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, October 31, 2007

Real and Virtual Commemorations of Pope Night

I celebrated Halloween by dressing up a new website about Pope Night in New England. Take a sneak peek if you want; it’s still a work in progress. My favorite detail newly added to the Pope Night saga I’ve already explored is how, after that pro-British, anti-Catholic holiday became politically incorrect in Revolutionary America, the rituals had so much appeal that people reinvented it as a way to attack Benedict Arnold.

This website will be launched like a skyrocket in conjunction with the Bostonian Society’s upcoming public lecture:

Bonfires, Effigies, and Brawls: Colonial Boston Celebrates Guy Fawkes’ Day
Monday, November 5, 2007, 6:30 p.m.
Old State House
This event is free and open to the public

Remember, Remember the fifth of November... Every 5th of November the people of Britain celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic conspirators to blow up the English Houses of Parliment on November 5, 1605.

In colonial Boston, the celebration was called Pope’s Day; on this day working people staged parades, bonfires, and other events to demonstrate their angry sentiments toward both Catholics and the British monarchy.

Prof. Brendan McConville of Boston University and Prof. Cynthia Van Zandt of the University of New Hampshire will explore how this once politically and religiously charged holiday rose and fell out of colonial practice.
Feel free to send feedback through the email address on the site. Just don’t get me upset enough to build an effigy, parade it around the house, and burn it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gen. Howe Endorses the Loyal American Association

Boston selectman Timothy Newell reported two disparate events in his journal entry for 30 Oct 1775:

A soldier, one of the Light-horse men was hanged at the head of their camp for attempting to desert.

Proclamation issued by General [William] Howe for the Inhabitants to sign an Association to take arms &c.
The general’s proclamation was dated 28 October, and the Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies offers its full text. The picture of Howe comes from NNDB.com.

“Association” meant a sort of Loyalist militia, responsible for patrolling the streets of Boston. Some members of Association companies went on to serve in other Loyalist units or the regular British army.

On the 29th, a group calling itself “Royal North British Volunteers,” a socially acceptable way of referring to their origins in Scotland, formed a similar group. They included printer John Fleeming, a link in the Dr. Benjamin Church spy case. On 7 December, the Loyal Irish Volunteers officially formed; their officers included James Forrest and Ralph Cunningham, apparently son of provost-martial William Cunningham.

By 17 November, the main Loyal American Association had formed its official command structure under Timothy Ruggles, who had been a brigadier in the pre-war militia. Ruggles’s orders to company captain Francis Green, dated two days before, give a sense of the group’s duties:
I have it in command to acquaint you, that the General expects (for the present) you take charge of the District about Liberty Tree & the Lanes, Alleys & Wharves adjacent, & that by a constant patroling party from sunset, to sunrise you prevent all disorders within the district by either Signals, Fires, Thieves, Robers, house breakers or Rioters;
Again, that text comes courtesy of the Loyalist Institute.

However, other documents indicate that the Loyalists in Boston had formed themselves into companies as early as the preceding July, so Howe was merely giving his official blessing to those groups. Those early muster rolls from that month show some familiar names and intriguing patterns. Capt. Adino Paddock was head of Boston’s militia artillery company before the war. Without any cannon to command, he became an infantry captain in July 1775. Among his troops were shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie; the younger John Lovell, balanced on the edge of madness; Joshua Loring, Jr., whose wife became Howe’s mistress; Martin Gay, who had supported the Whigs in 1770 and would return to Boston after the war; &c.

An especially intriguing name is Sgt. Hopestill Capen, who was briefly the employer of Benjamin Thompson and the landlord of Isaiah Thomas. Capen was jailed by Massachusetts authorities after the British evacuation. He told them that his religion (Sandemanian Christianity) forbade him from taking up arms against a government, and some historians have treated that to mean it was a pacifist sect. But Capen’s church preached against taking up arms in rebellion; defending a government was apparently just fine.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Around the Globe

Yesterday’s Boston Globe offered H. W. Brands’s review of Joseph Ellis’s latest book on the founding era, American Creation. Brands says of Ellis:

he eschews a continuous rendering of a period—in this case the years 1775 to 1803—in favor of focusing on a handful of discrete events and brief stretches of time. As he has before, he ties the events closely to famous individuals. A chapter on the decision for independence features John Adams. Next comes a chapter on Valley Forge that trails George Washington through the snow (but debunks the vision of the Continental Army commander falling to his knees amid the drifts to seek divine guidance). Ellis then jumps a decade to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and makes James Madison the hero of the hour. The Federalist decade of the 1790s gets two chapters; the book closes with Thomas Jefferson purchasing Louisiana from France in 1803.

Ellis’s style is discursively delightful. “Narrative is the highest form of historical analysis,” he remarks. As his narrative unfolds, so do his conclusions, with such gentle art as almost to compel assent.
That sounds much like Ellis’s entertaining Founding Brothers, except that instead of seeking out lesser-known episodes in the U.S. of A.’s founding, in this book the Mount Holyoke professor hits the best-known moments that many authors have already written about. Random House offers an online excerpt. Ellis will address the Cambridge Forum at First Parish in Harvard Square on Thursday, 1 November, at 7:30; this event is free, and he’s a charming speaker.

The same Sunday paper ran columnist Sam Allis’s musings on tourism in Boston, and how closely it’s tied to history, and thus to (gasp!) mental effort:

What do the ranking of Charleston (3), Santa Fe (4), and Savannah (8) mean? They tell me that Americans—exhausted two-career couples and their kids, in particular—want to relax on their pitifully short vacations. They want easy. They want fun. They want small.

What they don’t want is dutiful. Boston is dutiful. These people don't want an “eat your spinach” history marathon through the 16-station Freedom Trail with the threat of a spot quiz back in the hotel room on Crispus Attucks.
Where can I sign up for that quiz?

Today’s Globe adds David Mehegan’s review of two books touching on witchcraft trials in the late 1600s and his profile of Eve LaPlante, author of one of those books, about Judge Samuel Sewall. The judge lived just a few years into the eighteenth century and was never involved with the province’s break from England. But he was a key figure in the colony’s transition from a Puritan theocracy, and he kept a most human diary.

Finally, the most important story from our local paper: “Sox are kings of diamond.”

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another Washington's Psalm Legend

On Friday I promised a second legend about Gen. George Washington and the 101st Psalm, separate from the one credited to Andrew Leavitt of New Hampshire.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Tuttle was president of Wabash College, and author of many historical articles. An 1871 issue of Our Monthly: A Magazine of Religion and Literature included his article “Morristown and Washington,” which said:

And here I may add a tradition received from two independent sources, and which, I suspect, has no foundation in fact. Still, I have met some aged people who believed it, and therefore I will repeat it and let it go for what it is worth.

The tradition is, that Lord Howe [Adm. Richard Howe, shown here courtesy of NNDB.com], the British commander at New York, well knowing what a sorrowful time Washington was having, sent him a copy of Watts’ version of the one hundred and twentieth Psalm, containing these three stanzas:
Thou God of Love, thou ever blest,
Pity my suffering state;
When wilt thou set my soul at rest
From lips that love deceit?

Hard lot of mine! my days are cast
Among the sons of strife,
Whose never-ceasing brawlings waste
My golden hours of life!

