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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Showing posts with label theater. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theater. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Bite of Joel Christian Gill’s Strange Fruit

As I mentioned back here, I scripted one of the stories in the new anthology Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750. I wrote that script with the artist Joel Christian Gill in mind, and was lucky enough that he agreed to work on the project.

Joel is a professor and now chair of the Foundations Program at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. For years he was creating and publishing short comics about African-American history. As part of the process that led to Colonial Comics, the same publisher saw Joel’s mini-comics and signed him up for multiple books.

Strange Fruit, Volume 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History came out earlier this year. It has a foreword by Prof. Henry Louis Gates and has been getting fine reviews. Its subjects include Marshall “Major” Taylor, a cycling champion; Theophilus Thompson, a child born into slavery who became a chess master; the Malaga Island community of Maine; and more.

One of those stories has its roots in Revolutionary New England: the career of Richard Potter, America’s first professional magician. Potter was a light-skinned African-American, able to portray a “Hindu” in his performances during the early 1800s.

According to traditions going back to the late nineteenth-century, Potter was raised in Hopkinton, son of a servant woman or slave named Dinah and a baronet, or hereditary knight. Hopkinton was home of the baronet Sir Charles Henry (Harry) Frankland, and in the past authors have suggested Frankland was Potter’s father. However, the magician’s gravestone indicates he was born in or around 1783, and Frankland died in 1768, so that’s out.

The 2004 book Black Portsmouth suggests that Potter’s father was Henry Cromwell, a young man in the Frankland household. Most sources identify Cromwell as Sir Harry Frankland’s illegitimate son (though one says he was the illegitimate son of the previous baronet, Sir Harry’s uncle). As for Henry Cromwell’s mother, most sources suggest she was Sir Harry’s mistress before he met the love of his life, Agnes Surriage, in a Marblehead tavern. In Marblehead’s Pygmalion: Finding the Real Agnes Surriage (2010), F. Marshall Bauer digs deepest into those relationships and concludes that Agnes, the future Lady Frankland, probably bore Henry Cromwell out of wedlock as a teenaged mother.

That still leaves the question of how Henry Cromwell might have fathered Richard Potter. Cromwell left America with Lady Frankland during the siege of Boston. At the end of the war, he was busy as a captain in the Royal Navy, participating in the Second Battle of Ushant. He was unlikely to be found in Hopkinton in 1782 or ’83.

Eventually Cromwell became an admiral and retired to the English countryside. In 1805 Sir Harry’s younger brother William left his estate to Cromwell on the provision that the retired admiral change his surname to Frankland, as he quickly did. Thus, although Henry Cromwell Frankland was never a baronet, he was the son of a baronet, an admiral, and a big English landowner, which added up to nearly the same thing.

So did Henry Cromwell leave Massachusetts with the enslaved woman Dinah, and they had Richard Potter far away from Hopkinton? Was Potter born in Hopkinton to another couple altogether, and did he later add an aristocratic pedigree? Did Potter shave a decade off his age, meaning he was really born in 1773? Firm answers are illusory. In Strange Fruit, Joel Gill focuses instead on Potter’s theatrical career, conjuring feats, and manipulation of racial identities within nineteenth-century America.

Joel’s second book this year, Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth, Volume 1, tells the life of a highly successful Texas lawman. It makes some remarkable uses of the comics form, especially in conveying racist language without using it. That book makes its debut this weekend at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo in Cambridge. Right now, as I understand it, Joel is touring the Midwest, wowing audiences with his talks before returning to New England in time for that exposition. Richard Potter would be proud.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legend of Mme. Jumel

Ben Carp alerted me to this gossipy Gothamist article by Danielle Oteri about Eliza Jumel, long-time owner of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. A taste:
Eliza Jumel’s New York Times obituary [from 1865] states that her mother died shortly after giving birth and that she was placed in the care of “a good woman, and many clergymen visited her comparatively humble dwelling, so that the early years of the little one were passed amid good influences.”

In fact, Eliza “Betsy” Bowen was born in either 1773 or 1775 to a mother who worked as a prostitute for a black madam in a Providence, Rhode Island brothel.

Though the means of her ascent aren’t entirely clear, Jumel left Providence in the early 1790s for New York, then a town of 60,000 people. She worked as an actress, and seems to have used her considerable wit and beauty to gain access to many of the city’s elite.

However, her obituary claims that Eliza was brought into these circles when she eloped to New York with Col. P. Croix; that she attended the inauguration of George Washington, was best friends with Benedict Arnold’s wife, and inspired Patrick Henry to fall in love with her. The obituary also claims she was present at the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, which would have made her exceedingly distinguished for a 1-year old.
Jumel did have some genuine top Revolutionary connections. Her house, abandoned by its Loyalist owner, was Gen. Washington’s headquarters for a short time in 1776. Her second (documented) husband was Aaron Burr; when that marriage soured, she had the dramatic sense to hire Alexander Hamilton’s son as her attorney.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Next Month’s Drums Along the Mohawk Drama

Last month I noted a bus tour that will end with a performance of the Drums Along the Mohawk outdoor show in Mohawk, New York. That tour is sold out, but tickets for the show are still available.

The Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama is a two-act play based on Walter D. Edmond’s novel about life in the region leading up to the Battle of Oriskany on 6 Aug 1777. Its cast of characters includes such historical figures as Joseph Brant, Nicholas Herkimer, Benedict Arnold, and Sir John Johnson.

There are four performances scheduled, on the first two Saturdays of August at 5:00 P.M. and the first two Sundays at 2:00 P.M. The venue is the amphitheater on the Gelston Castle Estate overlooking the Mohawk Valley.

Drums Along the Mohawk is scheduled to last about two hours with an intermission. The producers recommend that attendees arrive at least an hour before the shows to have time to walk from the parking lot to the amphitheater, set up a place on the lawn with blankets or lawn chairs, and perhaps enjoy a picnic meal. (Bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages; plan to take everything out with you at the end.) From 4:00 until showtime on Saturdays there will be eighteenth-century music, and a Benjamin Franklin interpreter will interact with the new arrivals.

Tickets are $15, or $10 for seniors, children under thirteen, and active-duty military personnel. You can buy tickets in advance through this website, or pay in cash at the gate. The parking fee is $10 per car.

The show will be performed even during a light rain, and no one can open umbrellas during the performance, so check the forecast and dress accordingly. If the weather’s worse, the performance might be delayed for half an hour. If it’s so bad a performance has to be cancelled, the producers will offer rain checks for a future performance this season, if there is one. There will be no refunds.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Warren step’s beyond their path”

When Ezekiel and Sarah Russell put together their “ELEGIAC POEM” about Bunker Hill, they didn’t stint. Their customers didn’t get just sixty woodcut coffins and four columns of poetry.

The Russells also provided “An ACROSTIC on the late Major-General WARREN Who was slain fighting for the LIBERTIES of AMERICA”:
J ust as JOSEPH took his flight
O nward to the realm of light,
S atan hurl’d his hellish darts,
E vil angels played their parts;
P iercy, Burgoyne, Howe, and Gage,
H over about infernal rage:

W ARREN step’d beyond their path,
A w’d by none, nor fear’d their wrath;
R an his race to joy and rest,
R ose amongst the loyal blest;
E nter’d in the rolls of fame,
N orth and Devil mist their aim.
To squeeze full value from that poem, it was also reprinted in an almanac for the following year.

The image above shows John Norman’s frontispiece for Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s play about Bunker Hill published in Philadelphia in 1776, another early portrayal of Dr. Warren as a martyr.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jedediah Buxton, Autistic Savant

Mike Rendell of the Georgian Gent blog recently profiled an English farmworker named Jedediah Buxton (c. 1702-1772), who was what we’d now consider a mathematical savant on the autistic spectrum:
From the age of twelve Jedediah was pre-occupied with numbers – adding, subtracting, and multiplying. At its most basic level there was a purpose – he could walk a field, calculate its square footage and then divide the total to establish how many broccoli plants would be needed to fill the field if planted seven feet apart, in rows four feet from each other. Except that having worked out the number of plants, he then complicated matters by recalculating the square footage by reference to the number of barley corns (at three barley corns per inch) and then how many human hairs (at 48 hairsbreadth to the inch). If that wasn’t bad enough, he would then decide to multiply the resulting figure by itself – to give a massive figure which would take hours to calculate. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, Jed could down tools and have a drink, and then carry on with these calculations in his head at a significantly later date – sometimes days and even weeks later.

In working out these figures, Jedediah invented several new numbers, to enable him to cope with the concept of “millions of millions of millions”. He referred to “tribes” (a figure of ten to the power of eighteen) and “cramps” (ten to the power of thirty nine ). He was known to be set a challenge, go back to digging ditches in the fields, cogitating and calculating, then sit down in the local pub at the end of the working day and, armed with his free drinks, would finish the number crunching. . . .

Jedediah had married Alice Eastwood at Ault Hucknall Church and they had three children − John, Susannah and Sara. But in 1753 Alice died. The following year some sort of wanderlust got into Jedediah and he walked down to London (200-odd miles) to see the sights, take in a show, whatever. He also thought that he would call in and see the King, but George II was not at home. So he went to see a play – the performance was Richard III at the Drury Lane Theatre and it was a chance to listen to David Garrick declaim – but Jedediah preferred to spend the entire performance counting the individual words spoken by the great thespian, and, in the case of the dancers, calculating how many steps they took.
By coincidence, PEN New England has just awarded one of its Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Awards for the year to Pamela Sonn for a picture book manuscript abut Buxton. Sonn and two other winners will read from their work this Sunday at 6:30 P.M. at Simmons College.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Farewell to Two Historical Gentlemen

The community of historical interpreters in Massachusetts is mourning two gentlemen who died this week.

Among other personas, Thomas Macy portrayed John Adams at many venues, often performing a two-person epistolary play with Patricia Bridgman as Abigail. For years Tom wanted to bring that Adams portrayal to Washington’s Headquarters, and as part of last month’s reenactment he was able to portray Adams’s meeting with Gen. George Washington.

