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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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Admiral Jemm and Betty Martin

A couple of my favorite language websites, World Wide Words and Language Log, have offered facts and commentary on a phrase that shows up in writing just as the Revolutionary War tapered down: “All my eye and Betty Martin!” That basically meant, “Stuff and nonsense!”

The earliest appearance of this phrase is in a 16 Oct 1781 letter from Samuel Crisp to his sister Sophia “Sop” Gast:

Physic, to old, crazy Frames, like ours, is all my eye and Betty Martin—(a sea phrase that Admiral Jemm frequently makes use of).
Who was “Admiral Jemm”? In addition to Crisp’s letters, he shows up in the letters of Fanny Burney. He was that author’s brother James Burney, only a Royal Navy captain in 1781 but indeed eventually an admiral. He made two voyages with Capt. James Cook and wrote books on those travels, on Capt. William Bligh, and on the game of whist. The picture of him above comes courtesy of McGill University.

The “all my eye” part of the phrase is documented earlier than that, and more widely. Most likely Burney and others added “Betty Martin” as an intensifier. Some folks at Language Log find it plausible, though undocumented, that it was a British corruption of the Latin oath beate mater, or “blessed mother.”

Friday, June 27, 2008

Visiting the Roots of William Alexander?

Today I visited Argyll’s Lodging in Stirling, Scotland, a stone’s roll down the crag from Stirling Castle. Before it was bought and expanded to its present dimensions (and more) by the Earl of Argyll, this building was the main residence of William Alexander, the first Earl of Stirling, in the early 1600s. And that provides the tenuous Revolutionary War connection that made me put Stirling on my itinerary.

A top American general also named William Alexander (1726-1783) claimed to be the eldest grandson of the first Earl of Stirling and thus the rightful Earl of Stirling himself. As such, he could have been heir to vast grants of land along the northern North American coast; the first earl had pushed the colonization of Nova Scotia.

It’s not clear to me how solid Alexander’s genealogical claim was. He was born in New York, but the first earl and his eldest son did have links to the New World. What’s definite is that Alexander built up his mother’s mercantile business, married into the Livingston family, and became an aide to Gov. William Shirley of Massachusetts during the French wars of mid-century.

While in London in 1760, Alexander laid claim to the vacated title of the Earl of Stirling. The direct line of heirs had petered out because the title didn’t come with enough money to make it worthwhile to pursue. Alexander argued that he was the most direct living male descendant of the first earl, and some Stirling relatives supported his claim. In 1762 the House of Lords declared that Alexander hadn’t proved his case and had no right to the title of earl.

Nevertheless, Alexander went back to North America calling himself “Lord Stirling.” He built a big mansion in New Jersey, and was active in the militia. During the Revolution, he naturally sided with the Americans rather than with Parliament. Gen. George Washington admired Alexander for his personal bravery and dedication, though his battlefield record was about as mixed as Washington’s own. Everyone referred to the man as “Lord Stirling.”

And that’s actually what intrigues me most about the man. The American Revolutionaries were building a republic, but they still showed a lot of deference to aristocratic titles. Bostonians remembered Earl Percy with respect, even though he commanded the British troops during their bloody march through Menotomy. Everyone always called Gen. von Steuben “the Baron.” The people of Massachusetts knew Agnes Surriage was a tavern serving-maid before Sir Harry Frankland fell in love with and eventually married her, but when she traveled through provincial lines to Boston in 1775 provincial officers referred to her as “Lady Frankland.”

Old habits are hard to break.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seeking Meaning in a Murder

The latest issue of the Journal of American History includes Christopher Grasso’s article “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution”. It begins:

In Wethersfield, Connecticut, on December 11, 1782, William Beadle, a respected merchant known as a doting father and husband, cut the throats of his wife and four young children and then fired two pistols into his head.
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’m going to repeat one of my favorite observations: we humans, whether in the past or looking back at the past, often look for external motivations to explain behavior that might have arisen mostly from internal, irrational psychiatric conditions.

As Grasso’s title reflects, many of Beadle’s contemporaries linked his crime to his interest in deism. On 17 Dec 1782, the Hartford Courant said Beadle had “renounced all the popular religions of the world, [and] he intended to die a proper Deist.” Ministers used him as a cautionary example in their sermons. Of course, orthodox New Englander applied the label of “deism” to Unitarianism, Universalism, and any other religion that didn’t accept the notion of divinely inspired scripture (and the labels of “heresy” or “error” to religions that didn’t interpret scripture as they did).

Beadle’s letters on religion survive not in the original manuscripts, but in the papers of the Rev. Dr. Ezra Stiles of Newport and New Haven. He was one of three eminent men entrusted with the material, but the authorities determined that the letters were too dangerous to release publicly. The letters show that Beadle still believed in God when he died; indeed, he was certain that God was guiding his last acts.

Not every contemporary explained Beadle’s insanity through religion, however. As Grasso discusses, former Continental Congress delegate Stephen Mix Mitchell anonymously published A Narrative of the Life of William Beadle in 1783. This pamphlet emphasized the man’s business difficulties as the large quantities of Continental and Connecticut money he had accumulated lost their value and he feared his family would fall into poverty.

Of course, everyone in New England was dealing with the same economy, and most men didn’t kill their families. Similarly, most deists and Unitarians, including some of the most eminent men in the new republic, died without killing their families. Grasso’s topic is the different interpretations of Beadle at the time, so the adequacy of either of those explanations is less important than how adequate the people of the time considered them.