О might I change my place,
How would I choose to dwell
In some wide lonesome wilderness.
And leave these gates of hell!
[I suspect the real joke here alluded to Howe’s wish to pass “Hell’s Gate” on the East River and punch through the American countryside. But back to Tuttle:]
The same tradition asserts that Washington returned the compliment, by sending to his antagonist, Watts’ version of the one hundred and first Psalm, entitled the “Magistrate’s Psalm,” in which occur the following significant stanzas:
In vain shall sinners strive to rise,
By flattering and malicious lies;
And while the innocent I guard,
The bold offender shan’t be spared.

The impious crew, that factious band,
Shall hide their heads or quit the land;
And all who break the public rest,
Where I have power shall be suppressed.
Some years ago, this anecdote was incorporated in a manuscript by the author of this article; but while the unpublished article as a whole, was complimented as much as it deserved by the historian [George] Bancroft, who had solicited it for perusal, that distinguished gentleman wrote in pencil at the end of this anecdote these words, “altogether improbable and not worth repeating!”
Tuttle had come to the same conclusion as Bancroft by the time he wrote this article. His statement that he suspected the anecdote “has no foundation in fact” could not be clearer. And indeed there is no documentation or contemporary report to support this supposed exchange between two opposing military commanders.

Yet some later writers simply chose to disregard Bancroft and Tuttle’s conclusions, and their total ignorance of Tuttle’s sources, and reprinted the story anyway. The Rev. Rufus S. Green had clearly seen Tuttle’s comments about the anecdote before he included it in his History of Morris County, New Jersey (1882), but decided to say merely, “Rev. Dr. J. F. Tuttle states that he received the above tradition from two entirely distinct sources.”

That apparently prompted the Rev. Andrew M. Sherman to use the same story in his article “Washington and His Army in Morris County, New Jersey, Winter of 1776-77,” in the 1911 volume of The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society. Sherman prefaced the story by writing, “If tradition from two distinct sources may be relied upon, and in this particular instance there seems to be ample ground for reliance,...” Of course, he did not describe what that “ample ground” was.

All three authors who put this story into print, despite their own doubts or others’, were ministers. As with the story of the 101st Psalm in Cambridge, told by the Rev. Daniel Waldo and the notably pious Leavitt, these men seem to have valued the image of Washington sharing Christian Scripture. Tuttle, Green, and Sherman clearly let their fondness for that image steer their scholarly judgment. Similarly, Parson Mason Weems composed the legend of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge, and a series of rabbis appear to have spread the legend that he participated in a Hanukkah service there.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Old South Meeting-House Dragooned

On 27 Oct 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded what became one of the most notorious events of the British army’s 1774-76 stay in Boston, though it didn’t involve killing or imprisoning people. Rather, the British military took over Boston’s largest house of worship and put its interior to a particular use:

The spacious Old South Meeting house, taken possession of by the Light horse 17th Regiment of Dragoons commanded by Lieut. Colo. Samuel Birch. The Pulpit, pews and seats, all cut to pieces and carried off in the most savage manner as can be expressed and destined for a riding school. The beautiful carved pew with the silk furniture of Deacon Hubbard’s was taken down and carried to [blank]’s house by an officer and a made a hog stye. The above was effected by the solicitation of General [John] Burgoyne.
Some writers have interpreted this use of the Old South as a deliberate attempt to desecrate that particular meeting-house because it had become associated with the Patriot cause. It had hosted the tea meetings of 1773 and most of the orations commemorating the Boston Massacre of 1770. However, Newell recorded that the dragoons had first tried to use his Brattle Street Meeting-House instead, but it didn’t have the right architecture.

Thus, while Burgoyne no doubt appreciated the dramatic irony of carpeting Old South with dung (as was planned for the Brattle Street building) and turning it into a stable, the meeting-house’s primary appeal was probably that it was the largest interior space in Boston, with no pillars to get in the way of the horses. As winter approached, the dragoons and mounted officers needed a place to exercise themselves and their steeds.

According to the published history of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, young businessman John Winslow “buried the communion plate of the Old South Church in the cellar of his uncle’s home to prevent its falling into the hands of the British.” This is the same fellow who reportedly identified Dr. Joseph Warren’s body in 1775.

After the British military left, the Old South congregation took over King’s Chapel, the Anglican church at the other end of School Street. After all, much of that church’s congregation had left town. In 1783, they moved back into their own building.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Rev. Waldo and Gen. Washington

On Wednesday I promised an 1846 version of the story of Gen. George Washington greeting his new New England troops by reading from the 101st Psalm. (I started tracing that story back through sources in this posting.)

The following article appeared in Boston’s Emancipator newspaper (also called the Emancipator and Republican) on 29 July 1846. It may have appeared even earlier in the Boston Journal, which is the newspaper that the Southern Patriot of Charleston, South Carolina, credited when it picked up the piece. The article was also reprinted over the next year in the Connecticut Courant and the Friend of Salem, Massachusetts. Harriet Beecher Stowe might have read the tale in a newspaper before she retold in Oldtown Fireside Stories, though in 1846 she was living in Ohio.


The Rev. Mr. Waldo, an old revolutionary veteran from Connecticut, who attended the celebration at Westfield [Massachusetts?] on the 4th, made himself quite interesting at the dinner table. He is now nearly ninety years old, but is in the vigor of a green old age and was able to preach two sermons last Sabbath.
(There were probably not a lot of ministers from Connecticut named Waldo who had fought in the Revolutionary War and were in their late eighties in 1846. Those clues point to the long-lived Rev. Daniel Waldo as the subject of this newspaper article. The photograph of him above comes from the Clements Library website.)

In his remarks he referred to the allusion made by the orator to Washington, and observed that he never heard even the name of that glorious chieftain and good man, “without feeling the cold chills through his whole system.”

He remarked that there was a single incident that came within his personal knowledge which he believed was not generally known. It was that Washington, on the day that he assumed the command of the American Army at Cambridge, read and caused to be sung the 101st Psalm, a portion of which we publish... [verses 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of the version in this book]

This psalm the reverend worthy deaconed off to the company in true primitive style, a line at a time, which was sung to the tune of “Old Hundred,” that tune being as the old veteran said, “just the thing for it.”

Modern improvements in Psalmody have almost obliterated the good old Psalms and Hymns with many of the tunes that the fathers sang with so much spirit and understanding. Such a Psalm as the one quoted above would be deemed a political one now a-days, and sorry are we to say it, very many ministers would hardly deem it a proper one to be sung on public occasions.
(Since the Emancipator was an Abolitionist paper, my first interpretation of the last paragraph was that it alluded to criticism that Abolitionism mixed politics and religion. However, the Southern Patriot printed that paragraph as well.)

Where did Waldo come by this story of Washington in Cambridge? He reportedly said that it “came within his personal knowledge [but] was not generally known,” implying that he had not seen it published. But Waldo could not have witnessed the event himself. He was only twelve years old when Washington took command of the troops, and many miles from Cambridge. Waldo joined the Continental Army in 1778 and, according to his profile in E. B. Hillard’s The Last Men of the Revolution (1864), “never saw either Washington or La Fayette.” I’ve found no connection between Waldo and the area of New Hampshire where Andrew Leavitt was reportedly telling the same story until his death earlier in 1846.