Tom also wrote a short book called The Hannah and the Nautilus: The Beginning of the American Revolution at Sea, published by the Beverly Historical Society in 2002. It’s a detailed study of one of the first naval skirmishes of the Revolutionary War, which took place off Beverly’s coast in September 1775.

In Boston, Bob Jolly was one of the Freedom Trail Players for several years. He was a pioneer in portraying a little-known citizen of Revolutionary Boston rather than a celebrated name, an approach that allows visitors to consider events through the eyes of an ordinary person.

Bob’s character was Nathaniel Balch, a handsome hatter who was a close friend of Gov. John Hancock. Balch seems to have had the personality of a nightclub comic, making him a good match for Bob, who was also an actor and performer of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

Tom came from Nantucket, Bob from Louisiana, but both found new homes and new friends in the world of local historical interpretation.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Joseph Corré: cook, hotelier, impresario

Yesterday I introduced the figure of Joseph Corré, President George Washington’s ice cream supplier in the spring and summer of 1790. At the time, of course, New York was the capital of the U.S. of A.

Here’s a profile of the man from William Dunlap’s 1833 History of the American Theatre:

Mr. Corré will be long remembered by the elder citizens of New-York as an honest, industrious, and prosperous man. He was a Frenchman, and is first remembered as a cook in the service of Major Carew, of the 17th light dragoons, the servant of his Britannic majesty.
Sir John Fortescue’s History of the 17th Lancers: 1759-1894 and other sources confirm that Richard Carew or (more often) Crewe was a captain in that unit starting in 1769. Crewe embarked for America with his troop in April 1775, spending several months inside besieged Boston, and was promoted to major there in February 1776. He participated in the New York and New Jersey campaigns of 1776-77, and Corré accompanied him, at least to winter quarters, as Dunlap vividly recalled:
The first time the writer saw Corré, he stood with knife in hand, and in the full costume of his trade, looking as important as the mysteries of his craft entitle every cook to look, “with fair round belly, with good capon lined,” covered with a fair white apron, and his powdered locks compressed by an equally white cap. His rotundity of face and rotundity of person—for he was not related to Hogarth’s Cook at the gates of Calais—with this professional costume, made his figure, though by no means of gigantic height, appear awfully grand, as well as outré, and it was stamped upon the young mind of his admirer in lights and shadows never to be erased.

When we say the costume of his trade, we mean such as we see it in pictures, and as travellers see it; the writer had at that time never seen other than a female cook, and such always black as Erebus. This was in the winter of 1776-7, before the New-Jersey militia and the great chief of our citizen-soldiers had driven the English to the protection of their ships and the safety of water-girt islands. It was at Perth Amboy that Corré stood lord of the kitchen, which his lord, the major of dragoons, had wrested from the black cook of the writer’s father, and held by the same title which made the Corsican lord of the Continent of Europe—military force. The gallant major occupied and improved the upper part of the house, and Manager Corré ruled below.
Maj. Crewe retired on 3 June 1778, replaced by Oliver DeLancey. The major returned to Britain, but Joseph Corré remained in British-occupied New York. He opened a confectionary and catering business, then a tavern, moving to different addresses as the years passed.

When the war ended, Corré chose not to evacuate with the Loyalists but to remain in his adopted city. In 1791, the city council even chose his hotel to host a banquet celebrating the eighth anniversary of the British military’s departure. That same year, Corré first advertised theatricals at the City Tavern on Broadway, establishing a new tradition in American theater.

Over the next two decades, Corré expanded his business, as Dunlap watched:
Mr. Corré afterwards kept the City Tavern, in New-York, with reputation and success, and established those public gardens [i.e., theaters] in State Street still existing, on the site of a part of what was Fort George when he first saw America. He was a thriving and worthy man, and his descendants have reason to respect his memory, although these situations in life might little qualify him to direct public taste, except in the way of his original employment. Mr. Corré and the writer were now, in 1800, both theatrical managers, and Mr. Corré proved the most successful manager of the two. In regard to literary qualifications, Mr. Corré was probably not far behind many other managers who have since ruled the fates of actors and destinies of authors.
In 1801 Corré and a rival theater manager got into a newspaper debate over whether they could mount productions on the same nights. Corré, who was infringing on the other man’s usual dates, made the free-trade argument: “The public in America are not to be told, on Monday you shall go here, and on Tuesday you shall go there…” Nevertheless, Corré’s Mount Vernon Gardens closed after three years.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Parsing “The Jelly-House Maccaroni”

I included this image, titled “The Jelly-House Maccaroni,” in one of my postings on bundling over the past month. Published in London in 1772, it was actually three thousand miles and nearly a full generation distant from the Rhode Island newspaper essay I used it to illustrate, but it had the right libertine air.

Joe Bauman asked me about the slang in the title. A “jelly-house” was a type of London restaurant that gained a reputation in the eighteenth-century as being an place where young rakes met prostitutes.

