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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it





•••••••••••••••••



Friday, July 01, 2022

The Continental Congress’s Plans for Nurses

Yesterday I reproduced a paragraph from a U.S. military webpage that contained four quotations about Continental Army nurses attributed to Gen. Horatio Gates, Gen. George Washington, and a plan sent [by Washington’s office?] to the Continental Congress.

However, none of those quoted phrases appear in Washington’s correspondence. So where did they come from?

On 19 July 1775 the Continental Congress appointed a committee “to report the method of establishing an hospital” for its army besieging Boston.

The three delegates named to that committee were Francis Lewis of New York (shown here), Robert Treat Paine of Massachusetts, and Henry Middleton of South Carolina.

(This committee was formed two days before Washington wrote to the Congress asking for the hospital to be “immediately taken into Consideration.” The Congress was already ahead of him.)

On 24 July that committee submitted its recommendations, and three days later the Congress voted to establish a medical department for its army. Among the personnel it provided for were:
Surgeons, apothecary and mates,
To visit and attend the sick, and the mates to obey the orders of the physicians, surgeons and apothecary.

Matron. To superintend the nurses, bedding, &c.

Nurses. To attend the sick, and obey the matron’s orders.
Later in the day, the Congress agreed there should be “one nurse to every 10 sick.” It also named the man they thought best suited to direct the medical department: Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Church lasted about two months before being exposed as a British spy.

Be that as it may, that’s the official beginning of the American army’s nursing corps. (There were women nursing sick and wounded men from the New England army before that, starting with volunteers on the first day of the war and including the first hospitals.)

That July 1775 resolution of the Congress looks like the real source of two of the four quoted phrases:
  • “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.”—not exactly from the official record but recognizable.
  • nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.”
The reproduced passage attributes those quoted phrases to a request from Gen. Washington. But those words weren’t generated by the commander-in-chief or his staff. They came out of the Congress. There’s a hero-worshipping tendency among American authors to attribute to Washington a lot that we should credit to the institutions of democratic government.

Almost two years later, on 7 Apr 1777, the Congress again discussed how to organize its army hospitals. By this time the war had spread, so that department had grown. Its managers had a better idea of what worked. Among the provisions the Congress approved that day were:
That a matron be allowed to every hundred sick or wounded, who shall take care that the provisions are properly prepared; that the wards, beds, and utensils be kept in neat order, and that the most exact oeconomy be observed in her department:

That a nurse be allowed for every ten sick or wounded, who shall be under the direction of the matron:
This resolution is the source of the third of the four quotations (with “allotted” substituted for the original “allowed”). Those words indeed appear in a plan submitted to the Congress, as the army webpage says, but that plan was written two years into the war, not in the summer of 1775.

TOMORROW: The fourth quotation.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Gates, Washington, and the Continental Nurses

In connection with last week’s online event about unpaid and underpaid labor at the siege of Boston, I encountered this statement on the U.S. Army’s website about women in the military:
Shortly after the establishment of the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates reported to Commander-in-Chief George Washington that “the sick suffered much for want of good female Nurses.” Gen. Washington then asked Congress for “a matron to supervise the nurses, bedding, etc.,” and for nurses “to attend the sick and obey the matron’s orders.” A plan was submitted to the Second Continental Congress that provided one nurse for every ten patients and provided “that a matron be allotted to every hundred sick or wounded.”
Though I’d studied Washington’s work in Cambridge in 1775–76, that first quotation was new to me. I’m always interested in more information, so I dug deeper, seeking more definite dates.

Those statements and quotations are echoed in other army webpages and textbooks about the history of nursing. After all, they come from the army itself.

Some of those overviews put Gates’s report on 14 June 1775 instead of “Shortly after” that date. But that timing wouldn’t make sense. As the original passage above states, the Congress created the Continental Army on 14 June—implicitly, by authorizing the recruitment of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Washington wasn’t commissioned commander-in-chief for another couple of days.

