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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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Gossiping about Witches, Rakes, and Rogues

It was nice to read that G. Brenton Simons's Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder and Mayhem, 1630-1775, has received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History.

Brenton, who's now President and CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and I met while he was working on this book at the Massachusetts Historical Society. As he notes in his notes, we quickly started gossiping about about several of the juiciest scandals of pre-Revolutionary Boston.

Witches, Rakes, and Rogues is a gossipy book, but at no cost to its historical rigor. Indeed, by using his skills and experience as a family historian, Brent has unearthed more documentation about these tales than previous published accounts, and he refrains from going beyond those documents. By "gossipy," I mean that the book focuses on individuals and events that stood out for contemporaries, with no worry about whether such tales are too atypical to matter in larger historical movements. These true stories are interesting in themselves, and that's all the justification this volume needs.

That said, Witches, Rakes, and Rogues has more than enough to make us consider how anomalous individuals might affect larger events. For instance, one of the tales Brent tells involves a powerful Boston merchant named Nathaniel Wheelwright getting conned in 1762 into seeking treasure buried under a mill. Three years after that embarrassment, Wheelwright had to declare bankruptcy, throwing the entire Boston economy into dire straits.

The Boston Post-Boy for 9 September 1765 included this advertisement:

On Tuesday the 10th of September, will be sold by Publick Vendue [i.e., auction], at the Dwelling-House late of Nathaniel Wheelwright Esq; in Green’s Lane, a great Variety of very genteel Household Furniture, among which a quantity of Plate of the newest Taste.—Also a Negro Man and Woman both valuable Servants.
There's the human cost of Wheelwright's financial mismanagement. And for months, the Boston newspapers were filled with people's bankruptcy notices as creditors called in debts. Even the mother of Dr. Joseph Warren, living on the family farm out in Roxbury, had to declare herself bankrupt. Naturally, that economic atmosphere affected how Bostonians responded to the Stamp Act, which promised to take precious hard currency out of local hands.

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