An even earlier printed version of this tale may yet surface, which would require revising some of the following thoughts. But for now here are some speculations about the truth behind this tale.

One possibility is that Washington really did read the 101st Psalm as a way to win over his New England troops. Yet no one recorded this impressive (and uncharacteristic) event in newspapers, letters, or diaries of the time. No one outside one small area of southern New Hampshire claimed to have witnessed it. And, even as the story was somehow spreading far enough to reach Waldo (who lived in Connecticut until 1835 and then in upstate New York), no one put it into print until more than seventy years after the event. That scenario strikes me as unlikely.

Another possibility is that Capt. Josiah Crosby’s company greeted Washington by singing Isaac Watts’s psalm; he responded with polite, dignified thanks; and the story got polished in retelling to have the general read the psalm first. Such a story might well have seemed like a fine way to inspire children and/or congregants with faith and patriotism (mixing religion and politics, some would have said back then). That scenario would fit with all we know about Washington and the pious New England army he came to command. But it wouldn’t explain how the story got to Waldo.

Here’s my pet theory. Andrew Leavitt, known for his religious fervor, told this story to his grandchildren, improving it over time. Some of those children grew up to be the Hutchinson Singers. They traveled around the U.S. of A., speaking against slavery and singing—maybe even using Grandpa Leavitt’s tale to introduce performances of the 101st Psalm. They carried the story to the Rev. Waldo in Syracuse and Mrs. Stowe in Cincinnati. (I must acknowledge, however, that the “Washington’s Psalm” tale doesn’t appear when this 1896 biography of the Hutchinsons describes Grandpa Leavitt’s service in the Revolutionary War, where this scenario implies it should.)

COMING UP: A completely different legend of Washington and the 101st Psalm, and how historians have dealt with that.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Meanwhile, Back in October 1775

Boston selectmen Timothy Newell reported that 237 years ago today the British garrison was on the alert, expecting a Continental attack:

Several nights past the whole army was ordered not to undress—the cannon all loaded with grape shot from a full apprehension the Provincials would make an attack upon the town. The streets paraded all night by the Light Horse.
Capt. John Barker’s journal entry for 28 Oct 1775 reveals the reason for this alert: men coming into town from the American lines were warning about it.
Several Deserters lately come in all agree that it is intended to attack us; we have been expecting it three or four nights past; a Man come in to day says they’ll attack to night. We shall see if they mean to put their threats in execution; if they do they must in all probability get a severe bearing. The Deserters all say the Rebel Army is very tired, ill off for cloathing and most things; they are not paid what they are promised and most want to go home.
Barker’s notes highlight what seems like a contradiction in the deserters’ statements. On the one hand, those men claimed the Continental Army was in poor circumstances, which might have spurred them to defect. On the other hand, they said that army was about the attack. Perhaps they were indeed worried about a Continental offensive, and didn’t want to risk their lives in it. Perhaps they were trying to make themselves more important to the British authorities when they arrived. Or perhaps they were actually spreading disinformation to keep the British military on edge.

In fact, in late October Gen. George Washington and other commanders were busy in meetings with the elected officials who had authorized the Continental Army:
Since our last [issue,] arrived in Town, the Honourable Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison, Esquires, from Philadelphia, a Committee from the Continental Congress; the Honourable Matthew Griswold, Esq; Deputy-Governor and —— Wales, Esq; of Connecticut; the Honourable Nicholas Cooke, Esq; Deputy-Governor and Commander in Chief of Rhode-Island; and the Hon. John Wentworth, Esq; President of the Provincial Congress of New-Hampshire.

As the Time for which the present Army is raised will expire in 2 or 3 Months, these Gentlemen, with the Members of the Honourable Council of this Colony, are appointed to meet and confer with his Excellency General Washington on the Subject of forming and establishing another Continental Army, for the Defence of the invaded Rights of the United Colonies.
Washington was trying to reshape the army to be as strong as possible, working under a looming deadline: at the end of the year, most of the soldiers’ enlistments would expire. As Richard Frothingham wrote in his History of the Siege of Boston, “Washington, during October, was occupied with making preparations for the winter, and in a new organization of the army. He was not in a condition to act offensively.”

The American meetings took place at Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge, now the Longfellow National Historic Site. It will be open for guided tours only through this Sunday, and then close for the year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Little Lady Who Started the Anecdote?

As I’ve been documenting, in 1878 and then in 1883, New Hampshire writers put into print a story that they said they’d heard from Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Leavitt more than three decades before: that on taking command of the Continental Army in Cambridge in July 1775, Gen. George Washington had read his men the 101st Psalm.

Soon after I started looking into that tale, I found a version published in 1872. It wasn’t credited to Leavitt, and I could find no link between its author and the part of New Hampshire where Leavitt had lived. Most interestingly, this version was clearly presented in a fictional story.

The author was Harriet Beecher Stowe (pictured here, courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center), and she told the story in a volume called Oldtown Fireside Stories. This was a sequel to her Oldtown Folks, inspired by her husband Calvin’s upbringing in Natick, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s. Stowe turned her husband’s (and her own) memories of growing up in New England into tales of eccentric relations and small-town characters, particularly Sam Lawson, introduced as “The Village Do-Nothing.” Sam is kind-hearted, unreliable, and a fine storyteller—which made him popular enough that the second volume is sometimes called Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories.

The tale at issue is “Oldtown Fireside Talks of the Revolution,” a collection of anecdotes put into the mouths of the narrator’s grandfather and Sam Lawson. And here’s the relevant passage:

“Your granfather Stowe, boys, was orderly of the day when General Washington took the command at Cambridge.”

“Wal,” said Sam, “I was in Cambridge that day and saw it all. Ye see, the army was drawn up under the big elm there; and Ike Newel and I, we clim up into a tree, and got a place where we could look down and see. I wa’n’t but ten year old then; but, if ever a mortal man looked like the angel of the Lord, the gineral looked like it that day.”

“Some said that there was trouble about having General [Artemas] Ward give up the command to a Southern man,” said my grandfather. “General Ward was a brave man and very popular; but everybody was satisfied when they came to know General Washington.”

“There couldn’t no minister have seemed more godly than he did that day,” said Sam. “He read out of the hymn-book the hundred and first Psalm.”

“What is that psalm?” said I.

“Laws, boys! I know it by heart,” said Sam, “I was so impressed hearin’ on him read it. I can say it to you...”
Lawson then recites verses 1, 2, 5, and 7 of Isaac Watts’s translation of that psalm, as printed here.

Stowe presented Sam and grandfather Stowe as fictional characters, retelling some standard late-1800s American tales of how the Revolution began. We now know some of those notions were limited, others simply wrong. For example, the “elm” in Cambridge that Sam talks about, while featured in Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution and subsequent books, is not mentioned in any sources from 1775 or soon after.

When I found this 1872 version of the psalm story by a best-selling fiction writer, my first thought was that Daniel F. Secomb might have mixed it in with his memories of listening to Andrew Leavitt when he wrote his history of Amherst, New Hampshire, in 1883. After all, when a story appears in print as fiction years before anyone writes that it really happened, that casts doubt on the historical version. To point to the most notorious example, the main reason we call the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion a fraud is that, while the book was presented as notes of a meeting that took place in either 1897 or 1902-03, it echoes passages from the 1864 satire Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu (Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu).