As for Gates (shown above), he learned of his appointment as adjutant general (with the rank of brigadier general) on 21 June, and he reached Cambridge on 9 July. So at what point “Shortly after” 14 June would he have made that quoted statement?

Fortunately, the specificity of the quotations makes it easy to look them up on Founders Online, which includes all known writing to and from George Washington during the war. Gates’s reports to Washington and the commander-in-chief’s requests to the Congress all appear there.

Yet none of the quoted phrases comes up in a Founders Online search.

TOMORROW: Real sources and real dates.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Supreme Court and “a fabricated case”

Back in 2012, I departed from the eighteenth century to consider an issue in the intersection of law and history.

What does it mean when a Supreme Court decision guiding decades of law and policy turns out to be based on a historical falsehood?

In 1953 the court issued what’s come to be known as the Reynolds decision, requiring courts to defer to the executive branch of the federal government when it invokes national security and the need for secrecy to demand an end to legal proceedings. The majority of justices concluded that the government wouldn’t do that for petty or self-serving reasons.

Over forty years later, documents emerged to show that the U.S. Air Force had done precisely what the Supreme Court said we must assume it wouldn’t do: hide evidence and stifle a lawsuit to avoid embarrassment and liability. Yet Reynolds remains a guiding legal precedent.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, Kennedy v. Bermerton School District, that allowed a public school employee to lead public prayers on school grounds despite the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause and previous court precedents. What’s more, the majority decision misstated the facts of the case, as shown by citations and a photograph included in the minority dissent.

Ian Milhiser at Vox wrote that one consequence of those false statements is that it’s unclear what the decision actually allowed:
Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” . . .

Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer. . . . [According to already established precedents] Public school employees may engage in private acts of devotion, such as saying a prayer over their lunch in a school cafeteria while they are on the job.

But there’s nothing private about a school employee conducting a media tour touting his plans to pray at the 50-yard line of a football field immediately after a game. There is nothing private about the coach carrying out that plan — especially when he does so surrounded by kneeling players, cameras, and members of the public.
Another consequence of this decision is, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court majority has further damaged its own credibility. We expect disagreements over matters of opinion. But when justices define the nation’s law while stating things that we can all see are false, they make our legal system look deceptive and arbitrary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Clothing Workshops at Minute Man Park

Minute Man National Historical Park has announced a schedule of clothing workshops it will host for living-history volunteers, “both veteran reenactors and new folks to create or improve their desired period impressions.”

These workshops are aimed at getting volunteers to “Battle Road Standards” for next April’s reenactments, as well as other events and general authenticity.

Saturday, 30 July 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Master Tailor Henry Cooke
Battle Road Standards now require linen knapsacks made in the style of the Captain David Uhl knapsack in the collection of Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, New York. The knapsack can be constructed of about one yard of medium coarseness linen or linen canvas or tabby weave hemp sheeting, a spool of unbleached linen thread, and three 1" buttons.

Saturday and Sunday, 20–21 Aug 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Waistcoats were a foundational men’s garment of the 18th century and a very achievable project for new sewers. Materials needed: Pins, sewing needles, beeswax, scissors for thread and cloth trimming, a pair of shears/bent trimmers for cutting cloth if needed, tailor’s chalk; sewing machine optional, as most of the instruction is for hand sewing.

Saturday, 22 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M.
18th-Century Mitts with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Vicki Lynn Embrey, co-founder of the Heritage Sewing and Skill Building Group, will show the different types of mitts worn by 18th-century women of all social classes. Participants will construct a basic pair of unlined mitts out of linen (for summer) or wool flannel (for winter). ¾ yard linen for summer mitts or ¾ yard wool flannel for winter mitts. Winter mitts are made out of a fulled wool to avoid raveling, not stuff or worsted.