For example, the London Magazine’s 1766 summary of a play called Neck or Nothing says:
...Slip’s confusion very nearly discovers him; But hearing only the former marriage is mentioned, he gains courage, and with great effrontery treats this tale as a stratagem of Bellford and Jenny, who, he says, notwithstanding her master took her for an innocent girl out of the country, was a Covent-garden-bred wench, who had lived at a jelly-house, and had two children. . . .

Nothing now remained but to get the money from Stockwell, who, having met with Jenny, treats all her former story as a fiction, and upbraids her with the jelly-house.

This being an aspersion which she knew was groundless, she resolved to go to Bellford, and consult with him what was to be done. . . .
Sounds uproarious, no?

In 1771, one Richard King published a book titled The New London Spy: or, A Twenty-Four Hours Ramble through the Bills of Mortality. It promised readers:
…a true picture of modern high and low life; from the splendid mansions in St. James’s to the subterraneous habitations of St. Giles’s, wherein are displayed the various scenes of Covent-Garden, and its environs, the theatres, Jelly-houses, Gaming-houses, Night-houses, Cottages, Masquerades, Mock-Masquerades, Public-gardens, and other places of entertainments.
Gordon Williams’s three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, stretching out of period, quotes another book called The Stranger’s Guide from about 1800 as saying, “Procuresses…are to be met with at the jelly-houses, milliners, perfume-shops.”

As for “macaroni,” that was the eighteenth-century term for fancy Italian fashion, and then for the sort of young fop who would wear it. The slang survives most famously in “Yankee Doodle,” puzzling generations of American children. (I had a conversation with one puzzled American former child this summer.)

When the rustic American Yankee Doodle puts a feather in his cap and calls it macaroni, either the song is mocking him for thinking that’s fancy and fashionable, or he’s mocking the sort of English fops who chased after “macaroni” fashion. You can take your pick.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Twisting Tale of Learned Pigs in America

Today Boston 1775 features an essay from guest blogger Russell Potter, author of the new novel PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig. Check out his blog for more information about that book, set mostly in eighteenth-century London. This posting tracks learned pigs across the Atlantic.

The history of that Sagacious Animal, the Learned PIG, in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries turns out to be far longer and twistier than the Tail of most members of the Species. It begins just a few years after Toby, the original of that Act, was exhibited in London in the 1780s, and—like so many other American phenomena—the first sign of it is a lawsuit.

In a Philadelphia paper of June 9th, 1792, under the heading “LAW INTELLIGENCE” we learn of an action brought by one Mr. Williams against the landlord of the George Inn in the Haymarket, who had distrained both his pig and his caravan against some unspecified debt. The judge opined, and the jury agreed, that—as tools of the trade—both animal and wagon were exempt from such seizure, and returned a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor. Of this pioneer Mr. Williams and his learned companion nothing more is heard.

The next we hear of our estimable friend comes two years later, and comes upon the Stage, with no actual Pig in sight. A comic song, “Of the LEARNED PIG and TIPPY BOBBY,” debuted upon the stage in Boston in June of 1794, as an entr’acte between a play titled Which is a Man and a farce known as Animal Magnetism. The same song is also mentioned in connection with other productions of this time, including “How To Grow Rich,” which was performed at the New Theatre in Hartford in September of 1796.

And then the pigs start to appear in earnest: In 1797 a sapient Swine—claimed to be the same one “shewn in London at half a crown each person”—debuted at No. 219 South 2nd Street in Philadelphia. By July of that year, the same pig, or at least one with very similar advertising copy, appeared in New York at Mr. Marling’s Long Room, No. 87 Nassau-Street, where he was soon joined by a variety of companion amusements, including the “celebrated TURK,” an infamous chess-playing faux-automaton operated by a dwarf concealed behind the works (and debunked some years later by Edgar Allan Poe). The pig’s run was extended again and again, with a “last chance” advertised on October 2nd, after which he seems to have gone into (a doubtless well-earned) retirement.

The next Pig to strut the boards is that of William Pinchbeck, which I’ve blogged about; in his advertisements he claimed that his Pig was the London original, and had been purchased for a thousand dollars in Philadelphia. However, Pinchbeck’s later Expositor describes the pig’s training, suggesting that he brought this animal to its sense himself.

Pinchbeck had an extended run in Boston in a room underneath Bowen’s Museum of curiosities, and then embarked on a tour that included Newburyport, Salem, and (as discussed here) Providence, which he reached in September of 1798. He advertisements fade away soon after this, although the Pig is mentioned prominently in his notices for his Expositor.

Pinchbeck was followed by a number of exhibitors, some purely local—such as “Dick,” a fixture in Charlestown from 1799 through 1804, and one Mr. Brigshaw’s pig, shown in Newport in March of 1797. (One wonders if Brigshaw might have been the “A.B.” with whom Pinchbeck corresponded in the letters about training such a pig in the Expositor.)