Finding the 1878 newspaper profile of Andrew Leavitt containing the same story changed my thinking. And all along I’d been wondering about that rival version of the tale from the Wallace family of Milford, New Hampshire. The psalm story had clearly circulated in the Amherst-Milford area for decades.

Furthermore, it looked like Stowe had probably come across the same story in a source that she felt was reliable. She didn’t seem to invent Revolutionary anecdotes out of whole cloth for Oldtown Fireside Stories; instead, she presented widely accepted stories through a fictionalized lens. (This saved her from having to make up so much stuff.) Though we now understand the “Washington elm” that Sam Lawson mentioned to be a myth, in 1872 everyone believed in the importance of that tree on Cambridge Common.

I therefore suspected there was probably an even earlier printed version of the story of Gen. Washington and the 101st Psalm which inspired Stowe.

COMING UP: A “Washington’s Psalm” tale from 1846.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The President Has No Trumping Authority

Prof. Jed Rubenfeld of the Yale Law School, a former assistant United States attorney, today published an important opinion piece in the New York Times, taking issue with Attorney General nominee Michael B. Mukasey’s Senate testimony that U.S. Presidents can disregard U.S. law.

Rubenfeld wrote:

Under the American Constitution, federal statutes, not executive decisions in the name of national security, are “the supreme law of the land.” It’s that simple. So long as a statute is constitutional, it is binding on everyone, including the president.

The president has no supreme, exclusive or trumping authority to “defend the nation.” In fact, the Constitution uses the words “provide for the common defense” in its list of the powers of Congress, not those of the president.
Rubenfeld’s first quotation comes from the Constitution’s Article V, his third from Article I, Section 8.

The second quotation, “defend the nation,” does not appear in the Constitution; it’s a paraphrase of Mukasey’s “defend the country.” Indeed, the word “defend” appears in the Constitution only once: in the President’s oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Another Version of Andrew Leavitt's Story

I’ve been discussing the tale that Gen. George Washington read the 101st Psalm to the Continental Army troops he met at Cambridge in 1775, a tale that I traced to Daniel F. Secomb’s 1883 history of Amherst, New Hampshire. Yesterday I promised to reveal a widely distributed version of that story printed before Secomb’s book, which I thought might have given rise to the local tradition. But I did some more research, found some more sources, and changed my thinking and my plans.

Yesterday I found another version of the same anecdote attributed to Secomb’s main source, the New Hampshire carpenter and veteran Andrew Leavitt, but published six years earlier. It comes from the Amherst, New Hampshire, newspaper titled The Farmer’s Cabinet.

When Leavitt died in 1846, that newspaper’s death notice was unusually long—a full paragraph. But it said nothing about his military experience, concentrating instead on his work as a builder and his religious faith. Over three decades later, on 22 Jan 1878, the Farmer’s Cabinet ran a profile titled “Andrew Leavitt,” which started with the man’s status as “probably the last survivor of the workmen who assisted in building the Congregational meeting house at Amherst.” The first three paragraphs were all about that local construction project.

The next three paragraphs concerned Leavitt’s recollections of the Revolutionary War:

On the breaking out of the war of the revolution he repaired to Cambridge and enlisted in the company commanded by his townsman, Capt. Josiah Crosby. For his subsistence on the march he took two loaves of brown bread, and a generous slice of good, thick, salt pork, the pork he cut in thin slices, of which he placed one upon a slice of bread and covered it with another slice of bread, his teeth being good he bit through all three slices; he said, “it was the sweetest morsel he ever ate.”

He was probably in the battle of Bunker Hill, as Capt. Crosby reports among the articles lost by his company, 1 coverlid, 1 pair stockings, 1 knapsack and handkerchief lost by Andrew Leavitt, the date of his enlistment is given on the company roll call as two days later, 19th Jun. 1775. [The newspaper had printed Crosby’s report on 23 June 1875.]

He was present at Cambridge when Gen. Washington assumed command of the army, 2nd July 1775, and narrated the events of that day to the writer who called on him one day after he had passed his ninetieth year [i.e., after 1842]. Said he “the men were clad in their every day dress, scarcely any two alike, their arms were of all sorts, sizes, and shapes, some were provided with bayonets, but the most were without, and the soldiers had but a poor idea of military discipline. After the officers had succeeded in getting the men into tolerable order, Gen. Washington came upon the field and reviewed them, he was a large noble looking man, apparently in the full strength of manhood, mounted upon a magnificent black horse, in whose shining coat you could almost see your face, so carefully was he groomed. After the review the soldiers gathered around the tree under which the General sat, and listened to his address. At the conclusion he read to them from his Psalm book the 101st Psalm.[”?] Here the vete[r]an paused, and stepping into the adjoining room, appeared, bringing two Psalm books, one of which he handed his visitor, and finding the place in the other, he read in tones tremulous with age and emotion, the “Magistrate’s,” Psalm [i.e., the 101st], the father of his country, read to his fellow countrymen, seventy years before while they were gathered around him at Cambridge.

Mr. Leavitt was quite a musician in his day, and his musical talent is inherited by many of his descendants, among whom are the celebrated “Hutchinson family, of the tribe of Jesse.” He died at the great age of 94 years, 24th of August 1846.
The Hutchinson family were very popular singers of the mid-1800s, known especially for their support of Abolitionism and other reform movements. The picture of the Hutchinsons above comes from this fan page, which also provides links for more information on them.

As you can see in yesterday’s posting, this 1878 account overlaps a lot with Secomb’s on details, including the wrong date for when Washington reviewed troops in Cambridge, but the two share only a little of the same phrasing (“a large noble looking man”). That implies that Secomb did not write both, which in turn supports the statements that Leavitt had told this story to various people in the mid-1840s.

That said, the details of this version make the story less credible, not more so. I’m already dubious about the notion of Washington pulling out a psalm book and reading to his soldiers. It’s well documented that as President he walked out of church rather than take communion. He never used the word “psalm” in his correspondence or speeches. His private letters show faith in “Providence” but no rhetoric or tenets pointing to orthodox Christianity.

But the image of the new generalissimo sitting under a tree surrounded by those men as he reads the 101st Psalm like an itinerant preacher is so completely incongruous that I can’t even picture it. It doesn’t fit Washington’s personal style throughout his lifetime. It doesn’t fit all the concerns about discipline and hierarchy that he wrote about in the summer of 1775. The Farmer’s Cabinet article tells us that Leavitt habitually told this story, but it also provides far more reason to think of the story as a legend.

TOMORROW: This time I really will have an earlier, widely published version of the tale.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Probing Andrew Leavitt's Story of Gen. Washington

Yesterday I quoted how a recent study of George Washington’s military experiences depicted him introducing himself to the Continental Army troops at Cambridge by reading the 101st Psalm from his psalm-book. I traced that unsourced anecdote back to a biography of Washington’s predecessor, Artemas Ward, which presented it with unmistakable skepticism. (I also couldn’t resist quoting another historian who called the tale “the maunderings of a nonagenarian”; we just don’t see that sort of language in scholarship anymore.)

