who, till within a few Days since, constantly appeared in the Female Dress, and was always supposed to be one of the Sex, suddenly threw off that Garb, and assumed the Habit of a Man; and sufficiently to demonstrate the Reality of this last Appearance, is on the Point of marrying a Widow Woman.
This item was reportedly reprinted in the Pennsylvania Gazette and possibly elsewhere.

From the 22 Jan 1770 Boston Evening-Post, datelined “Hartford” (and therefore probably first printed in that town’s newspaper):
We are credibly informed, that about 23 [sic] years ago a child was born in the South Part of the Massachusetts-Bay, who bearing a similarity of both Sexes, it was disputed what apparel it should be dressed in, but ’twas at last agreed to dress it in Women’s, and it was baptised by the name of Deborah; this person grew up, and till lately passed for a woman; but having for some time past lodged with one of that Sex, the latter found herself to be with child, and has swore the former to be the Father of it.—The consequence has been that they are married together, and the Father instead of his former name, was married by that of Deborah Francis Lewis.
That article was reprinted in several American newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette, New-York Journal, Newport Mercury, and New-Hampshire Gazette.

From the 22 Jan 1823 Boston Daily Advertiser:
In Tisbury, (Martha’s Vineyard,) Mr. Francis Lewis, ag. 93—32 of which years he dressed as a woman, and was supposed to be such.
That item was also published in several papers and magazines. The 12 Feb 1823 Geneva (New York) Gazette reportedly continued the line: “After that, he took his proper apparel as a man, and passed the remainder of his life in the marriage state, and has left numerous descendants. The family has always deserved and received the respect of those who knew it.” That might have appeared earlier in the 5 Feb 1823 Providence Gazette.

The story of Deborah/Francis Lewis isn’t totally unknown. Alfred Young came across the Pennsylvania Gazette references and a Martha’s Vineyard genealogy in his research on Deborah Sampson and shared them with Thomas A. Foster, who noted Lewis in Long Before Stonewall. Marya C. Myers quoted the Newport news item in a 2006 issue of American Genealogist. So I’m just adding some references from Massachusetts newspapers to the pile.

Back in 1911 the Martha’s Vineyard genealogist Charles Edward Banks identified Francis Lewis’s parents as John and Thankful (Crowell) Lewis of Yarmouth. Banks said Lewis was born as Deborah on 19 Feb 1730 (two years off the age stated in the first article above), and came to Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard, as a child.

According to Banks, ten days after the first article above, Francis Lewis married Anne Luce, who was just about to turn twenty-four; she does not appear to have been a widow. They had five children together between November 1765 and August 1782. Banks noted no child as arriving within nine months of their marriage. But of the whole family, only the eldest daughter’s marriage appears in the published Tisbury vital records.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Plumb Crazy

Constabulary notes from the Old Bailey Online, 10 Oct 1733 in London:

John Sherman was indicted for the Murder of John Wiggans, by striking him on the left side of the Head with a Cane, by which he fell to the Ground, and by that Fall received one mortal Wound and Bruise on the Fore part of his Head, Sept. 20 of which Wound he linguished till the 26th of the same Month, and then died. He was a 2d time indicted on the Coroner’s Inquest for Manslaughter.

The Prisoner and the Deceased were at the Tewksbury-Church Alehouse in White-chappel; they sat in different Boxes; the Prisoner and his Company were spelling Words, and at last a Tankard of Beer was laid about spelling Plumb; upon which the Deceased started up, and said, God damn you all for a Parcel of Blockheads, P, l, u, m, b, spells Plumbn

Some of the Prisoner’s Company said, what silly Fellow is that, to trouble his Head with us?

The Deceased came to them, and swore he was as good a Man as any of them, and he’d fight e’er a Man there with a Stick, either for Love or a Tankard of Beer, and at last he would needs sight the Prisoner. The Prisoner declined it, but the Deceased went home, and returned with his Cane, and challenged the Prisoner to go into the Yard.

They fought, and broke one another’s Heads.—The Prisoner’s Cane was split. They parted. The Deceased would have t’other Bout. The Prisoner knocked him down, and he fell with his Head upon the Pavement; he was help’d up; they went in; their Heads were dress’d; they drank to one another; shook Hands; parted Friends, and the Deceased went home, and not imagining the Wound to be dangerous, neglected to send for a Surgeon till it was too late; his Skull was fractured, and it proved the Cause of his Death.

Good times.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Inoculation Lecture in Weymouth, 19 Nov.

