J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

“A sort of an assembly at Concert Hall”

Yesterday we left the Boston Whigs in mid-December 1768 crowing over the failure of pro-Crown officials and army officers to pull off a dancing assembly.

That triumph didn’t last, however, and on 23 December the Whigs had to report:
It may now be said that the G[overno]r and C[om]m[issione]rs have the last night had a sort of an assembly at Concert Hall;

Never were the gentlemen concern’d more liberal in their invitations, even those ladies who declin’d subscribing, had their cards; the neighbouring towns were reconnoitred for females, and the good natured S——r [Solicitor Samuel Fitch?] of the B[oar]d of C[om]m[issione]rs was so complaisant as to offer to go as far as Salem to bring two damsels from thence; their efforts were finally so successful, as to procure from among themselves and their connections, about ten or twelve unmarried ladies, whose quality and merits have been since related with the spritely humour of a military gallant.—

The ball was opened by Capt. [John] W[illso]n,—a gentleman who has been already taken notice of in this Journal; There was indeed a numerous and blazing appearance of men, but the ladies of all ages and conditions so few, that the most precise Puritan could not find it in his heart to charge said assembly with being guilty of the crime of mixt dancing.—
A sick burn indeed.

At this point the recently arrived music and dance master James Joan was no longer advertising his own events in the home he had dubbed “Music Hall.”

The Deblois family who owned Concert Hall had advertised series of musical performances in previous years:
  • Boston Gazette, 23 Sept 1765: “A CONCERT OF MUSICK is propos’d to be carry’d on at Concert-Hall for the ensuing Season. The Articles of Agreement may be seen by applying to Mr. Deblois at Said Hall: If a sufficient Number of Gentlemen subscribers, it will be opened the first Tuesday in October next.”
  • Boston News-Letter, 2 Oct 1766: “Public Notice is hereby given, That a Concert of Musick is intended to be opened on Tuesday next, being the 7th of October, to be continued every Tuesday Evening for Eight Months. Any Gentlemen inclining to be Subscribers may know the Terms by applying to Stephen Deblois, at the Concert-Hall in Queen street.”
Stephen Deblois (1699-1778) was a professional musician, father of merchants Lewis and Gilbert Deblois (the latter shown above in a post-evacuation portrait by John Singleton Copley, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts).

There were no such ads from Concert Hall in the fall of 1767 or 1768. One possibility is that the concerts were so popular that there was no need to advertise them in the newspapers. More likely, the Debloises hadn’t been able to sell enough season tickets in 1766 to make the events worthwhile.

The arrival of the British army regiments in October 1768 changed that. But even then the demand for concerts and balls probably wasn’t big enough to support two series in Concert Hall and Music Hall. Instead, it appears that in 1769 James Joan allied with the Deblois family to offer concerts in their building.

TOMORROW: The night it all went horribly wrong.

Monday, February 18, 2019

“A weekly and brilliant assembly at Concert Hall”?

It was no coincidence that James Joan moved from Halifax to Boston in October 1768, just as the 14th and 29th Regiments made the same journey. In fact, the same sloop that brought Joan and his family, Nehemiah Soanes’s Ranger, might well have carried soldiers’ families.

The market for Joan’s services as a performing musician, ball host, and instructor in dancing, fencing, and French depended on a good supply of young men of genteel habits and ambitions. So it made sense for him to follow the army officer corps.

Joan advertised his second “Concert of MUSIC” at his dwelling on Brattle Street on 5 December in the Boston News-Letter, Boston Chronicle, and Boston Post-Boy—the three newspapers closest to the Crown.

Soon, however, Joan’s “Music Hall” faced competition. Boston already had a largish building known as “Concert Hall,” built by the Deblois family in 1754. The first Debloises in Boston were musicians in the entourage of Gov. William Burnet; they played the organs at King’s Chapel and Christ Church. But by the 1760s brothers Lewis and Gilbert Deblois weren’t professional performers like Joan. They were substantial import merchants. They sold musical scores and instruments, but only as a small part of a much wider assortment of goods. (Lewis’s 1757 trade card appears above, courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.)

The Debloises rented out Concert Hall, and in 1768 the Commissioners of Customs used that space for meetings. Apparently the Debloises spoke with those high officials about hosting weekly music and dancing assemblies during the winter, no doubt catering to the same crowd of army officers and local gentility who supported James Joan’s concerts.