That biography of Ward in turn cited an earlier source as the first print appearance of this tale: Daniel F. Secomb’s History of the Town of Amherst, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, published in 1883. Secomb (1820-1895) wrote:

Capt. [Josiah] Crosby’s company was present when Washington took command of the army, 2 July, 1775, of which Andrew Leavitt, one of the survivors, gave the following account to the writer many years since:
The officers placed their men in as good shape as they could, but they were a motley looking set, no two dressed alike. Some were armed with fowling pieces, some with rifles, others with muskets without bayonets. When all was in readiness, Washington and his staff advanced to the square prepared for their reception. He was a large, noble looking man, in the prime of life, and was mounted on a powerful black horse over which he seemed to have perfect control.

After a short address to the soldiers, he took from his pocket a Psalm book, from which he read the one hundred and first Psalm (another account says it was then sung by the soldiers to the tune of Old Hundred).
There are some historical glitches here. Washington reviewed troops at Cambridge on 3 July, not 2 July. “Rifles” were very rare, possibly non-existent, in the New England army in mid-1775. But we might expect such discrepancies to crop up after many years.

And it was many years—about half a century—between Washington’s arrival at Cambridge and when Secomb was old enough to have heard that story from Leavitt. There were also at least thirty-seven years between the last time Leavitt could have told the story, given his death in 1846, and Secomb’s publication. The phrase “many years since” shows that Secomb actually didn’t remember how long it had been.

George Allen Ramsdell’s History of Milford, New Hampshire, published in 1901, offers a parallel statement with a little more information:
Andrew Leavitt, at this time of Amherst, but a member of Captain Crosby’s company, repeatedly stated in his lifetime that after Washington had made a short address he read the one hundred and first Psalm. There is a tradition in the Wallace family, then represented by the soldier, Joseph Wallace, that when Washington had finished reading the psalm the company took up the matter and sang or chanted it to an appropriate tune.
Ramsdell (1834-1900, shown above courtesy of the Milford Historical Society) was a native of Milford, where most of Crosby’s company came from. He seems to have relied on family and local traditions rather than hearing the two veterans themselves, and probably also knew of Secomb’s book.

Documents from 1775 confirm that Andrew Leavitt and “Joseph Wallis” were members of Crosby’s company as early as June. There’s no contemporaneous record that their company was on the parade when Washington (and Gen. Charles Lee) first reviewed troops in Cambridge, nor have I found any evidence to contradict that belief. As twentieth-century scholars have pointed out, the army didn’t make that much of Washington’s arrival in 1775, so there’s very little documentation about it.

I think the biggest problem with accepting Secomb’s apparent quotation as a reliable first-person account of a Revolutionary event lies in the words themselves. A veteran describing an event he had personally witnessed would not have added, “another account says...,” at least not without stating whether that rival account squared with his own recollection. Indeed, what Secomb presented as Leavitt’s story is notable for being entirely in the third person: it calls the soldiers “they” instead of “we.” Rather than treat those paragraphs as a direct quotation from Andrew Leavitt, I think we must take these words as Secomb’s own description, written “many years” later, of what he recalled hearing Leavitt describe to him as a child or youth, along with Secomb’s note on “another account” he had heard.

This anecdote is therefore equivalent to us now learning new details about a notable public event involving hundreds of people in 1899, and a very notable public personage, based on a secondhand account committed to paper years after the storytelling. Those details have never been in the record before, are based on oral transmission and memory, and conform to many people’s beliefs about how the past should be. I think the account therefore needs strong supporting evidence to be credible.

One possible source for such support would be Leavitt’s pension application, if one survives. In 1840, at the age of 87, Leavitt was receiving a federal pension while living in the home of his son William. To receive that pension, he would have filed a deposition with the federal government, relating his Revolutionary War experiences with notable memories to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Did Leavitt describe parading for the new commander-in-chief when he applied for a pension, perhaps half a century before Secomb wrote? Did he then describe Washington reading the 101st Psalm?

Otherwise, we’re in the difficult position of assessing the authenticity of oral traditions. According to Ramsdell, people remembered Andrew Leavitt telling his story on multiple occasions. Another family in a nearby town told a similar (though not identical) story. Those traditions may not really be independent of each other, but they do strengthen each other; I think it would be unlikely for two families to come up with such similar tales without a common source.

TOMORROW: A common source—in popular fiction? [ADDENDUM: Change of plans.]

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Washington Reads the 101st Psalm?

A recent discussion on the Revlist alerted me to a problematic passage in Edward G. Lengel’s 2005 study General George Washington: A Military Life. It comes from page 105:

Six hot and dusty days later, on July 2nd, he [Washington] passed the first pickets around the American lines at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Just as he entered camp it began to rain, sending the troops that had been assembled to greet him scrambling for shelter. He had to wait until the following morning to meet his army on a muddy parade ground. The new commander-in-chief then delivered a short speech, read from the 101st Psalm, and reviewed the fidgety lines of paraded troops. “Joy was visible in every countenance,” Brigadier Nathanael Greene later wrote, “and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.”
Lengel’s only citation for this paragraph is to the letters of Gen. Greene of Rhode Island. The quotation is accurate, but it did not describe any welcome ceremony on 3 July 1775. Greene was not even in Cambridge that day, having sent a detachment of his men instead, as his 4 July letter states. The quotation is from Greene’s letter dated 14 July, after Washington had ridden round to other parts of the American lines, including where the Rhode Island troops were stationed.

As for Washington’s “short speech” and psalm-reading, Lengel’s book doesn’t say where he read about those actions. But it’s not hard to figure out. For a quote on the following page, Lengel cites Charles Martyn’s Life of Artemas Ward. That biography, in a long footnote that covers most of his pages 152 and 153, quotes “Secomb’s History of the Town of Amherst, N. H.” about Washington’s remarks. Lengel’s list of sources did not include this local history, so he dug only as far as Martyn.

But here’s the puzzle. Martyn’s clear conclusion in that long footnote was that, contrary to traditions that sprang up in the mid-1800s, there was no grand ceremony on Cambridge Common to welcome the new commander from Virginia. Some troops turned out, but many more wrote “nothing remarkable” happened that day, as in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Haws, and none left a contemporaneous description of the encounter.

Furthermore, Martyn stated that he had found no “authentic sources” describing how Washington had addressed even part of the Continental Army in Cambridge. He called the story in Secomb’s book an “alleged recollection.” He printed it separate from his list of all the sources he considered reliable, after discussing how two previous historians had misrepresented other sources.

It’s clear that Martyn did not consider the story of Washington reading the 101st Psalm to be reliable. Samuel F. Batchelder echoed that assessment in his own study of the local “Washington Elm” tradition, reprinted in Bits of Cambridge History: “This whole passage [about psalm-reading] is so odd and improbable that commentators like Martyn dismiss it as the maunderings of a nonagenarian.”

Lengel must have missed Martyn’s hints, or ignored them. And the lack of a citation for his book’s statement about the commander’s remarks leaves readers of General George Washington with no way to assess its reliability...

TOMORROW: ...until now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren's Body: the photographs?

CSI: Colonial Boston comes to a close with my favorite question from last month, sent by Boston 1775 reader Brian Self. He asked what I knew about a photograph that Esther Forbes wrote was taken of Dr. Joseph Warren’s remains in 1855. Not much at all, in fact, but the beauty of email is that I had time to look things up before answering.