Another pig, under the banner of “A Curiosity in which the Public will not be Disappointed” (see above) appeared in Philadelphia, Alexandria, Albany, and New York. Although there is a long tradition of Mr. Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria having been home to one of these sagacious animals, this pig appeared at a rival establishment, Mr. Charles McKnight’s Eagle Tavern, in 1801.

And, shortly after that, another pig appeared, with the motto “Seeing is Believing.” It astonished the visitors at the Rising Sun Hotel, Market Street, Philadelphia, by telling the time of day, distinguishing colors, counting the company present, and so forth. A final, late-arriving porcine prognosticator arrived in 1806 in Alexandria, where he was exhibited at Mr. John Bogan’s Spring-Garden.

The newspapers of this period are filled with allusions to the Learned Pig, most of them treating the act as a single, well-known attraction, although one Philadelphia paper noted in 1803 that “within four years four learned pigs had been exhibited.” The anecdote of Dr. Johnson’s remarks on the Pig was widely reprinted, and as J. L. Bell has described, the animal was often the subject of political satires and diatribes.

Eventually, the popularity of the pig declined, although there are accounts of it being revived in scattered places across the country—including Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto, and Chicago—as late as the 1890s. As was the case in England, it seems that the idea of a Learned Pig had its greatest appeal in the period that regarded itself as the “Age of Reason.”

Thanks, Russell!

Russell Potter will speak about this history and his novel
PYG at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, 20 October, at 3:30 P.M.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Present Battle of Princeton

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has released its latest list of most endangered sites in America, and on that list is the Princeton Battlefield.

I’m of two minds on this. While I like preservation of historic sites and open spaces, the development that’s threatening part of that battlefield isn’t a new strip mall or factory or interstate highway. It’s faculty housing for the Institute for Advanced Study, which helped to create the battlefield park in the first place. The institute likes to provide peace and quiet and a level of rusticity for the scholars working there. I can’t help but see that use of land as a Good Thing. (For full disclosure, my uncle spent several months at the I.A.S. a few years ago, though it wasn’t a big change of scene for him since he lives on the other side of Princeton.)

I also think the Battle of Princeton isn’t quite as important as it’s often made out to be. It looms larger in American memory because it was a rare battlefield victory for Gen. George Washington, and because it was so close to the campus of an influential college. Indeed, the Princeton buildings that existed then, including Nassau Hall, were used by both armies. But since the campus and nearby neighborhood have already been developed (and people are fond of the result), there’s no preservation outcry. Of course, such an outcry would be far too late.

This map shows land now used by the I.A.S. in brown at the right. The present battlefield park is in green at the center. The grayish area marked 2 is where the I.A.S. wants to build more housing while keeping the blue area as a wooded buffer. Some fighting and maneuvers occurred over all four areas, as well as developed land nearby. Does that make preserving all the possible land more important? Or does that mean the battlefield park is necessarily symbolic, and the specific land is less important?

I’ll let you make up your own (two?) minds. For folks in the region, on 29 September the Princeton Battlefield Society is sponsoring:
A full day of activities including Battlefield and Clarke House Tours, Children’s Scavenger Hunt and games, Colonial Demonstrations, Soldiers of the Battle, and book sales, giveaways, and prizes.

Programs start at 10:00 A.M. and go to 4:00 P.M. At 4:00 P.M., Colonial Music by THE PRACTITIONERS OF MUSICK and at 5:00 PM, a performance of CATO A TRAGEDY, by Joseph Addison, by the Princeton Shakespeare Company at the Columns. (George Washington requested a performance of CATO during the encampment at Valley Forge.)
I believe there‘s been some recent questioning of that last statement, but there’s no question that Washington quoted from Cato in his letters from the start of the war.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Porcupine’s “The Lion and the Pig”

Yesterday I quoted an advertisement from William Frederick Pinchbeck announcing the appearance of his learned pig in Salem in 1798. A couple of months before they had appeared in Boston.

In the 1790s, William Cobbett was another immigrant from England in America. He was publishing a high Federalist newspaper in Philadelphia called Porcupine’s Gazette. In addition to promoting pro-British policies, the newspaper also commented, usually acerbically, on public entertainments.

This is what Cobbett had to say about the wonderful pig in March 1798:
The LION and the PIG.

To Mr. Pinchbeck, Proprietor of the Learned Pig now in Boston.

“Corpora magnanimo satis est prostrasse LEONI.” Ovid.

Tell us no more of your learned little pig,
In size a mere runt, though in science very big.
Tell us no more of your little pig of knowledge,
Who can cipher and spell like a sophomore at college.
Can the grunting little thing, which you set so very high on,
Be compared to our beast, the GREAT AND MIGHTY LION?
You boast your little pig can spell the hardest word;
But did your little pig ever wear a wooden sword?
Your bonny pig may dance jigs, round-abouts, and reels;
But did he ever prance with rogue’s march at his heels?
I’ll allow your bristled beau can count and tell his letters;
But can he name and shew, his gammons to his betters?
Spades, diamonds, clubs, and hearts, your piggy well can handle;
But did his hinder parts ever hold a lighted candle?
Though your piggy screws his snout in such learned grimaces,
I defy the squeaking lout to spit in Christians’ faces,
And if the thing could be, is such the hoggish fashion,
That one third of the fly would applaud him for the action?
Then tell us no more of your little grunting creature,
But confess that the LION is the GREATEST BEAST in nature.
Cobbett returned to Britain in 1800 and eventually became a radical Member of Parliament, particularly interested in agricultural reform. (The portrait above comes from that period of his career.) Cobbett had another chance to comment on learned pigs in 1817 when yet another Toby made its London debut, but I don’t think he did so.