Sunday, 23 Oct 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
18th-Century Caps with Vicki Lynn Embrey
Caps were a basic item in every 18th-century woman’s wardrobe. Embrey will show caps varied by date and social class. Participants will be taught the parts and shapes used to make caps and the hand stitches used in constructing a cap. Students will experiment with fitting a cap and get started on constructing a cap of their own, choosing from several basic styles worn during the Revolutionary War in New England.

Saturday and Sunday, 19–20 Nov 2022, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
Few garments in the hobby will serve you better than a sturdy, well-fitting pair of breeches. Battle Road Standards require them to be made of wool broadcloth. For warmer weather, linen or hemp canvas breeches are also acceptable. Other types of acceptable fabrics include wool kersey, linsey-woolsey, wool serge, cotton velvet, fine wale cotton corduroy, or wool plush. Battle Road Standards also require Crown Forces to have breeches of white or buff wool as appropriate to your regiment.

Saturday and Sunday, 14–15 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
Constructing a coat can seem like a daunting challenge but is actually very achievable. Battle Road Standards require men to wear a wool coat or jacket of drab, brown, green, red, blue, gray or black wool. For warmer weather, a linen coat in natural, blue or brown is also acceptable.

Saturday and Sunday, 21–22 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Breeches Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 28–29 Jan 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Coat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday, 4 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Captain David Uhl Knapsack Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

Saturday and Sunday, 11–12 Feb 2023, 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.
Waistcoat Workshop with Henry Cooke
See description above.

To register for any and all workshops, email Jim Hollister of Minute Man Park at jim_hollister@nps.gov. To order kits containing the materials needed for Henry Cooke’s workshops, email Cooke in advance; prices vary depending on the size and quality of the garment.

Monday, June 27, 2022

The Marriage of Edmund and Elizabeth Randolph

Edmund Randolph and his future wife, Elizabeth Carter Nicholas, were born only a day apart in 1753. They learned to read at the same school.

Edmund returned to Virginia in late 1775 after a few months as an aide de camp to Gen. George Washington in Cambridge. He rekindled his acquaintance with Elizabeth, whom he called Betsey. In August 1776 they married.

Edmund later said he was a deist at that time, but Elizabeth’s faith won him back to Episcopal worship. They had children about once every two years while he rose in state politics.

From all accounts, Elizabeth Randolph wasn’t interested in politics or public life. People didn’t speak of her as a beauty or a glittering conversationalist, and she often complained of illness. But Edmund was devoted to her.

Having served as U.S. attorney general and secretary of state, Edmund Randolph’s career in government ended badly in a tiff with Washington and a costly lawsuit. In the early 1800s the Randolphs settled in Richmond, where Edmund commissioned the house shown above and practiced law, including representing Aaron Burr at his treason trial. Most of their children had grown up to marry other elite Virginians.

Elizabeth Randolph died on 6 Mar 1810. Nineteen days later, Edmund wrote a long letter to their children about their lives and emotional bond. He concluded:
My eyes are every moment beholding so many objects with which she was associated; I sometimes catch a sound which deludes me so much with the similitude of her voice; I carry about my heart and hold for a daily visit so many of her precious relics; and, above all, my present situation is so greatly contrasted by its vacancy, regrets, and anguish, with the purest and unchequred bliss, so far as it depended on her, for many years of varying fortune, that I have vowed at her grave daily to maintain with her a mental intercourse.
After visiting his Betsey’s grave on 9 April, Edmund suffered what he told President James Madison was a “dreadful attack from a hemiplegia, with which, by a kind of sympathy with my poor wife, I was afflicted in a few weeks from her death.”

Edmund reported that the stroke “happily affected no faculty of my mind,” and also reported that he felt “no pain,” but he developed trouble walking and came to “require in rough ground the aid of a crutch.” He cut back on his law practice and tried warm springs, but never fully regained his health. 