On Wednesday, 19 November, the Abigail Adams Historical Society in Weymouth will present a program on “The History of Inoculation and Vaccination: The Experience of the Adams Family and the Modern Perspective.”

David Jones, M.D., Ph.D., the A. Bernard Ackerman Professor of the Culture of Medicine at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, will provide a historical perspective on smallpox inoculation, highlighting the experiences of the Adams family.

John Adams’s mother was a Boylston, niece of the doctor who had done the first inoculations in Boston decades before, Zabdiel Boylston. His work as a lawyer riding the circuit exposed him to lots of people, especially in busy Massachusetts ports. So he underwent the treatment during Boston’s epidemic of 1764, shortly before his marriage.

Abigail Adams and the children didn’t risk the treatment (not nearly as safe as later-developed vaccination) until 1776, when there was another epidemic after the siege. Contrary to how H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries showed the process, Abigail took her four children, her household servants, and some other relatives and neighbors into Boston. Like John, she underwent inoculation at a house temporarily turned into a hospital, not at home.

Dr. Jones will speak in the Snell Conference Room of South Shore Hospital, 55 Fogg Road in Weymouth, from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M. This program is free and open to the public.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Talk on Belinda at Royall House in Medford, 19 Nov.

On Wednesday, 19 November, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford will host an illustrated talk by Richard Douglass-Chin titled “‘And she will ever pray’: Finding Belinda Royall.”

Belinda was a woman born in the 1710s in Africa and held enslaved on Isaac Royall’s estate. The younger man of that name left Massachusetts as a Loyalist in 1776. In his May 1778 will, Royall left Belinda to one of his daughters “in case she does not choose her freedom,” and he also told his executor to pay Belinda a certain amount.

That same year, the Massachusetts legislature confiscated Royall’s property since he was an “absentee” supporting the Crown. In 1783, Belinda—then living in Boston, and caring for an ill daughter—petitioned the state that “such allowance may be made her out of the estate of Colonel Royall.”

Belinda’s petition is not just a legal document but a literary one. Belinda, who could not sign her name to it, might well have had help crafting the written language from Boston’s civil-rights activists, such as Prince Hall. The document succeeded in catching the attention of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some doubted that there even was a real Belinda, but the woman is documented in Massachusetts.

This talk appears to be a historical and literary recreation of Belinda’s life:
Belinda’s voice echoes down the ages through her petition to the Massachusetts legislature in 1783 for a pension, for her self and her invalid daughter, from the proceeds of Isaac Royall Jr.’s estate. Her petition demonstrates a boldness not seen in other African American petitions and autobiographies of the period. Where, in her forced journey from Ghana as a child enslaved, to the Royall sugar cane plantation in Antigua, to the Royalls’ estate in Medford, to an impoverished freedom in Boston, did Belinda acquire the audacity we read so clearly in her petition?

Piecing together the fragments of information we have—her petition, a Royall will, baptismal documents, treasury resolutions—writer and literary critic Richard Douglass-Chin will recreate the story of the remarkable Belinda Royall—an epic journey spanning nearly sixty years.
Douglass-Chin is a professor in the English Department at the University of Windsor in Ontario. He specializes in pre-twentieth-century American literature, and has also published his own short stories and poems.

This program begins at 7:30 P.M. Admission is free to Royall House members, $5 for others. Parking is available on the nearby streets.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

View from Somewhere in the Bronx

Yesterday John U. Rees called my attention to this article by Matthew Skic, currently a student in the Winterthur museum’s Program in Early American Material Culture.

Winterthur’s collection includes the watercolor sketch shown above, made by Capt. Thomas Davies of the Royal Artillery in 1776. Skic explains:
The drawing depicts the British and Hessian assault of Fort Washington, an American fortification located on the heights at the northern end of Manhattan Island. The battle took place on November 16, 1776. Davies,…an eyewitness to the battle, executed this drawing soon after the assault.
Skic undertook an investigation of where Davies was standing when he made that sketch.
Prior to the American Revolution, Davies trained at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England. At Woolwich he learned geometry, the technical aspects of artillery, and how to draw. Before photography, military drawings served as functional records of battles and landscapes. Drawings provided perspectives of elevation, terrain, and sightlines that maps could not. With the landscape in front of him, Davies recorded the assault, detailing the rocky heights and lower farm land around Fort Washington.