As we learn more about psychiatric conditions and the biological factors that contribute to them, it might be possible to study Beadle’s writings and actions in a different way. Was he struggling with the manic-depressive swings of bipolar disorder, or some other serious mental ailment? Such a disorder could have fueled his enthusiasm for deist ideas, his business drive, and his final fixed idea that murder and suicide was a good idea. But would the historical record offer enough information to support such a diagnosis, even a tentative one?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Johnny Tremain Rides Again

On Wednesday, 2 July, Old South Meeting House will screen the 1957 Disney movie version of Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain. Showtime is 6:00 to 7:30 P.M. Museum admission is the regular price, but the popcorn is free.

In my eyes, this movie epitomizes the phrase “Disney version.” Dr. Joseph Warren fixes Johnny’s hand halfway through (after what became the first hourlong episode on television) instead of at the end. I don’t recall the British deserter being shot. And I don’t want to give anything away in either the movie or the book, so let’s just say that no one we know dies at Lexington.

On the other hand, the movie starts with a wonderful matte painting of the Boston peninsula that gives a great sense of the town’s scale and isolation in the 1770s. Forbes created a great story with thorough research, and even Disney couldn’t wash that away. Though Johnny’s lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., is, sadly, not cross-eyed, the movie does offer a rare glimpse of William Molineux, looking like Spiro Agnew.

Other reviewers also seem ambivalent, noting the sheen of 1950s Disney patriotism while also recognizing its charms. Ultimate Disney offers a thorough summary of the movie and concludes:

Overall, Johnny Tremain is a noble and mostly enjoyable effort but one which demands your attention and sometimes struggles to retain it. With sharp dialogue and fine acting, the stately historical drama proceeds in an interesting and technically sound fashion. The film is even able to overcome one of its biggest drawbacks - namely, that it was clearly shot on a budget. This is evident in how much a film about taking action consists solely of talking...
Monster Hunter snapped:
Now, this Johnny Tremain movie was made by Walt Disney in 1957, which means that the acting by the youngsters on the cast...come across as Mouseketeers playing dress up and being more interested in maintaining these beaming smiles and spewing out their lines with glee than they were with showing anything remotely resembling an emotion that someone who lived in those turbulent times would have experienced. The result is a revolutionary war movie that has the vague feel of a theme park, with everyone in their bright new costumes and Boston looking like a super clean part of Disneyland (Patriotland or something) so that you would expect to go into Paul Revere’s shop and be able to get a funnel cake and/or stuffed Mickey Mouse.
Whatever happened to Hal Stalmaster, the teenager who played Johnny? He also had a role in Disney’s next Revolutionary War dramatization, The Swamp Fox. Dick Beymer, who played Rab, went on to star as Tony in West Side Story.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

More on Prince, the “Black Limner”

Back in November 2006, I quoted some remarks from Christian Barnes of Marlborough to her friend Elizabeth ((Murray) Campbell) Smith about a young black slave named Prince who was showing remarkable ability as a portrait artist.

Yesterday I revisited that collection of letters at the Library of Congress, and found a little more about Prince. On 22 July 1773, Barnes wrote again to her friend, now Elizabeth (((Murray) Campbell) Smith) Inman:

I had a favor to ask which I must now petition you will grant me which is that if you have an hour to spare at any time when you are in Boston you will allow Prince to make some alteration in the Coppy he has taken from your Picture which he says he cannot do but from the life and Please to give him any directions you think proper as to the Dress of the Head
So in that year Prince was no longer living with Barnes in Marlborough but in Boston. He might have copied the portrait of Inman created by John Singleton Copley, shown on the cover of her biography above.

Then came the war. Barnes and her husband moved to Britain while Inman remained in Massachusetts. On 16 June 1783 Barnes renewed their correspondence with a letter from Bristol, which she closed this way:
P.S. pray let me know if good old Daphney be living and whether she is capible of giting her living. Her son I hear is provided for and so we shall all be in time
Daphney was Prince’s mother, so that postscript implies that by then Prince had died. And as yet I’ve found no trace of him in any other source.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nonfiction Recommendations for Kids

Earlier this month a Boston 1775 reader asked me if I had any recommendations for a boy who wanted to learn more about the life of a typical New England boy of the Revolutionary period—i.e., a boy growing up on a farm.

The most authentic, unvarnished source that I could think of is a manuscript held at the Massachusetts Historical Society: the diary of Quincy Thaxter of Hingham. It’s little more than a long list of chores and (when it was too rainy for farmwork) visits to school. Quincy’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation (or lack thereof) suggest that he could have benefited from more hours in school. Here are some typical entries.

15 June 1774: “my self Jacob went to trai lect M lectter Mr Gay preached the Sermon Uncle Smith the prayer Mr Gays text in axts the 12 Chapter 20 verse my self went training and Jacob up in the plain in the aftenoon Catons pasten Captins Ba Barker Captin Lincoln Captin Cushing Captin Whittin Captin Lads Lastrop train.”

16 June: “myself Went to school all the day to Jacob weaded the loar Garding in the forenoon and in the aftenoon Cato and Jacob hoed behind the house after Sch School was done Fathe Fa FATHER and my self went dowon to the Worldend to see the cattle an get some strawberries.”