Edmund Randolph died on 12 Sept 1813 at age 60 while staying with a friend. He was buried in the nearby churchyard, his grave unmarked until decades later.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

“My affectionate bosom friend will be with me”

I told the story of Elizabeth and Edmund Randolph’s distress over a miscarriage through Edmund’s correspondence with James Madison.

Since the Randolphs were together at the time, there were of course no letters between them. But I find that Edward had written to Elizabeth just before he came home from New York, telling her he was moving the family to the capital for his job, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy about that.

Edmund wrote on 14 Feb 1790:
My dearest Betsy:

I can now inform you with certainty that I shall return to Virginia to bring my treasures thence; and indeed if the importunity of the President with me to stay had not been overwhelming I should not have hesitated about a resignation. . . .

The President insists, and I have promised to be here by the 20th April precisely. We must therefore without fail begin our journey on the first day of April. . . .

I am afraid it may be inconvenient and indeed painful to you, my dear wife, but I candidly tell you that I shall not be able to return to accompany you after the present trip. Let us not, I beseech you, be longer separated than the strange vicissitudes of life render indispensable. Prepare yourself and the girls for the trip. I shall provide the conveyances. . . .

My two chief anxieties on this subject are the difficulty of your travelling in your present situation [i.e., pregnancy], and the preference you would give to being confined in Virginia rather than here. But what am I to do, thou dearest object of my soul? I will consent to any thing but an absence from you. I will provide you with a gentle and easy passage.

I undergo a mixture of sensations when I think of our new plans. But it comforts me to think that my affectionate bosom friend will be with me, and that I really believe she may be happy. Until we meet, keep in remembrance my never-failing love for the best of women. Adieu, my dearest girl.
That text is quoted from Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph by Moncure Daniel Conway.

It shows that Elizabeth was already reluctant to make a big move, even before her pregnancy went awry. It also states exactly when Randolph had promised to be back at George Washington’s side while the new federal governmet took shape. The attorney general missed that deadline by weeks, so no wonder he was anxious about what the President would say.

At the same time, this letter shows how Edmund was still gushing with affection for Elizabeth fourteen years after their marriage—though also cajoling her into what he wanted.

TOMORROW: The farewell.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

“The escape of our friend from the most critical danger”

As I’ve been recounting, in the spring of 1790 Edmund Randolph felt torn between his family responsibilities and his duties to the new federal government.

On the one hand, his wife Elizabeth was carrying an apparently dead fetus and fearing she might die.

On the other hand, Edmund had just become the first attorney general of the U.S. of A., and President George Washington was expecting him to return to New York as fast as possible.

On 27 April, Randolph wrote to his friend James Madison, who was in the capital as a member of Congress: “I see no other alternative, than this; that I must surrender the office, if my absence cannot be dispensed with.”

Randolph had asked Madison to tell the President why he couldn’t immediately come to New York. Well, not “tell” exactly. The younger men seem to have been squeamish about informing Washington frankly about Elizabeth Randolph’s medical condition.

On 6 May, Madison tried to assure his friend:
I can not suppose that under your circumstances any criticism can be made on your absence from this place, or that you are under the least necessity of deciding on the alternative which you state.
But he still didn’t report that he’d told the President what was happening, or what the man’s response was.

Fortunately, fate provided a way out of the dilemma. Washington himself got sick! On 19 May, Madison wrote:
The President has been critically ill for some days past, but is now we hope out of danger. His complaint is a peripneumony, united probably with the Influenza. Since my last I have found that I did not go too far in intimating that the cause of your delay would forbid the smallest criticism on it. I earnestly pray that you may no longer have occasion to plead that apology.
And on the same day the situation in Virginia resolved itself as well as could be expected. Well before he got Madison’s news about the President, Randolph wrote on 20 May:
Very unexpectedly a diminished fœtus appeared; manifesting, that it had lost every energy of life for more than four months. The gloom of our house is converted into general satisfaction, at the escape of our friend from the most critical danger.