As I looked long and hard at this drawing, a few questions came to mind: How did Davies choose his viewing location? Does his drawing faithfully record the landscape? Why was this site important enough to record? My fascination with Davies’s creation of this drawing inspired me to travel to New York and view, first-hand, the landscape he saw 238 years ago. I hoped that my personal engagement with his drawing would help me understand its creation.

I first needed to figure out Davies’s location. The Continental Army built Forts Lee and Washington about where the George Washington Bridge is located today. With the Hudson River and New Jersey palisades visible in the background of the drawing, Davies shows the assault as viewed from the northeast. In the foreground of the drawing is the Harlem River, meaning Davies stood in what is today the Bronx. In order to see such a broad view of the landscape on the west side of the river, he must have stood on elevated ground.
The two main candidates, Skic thought, were University Heights and Kingsbridge Heights. After studying modern topographic maps and Google Maps, he headed to New York with a camera to trace Davies’s steps.

The big challenge, it turned out, was that these parts of New York have many more thick trees than they did back in 1776, after over a century of farming. Check out Skic’s report for the view he was eventually able to photograph. It’s possible that winter will open up the foliage and provide a clearer view as well.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Painting of John Trumbull

It’s been noted that the phrase “a painting of Winston Churchill” can refer to a painting of the British Prime Minister, a painting by the British Prime Minister, or even a painting owned by that British Prime Minister.

This is a portrait of John Trumbull (1750-1831), the poet, lawyer, and jurist, by his cousin John Trumbull (1756-1843), the painter, and owned by each in turn. It’s now a painting of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which just helped its city work through bankruptcy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nathaniel Gould Furniture Exhibit in Salem, Starting 15 Nov.

On 15 November, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem opens a new exhibit called “In Plain Sight: Discovering the Furniture of Nathaniel Gould.” The museum explains:
At the dawn of the American Revolution in a city bustling with trade, politics and commerce, a craftsman of unusual ability was working tirelessly to create fine furniture for his wealthy patrons. Nathaniel Gould (1734-1781) established one of the region’s most sought-after workshops, producing thousands of technically sophisticated and aesthetically refined works for clients at home and for export. With an astute business sense, Gould thrived in one of the most tumultuous political and economic eras in American history.

Despite all of this, until recently, Gould’s life and legacy was largely unknown. Masterworks sat in anonymity in the halls of major museum collections, unsigned by their maker and identified only vaguely by their geographic origin. In 2006, everything changed. In the vaults of the Massachusetts Historical Society, among the records of Gould’s estate lawyer, researchers discovered documents that cast fresh light on — and forever enhance our understanding of — American furniture history.

Three of Gould’s bound ledgers kept between 1758 and 1783 document in detail the production of almost 3,000 pieces of furniture in his Salem workshop. Painstaking analysis has revealed the identity, preferences and transactions of more than 500 of Gould’s patrons as well as the names of his journeymen and probable apprentices. This veritable data dump of information has led museums, antique collectors and the general public to examine their collections with fresh eyes and piqued interest. Works whose significance was obfuscated by the passage of time and lack of provenance are now being reconsidered and reappraised.
The exhibition includes “Stately desks, bombé chests and scalloped-top tea tables made of the finest imported mahogany…alongside paintings, archival materials, decorative arts and an interactive workbench and desk.”

Even the press release is full of intriguing details:
  • “Gould’s work is distinguished by its careful attention to graining, distinctive carved ball-and-claw feet, extended knee returns and superbly carved pinwheels and scallop seashells.”
  • “Gould built his career on his ability to translate London’s latest designs — sometimes gleaned from British pattern books, including Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Makers Director — into a more conservative style that pleased the tastes of the region’s wealthy elite.
  • “The Gould ledgers reveal a high percentage of domestic furniture produced to fill wedding orders, mostly from members of the merchant class.”
  • “His ledgers reveal 616 pieces of furniture that were sold in the Caribbean and of this inventory, 62 percent were desks, half of which were made of cedar — an aromatic wood prized for its ability to deter insects in the semitropical regions.”
The exhibit is scheduled to be up at the P.E.M. until March.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

“Neoclassicism” Seminar in Deerfield, 14-16 Nov.

This weekend Historic Deerfield will host a three-day seminar titled “Borrowing from Antiquity, Designing a New Republic: Neoclassicism in America.”
The three-day forum will explore the new design style developed in France and England in the mid-18th century and made popular in the newly-formed United States as the Federal style. Harkening back to the shapes and ornaments of classical Greece and Rome, antiquity became a source of inspiration for architecture, furniture, and household decoration, and can be seen in decorative arts ranging from porcelain vases to mahogany sideboards.