TOMORROW: But what the heck was that poem about?

Monday, August 06, 2012

Pinchbeck’s Pig in Salem

William Frederick Pinchbeck brought his learned pig from Britain to New York in 1798. After some successful performances there, the pair traveled north, and Pinchbeck ran this notice in the Salem Gazette dated 4 May:

For ten days only.

Mr. PINCHBECK Respectfully informs the Inhabitants of SALEM, that he has just arrived in this town with that great natural curiosity, the
Pig of Knowledge,
And flatters himself, after exhibiting before the President of the United States with unbounded applause, and in every principal City in the Union, to have the honour of gratifying such Ladies and Gentlemen in this place, as may favour him with their Company.

This extraordinary Animal will actually perform the following surprising particulars, viz.
He reads print or writing, spells, tells the time of day, both the hours and minutes, by any person’s watch in the company, the date of the year, the day of the month, distinguishes colours, how many persons there are present, ladies or gentlemen, and to the astonishment of every spectator, will answer any question in the four first rules of Arithmetics

To conclude, any Lady or Gentleman may draw a card from a pack, and keep it concealed, and the PIG without hesitation will discover the card when drawn.

Those who doubt the truth of the above are informed in case it don’t answer every expectation the advertisement can excite, and prove a real living Animal, shall have the Money returned, or be at liberty to pay after they have convinced themselves by seeing him perform.

To be seen in a convenient room under the western side of Concert-Hall, Market-Street.
Admittance, for grown persons, one Quarter of a Dollar. Children half price.
N. B. Strict attention paid to keep the place fit for the reception of Ladies.
The “President of the United States” whom Pinchbeck claimed had seen the pig was John Adams. I don’t know of any document from the Adams Papers to confirm that—but if Abigail was with John in New York at the time, their discussion wouldn’t have been on paper. However, Pinchbeck was from a family of British showmen, and was quite capable of hyping his act.

(Russell Potter, author of Pyg, left a comment on yesterday’s posting quoting another of Pinchbeck’s advertisements, which he quoted at greater length here.)

Seven years later, in 1805, Pinchbeck published a volume titled The Expositor, explaining the basic secrets behind automata, ventriloquism, optical illusions, stage magic, and of course training a performing pig.

TOMORROW: The lion, the pig, and the porcupine.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Adams Family and the Wonderful Pig

The Pyg blog I quoted yesterday stated that Thomas Jefferson was among the Americans who saw William Frederick Pinchbeck’s learned pig in America after 1798. But it appears that the swine Jefferson paid a shilling to see was the original Toby, performing in London in the spring of 1786.

Toby had made his London debut the year before, as the Duchess of Devonshire’s blog relates. He was soon the talk of the town. Among the folks talking about him was the family of John Adams, then the American minister to the Court of St. James.

The younger Abigail Adams wrote to her brother John Quincy Adams on 11 Aug 1785:
…the People of our Country have a Wonderfull liking to those who can say, “I have been in St. Pauls Church. I have seen the Lions, Tigers, &c. in the Tower. I have seen the King, and what is more have had the extreme honour of being saluted by him. What the King? Yes by George the Third King of Great Britain France and Ireland, defender of the Faith &c. And I have seen the Dancing Dogs, Singing Duck, and little Hare which beats the Drum, and the Irish Infant, [blank] feet high, but not yet the Learned Pig.[”]

The Tumblers of Sadlers Wells, have made great objections that the Learned Pig, should be introduced upon the Stage and have I beleive left it.
As a novelty, and one who might not have left the stage in pristine state, Toby represented a threat to older acts.

On 3 Sept 1785 the older Abigail Adams wrote to her aunt Lucy Tufts:
I know Madam that you Live a Life so retired and are now so frequently seperated from your worthy companion that I flatter myself a few lines from me will not be unacceptable to you: tho I were to amuse you with what is the Ton of London, The learned pig, dancing dogs, and the little Hare that Beats the Drum. It is incredible what sums of Money are nightly lavishd upon these kinds of Amusements, many of them fit only to please children.
Neither Adams woman wrote about actually seeing the pig, however, and the elder Abigail clearly disapproved of paying to do so. Nonetheless, Jefferson took in the spectacle during his brief visit to Britain. And left no comment about it.

TOMORROW: Did John Adams ever see the learned pig? Any learned pig?

[The image above is Thomas Rowlandson’s print of Toby the learned pig in action.]