17 June: “my self Went to school all the day Jacob Worked over to the shop all the day Cato staid at home and thrased out corne all the day fowl fowl Weater all the day.”
But since that’s unpublished and hard to read even you have a copy, I recommended Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake, 1805, filled out and illustrated by Eric Sloane (1905-1985). This comes from the generation after the Revolution, of course, but farm life hadn’t changed that much. Sloane used his talents as a draftsman and his knowledge of farming technology of the period to fill out Blake’s terse record of a few months—also mostly a litany of chores.

I’ve long wondered whether Diary of an Early American Boy was based on a real diary, as Sloane described. I’m pleased to report that, with enough Googling, I found a footnote in another book saying the manuscript is in the collection of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

For folks more interested in Eric Sloane, his work forms part of the Sloane Stanley Museum in Kent, Connecticut.

And for more non-fiction books on the American Revolution written expressly for young readers, here’s a list of recommended titles for different grade levels from The Horn Book magazine. I’ve read some of these, and praised Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution a while back.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Grand Tour

Postings on Boston 1775 will be irregular for the next three weeks or so as I embark on a tour of three capitals:

(I suppose I could make that four capitals if I count the seat of the Massachusetts government, too.)

Though I have it on good authority that there are computers and internets and all that in the U.K., I may not be able to access Blogger every day. Therefore, some days may pass without a new post, and it may take longer for your kind comments to appear.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Robert Steele: drummer at Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on 17 June 1775. This recollection of the fight is from a letter that Robert Steele (1760-1833) wrote to William Sumner on 10 July 1825, preserved in the Samuel Swett Papers at the New-York Historical Society. Steele was a young drummer in Ephraim Doolittle’s regiment, commanded that day by Maj. Willard Moore of Paxton.

the British…marched with rather a slow step up to our entrenchment, and the battle began. The conflict was sharp, but the British soon retreated with a quicker step than they came up, leaving some of their killed and wounded in sight of us. They retreated towards where they landed and formed again…came up again and a second battle ensued which was harder and longer than the first, but being but a lad and this the first engagement I was ever in, I cannot remember much more…than great noise and confusion. One or two circumstances I can, however, distinctly remember. . . .

About the time the British retreated a second time, I was standing side of Benjamin Ballard, a Boston boy about my age, who had a gun in his heads, when one of our sergeants came up to us and said, “You are young and spry, run in a moment to some of the stores and bring some rum. Major Moore is badly wounded. Go as quick as possible.”

We threw down our implements of war and run as fast as we could and passed over the hill…down to Charlestown Neck and found there was a firing in that quarter. We heard the shot pass over our heads, which I afterwards understood were thrown from a floating battery in Mystic River and from the shipping on the Boston side of the Neck.

We however immediately passed on and went into a store, but see no one there. I stamped and called out to rally some person and a man answered is from the cellar below. I told him what we wanted, but he did not come up, nor did we see him at all. I again told him what we wanted and asked him why he stayed down cellar. He answered, “To keep out of the way of the shot,” and then said, “If you want anything in the store, take what you please.”

I seized a brown, two-quart, earthen pitcher and drawed it partly full from a cask and found I had got wine. I threw that out and filled my pitcher with rum from another cask. Ben took a pail and filled with water, and we hastened back to the entrenchment on the hill, when we found our people in confusion and talking about retreating. The British were about advancing upon us a third time. Our rum and water went very quick. It was very hot, but I saved my pitcher and kept it for sometime afterwards.
Up top is an image of the grave marker for Steele and his wife Lydia in Westwood, Massachusetts, photographed and kindly posted on Flickr by Michael Femia.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Learning from an 1831 Schoolbook

At the end of May, I quoted the account of Boston schoolboys demanding that a British army general preserve their sledding area from Samuel Goodrich’s schoolbook The First Book of History, for Children and Youth. Last week at the American Antiquarian Society I got my first look at a first edition of that book, printed in 1831. (The copy readable through Google Books was printed in 1849, showing its continued popularity.)

I can now confirm that:

  • The same text appeared in the 1831 edition, meaning that Goodrich was the earliest author to publish this story—or at least the earliest that I’ve found.
  • Edward Everett Hale, born in 1822, might well have read the story in The First Book of History rather than (as he remembered) Lydia Maria Child’s Juvenile Miscellany. (Alternatively, Child might have quoted Goodrich’s account in her magazine but not in any of her own books, where I looked.)
Once a story gets into a school textbook, we have to assume it’s everywhere within the culture that uses that textbook. The story of the sledding schoolboys’ committee was an oral tradition up to 1831, but after that the tales that Bostonians passed down were probably influenced by Goodrich’s “authoritative” account. Of course, that account had already been distorted somewhat from how the primary sources from 1775 tell the story.

In the same schoolbook Goodrich mentioned Sarah Bishop, the Connecticut recluse. I’ve written about the contrast between an 1804 account of her life and an 1839 account from The New England Gazetteer, which said she had been “cruelly treated by a British officer.” It turns out the text in the Gazetteer had already appeared in Goodrich’s 1831 schoolbook (and it reappeared in the 1849 edition). Whether Goodrich wrote it or lifted it from some other source I don’t know. But that pushes back the statement of Bishop becoming a recluse because of specific experiences during the Revolutionary War rather than having “always discovered an unusual antipathy to men.”