As I’ve been discussing, Warren was first buried by the British army on the Bunker Hill battlefield in Charlestown, in the same grave as a farmer. About a year later, Americans dug up those corpses. Warren was reburied with full Masonic honors in the Granary Burying Ground. In 1824 his brother’s family moved him again, to their vault under St. Paul’s cathedral. But that wasn’t the end of his body’s travels.

We now turn to Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, shown above courtesy of the University of Miami Medical School. (Curiously, his given names trace back to the uncle and employer of the first man to identify Dr. Warren’s corpse.) The Memoir of Jonathan Mason Warren, M.D., by Howard Payson Arnold (published privately in Boston in 1886), quotes this entry from its subject’s journal, dated 6 May 1859:

The remains of General Joseph Warren were removed from St. Paul’s to Forest Hills [Cemetery] on Aug. 3, 1855, when my father, Sullivan [the diarist’s brother], William Appleton, and myself put them into a stone or earthen urn, like those of John Warren, Mrs. Warren, and my mother.

The place was quite moist where they were put, and the hole in the head of General Warren was becoming enlarged by the crumbling of the margin. I had a photograph made of it in three positions.
So what’s happened to those photographs? Robert Shackleton’s The Book of Boston, published in 1916, said of Old South Meeting-House:
A few relics of Revolutionary days are shown in this building, and there are photographs, to suit the taste of such as care for such a thing, of the skull of General Warren, showing the fatal bullet-hole: an exhibition which perhaps might have been spared.
Those prints are no longer on display, but are they still in the Old South’s collection?

There are at least three prints of these photographs in the collection of the Harvard Medical School. They’re described this way:
  • “Profile of Joseph Warren’s skull, showing the bullet hole.”
  • “The back of Joseph Warren’s skull, showing the bullet hole.”
  • “The front of Joseph Warren’s skull.”
Those descriptions imply that there is no bullet hole in the front of the skull, confirming reports that Dr. Warren was shot in the back of the head as he left the redoubt atop Breed’s Hill. (Some later accounts said he was shot from the front, perhaps because Americans didn’t like the idea of a hero walking away from the fight, even when there had been an order to retreat.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren's Body: the second identification

The first thing that British army officers did after identifying Dr. Joseph Warren among the corpses on Bunker Hill was to search his body. They discovered letters that had come out of Boston, and soon the men who wrote those letters were under arrest.

One officer noted that Warren had “died in his best cloaths: every body remembered his fine silk-fringed waistcoat.” (In 1780 this man’s letters were published in The Detail and Conduct of the American War, a critical analysis of the conflict by a soldier who had fought in it, of the sort that we’re seeing again now.)

Then it was time to bury the doctor’s corpse. Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, who had been in command at the North Bridge in Concord, was in charge of the burial detail. On 23 June he wrote that he had “stuffed the scoundrell with another into one hole and there he and his seditious principles may remain.” The fact that Warren had been buried with one other provincial, a detail also recalled by some locals, became significant after the British army left Boston in March 1776 and the doctor’s survivors went looking for his corpse.

William H. Sumner (1780-1861; shown above, courtesy of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society) wrote his “Reminiscences relating to General Warren and Bunker Hill” in two stages: a letter to a newspaper in 1825 and a longer paper in 1857, published in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for 1858. About the identification of Warren’s corpse in 1776 he wrote:

Gen. Warren’s body had mouldered in the grave for ten months, when it was disinterred. . . . After the evacuation of Boston, Warren’s friends were informed where he was buried. This was not as “Historian” [someone who had written to the Boston Patriot in July 1825, who Sumner thought was Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846)] says it was, “with the promiscuous slain, in the common trench of the dead;” though it was in the same grave with a person with a frock on. Warren’s body was found stripped of its covering, while the other was buried in its common habiliments.

Mr. [Jonathan] Clark,...as well as another soldier whose name I have forgotten, was here on the 17th, who assisted at the exhumation in the presence of the Doctor’s two brothers, who were satisfied of the identity of the body, by many circumstances which they detailed. If stronger evidence of its identity were wanting, that afforded by Col. [Paul] Revere, who set the artificial tooth, (which “Historian” says led to the “mere conjecture” that it was Warren’s body,) and who recollected the wire he used in fastening it in, would afford it.

One thing, however, is certain; that the skull was perforated by a musket ball in the upper part of the head, in such a place, as I am informed by professional gentlemen, would probably have produced sudden, though it might not instant death.
Revere’s identification of Dr. Warren’s corpse is said to be one of the first examples of forensic dentistry in American history. But Dr. John Jeffries claimed to have used the same clue of the false tooth in the same way ten months before.

TOMORROW: Dr. Warren’s corpse moves—but where are the photographs?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren's Body: the first identification

Today CSI: Colonial Boston enters a three-episode story arc involving the most famous case of forensic medicine during the American Revolution: the identification of Dr. Joseph Warren’s body after the Battle of Bunker Hill. It turns out that, because the doctor kept being buried and dug up again, there were actually multiple identifications.

The first occurred on 18 June 1775, the day after the battle. According to Samuel Swett’s 1818 study, “In the morning young Winslow of Boston, recognised the body of Warren, and announced the fact.” This young man was John Winslow (1753-1819), a clerk in the hardware store of his uncle, selectman Jonathan Mason. It’s not clear to me what he was doing on the battlefield.

Swett continued:

[Gen. William] Howe would scarcely credit the account; it was so improbable that the president of [Massachusetts Provincial] Congress was in the battle.

Dr. [John] Jeffries was on the field dressing the British wounded, and the wounded American prisoners, with his usual humanity and skill. Howe inquired of him if he could identify Warren; he recollected that he had lost a finger nail and wore a false tooth, and informed the general that Warren had five days before ventured over to Boston in a canoe to get information, invited Jeffries to join the Americans as surgeon, and informed him that he was himself to receive a commission in the army.

Warren was instantly recognised, and the enemy declared this victim alone was worth five hundred of their men.
I don’t actually believe all of this. Dr. Jeffries was a Loyalist and army surgeon during the war, and settled in Britain afterward. Having spent a lot of his money on ballooning, he decided to return to his home town of Boston and rebuild his practice there. Jeffries succeeded and became very popular by the end of his life, as Swett’s praise of his “usual humanity and skill” indicates. But I think he’s a slippery character.

In particular, that anecdote about Dr. Warren crossing the Charles River on a canoe on 13 June 1775 seems dubious. Jeffries is apparently the only source for it. And with Warren dead, who could contradict him?

Did Warren really risk being captured by the Crown when he had thousands of men ready to spy for him and Boston was leaking information like a sieve? Would he really have tried to recruit Jeffries, who had been aligned with the Crown for years? Did Jeffries really tell Gen. Howe right after the horrible battle that, oh, by the way, he’d had a secret meeting with the head of the rebellion, but hadn’t bothered to mention it to any royal authorities at the time?

I’m happy to accept that Dr. Jeffries helped to identify Dr. Warren’s body for the British army. As for the other details, who benefited most in the 1800s from a tale that the great Warren had thought so highly of Jeffries’s medical skills as to recruit him for the American army?

TOMORROW: Identifying Dr. Warren’s body again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Case of the Blown Up Battery

Today’s installment of CSI: Colonial Boston comes from two of the diaries of the siege of 1775-76 that I’ve been quoting regularly.