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Pig in the City

Publishers Weekly offers an interview with the title “How Do You Write a Book Narrated by a Pig?”:
Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig is Russell Potter’s wildly imaginative new novel told from the perspective of a pig in eighteenth-century England that begins in a sideshow and ends up in Oxford and Edinburgh, where Toby studies. Along the way, he meets the likes of Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, and William Blake. How did Potter write such an clever, charming novel? We talked with him to find out.

Who was the real “learned pig” who formed the basis of the novel?

The original pig, named (as were nearly all his successors) Toby, first appeared in England in 1783, spelling out answers to audience questions using letters printed on cards. By 1785, he had made his way from the provinces to London, where he quickly became a subject of considerable interest, inspiring political cartoons and satirical poems, as well as a slew of rival pigs. In 1787, he made a Scottish tour, ending his days in Edinburgh, while a series of latter-day “sapient pigs” kept the act going in Britain and the United States well into the nineteenth century.
The book has its own blog, which stated this week:
In 1798, a “Learned Pig” first arrived in America under the proprietorship of a certain Mr. William Frederick Pinchbeck. Much as had his British forebears, Pinchbeck’s pig read and spelled words, told the time of day by consulting a watch, and answered questions freely from the audience on arithmetic and any other matters. 
Pinchbeck eventually published instructions on raising a learned pig, which that blog quoted here, in case anyone wants to reenact this element of eighteenth-century life. (Maybe a 4-H project?)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Account of the Wonderful Centaur

This clipping from the Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1 Apr 1751 comes courtesy of the University of Otago’s online exhibit on that magazine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Secrets of the Federal Street Theatre

Today the Massachusetts Historical Society opens a new exhibit on the first public theater in Boston, a matter of great controversy back in 1794. The society’s Events webpage says:
“The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre, 1794-1798” documents the battle over the Federal Street Theatre through playbills from early performances as well as the letters and publications of supporters and opponents of public theater in Boston. The M.H.S. show is a satellite display of an exhibition titled “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History” on display at the Boston Public Library.
The Federal Street Theatre exhibit will be on view through 30 July, and is free to people visiting on 10:00 to 4:00 on weekdays.

The first manager of that theater was John Steele Tyler, older brother of the playwright and jurist Royall Tyler. And his history is even slippier than his little brother’s. John Steele Tyler was a major early in the Revolutionary War, then a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts forces during the Penobscot expedition. In 1780, he sailed to Europe with John Trumbull, another former American officer, who wanted to study painting.

Tyler and Trumbull were sharing rooms in London late that year when Benjamin Thompson, secretary to Secretary of State Lord George Germain (and slipperiest of all), ordered their arrest as suspected spies. Loyalist friends warned Tyler, and he slipped away to France while Trumbull went to jail. The next year, Tyler wrote to Germain saying that the French alliance had turned him against the American cause and that he’d defect to the Crown for £1,000.

That letter didn’t come to light until Lewis Einstein’s book Divided Loyalties in 1933, so Tyler was able to return to America in the 1780s with a solid reputation. Privately John Adams called him “a detestible Specimen” (for unknown reasons), but publicly Tyler was an upstanding veteran and businessman. Family tradition says he’d even undertaken spy missions for Gen. George Washington. And perhaps that’s what Tyler really was up to in London. But that family’s voluminous traditions are sometimes contradictory and self-serving.

In any event, Tyler’s outward respectability made him a good public face for the institution that broke Boston’s long-standing taboo against theater.

(The image of the Federal Street Theatre above comes from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collection.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Intimate Acquaintance

After Abigail Adams learned the details of Dr. Benjamin Church’s correspondence with the British command, conducted at one point through his mistress, she wrote to her husband in Philadelphia:
What are your thoughts with regard to Dr. Church? Had you much knowledg of him? I think you had no intimate acquaintance with him.
This is the sort of query for which there’s really only one acceptable answer. It’s not, “We worked together for years as political organizers, and everyone kept quiet about his mistresses.” It’s, “I barely knew the man, honey.”

(By the time John Adams received that letter, he’d actually already sent Abigail his thoughts about the “detestible Subject” of Dr. Church, so he got the answer right.)

On Sunday, 5 February, at 2:00 P.M. the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury will host a performance of “The Intimate Correspondence of John and Abigail Adams,” based on letters like that one. The press release says:
Today, over 230 years later, we can still listen to their conversations, share in their thoughts and desires, and get to know them as real people, not just as words in a history textbook. During the “Love Letters” presentation, the audience will hear letters that began with John’s and Abigail’s courtship, and continuing through John’s years at the Continental Congress. Enjoy these iconic personalities as they reveal their teasing humor, their pleasure in children and farm, their deepest hopes for the future, and their undying love and respect for each other.

“Love Letters” will be presented by two Adams scholars and living history performers—Patricia Bridgman and Thomas Macy—who have over forty years of living history experience between them.
After the show, there will be a question-and-answer session in character and refreshments. Admission is $10 for the general public, $5 for members of the Shirley-Eustis House Association. Call 617-442-2275 to reserve seats.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

For Lovers of a Good Beaumarchais

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais is known for two things. First, he coordinated the initially secret French program to supply the nascent U.S. of A. with money and arms early in the Revolutionary War. (Here’s the C.I.A. version of that history.)