I have this moment informed the president, that I shall accompany my family by sea, or the head of the bay; and that we shall have no delay, but what may be necessary for Mrs. R. to recover from her temporary weakness.
Elizabeth Randolph did recover, make the trip north, and live for another twenty years. She may not have had another pregnancy after this one; capsule biographies say the Randolphs had six children, but I find lists of only five, the last born in 1788.

TOMORROW: Randolph looks back.

Friday, June 24, 2022

“To intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know”

As I recounted yesterday, in March 1790 Edmund Randolph wrote from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Rep. James Madison (shown here) in New York.

The sad news was that Randolph’s wife Elizabeth appeared to have lost the unborn child she was carrying.

The more dire news was that Randolph wouldn’t be able to come back to New York to resume his job as U.S. attorney general until Elizabeth had passed the fetus and was out of danger—and he wanted Madison to tell that to President George Washington.

On 23 March, Randolph sent Madison his third letter in the space of two weeks: “My dear wife is not better, than when I wrote to you last. I expect something determinate in a few days.”

The mail was unusually slow, so Madison didn’t respond to any of Randolph’s missives until 30 March:
Your favr. of the 15. which requests an immediate acknowledgment, by some irregularity did not come to hand till I had recd. that of the 18, nor till it was too late to comply with the request by the last mail. I have been so unlucky also as to miss seeing the President twice that I have waited on him in order to intimate the circumstances which you wish him to know. I shall continue to repeat my efforts until I shall have an opportunity of executing your commands.
As the end of April approached, Elizabeth Randolph still had the unmoving fetus inside her, and Edmund was feeling even more torn. On 27 April he told Madison:
I have been looking most anxiously for the second communication, which you promised me, as soon as you should have had an interview with the President.

Many times have I endeavoured to break in an easy way to my wife the necessity of my return to N. Y; in order to try her spirits, should I go off. As often has she been thrown into an agitation of real agony.

Prepared as I am, I would have entered upon the journey long ago; and were her indisposition of a common kind, or her situation no more than an usual approach to the increase of our family, I should quit her without hesitation. But she is impressed with a belief, that she cannot escape death, and, altho’ tolerably lively now, would sink, I suspect, into despair, were I to leave her.

What am I to do?
Stay with a wife who’s afraid she’s about to die or hurry back to President Washington? A tough choice for an eighteenth-century American gentleman!

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The situation of my wife was very alarming”

In February 1790, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) became the first attorney general of the U.S. of A.

As a young lawyer, Randolph had been one of Gen. George Washington’s first aides de camp to during the siege of Boston. He didn’t stay long, however. The death of his uncle Peyton Randolph in October 1775 took him back to Virginia to manage family affairs.

The next year, Randolph married Elizabeth Nicholas. He remained in Virginia during the war, serving in political posts, and won a term as governor in 1786.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Randolph declined to sign the document. Nonetheless, as chair of his state’s ratifying convention, Randolph convinced some fellow skeptics to vote for the document while hoping for amendments.

President Washington pressed Randolph to join him in setting up the federal government in New York. Randolph started work as attorney general, then returned to his home in Williamsburg, Virginia, to fetch his family. On 10 March, he wrote back to a fellow Virginian in the capital, James Madison:
After a fatiguing journey we arrived here on sunday evening, when I found all my family well, except my wife, who, I fear, is incumbered with a dead fœtus of more than seven months old. I am endeavouring to ward off by medical aid the consequences of this event. She is now in good spirits, and therefore I trust, that the mischief will not be fatal.
Five days later, the attorney general wrote with more anxiety about Elizabeth Randolph:
When I came home, I found my family in a really deplorable condition. Not to mention my children, most of whom were sick, the situation of my wife was very alarming. She gave every symptom of a painful and dangerous abortion being at hand. It is now a fortnight since she was first confined to her room, and every appearance grows more and more critical. It is almost certain, that the fœtus, now about six months old, is dead.
At this time “abortion” meant what we call a miscarriage; it could be either natural or induced. [I came across these letters while searching for what the correspondents on Founders Online had to say about what we call abortion.]