On 17 Oct 1775, Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment wrote in his journal:

Last night the Rebels brought down Cambridge River two Gondolas with a Gun in each of ’em; they fired several shot at the encampment on the Common without doing any harm ’till at last one of their Guns burst and killed and wounded several of them.
Besieged selectmen Timothy Newell described the same event, and the evidence of the explosion’s toll:
Two floating batteries from the Provincials from Cambridge river [i.e., the Charles], fired a number of cannon into the camp at the Common, the shot went thro houses by the Lamb Tavern &c.—A deserter who came in this morning, says one of the Cannon split, and killed and wounded several. 5 or 6 hats, a waistcoat and part of a boat came on shore at the bottom of the Common.
The picture above of a Continental floating artillery battery was published in Benson J. Lossing’s Pictoral Field-book of the Revolution; he based it on sketch that the historian Peter Force copied it from “an English manuscript in his possession.”

We also have a description of the vessel’s flag in a letter dated 20 Oct 1775 from Gen. George Washington’s top aide Col. Joseph Reed to Col. John Glover and Muster-Master General Stephen Moylan, who were in Marblehead arranging to equip two ships to patrol the Massachusetts coast:
Please to fix upon some particular colour for a flag, and a signal by which our vessels may know one another. What do you think of a flag with a white ground, a tree in the middle, the motto “Appeal to Heaven?” This is the flag of our floating batteries.
ADDENDUM: The diary of Samuel Pierce of Dorchester, 16 Oct 1775, offered an explanation for why the floating battery blew up.
Our people went down in Cambridge bay with two floating Batery’s to fire upon Boston, and one of them split their cannon by not raming their shot down; it kild one and wounded 6.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Military History Lecture in Weston, 18 October

The Weston Military History Group and Weston Public Library will present a talk by Alexander Cain titled “1775: We Stood Our Ground” at the library on Thursday, 18 October, at 7:30 P.M. The group’s webpage offers more information about this presentation and Mr. Cain.

Suspicions About the Provincials' Ammunition

The Battle of Bunker Hill inflicted a shocking number of casualties on the British army: over 1,000 men wounded or killed, or about 40% of all the soldiers involved in the fighting.

The army quickly moved its wounded across the Charles River to Boston, where both regimental surgeons and civilian doctors were pressed into service. Nevertheless, many men died of their wounds. That gave rise to suspicions and complaints about what the Yankees had been firing.

British surgeon Alexander Grant wrote in a letter to Westminster on 23 June 1775:

I have been up two nights, assisted with four mates, dressing our men of the wounds received the last engagement; many of the wounded are daily dying, and many must have both legs amputated. The provincials had either exhausted their ball, or they were determined that every wound should prove mortal; their musquets were charged with old nails and angular pieces of iron, and from most of our men being wounded in the legs,

we are inclined to believe it was their design, not wishing to kill the men, but leave them as burdens on us, to exhaust our provisions and engage our attention, as well as to intimidate the rest of the soldiery.
Dr. Grant went on to write Observations on the Use of Opium in Removing Symptoms Supposed to Be Owing to Morbid Irritability.

Pvt. Thomas Sullivan recorded even darker suspicions in his journal, available as From Redcoat to Rebel:
GREAT many died of their wounds after coming from the field, the weather in that part being so very hot in summer, that the wounds of several men mortified, and it was supposed the Enemy Poisoned some of their Balls, so that some of the wounds were uncurable. There was not above 300 of the wounded men [for comparison, Sullivan counted 706 “rank and file wounded”], that were cured fit for service; most of them as well as the troops getting a bloody flux, which killed numbers of them.
A 24 June letter from a Boston merchant to his brother in Scotland, probably published in a British newspaper before being reprinted in American Archives, also claimed that “by parcels of ammunition that were left on the field, their balls were all found to be poisoned.” Customs official Richard Reeve wrote to Sir George Howard on the same date about the provincials using a “poisonous mixture.”

I think these suspicions reflected British shock and anger more than Yankee ingenuity. The provincials on Bunker Hill ran out of powder and ball, which is why they had to retreat during the redcoats’ third assault. At the end some fired scraps of metal or pebbles from their guns rather than lead balls—out of desperation, not deviousness. And in that situation, it’s hard to believe they would have left behind unused “parcels of ammunition.” I also wonder what poison could survive the gunpowder explosion that propelled a ball from a musket.

British observers seem to have suspected the worst when wounded soldiers died of the flux, or dysentery. But, as Judith Cataldo described back in August, the same flux epidemic was sickening and killing Massachusetts families that summer of 1775. The period was already conducive to paranoid rumors about one’s foes, and there’s nothing like a horrible, bloody fight to make people think even worse thoughts.

(Howard Pyle’s painting of Bunker Hill, shown above, is still missing, according to the F.B.I.’s database on stolen art.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Autopsy of Crispus Attucks

CSI: Colonial Boston continues with the sworn report of Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., about his examination of the body of Crispus Attucks after the Boston Massacre:

I, Benjamin Church, Jun., of lawful age, testify and say, that being requested by Mr. Robert Pierpont, the Coroner, to assist in examining the body of Crispus Attucks, who was supposed to be murdered by the soldiers on Monday evening the 5th instant, I found two wounds in the region of the thorax, the one on the right side, which entered through the second true rib within an inch and a half of the sternum, dividing the rib and separating the cartilaginous extremity from the sternum, the ball passed obliquely downward through the diaphragm and entering through the large lobe of the liver and the gall-bladder, still keeping its oblique direction, divided the aorta descendens just above its division into the iliacs, from thence it made its exit on the left side of the spine. This wound I apprehended was the immediate cause of his death.

The other ball entered the fourth of the false ribs, about five inches from the linea alba, and descending obliquely passed through the second false rib, at the distance of about eight inches from the linea alba; from the oblique direction of the wounds, I apprehend the gun must have been discharged from some elevation, and further the deponent saith not.

This deposition was dated 22 Mar 1770, and published in Boston’s official report on the shootings, titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. More than two weeks had passed since the event, and the British soldiers who had been on King Street on the 5th of March were already jailed and indicted.

Church’s autopsy report was significant because it pointed the finger at other suspects as well. The fact that the two musket balls “passed obliquely downward” through Attucks’s body implied that they had entered his chest on a slant. But how could that be if they had come from guns held by men of the same size (or possibly a bit smaller), standing no more than a few feet in front of Attucks on King Street?

To Boston’s Whigs, this autopsy helped to confirm an accusation that people employed by the Customs service had fired down on the crowd from the upper storey of their office behind the soldiers. “From some elevation,” as Church said. Four days after the doctor wrote out his deposition, a Suffolk County jury indicted four Customs employees for murder.

Eventually those suspects were all acquitted, and their main accuser convicted of perjury. So how did the musket balls travel “obliquely downward” through Attucks’s torso? One explanation I’ve seen connects this detail with some testimony that Attucks was leaning on a piece of firewood when he was shot. If he was somewhat crouched, and perhaps ducking after Pvt. Edward Montgomery’s opening shot, then one of the next shots could have sent two balls through his chest on a slant—but it was his chest that was oblique, not the trajectory of the balls.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Autopsy of Christopher Seider

This week Boston 1775 will take the theme of CSI: Colonial Boston. I could probably come up with a few clever allusions to the CSI television shows if I’d watched more than a snippet of them, but you’ll have to provide those parallels yourselves. I’ll just quote documents about investigating dead bodies in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

First up, little Christopher Seider, died on 22 Feb 1770 in the North End, as reported in the newspapers:

soon after the child’s decease his body was opened by Dr. [Joseph] Warren and others and in it were found eleven shot or plugs, about the bigness of large peas; one of which pierced his breast about an inch and one-half above the midriff and passing clear through the lobe of the lungs, lodged in his back.