The frequent use of swags, urns, and elliptical motifs, along with the application of bright and varied color palettes and symmetry, are expressions of Neoclassical style. These design traits appeared in coastal urban centers by the early 1790s, and soon became fashionable in more rural areas, supported by those who wished to demonstrate their awareness of the latest fashion. Like their European counterparts, American builders, architects, and cabinetmakers were influenced by pattern books that emphasized the clean, geometric lines and more delicate Neoclassical detailing.
Speakers and sessions include:
  • Gordon S. Wood, the author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, on why Americans became so excited about Neoclassicism.
  • Susan Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator of Mount Vernon, on recent research into George Washington’s “New Room.”
  • David C. Bosse, Librarian and Curator of Maps at Historic Deerfield, on maps of the Federal period, their decorative elements, and use as wall hangings.
  • Robert Mussey, retired conservator, on Neoclassical furniture produced in Boston.
  • Cabinetmaker Alan Breed will demonstrate his skills carving a replica of a Federal-style bed.
  • William Hosley, Principal of Terra Firma Northeast, on Asher Benjamin (1773-1845), author of  The Country Builder’s Assistant (1797).
  • Philip Zea, President of Historic Deerfield, on the consumer revolution in rural New England.
  • Stephen Fletcher, Director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner, Inc., on restoring an 1830 Greek Revival granite captain’s house.
  • William A. Flynt, Architectural Conservator, Historic Deerfield, “Neoclassical Architecture Along Deerfield’s Old Main Street.”
  • Allan Breed, Master Cabinetmaker, The Breed School, on “Gouge-Cut Inlays.”
  • David E. Lazaro, Associate Curator of Textiles and Collections Manager, Historic Deerfield, “‘The Difference and Quick Transition of Fashion’: Exploring Neoclassical Style in Historic Deerfield’s Fashion and Textile Collection.”
  • Amanda Lange, Curatorial Department Director and Curator of Historic Interiors, Historic Deerfield, “Inspired by Pompeii: Neoclassical Ceramics for the American Home.”
For a full schedule and registration fees, including some extra workshops listed above, see the Historic Deerfield website.

The Neoclassical image above comes from the Skinner Inc., a sponsor of this seminar.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

New Henry Burbeck Collection at the Clements Library

Earlier this year, the Clements Library at the University of Michigan acquired more than 1,600 documents in the Papers of Henry Burbeck (1754-1848), a general in the early U.S. Army.

Burbeck was born in Boston, son of William Burbeck, who became storekeeper at Castle William as well as the town’s fireworks expert. Henry did his militia service in Boston’s artillery company; I’ve used letters he dictated late in life that are now at the Massachusetts Historical Society to trace the last days of that unit in September 1774.

When the war began, Henry and his brothers joined the provincial artillery regiment under Col. Richard Gridley; their father was the unit’s nominal second-in-command, but Gridley preferred to administer through his son Scarborough.

In late 1775, Gen. George Washington and the Continental Congress replaced Gridley with Henry Knox, bypassing Lt. Col. Burbeck. At the end of the siege of Boston, the lieutenant colonel refused to march to New York and thus left the Continental Army.

But Henry, then a lieutenant, remained in the army. In fact, he stuck out the whole war and then rejoined in 1786. He commanded at West Point and Springfield, served in the Northwest Indian War, and established a number of forts on the western frontier. In 1808 he presided over the court-martial of Gen. James Wilkinson, and finally he commanded troops through the War of 1812. Most of the new Clements collection appears to come from that long army career.

The longest report I’ve found about the acquisition is from the Mackinac Island News, focusing on documents of local importance:
In 1796 he peacefully received Fort Mackinac from its British garrison and then commanded the post until 1799. He was a steady officer and strict disciplinarian. A young British lieutenant who visited Mackinac in 1799 described Burbeck as “a little man, as stiff as his boots, awkwardly consequential and [who] passed for a martinet.” Perhaps Major Burbeck still harbored some animosity toward his old foes and greeted his British visitor with reserve.
The collection includes two previously unknown plans of the fort, one by Burbeck and Winthrop Sargent and one by Wilkinson, showing how it developed in those years.

That article also says the Clements’s new collection “represents only about 60% of Henry Burbeck’s entire archive. The remainder is divided among three institutions in the Northeast.” One of those is the New London County Historical Society, but I don’t know the others. A large lot of Burbeck’s papers was sold in 2011.