For more about Samuel Goodrich and his influence on American youth, as himself and under his pseudonym of Peter Parley, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society and the University of Pittsburgh’s library.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Lecture Program at West Point, 27 June

Peter Feinman of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education sent me an announcement for a series of Revolutionary War lectures in the military academy at West Point on Friday, 27 June. The program is free, but security and parking considerations require that all participants register for the program by Tuesday, 24 June.

Winning the war, Winning the Peace: The American Revolution Historyhostel

10:00 “The Battles of Brooklyn and Saratoga and the Strategic Importance of the Hudson Valley”
Maj. Jeffery Lucas, Department of History, U.S.M.A., and Ray Raymond, S.U.N.Y.–Ulster and U.S.M.A.

The campaigns of 1776-1777 were Britain’s one and only chance to crush the American Revolution. The key was control of the Hudson, which would have cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. These lectures will assess why Britain failed to deliver a knockout blow at Brooklyn and why it lost the strategically vital battle of Saratoga.

12:00 Lunch

1:00 “Reassessing Yorktown and the Southern Insurgency”
Maj. Lucas and Prof. Raymond.

These lectures will reassess Yorktown and the Southern insurgency led by Gen. Nathanael Greene, which eventually won the Revolutionary War. They will address such questions as:
  • Was Yorktown more of a French military victory than an American one?
  • Was Yorktown’s real importance political rather than military?
  • How close did the British military come to rescuing Cornwallis?
2:15 walking tour of the U.S.M.A. grounds from an American Revolution perspective

3:30 bus trip to Fort Putnam (not normally open to the public)

4:30 “Fort Putnam: The Thomas Cole Perspective”
Peter Feinman, IHARE

Thomas Cole is known as the founder of the Hudson River School of painting. When he emigrated from England, one of the first subjects he chose to paint was Fort Putnam. What did this site mean to him and to American culture in the 1820s?
To register, email Dr. Feinman or call 914-933-0440.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More on Joel Adams of Arlington

Earlier this month, I told the story of the Adams children of Menotomy village on the exciting afternoon of 19 Apr 1775, based on an 1864 local history, and mentioned having leads to earlier versions. On Monday I stopped into the American Antiquarian Society and looked at one of those sources, the Rev. James F. Brown’s Old Age: A Sermon Preached at West Cambridge, February 8, 1852, on the Sabbath Succeeding the Death of James Hill.

This sermon has some nice, if not entirely comprehensible, praise for Hill: “He was brought up to farming; and, agreeably to his good mother’s promise, when he was able to swing a scythe, he was allowed to retire from his dish of bean porridge and take a cup of tea with the ‘grown folks.’” Brown seems to have thrown other stuff that he couldn’t fit into the sermon into an appendix.

In particular, Brown wrote about the family of Hill’s widow, Ann. She was still living in the town, by then independent of Cambridge and on its way to becoming Arlington. And she was obviously a source for Brown’s story of the Adams family in 1775:

When the British soldiers were retreating from Lexington, a detachment entered the house of Mr. [Joseph] Adams (which is now owned by Mr. Artemas Locke) and began the work of plunder and destruction. Mr. Adams being connected with some secret committee, and fearing for his life, secreted himself in a barn now owned by Miss Bradshaw. Mrs. Hill (as we have said) was then an infant in her mother’s arms. The lives of mother and daughter were spared from the bayonet of a common soldier through the interposition of an English officer; but they were ordered from the house, and accordingly fled and concealed themselves in the barn.

Several of the children were under the bed. Parlors, probably, were not as common then, as now, and beds were “made up” upon the lower floor of the house. In this snug retreat, the children were suffered to remain and watch the movements of their household foes. As the soldiers were about to take possession of the Communion Service, Joel Adams, then a lad of about nine years of age, knowing how sacred these things were to his father, could restrain himself no longer, and thrusting his head from beneath the bed-quilt, with a burst of eloquent indignation, told them, “Not to touch them things, or Daddy would lick ’um.”

The name of our spirited hero is worthy of being remembered. He grew up to be a man, and, no doubt, “acted well the part;” but we follow him no farther than to say that he died at New Salem, at the age of seventy-six. Tradition tells us that the silver tankard [given to the congregation by Jonathan Butterfield in 1769] was taken and pawned to a silversmith in Boston by the name of Austin. After the British army evacuated Boston, however, it was redeemed, and is now in the hands of the church. The deeds of the place were taken and were found afterwards on board of an English vessel that was captured by an American cruiser under the command of Captain, afterwards Commodore [Samuel] Tucker.

The house of Mr. Adams was set on fire before the soldiers left it; but the fire was soon extinguished by one of the older children, at the expense of the “good beer” that had just been brewed, together with water brought from the tank by the side of the house.
In interpreting this account, it’s important to recall that the former Ann Adams couldn’t have witnessed what had happened on 19 Apr 1775, or even learned about it shortly afterward. She was only “about three weeks old on the day of the Lexington battle.” So we’re dealing with family lore, not eyewitness recollections. Furthermore, Joseph Adams’s decision to run and hide, leaving his wife and children behind, gave the family a motive to try to excuse his behavior and claim heroism for the children.

As far as I can tell, there’s no corroborating evidence for Deacon Adams being on Cambridge political or military committees before the war. Towns were usually straightforward about naming the men on their Committees of Correspondence because part of their message to the world is that they were behaving legally and honorably, unlike that secretive Tory cabal.

The longer 1864 account said nothing about a committee. It suggested a different reason for Deacon Adams to flee: “on account of his name [i.e., the British troops would think he was related to Samuel Adams], and also from his reputation for patriotic zeal.” Zeal which had not led him to take up arms that day.