This, three of the surgeons deposed before the Jury of Inquest, was the cause of his death; on which they brought in their verdict, wilful murder by [Ebenezer] Richardson. The right hand of the boy was cruelly torn, whence it seems to have been across his breast and to have deadened the force of the shot, which might otherwise have pierced the stomach.

Dr. Warren likewise cut two slugs out of young Mr. [Samuel] Gore’s thighs, but pronounced him in no danger of death, though in all probability he will lose the use of the right forefinger, by the wound received there, much important to a youth of his dexterity in drawing and painting.
Good news: young Gore did not lose the use of his hand—at least not enough to prevent him from participating in the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and stealing two cannon from a gunhouse under redcoat guard in 1774. He had a long career as a decorative painter, paint importer, and glass factory owner in the early republic. Throughout his life Gore enjoyed showing off the scars on his fingers from where Richardson had shot him.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pillars of the Brattle Street Meeting

In September 1775, Timothy Newell had to deal with an order from the governor to let a Presbyterian minister take over the Brattle Street Meeting-House, where he was deacon. But that was nothing compared to the threat he dodged 237 years ago today.

From Newell’s journal:

Colonel [Samuel] Birch of the Lighthorse Dragoons went to view our Meetinghouse which was destined for a Riding School for the Dragoons. It was designed to clear the floor, to put two feet of tan covered with horse dung to make it elastic.—But when it was considered that the Pillars must be taken away, which would bring down the roof, they altered their mind,—so that the Pillars saved us.
(But the dragoons still needed a place in besieged Boston to practice their riding over the winter.)

At some point, the British military did seize the Brattle Street Meeting-House, and converted the 1772 building into a barracks for soldiers. Newell’s diary doesn’t mention that event, oddly enough, but other sources say that he arranged with congregant John Gore to protect as much of the furniture as they could. The men “encased” the pulpit and those valuable pillars, and removed the pews to Gore’s nearby paint warehouse. Perhaps Newell was too busy with that work to write it down.

John Gore was a militia captain and Overseer of the Poor who had been active in the Patriot movement in 1769-70, but in 1774 he chose to support the royal governors. He evacuated Boston with the British army in March 1776, leaving most of his family behind. Gore’s eldest surviving son, Samuel, helped deliver the pews back to the church on Brattle Street, and eventually became a deacon there. John Gore returned to Boston in the late 1780s, after the war.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Godfrey Wenwood versus Robert

When we last saw Newport baker Godfrey Wenwood (also spelled Wenwood), he was trying to convince an ex-girlfriend to reveal who had entrusted her with a coded letter. It turned out that letter had come from Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., and it ended his career as a spy for the British authorities.

Googling for more information about Wenwood brought me to this website at Brown University describing a court case from 1789 that involved him and and a former worker. Because that worker, named Robert, was an escaped slave, their dispute became a test case over slavery in Rhode Island.

Here’s how the case started:

Born as a slave in Virginia, Robert ran away from his master in the spring of 1781 with the hopes of obtaining his freedom by serving in the British army during the American Revolution. However, Robert never reached the British army and instead mistakenly boarded a French vessel. The French vessel traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert at an auction. The two signed an agreement that Robert would become free after serving Wainwood for a period of years, but, rather than waiting for his indenture to end, Robert ran away in May of 1789.
After Robert was captured and put in jail, the Providence Abolition Society, led by Quaker Abolitionist and reformer Moses Brown (shown above), obtained his release through a writ of habeas corpus, which until recently has been a pillar of English and American law. Going to court, Robert claimed that his agreement with Wenwood was to last only seven years. Wenwood argued that it should last nine. They sued and countersued over who had the proper claim to Robert’s labor as an indentured servant.

The jury considered the law of the time and decided that Robert was still a slave—to his master in Virginia. Therefore, they said, he had no standing in court.

Shortly after that, the two men reached a settlement, with Brown signing on behalf of Robert (since he still had no legal standing). They dropped their suits, and I believe that stopped the jury’s decision from becoming a binding precedent.

Because of that private settlement, there are still a lot of questions about the case, despite all the documents on the Brown website. I’m particularly curious about the real relationship between Godfrey Wenwood and Robert. The 1790 U.S. census lists Robert as living in Newport with the surname Wenwood. Did he take that last name simply out of custom, or under pressure from the legal authorities, or was Robert actually more grateful to Wenwood than their suit would indicate? Did they go back to working together? Did Brown buy Wenwood’s acquiescence? We’ll probably never know. But the Brown website shows one way that Americans were seeking freedom within the traditions and laws of the early federal society.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Tea Party Talk on 11 Oct, Siege Walk on 20 Oct

Tonight the Old South Meeting-House hosts a talk by local historian Robert Allison on the Boston Tea Party. The historic site’s announcement reads in part:

The Department Chair in History at Suffolk University, Allison says of the Tea Act that preceded the protests in the colonies, “This was a corporate bail-out [for the East India Company], and an attempt by Parliament to get control of the Company. The reaction in the American colonies grew out of this. Americans knew that the East India Company had taken over the government of India, that the wealth of India was now being directed into the coffers of the Company, and that Bengal had been suffering a famine. If the Company, and Parliament, were allowed the same control of North America, the lives and liberties of Americans would be sacrificed to the greed of the East India Company.”
I was surprised to read that Americans were aware of events in Bengal, but when I checked the newspapers of 1773 there were indeed essays talking about the tyranny of the East India Company on the other side of the world. Those writers didn’t go into detail, and probably wouldn’t have cared if they hadn’t been trying to make a point about how rapacious the company might be toward America. But still, it’s interesting to see Americans taking an interest in Asia that early.

The free evening program begins at 6:30 P.M. on Thursday, October 11. It comes in connection with Prof. Allison’s new book on the Tea Party.

Old South has also announced a certain brand of tea as “the Official Tea of the 234th Boston Tea Party Reenactment.” This tea company was founded in 1892, so it has no connection to the original tea. (Though, oddly enough, last year a commenter tried to claim it did.) This sponsorship is yet another example of how the weakness of public funding for public institutions has sent advertising into every aspect of our culture. That said, if the Yorkshire Gold tea brand wishes to become the official tea of Boston 1775, it has only to send a year’s supply.

In other news, Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell alerted me to this event later in the month, sponsored by Walk Boston.
Sat. Oct 20
George Washington’s Warpaths
9:00 am | 6 hrs | 10 mi | Accessible | Free to all
Follow the routes linking Bunker Hill, the forts defending Boston during the British siege of 1775, and the showdown at Dorchester Heights.
Transit: MBTA Orange Line to Community College Station
Meet: Community College Station
Reservations required | Call WalkBoston at 617.367.9255
But I’m sure Boston 1775 readers know that there was no “British siege” in 1775-76; the British were besieged by the Continental Army, and the forts “defending Boston” were in British hands.