Naturally, that prospect gave the the Boston Whigs something to complain about in their “Journal of the Times” for 10 December:
While the friends of their country are recommending and countenancing by their example, the strictest economy, C[om]m[issione]r [Charles] P[a]x[to]n and Company are endeavouring to establish a weekly and brilliant assembly at Concert Hall; where their Board is again held in the day time, and a centinel placed for their guard:

One of their livery boatmen has waited upon the gentlemen and ladies of the town with the proposals and a subscription paper; which to use a courtly phrase has been almost universally treated with the contempt it deserves,—

C[om]m[issione]r [John] R[obinso]n, in order to throw a splendor upon office, and so to dazzle with its brightness, the eyes of Americans, that they might not perceive the incomparable insignificancy of his person, nor how ridiculously the fruits of their industry are bestowed; intends soon to make his appearance in a suit of crimson velvet, which will cost him a sum that would have been a full support to some one of the families, that are almost reduced to poverty themselves; who are yet obliged, not indeed by the laws of Christianity, but by that Revenue Act, to feed the hungry and cloth the naked C[om]m[issione]rs, not barely with what is convenient and necessary, but with all the luxury and extravagance of high life.
On 14 December the Whigs claimed that those plans had been foiled, at least temporarily, by Boston’s patriotic young women:
The Commissioners expected they would have been able this evening with the countenance of the military gentlemen, to have opened an assembly at Concert Hall, for the winter season; but the virtue and discreetness of the young ladies of the town, occasioned a disappointment; It is probable they may have one the next week, with a small number of matrons of their own core: It must ill become American ladies to dance in their fetters.
The Whigs could thus stir together old anti-aristocratic Puritan traditions, current feelings of economic anxiety, and resentment of army troops, and then blame the whole mess on those extravagant and tyrannical Customs Commissioners.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Boston Debut of James Joan

Early in October 1768 a family arrived in Boston from Halifax: James Joan (also spelled Juhan and Juan); his wife Mary; their children Mary, Alexander, Martin, and John; and their maidservant Ann Lederai. In traditional Boston fashion, a town official warned them out.

On 20 October, Joan announced himself to the public through an advertisement in the Boston News-Letter and Boston Gazette:
The French Language, Instrumental Music and Dancing taught after the best Methods, by James Joan, in that commodious and large Building opposite Dr. [Samuel] Cooper’s Meeting, by whom, also, Gentlemen and Ladies may privately be taught the Minuet.—

N. B. He has to Lett a very good & large Cellar belonging to the said House; he also makes and sells, neat Violin Bows.
It looks like the family was in a building “formerly Green and Walker’s Store.”

James Joan soon found a use for that “commodious and large Building,” giving it a new name. On 14 November, he advertised in the Boston Gazette, Boston Post-Boy, and Boston Evening-Post:
This is to acquaint the Gentlemen and Ladies, that a Concert of MUSICK will be performed, on Monday the 21st Instant, at Six o’Clock in the Evening, at the Musick Hall in Brattle-Street, opposite Dr. Cooper’s Meeting-House. After the Concert is over, the Gentlemen and Ladies may have a BALL till Eleven o’Clock.

TICKETS may be had of James Joan, at the above-said Place, and of Thomas Chase, near the Liberty-Tree, at Two Shillings Lawful Money, or One & Six Pence Sterling a Piece.
Chase was a distiller and one of the Loyall Nine. This is the only example that I can recall of someone from the time referring to “the Liberty-Tree” rather than “Liberty Tree,” reflecting how Joan was a newcomer to Boston.

Joan’s same notice ran in the Post-Boy and Evening-Post a week later, the day of the concert and ball. In addition, the latter paper also included this item:
New Advertisement.
This is to acquaint, all Ladies who paint,
Of Music there will be a Concert,
Perform’d on next Monday, the Day after Sunday,
By various Masters of some sort;
When Concert is over, each Lass with her Lover,
May Dance till the Clock strikes Eleven.
Then they may retire to their Bed, or their Fire,
And Sleep till next Morning or Even.
At the foremention’d Place, or else you may CHACE
For your Tickets near Liberty Tree,
In Lawful or Sterling, it heeds not a Farthing,
If you give a JOAN, as a Fee.
I first wondered if in that notice Joan was trying a more imaginative way to promote his event. On second look, I decided it was a local wag’s parody of his ad, satirizing “Ladies who paint” and punning on the names of the two men selling tickets. (A “joan” or “Johannes” was a Portuguese coin.)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Revolutionary History for the February Vacation

When I was going to elementary school in Massachusetts, back in the last century, we called the weeklong break in February our “flu vacation.” That term dates from the great Influenza Epidemic of 1918, when many institutions closed for long periods to slow the spread of the virus. I understood that the state scheduled a week off from school at the dead of every winter for the same healthy reason.