No other version of the Adams family story mentions an “English officer” restraining the soldiers from attacking Hannah Adams in her bedroom. She gave a deposition about her experience to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1775. It specified that three soldiers entered the house, and one of them told her to get out.

Another divergent detail: This account credits only “one of the older children” with putting out the fire in the Adams house.

Finally, this account raises the question of why Brown could share no more information about Joel Adams than that he had died in New Salem about 1841. Had he fallen out of touch with his baby sister Ann?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Seeing Portsmouth as President Washington Did

On Thursday, 26 June, Historic New England is offering a special walking tour of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, focusing on sites that George Washington saw in his one visit to the city in 1789.

At the time, Washington had just been elected President, and was visiting all the states to acknowledge and shore up their support. I think his tour recalled the “royal progress” that monarchs made around their realms, and if American civic culture had gone the way of an imperial presidency, Washington’s trip might be regarded that way instead of as a forerunner of campaign tours.

This Portsmouth tour ends at the mansion of Gov. John Langdon, Washington’s host in 1789, where there will be a wine and cheese reception. The cost is $15 for members, $25 for non-members. Historic New England recommends reserving a spot in advance, way down on this page.

Along the way to that listing, you’ll plenty of other Historic New England events this summer, focusing on a variety of periods and places.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Josiah Flagg, Surgeon Dentist

The Massachusetts Historical Society’s Object of the Month for this month is a 1796 broadside advertising the expert services of dentist Josiah Flagg (1763-1816). It assured Bostonians that Flagg:

Traisplants [sic] both live and dead Teeth with greater conveniency, and gives less pain than heretofore practiced in Europe or America:—Sews up Hare Lips;—Cures Ulcers;—Extracts Teeth and stumps or roots with ease;—Reinstates Teeth and Gums, that are much depreciated by nature, carelessness, acids, or corroding medicine;—Fastens those Teeth that are loose; (unless wasted at the roots) regulates Teeth from their first cutting to prevent feavers and pain in Children;—Assists nature in the extension of the jaws, for the beautiful arrangement of the second Sett and preserves them in their natural whiteness entirely free from all scorbutic complaints. . . .
I suppose if one had to have live teeth transplanted, one would want it to be done “with greater expediency.”

The broadside includes images of toothbrushes and dental tools. The reverse side includes valuable advice on dental self-care, written in Flagg’s own hand. Alas, the M.H.S. can’t shed light on why a 1795 newspaper notice referred to Flagg as a “vile miscreant Son.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Words of Noah Webster

In the past month the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room has offered some choice writings from Noah Webster. Well, he thought he was writing all about the right choices. Not everyone agreed.

Webster had conservative New England tastes in many things, as apparent in his thoughts on music, published in Boston in 1787:

The establishment of schools for teaching psalmody in this city is a pleasing institution; but people seem not to understand the design, or rather are not properly conducted and encouraged. Most people consider music merely as a source of pleasure; not attending to its influence on the human mind, and its consequent effects on society. But it should be regarded as an article of education, useful as well as ornamental. . . .

Instrumental music is generally prefered to vocal, and considered as an elegant accomplishment. It is indeed a pleasing accomplishment; but the preference given to it, is a species of the same false taste, which places a son under the tuition of a drunken clown, to make him a gentleman of strict morals. . . . I have often heard the best vocal concerts in America, and the best instrumental concerts; and can declare, that the music of the latter is as inferior to that of the former, as the merit of a band box macaroni is to that of a Cato.
In the same post-Revolutionary period, Samuel Adams, who was a great fan of psalm-singing, also used his influence to discourage other forms of musical entertainment in Boston, most especially theater.

Ironically, at one early point Webster was a radical reformer in the area we associate with him most: standardizing the American language. Here’s part of his introduction to a 1790 collection of essays:
During the course of ten or twelv yeers, I hav been laboring to correct popular errors, and to assist my yung brethren in the road to truth and virtue; my publications for theze purposes hav been mumerous; much time haz been spent, which I do not regret, and much censure incurred, which my hart tells me I do not dezerv. . . .

In the essays ritten within the last yeer, a considerable change of spelling iz introduced by way of experiment. This liberty waz taken by the writers before the age of queen Elizabeth, and to this we are indeted for the preference of modern spelling over that of Gower and Chaucer. The man who admits that the change of housoonde, mynde, ygone, moneth into husband, mind, gone, month, iz an improovment, must acknowlege also the riting of helth, breth, rong, tung, munth, to be an improovment. There iz no alternativ. Every possible reezon that could ever be offered for altering the spelling of wurds, still exists in full force; and if a gradual reform should not be made in our language, it wil proove that we are less under the influence of reezon than our ancestors.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thirty Minutes of History at Old South

The Old South Meeting House is trying out a new type of event later this month: “30-Minute History.” From 1:00 to 1:30 P.M. on Tuesday, 24 June, and Wednesday, 25 June, the historic site will host talks on aspects of Boston’s Revolutionary politics by two history professors. The cost per session is $5, but they’re free to members of Old South.

On the Tuesday, Prof. William M. Fowler of Northeastern will discuss “Will the Real Samuel Adams Please Stand Up?” It was a remark about Christopher Seider in Bill’s biography of Adams, Radical Puritan, that turned me from someone interested in history generally to someone with a particular interest in the American Revolution in Boston. So you can lodge your complaints with him.