Randolph had something else on his mind: what would Washington think of his extended absence? And how to tell him?
Altho’ I know your readiness to sympathize with me, I should not have troubled you with this detail, were it not for a wish, that the outlines of it should be conveyed to the ears of the president. I would write to him; but the subject does not become an official letter, to be filed away in the public archives; and a private letter, does not seem adviseable, when the design is to premonish him of the cause of any delay, which may occur in my return. But I do not mean by this, that it is improbable that my return should be by the stipulated day; for if an abortion should take place, or there is a likelihood of a mature delivery, or in short if my absence would not precipitate her death I shall leave home, without any hesitation, that my family may follow in the summer.

I feel this request, not a little awkward to me, by being perhaps not less so to you. But the peculiarity of my situation will, I hope, apologize for the intrusion. Let me have a single line from you, as soon as you receive this.
But no response came for weeks.

TOMORROW: Madison’s advice at last.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

“The Work of Revolution” in Cambridge, 23 June

History Cambridge (previously the Cambridge Historical Society) is headquartered in the oldest of the colonial houses along what was later dubbed “Tory Row.”

Some years before the Revolution, the families in those houses were all related, and they all had ties to slave-labor plantations on Jamaica and Antigua. Most if not all of those families also had enslaved people working for them on their Cambridge estates.

History Cambridge is now hosting an art installation on its lawn titled “Forgotten Souls of Tory Row: Remembering the Enslaved People of Brattle Street.” Created by Black Coral, Inc., this artwork in glass and metal adopts the tradition of bottle trees to evoke the power of ancestors.

History Cambridge is also organizing an online panel discussion called “The Work of Revolution” on Thursday, 23 June. Its event description says:
How did unpaid labor enable the Revolutionary leaders of Cambridge to foment rebellion and to carry out the political and military duties of the War?

Although much is known about George Washington’s residency in Cambridge in the early days of the Revolution, the reality is that it was the labor of women and people of color that enabled the Continental Army to function, as well as feeding, housing, and serving both the American and British troops present in the city. By centering the work experiences of women and BIPOC during this period, we will be expanding the scope of the Revolutionary narrative and bringing to light stories that have not often been shared with a wider audience.
Prof. Robert Bellinger, professor of history and founder and director of the Black Studies Program at Suffolk University, will lead the discussion.

History Cambridge has invited me to be part of this panel, talking about what we know of the people who tended Gen. George Washington’s headquarters in the years 1775 and 1776.

The general brought some enslaved workers from Mount Vernon with him, including his body servant William Lee. Martha Washington probably brought more. Washington also employed a free black woman named Margaret Thomas, as well as a family and a teenager burned out of their homes in Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill. 

Though Tory Row was a place of slavery in those years, it soon became a place of liberation. While in Cambridge, Washington was convinced to let black soldiers remain in the Continental Army. The absence of the Loyalist homeowners, shifting mores, and a change in Massachusetts law meant the people enslaved on “Tory Row” had a good chance to become free by the end of the war.

The “Work of Revolution” discussion is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M. Register at this page.

There will be a public celebration of the “Forgotten Souls” artwork on 16 July, and a question-and-answer session with the artists on July 21. For more information, visit this page.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

“Extremely messy as documents”

In 1726, Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits.

This generated a lot of news coverage and debate in Britain. The episode continues to interest social historians.

Earlier this month Karen Harvey, author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England, wrote about her work on documents that seemed at once absolutely central to the event and very difficult to work with:
Mary Toft’s three ‘confessions’ were new to me. These were taken down by James Douglas, a doctor present on these three occasions that Toft was questioned by a Justice of the Peace. . . .