These days, many museums schedule special family activities during that February vacation rather than help in making children stay home. Of course, the vacation already includes Presidents’ Day and usually Washington’s actual birthday. So there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy both learning about history and sharing viruses!

Monday, 18 February, 1:00 to 3:00 P.M.
Boston By Foot
Adams Family of Boston Walking Tour
Observe Presidents’ Day by following the words and history of four generations of Adamses. John, Abigail, and their descendants were prolific writers. The trove of documents they left behind intimately describe their lives, public service, and Boston from the eve of the Revolution to the turn of the twentieth century.
$15, $5 for members

Tuesday, 19 February, and Thursday, 21 February, 1:00 to 3:00 P.M.
Paul Revere House
Drop-In Family Activities: Exploring Home
What makes a house a home? Come explore some materials, techniques, and designs used in three centuries of construction in Boston. Facilitated by a staff member, families will have a chance to see some historic building materials up close and learn about the architecture found in and around the Paul Revere House. Design your own piece of block-printed wallpaper!
Free with admission to the Revere House

Friday, 22 February, 11:00 A.M. and 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 P.M.
Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters, Cambridge
Washington’s Birthday House Tours
The newly appointed commander-in-chief spent nine months in this mansion on Brattle Street, meeting people and facing challenges which shaped him in important ways for the rest of his life. Find out more while exploring the rooms Washington knew. Each tour takes about an hour.
Free; space is limited, so call 617-876-4491 or email reservationsat105@gmail.com to reserve spots

Sunday, 24 February, 11:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M.
Salem Historical Society and Historic Salem, Inc.
Leslie’s Retreat; The Salem Resistance
March with invading redcoats or resistant colonial militia in Salem’s third annual interactive commemoration of “Leslie’s Retreat,” the 1775 confrontation in which townspeople and Essex County militia stopped British regulars from confiscating cannon. The reenactment is followed by an informal reception starting about noon at the First Church, a play reading at the Pickering House, and traditional music at O’Neill’s pub. To join the redcoats, don a red garment or scarf and meet at Hamilton Hall at 11:15. To stick with the colonists, gather at First Church at 11:30. Homemade costumes and musical instruments welcome. In the event of foul weather, the reenactment will take place inside First Church.
Free

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mapping As a City on a Hill

In his essay or sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony used the metaphor of a “citty upon a hill.” We currently treat that concept as one of the founding ideas of America. Yet Winthrop’s text was unknown in the eighteenth century.

As Edward O’Reilly describes in this blog post, a Winthrop descendant gave the manuscript to the New-York Historical Society in 1809. The Massachusetts Historical Society published the first transcript in 1838. That essay was reprinted in the American Quarterly Register two years later, but it wasn’t widely promulgated.

In 1867 another Winthrop descendant published Life and Letters of John Winthrop, which modernized the spelling of the phrase as “city on a hill.” After that, the essay started showing up in collections of American literature, on its way to becoming famous.

In the new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon, Daniel T. Rodgers keeps tracing the phrase over the last century, showing how it became more resonant and its implications changed. Prof. Rodgers is also my Uncle Dan, so I’ve been waiting to see this book.

In Commonwealth Magazine, Carter Wilkie writes of As a City on a Hill:
In the best argued brief of speechwriting forensics yet published, Rodgers reveals how the resuscitation and redefinition of Winthrop’s words was performed before Reagan and JFK, by Perry Miller, the Harvard historian who fathered the field of Puritan studies after watching Boston’s tricentennial celebration in 1930 as a graduate student, and by Daniel Boorstin, the American historian who attended Harvard in the 1930s, when Miller was there.

According to Rodgers, it was Miller who “put the ‘city upon a hill’ phrase at the core of historians’ understanding of Puritanism and put Puritanism, for the first time, at the core of the American story itself.” But it was Boorstin who popularized the myth as a foundational idea in the American mind.