The next day, the 25th, Prof. Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University will talk on “There’s No Party like a Boston Tea Party.” In the same short and sweet mode as the talk, Bob has written a book on the destruction of the tea.

Monday, June 09, 2008

New Deathways in a New Republic

I’ve added a new term to the topics list at the lower right: deathways. I’ve been looking for a term to cover several related topics: deaths, funerals, memorials. At this past weekend’s Omohundro Institute conference, a paper by Erik Seeman reminded me of that useful, if anachronistic, umbrella term.

Prof. Seeman’s paper looked at certain deathways—coffins and grave markers—linked to people of African descent in eighteenth-century America. His examples came from segregated burying-spaces. In New York, the Trinity Churchyard was closed to blacks in 1697, forcing the creation of what’s now called the African Burial Ground. Newport also had a burying-ground for people of African descent, and the marker above comes from it.

In Boston, however, blacks and whites seem to have been interred in the same burying-grounds. Crispus Attucks was put in the same vault with other victims of the Boston Massacre, though of course he might have been a special case. The example of John Jack in Concord, other anecdotes, and the lack of contrary evidence indicate that colonial Massachusetts deathways didn’t include separate burials for blacks.

The first hint of such separation that I’ve stumbled across comes several years after the Massachusetts courts, in what conservatives would term “judicial activism,” ruled in 1783 that the state’s constitution didn’t allow slavery. Over the next decade, I believe, African-Americans tried to feel out their place in Boston society, seeking either equal treatment in the white-dominated institutions or (more often) autonomy for black-dominated ones. And that effort seems to have affected their funerals, though it’s not clear how.

On 7 Sept 1791, the selectmen responded to “a number of Free Negroes” who had asked to select an “Undertaker at the Funerals of the Blacks.” The selectmen refused, saying that would interfere with the work/income of the church sextons. The African-Americans renewed their request a year later. On 25 Sept 1792 the selectmen’s records state:

On the Petition of the Blacks that Henry Richard Stevenson, may have the care of burying the Blacks—Voted that the said Stephenson have a License to take care of the Funerals of the Blacks, in all respects except breaking Ground.
Not all was settled, however. Years later, on 25 Apr 1798, the selectmen summoned Stevenson and a colleague after some sort of complaint:
Stephenson & Boston Faddy, who have been employ’d in burying Negroes attended—& being heard after enquiry of Mr Blaney—finding that Stephenson had behaved to his —— [directions? satisfaction?] was permitted to proceed agreable to former directions untill further Orders—& Boston forbid to bury any Corps without particular direction obtain’d therefor of the Selectmen—
All these quotations are from the 27th volume of the published Boston town records. Alas, they offer only the thinnest of clues to what the citizens and selectmen were thinking.

Henry Stevenson is otherwise known largely through the records of Boston’s Trinity Church. He and another black man were baptized there on 13 July 1788, with Prince Hall being one of the sponsors. On 26 October, Stevenson married Hannah Patterson, and she was baptized on 9 November. Over the following years, Stevenson sponsored the baptism of several other African-Americans. The 1790 census lists “Henry Stephinson” as head of a Boston household consisting of two non-white free people.

Boston Faddy was also linked to the town’s Anglican churches. He was buried by King’s Chapel on 26 Dec 1801, his age stated as “50 years,” meaning he had been born about 1751. The earliest record of Boston Faddy, however, relates to the baptism of his son James Buffum on 13 Apr 1789. His wife Nancy and a man named Cuff Buffum were the other sponsors. In 1795, Faddy sponsored the baptism at Trinity Church of a son of George Middleton.

On 31 Aug 1792, Faddy’s daughter was buried out of Trinity, and in August 1794 young James died. On 24 Oct 1796, Nancy Faddy was buried at King’s Chapel, her age listed as fifty-one. In 1797 and then again in 1801 there are records of Faddy filing intentions to marry Mary Freeman, the latter only a few weeks before he died. A 1798 tax list recorded Boston Faddy as owner of a property in the West End valued at $300; Cuff Buffum was living there. Faddy’s profession was “bell-ringer,” according to Jacqueline Carr’s After the Siege.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

More Graven Images

After yesterday’s posting about carvings and lichen on gravestones, Boston 1775 reader Bob O’Hara sent me this welcome pointer to another online resource:

One of the most valuable (and least known) online resources for gravestone studies is the Farber Collection of gravestone photographs at the American Antiquarian Society. This collection was put online by David Rumsey as part of his website.

These are research-quality images of more than 9000 stones, most from eastern New England and most made prior to 1800. The website uses a special interface making it a bit tricky, but allowing for a good deal of special control. (Click the “Insight Browser” link on the main page for access.)
David Rumsey’s site is mainly devoted to his map collection. But it also includes a lot more.

Bob also offers us a gallery of his own photographs of New England gravestones from the late 1700s, from Fitchburg’s first burying ground. And I’ll note the Dublin Seminar’s two volumes on Puritan gravestone art.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Students of Gravestones and Stone Walls

With all these conferences on my schedule, I’ve been feeling a little pressed for time. Fortunately, with all these conferences on my schedule, I’m learning about websites that I can link to, and thus appear to be interesting without creating any content myself.

For instance, yesterday at the Omohundro Institute conference I heard from W. Dean Eastman and Kevin McGrath about PrimaryResearch.org, which archives a set of innovative local history projects for high-school students.