Reading these thirty-six pages was an absolute revelation. The writing jumped off the screen. In their form and their content, they were urgent, vivid and disturbing. They recorded Toft’s version of events in what appeared to be as close to a transcription as Douglas could possibly muster. They were also far richer than I had imagined from the fairly cursory discussions in existing scholarship.

But it also became immediately apparent why historians had not undertaken a thoroughgoing analysis of the confessions and placed this centre-stage in their accounts of the case. Not only were these extremely messy as documents – full of errors and deletions – but the narratives they offered were inconsistent and contradictory.
Before her book, Harvey wrote about the Toft confessions in this article for History Workshop Journal.

Her essay is part of a series from the University of Birmingham’s Eighteenth Century Centre on sources that historians have found powerful, including:

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Record of a Pennsylvania Dutch Midwife

Pennsylvania Heritage shares an interesting article by Patrick J. Donmoyer of Kutztown University on the “Hebamme Büchlein” or work record of the midwife Rosina Heydrich (1737–1828).

Heydrich was part of the Schwenkfelder community, a religious sect that immigrated from Lower Silesia to the Perkiomen Valley of Pennsylvania in the decade before she was born. That area is now part of Montgomery County. Her parents’ marriage had been the occasion for those immigrants to choose a minister and establish a meeting.

Heydrich began her notebook by copying out more than a hundred herbal remedies. Donmoyer writes, “Some remedies are notably ritual in nature, describing the use of healing objects or procedures enacted in a particular manner or at certain times.”

On 1 Aug 1770, Heydrich recorded her first delivery in the book. That was also her only delivery that year, so perhaps she was still in training, or busy with her own family. In 1771 Heydrich attended at two births, and the next years at three, and during the war years she appears to have become her community’s principal midwife.

Over the next 84 pages, and the next 49 years, Heydrich and her assistant (who Donmoyer suggests was a daughter) set down the basic details of more then 1,700 more births. That’s more babies than in the similar journal that Martha Ballard kept in Maine, but Heydrich didn’t also mention local events.

It’s clear Heydrich and her assistant maintained this record for their own use, not as a public record. “Passages freely combine German and Latin script, fraktur calligraphy, and Latin printing in varying degrees on a single page and even sometimes in a single inscription.” That made the document a challenging read.

Heydrich’s manuscript was held for decades by the Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsburg. Under a grant from state agencies, specialists have transcribed, translated, and digitized the pages, and the notebook is now available for anyone to read through the P.O.W.E.R. Library.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

“Admiral Graves foresaw a great likelihood…”

The Road to Concord describes the Boston militia artillery company’s theft of their own cannon in September 1774, and how Gen. Thomas Gage reacted to that.

Robert Beatson’s Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, published in 1804, includes a passage describing how Gage’s counterpart in the Royal Navy, Adm. Samuel Graves, reacted to events in and around Boston that month.

This recounting of events was very characteristic of Graves’s own reports home:
The rebellious designs of the people became every day more evident, and a mob attempted to remove some pieces of cannon during the night from Boston; and actually carried some from Charlestown [on 7 September], which place may be regarded as a suburb of that town. The disaffected gave out at the same time, that their intention was to fortify a camp in the country; and soon after, the boats of the Lively and Preston seized a flat-boat belonging to the Americans [on 20 September], with six very good guns, six pounders, which they were carrying up Charlestown river, and were supposed to be destined for the same service.

From the disposition of the people, Admiral Graves foresaw a great likelihood, that there would soon be a want of artificers to work for Government, although Boston abounded with shipwrights, sailmakers, caulkers, &c. He therefore wrote, in the most pressing terms, to Captain [James] Ayscough of his Majesty’s sloop the Swan, then at New York, but under orders to return to Boston, to procure such work-people as might be necessary to keep the ships under his command in proper repair, lest those at Boston should refuse their assistance. This precaution eventually proved of great service; for after the skirmish at Lexington, none of the Americans durst work for the King, either in the navy or army departments, but at the hazard of their lives.
In sum:
  • The Bostonians were a criminal mob deteremined on rebellion.
  • By implication, Gen. Gage and the army couldn’t handle that problem.
  • In contrast, Adm. Graves was far-sighted and realistic, and more people should have listened to him. 
As I said, characteristic.