In his 1958 book, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, Boorstin began with, “A City Upon a Hill: The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay.” There, Boorstin proclaimed: “John Winthrop, while preaching to his fellow-passengers, struck the keynote of American history… No one writing after the fact, three hundred years later, could better have expressed the American sense of destiny. In describing the Puritan experience we will see how this sense of destiny came into being.”
Again, that “keynote of American history” was completely unknown during the actual founding of the U.S. of A. And the original text didn’t include the word “upon.”

Here’s another review of As a City on a Hill from the Chicago Tribune. And here are podcast discussions with Dan Rodgers at John Fea’s Way of Improvement Leads Home, Princeton’s Politics and Polls, and John J. Miller’s Bookmonger.

While studying the original Winthrop manuscript, Rodgers noticed that the phrase “New England” was in a different, thicker handwriting than the rest. Edward O’Reilly of the New-York Historical Society was determined to figure out the text underneath, and that blog posting I mentioned above shared the result.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Valentine’s Letter from Québec

In May 1774, Lt. Col. Valentine Jones (c. 1723-1779) was the officer in charge of the 52nd Regiment of Foot and the highest-ranking British army officer in Québec City.

The local British merchants sent him this address:
It is with much concern we learn that his Majesty’s service at this time calls for you and the Regiment under your command from this province; and we should on this occasion be much short of the respect due to you, and which Truth demands of us, if we did not take this public method of returning you our most sincere and hearty thanks for the obliging, regular and humane conduct you have ever observed for the many years you have resided among us; during which you have always paid that just regard to the protection of Civil Rights, and the proper Discipline of the Troops under your Command, as become the prudent and experienced officer.

We heartily wish you and the gentlemen of the Corps under your Command a safe and pleasant voyage, and doubt not that in your next quarters his Majesty’s Subjects may have equal cause to bear Testimony of the uprightness of your conduct as the citizens of Quebec.
I think the Québecers were responding to rumors that Jones and the 52nd Regiment would be moved to Boston to subdue that town after the Boston Tea Party.

As it happened, the regiment was still in Canada in early September. But only a few days after the “Powder Alarm,” Gen. Thomas Gage ordered virtually all the British troops in Québec down to Boston to help bolster its defenses against the rebellious countryside.

Gage made Jones the commander of one brigade in Boston. That job brought him the rank of general in North America. He participated in the Crown’s successful campaign to retake New York in 1776.

However, at the end of that year Gen. Sir William Howe told Lord George Germain that Jones, in his fifties, was “too inactive and infirm” to take a leading role in his strategy for the next year. Maj. James Wemyss later recalled Jones as “An honest hotheaded Welchman, altogether destitute of abilities; but hospitable and friendly.”

Jones returned to Britain in late 1778, receiving the rank of lieutenant general and the honor of an audience with King George III. But his health was failing. He visited Bath and then Buxton Wells to treat “the Asthma and Rheumatism” but then developed gout. On 3 May 1779 he went out riding, again for his health, but fell off his horse and ended up unable to “turn in my Bed or be but upon the Broad of my Back or sleep but when seated in an armed chair.”

Jones had already been granted leave from the army. He returned to Wales, where he died in the middle of 1779, aged fifty-six.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

“No objection to going where Your Husband does”

By 1789, John George Briesler had been working for John Adams (who always spelled his name “Brisler”) for five years.

The newly elected Vice President had Briesler accompany him to New York and then Philadelphia during the Washington administration. It looks like Briesler’s wife Esther stayed with Abigail Adams in Braintree (or its 1792 spin-off, Quincy).

That didn’t stop the couple from having their third child, John George, Jr., in 1794. (The first, Elizabeth, had been born at sea in 1788, as described yesterday. Then came a little girl nicknamed “Nabby” who died “with a putrid disorder” in 1796.)

As George Washington retired from the Presidency, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson competed to succeed him. Folks in Philadelphia expected Briesler would become the steward of the Presidential household if Adams won. As a result, Adams wrote, the Washingtons’ steward, Frederick Kitt, “was very active and busy for Jefferson.”

Adams won the election of 1796. In January 1797 Abigail told John, “Mrs Brisler will go to Philadelphia when I do and make part of our Family.” On 1 February Abigail repeated the same assurance to John Briesler:
I last Evening received a Letter from You in which You express an anxiety at the prospect of being seperated from Your Family. I know too well how painfull a situation that is, to have any desire, to inflict so great an hardship upon any one, unless through necessity.