Among the intriguing units is a census of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gravestones. Researchers—whether in high school or not—get the tools to map when in their local old New England burying-grounds the fashion in graveyard art shifted from images of skulls to images of the soul (looking like a cherub) to classical-style visuals. Eastman wrote about this project at Common-place a few years back.

Another PrimaryResearch.org project involves mapping and aging the “Stone Walls of New England.” But how can a group of young people figure out the ages of piles of stone? The team looked into lichen coverage as a possible yardstick, which required some interdisciplinary study of the types of lichen. They found that “Crustose lichens grow at a rate of one millimeter per year,” which implies that one can measure a patch of lichen on a wall and calculate back how many years it’s been growing—theoretically.

Any new yardstick like this has to be tested by using it to measure things one already knows the answer for. To test the notion of “lichenometry,” the students needed to find other New England stones that could be exactly dated. And where could those be? Hmmm. Graveyards!

Of course, the local environments for two walls might be different enough to affect lichen growth, making this method a general tool at best. But coming up with and testing a new way to examine the past is a terrific way to learn about history as a method of inquiry, not just a never-ending set of facts.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Bloody Menotomy

Earlier this week, I wrote about the experiences of the Adams family of Menotomy during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. That part of Cambridge, now called Arlington, saw some of the bloodiest fighting during that battle, and the worst losses on the American side. There were a couple of reasons:

  • By then the British troops included the reinforcement column that Col. Percy had led out of Boston early on the morning of 19 Apr 1775. Unlike the soldiers who had marched to Concord the night before, they had slept well and hadn’t walked so far.
  • Percy deployed flanking companies to clear the area on either side of the road back to Boston.
  • Some provincial militiamen became too aggressive and came close to the road, waiting to shoot at the redcoat column as it passed. Instead, they were caught from behind by those flankers.
As a result, twelve provincials and two regulars were killed in close fighting in and around the Jason Russell House. In all, about half of the men killed that day on each side fell in Arlington. (Reenactment shown above courtesy of the Arlington Historical Society.)

Back on Patriots’ Day, Lori Stokes at The Historic Present made the case that the Revolutionary War really began in Menotomy. “When the British returned at last to Boston,” she wrote, “it was the fighting at Menotomy that convinced them this was a war and not an isolated incident.”

(As you know, Boston 1775 has posited that the war began in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.)

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Life on the Streets and Commons Now Available

The latest volume of articles from the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, about life in public spaces, is now available. It includes my essay, “‘I never used to go out with a weapon’: Law Enforcement on the Streets of Prerevolutionary Boston.”

This paper focuses on the experiences of Benjamin Burdick, Jr., who was Constable of the Town House Watch in 1770. That means he was in charge of a four-man squad that patrolled the center of town at night. This post quoted a document spelling out the duties of a Constable of the Watch. (I owe Prof. Cornelia Hughes Dayton a special thanks for pointing me to the file of such town documents in the Boston Public Library.)

Historians have long known that Burdick was present at the Boston Massacre. He testified for the town’s report on the event and at the trials that followed. But people didn’t realize that he was on the scene as the closest thing Boston then had to a police officer; they thought he was just another man in the crowd.

Burdick testified that he brought “a Highland broadsword” to King Street on 5 Mar 1770, and some people have interpreted that to mean he was looking for a fight. He also described pushing to the front of the crowd, giving warnings to the soldiers and Crispus Attucks, fetching men to carry away the bodies after the shooting, and trying to memorize the shooters’ faces—basically, thrusting himself forward all the time.

Once I spotted Burdick’s name in town records related to the watchmen, I realized that all his actions made sense as part of his law-enforcement duties. Even carrying the sword wasn’t surprising since watchmen had had several confrontations and fights with army officers between October 1768 and March 1770. Burdick’s testimony that “I never used to go out with a weapon” showed how much he thought Boston had changed after army regiments were stationed there.

In the article I also discuss Edward Langford, a watchman who reported to Burdick; why British army officers had more recorded confrontations with watchmen than enlisted men; and the ups and downs of the town watch system. This research eventually led me to the story of Pvt. John Moies, which didn’t make it into the paper.

The other articles in Life on the Streets and Commons cover a wide range of periods and places in New England culture, from the Shaker communities to the Big E in Springfield.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Conferences in the Upcoming Fortnight

In the next two weeks, I plan to attend three different history conferences in Massachusetts.

If I can make the technology work, I might try some version of live-blogging from those venues. But I’ll be lucky if I manage to keep my name tag the right way up.

Looking ahead, the New England Historical Association has issued a call for papers on any historical topic for its meeting at Endicott College in Beverly on 25 Oct 2008. The deadline is 15 June.

As a result, I might well post fewer original words here for a while, and more links to other places.

If you’re at any of those events, please say hello. I’ll be the one wearing the name tag that reads, “NHOf W,I ¡IH”.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tracking the Tale of Joel Adams

Yesterday I left nine-year-old Joel Adams in his Arlington home shortly after some British soldiers had marched on toward Boston on the afternoon of 19 Apr 1775. Four of Joel’s siblings were hiding in the house, their parents were hiding outside, and those soldiers had set the furniture on fire.

Joel and his siblings hurried to douse the flames with water from a cask outside, and with their father’s home-brewed beer. There was some damage to the family pewter, but the house survived and no one was injured.