This passage also strongly suggests that Gage never informed the admiral about the disappearance of the militia field-pieces. Otherwise, the admiral would surely have mentioned that embarrassing fact in London, as another thing that was by no means his fault.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Calvin Piper in Sickness, War, and Peace

Yesterday we left eleven-year-old Calvin Piper of Westborough in bed after falling off a colt and banging his head in August 1774.

Dr. James Hawes gave the boy a poor prognosis. The Rev. Ebenezer Parkman came to pray with him.

After a few days, Hawes gathered some medical colleagues to consult and perhaps perform surgery to relieve pressure in Calvin’s skull.

But on that morning of 6 August, Calvin woke up feeling much better than before. He was no longer delirious or babbling. The surgeons reconsidered.

The Rev. Mr. Parkman wrote in his diary:
It was feared the Trepan must be used: but it was first determined to take off part of his scalp and examine his Head. We began with prayer. Dr. [Charles] Russel [shown here] performed the Operation, and finding the grumous Blood, and that there was no Fracture, desisted from any thing further.
So Calvin was sewn up and allowed to keep recovering on his own. Parkman visited him again a couple of days later, and then Calvin drops out of the minister’s diary, presumably going back to normal farm boy behavior.

Nearly two years later, as the British military was preparing to leave Boston, Parkman had to visit the Piper family again. On Sunday, 10 Mar 1776, he wrote:
At Even went to see Mrs. Piper, newly brought to bed, and is very low; prayed with her in her Distresses.
The next day, Parkman added, “She is in a dangerous state.” And on Tuesday:
Capt. Wheelock early, Suddenly, hastily calls me to Visit Mrs. Piper as being near her End. I rode speedily (before Breakfast — nay before Family Prayer), found her groaning as in very great Distress. Prayed with her, Commending her Case to God, most gracious and compassionate. . . .

Mrs. Piper dyed about noon, about 42 and an half.
The funeral was on Thursday, 14 March. The minister noted, “her Father Whitcomb and one of her Brothers were there.”

The Parkman diary thus contains some clues to the Piper family history. The mention of “Father Whitcomb” might indicate Mary Piper’s surname at birth. There were Mary Whitcombs born in Bolton and its parent town, Lancaster, in the 1730s. However, none was born in 1733 and thus “about 42 and an half” in 1776. It’s also possible that “Father Whitcomb” was a stepfather.

In addition, Parkman’s record confirms that this Mary Piper died in 1776. John Piper remarried the next year to a woman from Templeton named Mary White. That means there were two wives named Mary Piper having John’s children in quick succession, and some genealogies don’t recognize they were separate women.

Back to Calvin Piper: As he reached his late teens, he had a new stepmother. Did that push him to leave the house? Or did he want some adventure, or just need money? Whatever the combination of reasons, on 1 July 1780 Calvin enlisted among the “men raised to reinforce the Continental Army for the term of 6 months.” When he reported to the camp at Springfield, Calvin was recorded as seventeen years old, 5'4" tall, with a ruddy complexion.

Pvt. Piper served a little more than five months at West Point, New York, before being discharged. He liked the experience enough to reenlist the following June. By now he was an inch taller and had been trained as a tanner, perhaps in a family shop. This time there was a dispute about whether he was counted in the quota for Lancaster or Templeton—not that it mattered to him. Piper agreed to serve three years, but the war ended before that term was up.

The twenty-year-old veteran moved to Norridgewock in the district of Maine. In April 1785 he married Zeriah Parker there. Five years later, however, Mrs. Zeriah Piper remarried, indicating that Calvin Piper had died in his late twenties—about fifteen years after he escaped having a hole drilled in his skull.