The uncertainty how the Election would terminate, has prevented me, from saying any thing to You, or to your Wife upon the Subject, untill this week, when I said to her, I suppose you will have no objection to going where Your Husband does, to which She answerd, certainly She Should not.

I consider you as quite necessary to me, and Mrs Brisler, tho her Health will not allow her to take so active a part, as May be required of a person whose business it is to Superintend so large a Family. I doubt not she can be usefull to me, with her care, with her needle, and as an assistant to you, and in my absence, as having in Charge those things which I should place particularly under her care.
As for Frederick Kitt, he ended up working at the Bank of the United States for a couple of years until he died. Which frankly doesn’t seem very Jeffersonian.

The Brieslers were thus the first couple to manage the President’s mansion in Washington, D.C. The Adams and Briesler families all returned to Quincy in 1801. John and Esther Briesler had two more children: Abigail, born by 1801 in either Pennsylvania or Massachusetts, and George Mears, born by 1804. John Briesler started a retail business of some sort in Quincy, which he passed on to his eldest son.

In 1833 John Briesler applied for a Revolutionary War pension based on eight months of service in the Massachusetts militia during the siege of Boston. He died in Quincy on 28 Apr 1836.

Two years later, Esther Briesler applied for a widow’s pension. In her application, she stated that she had married John in London in September 1787—at least four months before the recorded date but about the right time for her May 1788 baby. Former President John Quincy Adams sent a certificate carefully stating that John Briesler and Esther Field had lived with his parents in London “in 1787 and 1788, [and] were during that period married.” He saved his remark about the shifting marriage date for his diary.

Esther Briesler died in Quincy on 12 Nov 1854 at the age of ninety, well outlasting all of Abigail Adams’s concerns about her health.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

“She had no Idea of being with child”

On 10 Feb 1788, Abigail Adams wrote from London to her sister Mary Cranch in Braintree that she was “very near when I am to quit this country.”

It was one day short of four years since Adams had first written about bringing John Briesler to Europe as a family servant—“as good a servant as ever Bore the Name,” she now called him.

In Britain, Adams, knew, the thirty-one-year-old Briesler had developed a relationship with another of the family servants: Esther Field, still only twenty-three.

But a few days before her letter, Field had broken the news that she was several months pregnant. Adams wrote:
I must believe that she had no Idea of being with child, untill the day before she came in the utmost distress to beg me to forgive her, and tho I knew that it was their intention to marry when they should return to America Yet so totally blinded was I, & my physician too, that we never once suspected her any more than she did herself, but this was oweing to her former ill state of Health.
Because Field had often been ill during their European travels, Adams was very worried that she wouldn’t survive childbirth: “her Life has been put in Jeopardy, as many others have before her, ignorantly done.” What was even more dangerous, the baby was due to come while the family would be at sea. “I look upon her situation as a very dangerous one.”

Adams quickly took steps. She told her sister, “I have engaged an Elderly woman to go out with me, who formerly belonged to Boston, and I hear there is an other woman going as a stearige passenger.” Thus, there would be at least two women aboard ship experienced in childbirth who could help Field when she went into labor.

Adams asked Cranch to break the news to Field’s mother in Braintree, but “do not let any thing of what I have written be known to any body but her mother.” Adams added, “poor Brisler looks so humble and is so attentive, so faithfull & so trust worthy, that I am willing to do all I can for them.”

Five days after that letter, Esther Field and John Briesler married at the St. Marylebone Church outside London. (That building, taken down in 1949, appears in the photo above.) As Adams anticipated, the couple’s child was born at sea in May. The parents named her Elizabeth.

Esther Briesler’s own parents, John and Abigail Field, had married in Braintree on 12 Apr 1744 and become parents that June, so they couldn’t really complain about the timing of their daughter’s nuptials—if they even knew when the wedding had taken place. They might just have been pleased to see Esther come home.

The Brieslers and their employers, John and Abigail Adams, couldn’t stay in Braintree for long. Within a year of their return, John had been elected Vice President of the United States. And he wanted his manservant John Briesler to come with him to New York.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

Monday, February 11, 2019

Abigail Adams Finds “an honest faithfull Man Servant”

On 11 Feb 1784, Abigail Adams was preparing to join her husband John in Europe after years apart.