At the same time, he was writing The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, two somewhat subversive plays that soon became more famous as the source for Mozart’s adaptation. I recall reading the first in school at some point and liking it, though I haven’t gone back to the whole series.

At Kickstarter, Talia Felix is inviting people to support her project to translate all of Beaumarchais’s plays from the French and release the new English texts into the public domain.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Upcoming Conference on Popular Culture

The Fourth James L. and Shirley A. Draper Graduate Student Conference in Early American Studies on Popular Culture in Early America will take place on 24-26 Mar 2011 in Worcester and Storrs, Connecticut. The deadline for submissions is 15 December.

I liked the conference description, so I’m repeating it all:

Popular culture in early America embraced a host of activities and purposes, communities, practices, and sites. From London to Philadelphia, Charleston to Kingston, Quebec to Lima, colonial subjects and then citizens of the United States and other new republics in the Americas frequented taverns and country dances, cock fights and boxing matches, where they relaxed, competed, bonded, shared news, forged political alliances, and defined the meanings and limits of sociability.

Couples strolled through pleasure gardens in eighteenth-century cities and privileged women staked claims to gentility with Wedgwood china, while men of all classes patronized brothels and then repented after listening to fiery revival sermons. Museums and theaters advertised new forms of instruction and amusement in the public arena. The respectable home, in turn, took on a new role as an entertainment center, where young ladies performed on the piano and children moved pawns on board games.

Meanwhile, in realms of their own, enslaved people played homemade instruments adapting African forms and rhythms to New World surroundings, only to witness their musical culture admired, mocked, and expropriated in the commercialized form of blackface minstrelsy. Popular culture expressed the vitality of the diverse worlds that met and collided in early America and enacted their tensions and conflicts as well.

Plebeian and respectable, folk and commercial, popular and elite: “popular culture” goes by many names in early American scholarship and takes in a broad and perhaps incompatible set of activities. The Draper Graduate Student Conference in Early American Studies seeks to explore this wide arena and assay the subjects, issues, contributions, and theoretical debates in recent work on popular culture in early America and the broader Atlantic world from the sixteenth century down to the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

We invite papers that grapple with the very definition and contours of the topic.
  • What exactly do we mean by popular culture? Who created popular culture, from what sources and traditions, and across what boundaries of ethnicity and race, religion, gender, and class?
  • Was popular culture defined against “elite culture”? Or did the several ranks and orders of early American societies join together in everyday activities and social rituals that helped to constitute a common culture?
  • Did popular culture give play to gender stereotypes and enforce racial distinctions, or did it offer space for challenges to such hierarchies?
  • Were particular areas of social life—religion, for example, or recreation—especially receptive to popular participation and influence?
  • How do we understand the rise of new culture industries in the middle of the nineteenth century? Did commercial entertainments put popular culture in the hands of capitalist entrepreneurs and the interests they served? Did the nineteenth-century middle class take shape by crusading against popular culture?
The conference is sponsored by the University of Connecticut and the American Antiquarian Society together. They want paper proposals in the form of a 500-word abstract and a C.V. of no more than two pages. This conference has a Facebook page and everything.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Fall of a Hero Reading, 8 Dec., Boston

Tomorrow night—Wednesday, 8 December—there will be a free public reading of Fall of a Hero, a play about Dr. Joseph Warren. The playwright is Thomas Fleming, author of Now We Are Enemies, about the Battle of Bunker Hill, and many other books of Revolutionary history.

This reading is co-sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center and Boston Playwrights’ Theater, both part of Boston University. It will take place in the back theater space at 949 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. The event starts at 7:00 P.M., and Tom Fleming will be on hand to take questions from the audience afterward.

There’s a long tradition of American dramatizations of the battle for the Charlestown peninsula, starting in 1776 when “a Gentleman of Maryland” published The Battle of Bunker’s Hill: A Dramatic Piece of Five Acts, in heroic measure through the Philadelphia printer Robert Bell.

The author was Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816, shown above), who had moved from Scotland to Pennsylvania as a boy and managed to get into Princeton, where he became friends with Philip Freneau and James Madison. In 1776 he was in Maryland running an academy, and The Battle of Bunker’s Hill was first performed by his students. The next year he supplied them with The Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of Quebec.

In 1777 Brackenridge served as a chaplain in the Continental Army, and the next year started publishing the United States Magazine in Philadelphia. It failed, so he studied law under Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from Maryland.

In 1781 Brackenridge settled in Pittsburgh, where he was finally a big fish in the pond. His Pittsburgh Gazette evolved into the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and his Pittsburgh Academy grew into the University of Pittsburgh. He represented the region in the state legislature, and tried to mediate the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s, opposing both the whiskey tax and the violent response to it. From 1792 to 1815 Brackenridge published a rambling novel of frontier life called Modern Chivalry, and in 1799 he became a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.