She wrote to John about hiring household staff:
I am lucky too in being able to supply myself with an honest faithfull Man Servant. I do not know but you may recollect him, John Brisler, who was brought up in the family of Genll. [Joseph] Palmer, has since lived with Col. [Josiah] Quincy and is recommended by both families as a virtuous Steady frugal fellow, with a mind much above the vulgar, very handy and attentive.
John George Briesler had been born in the Germantown section of north Braintree on 4 Dec 1756. Starting in May 1775, he served a little over eight months in an independent company of Massachusetts militia commanded by Capt. Seth Turner. His only experience of battle, he said in his 1832 pension application, was “with the boats from the British Fleet on Nantasket beach.” Evidently he didn’t have his own land to work, but he had the confidence of the town’s richest families.

For a maidservant, Abigail hoped to hire John Briesler’s sister; on “many accounts a Brother and Sister are to be preferred,” she wrote. But she ended up taking Esther Field, a neighbor’s daughter. Esther had been born on 7 Oct 1764, meaning she was nineteen.

Abigail Adams and her household sailed in June 1784. She had an eye-opening time in Europe, living in Paris and then in London after John became the U.S. of A.’s first minister to Great Britain. A New England minister’s daughter, she discovered she actually liked theater and city life, at least in moderate doses.

Young Esther Field seems to have had a mixed time. She resisted French fashions at first. Of even more concern, her mistress reported that “her general state of Health is very bad.” As 1788 came around, Field was sick so often that Adams even arranged for her to be treated with the “Elictrisity.” Not until February did they discover the source of the problem.

TOMORROW: John Briesler had made Esther Field pregnant.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

“Now they all in Heaps of Ashes lay”

The woodcut image above appeared on another religious response to the fire that started at the Brazen Head: a broadside ballad titled A Poem on the Rebuke of GOD’s Hand In the Awful Desolation Made by Fire in the Town of Boston, on the 20th Day of March, 1760.

Like the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon, quoted yesterday, the ballad started with the Biblical verse of Amos 3:6: “Shall there be Evil in a City, and the LORD hath not done it?”

Then came 87 lines of verse. Here’s a sample:
Then can we clear ourselves, a’n’t we to blame
Who sin without Remorse, and cast of Shame
And pay no Rev’rence to his holy Name?—
This is the Cause He sent this Judgment down,
This awful Desolation! on the Town.
The North-west-wind, and Flame he did employ,
Our stately Habitations to destroy.
What spacious Structures stood but th’ other Day,
And now they all in Heaps of Ashes lay,
I know not how to write, or to express
The awful Time, or paint the sad Distress
Of those our Friends who did to Bed retire
And wak’d surrounded by a Flame of Fire!--
This broadside moved on to a long and equally fiery description of the Day of Judgement. Mayhew, who wasn’t an entirely enthusiastic Calvinist, didn’t get to that topic until nearly the end of his sermon.

The broadside was issued by the print shop of Zechariah Fowle and Samuel Draper on Marlborough Street. Two years later Fowle and Draper used the same woodcut to illustrated another broadside about fire: The Dying Confession and Declaration of Fortune, a Negro Man, Who was Executed in Newport, (Rhode-Island) on Friday the 14th of May, 1762, for Setting Fire to the Stores on the Long Wharf.
The block of wood carved to print this image actually survives, and in 2005 Early American History Auctions put it on the market—and on the internet. The firm titled it “The Angel of Death and the Great Boston Fire.” Since no one actually died in the 1760 fire, I think the figure in the sky is more likely one of the “Obsequious Angels” that the poem describes accompanying the Almighty on the Day of Judgment.

There are several mysteries associated with the Rebuke of GOD’s Hand broadside. First, the poem is signed with initials that have been read as “A.F.” and “A.J.”—more likely the latter. Mid-twentieth-century bibliographers guessed that was Andrew Johonnot. There were two genteel men of that name in Boston at the time, father (1705-1760) and son (1735-1804). However, I see no indication that either was in the habit of writing poetry.

Another question is who created the woodcut. Young Isaiah Thomas was apprenticed to Fowle at the time, and he later described learning how to cut such blocks—not well, but as well as anyone else in town. However, it’s always possible that this cut wasn’t made just after the 1760 fire but had been part of the printers’ armament for years.

Finally, in 1900 the city of Boston reproduced a somewhat ragged copy of this broadside in a printed collection of town papers about the fire. William S. Appleton displayed that sheet at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society. But that was apparently the only surviving copy, and nobody knows where it is now.

COMING UP: Relief efforts.