Joel’s mother, Hannah Adams, gave an indignant deposition about how the soldiers had treated her to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. His father, Joseph Adams, and a fellow deacon eventually bought the local meeting’s communion service back from a silversmith in Boston. And the Adams children grew up to tell their story of the redcoat home invasion to their baby sister Ann, their own children, and their grandchildren.

Samuel Abbot Smith printed this story in his West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775, published in 1864. (The Arlington Historical Society has reprinted this short book, as shown above. Smith did a good job of collecting his town’s lore.) Smith cited:

Mrs. Thomas Hall, grand-daughter of Mrs. Adams. Rev. Mr. Brown’s sermon on James Hill. S. G. Damon’s article in Christian Register, Oct. 28. 1854.
It’s always wise to seek the earliest printed version of a story, so I began looking for that sermon and article (since Mrs. Hall is probably no longer available).

Locating an undated sermon by a man named Brown about a man named James Hill isn’t easy. I got lucky and stumbled across a reference to its publication in 1852 under the title “Old Age.” So that went onto my to-do list the next time I visit the American Antiquarian Society, which has a great collection of such things.

As for the article, I thought I’d gotten lucky when I found Harold Murdock’s footnote for this same anecdote in The Nineteenth of April, 1775:
This is the story as repeated in 1854 by Mrs. [Ann] Hill, then in her eightieth year, to Samuel Griffin Damon: see Christian Register, October 28, 1854, vol. 39, p. 169.
Clearly Murdock had traced back the article since he included more detail than Smith had.

I learned that the Christian Register was a weekly newspaper published for Unitarian churches from 1821 to 1957, and that the Harvard library system has a full run on microfilm. So a couple of years ago I went into Cambridge to find this story.

The staff at the university’s main library told me this microfilm was in the collection of the Divinity School library, on the other side of campus. So I had a pleasant walk over there, found the right building, found the right desk, asked for the reels, and started cranking away.

And the first thing I discovered was that Murdock’s citation to “vol. 39, p. 169,” had no visible link to the date of 28 Oct 1854. Volume 39 covered the year 1860. Cranking and scrolling and peering at the closely set columns, I still couldn’t find Ann (Adams) Hill’s recollection in October 1854. By then my eyes were beginning to swim, so I’m going to check again later. Until I read the earliest printed versions of his tale, Joel Adams stays on my list of Lost Youth.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Joel Adams and the Redcoats

I’m concluding “Lost Youth Week” at Boston 1775 with two postings on the story of Joel Adams and the redcoats. On 19 Apr 1775, the Adamses were living in the western part of Cambridge, then called Menotomy and now called Arlington. According to vital records, the family consisted of:

  • father Joseph, fifty-nine-year-old deacon of the local meeting.
  • mother Hannah, Joseph’s second wife.
  • Thomas, born in 1751 and not yet married.
  • Rebecca, born in 1753.
  • Susanna, born in 1758.
  • Mary, born in 1761.
  • Nathan, born in 1763.
  • twins Joel and Amos, born in 1765.
  • Daniel, born in 1768.
  • Abigail, born in 1772.
  • little Ann, born less than three weeks before on the first of April.
It’s possible some of those children had died, or were living elsewhere in 1775.

On the night of 18-19 April, the British troops sent to search Concord had marched west past the Adams house. Col. Percy’s reinforcement column marched past that morning, and in the afternoon the family learned that the soldiers were coming back. The house was close to the road, and thus well within the area where the redcoats and provincial militia companies were conducting a running battle. Probably Thomas Adams, then twenty-three years old, was already with his company.

Father Joseph Adams was at home as the fighting neared, and he decided it would be best to run and hide in a neighbor’s hayloft, leaving his wife and children behind. The British column arrived. Some soldiers entered the house, probably to ensure there were no militiamen hiding inside. They found Hannah Adams in her bed with little Ann and told her to get out. She fled with the baby to the “corn-house,” leaving five other children behind.

The soldiers kept searching the house and spotted one of those kids peeking out from under a bed. A redcoat asked this boy, “Why don’t you come out here?”

Joel Adams answered, “You’ll kill me if I do.”

“No, we won’t,” said the soldier, so Joel crawled out and started following the soldiers around his house. The redcoats were thus up against one of the most indomitable forces of nature: a nine-year-old who thinks he’s in the right.

By this time, the soldiers were pocketing various things they thought they might be able to carry back to Boston and sell, including bits of the family silver and the works of their clock. (The workless clock is preserved at the Jason Russell House.) Then the men found the communion silver that Deacon Adams was guarding for his meeting-house.

Joel told the soldiers not to touch those things. “Daddy’ll lick you, if you do,” he reportedly said. Meanwhile, Daddy was still hiding in that hayloft. (That rendering of Joel’s words looks like a late-nineteenth-century portrayal of childhood, not an eighteenth-century one, indicating a story passed down orally.)

We can guess how fond the soldiers had grown of Joel from what they did when they left: they made a pile of wood chips and broken furniture on the floor of the Adams house and set it on fire.

TOMORROW: What happened next, and tracking down the tale.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Family Day at Minute Man Park, 8 June 2008

On Sunday, 8 June, Minute Man National Historical Park will host its first “Family Day,” sponsored by the non-profit Friends of Minute Man National Park. The event will last from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. in the vicinity of Hartwell Tavern, off Route 2A in Lincoln about a mile west of the Visitor Center in Lexington.

Among the activities will be demonstrations and talks by the Stow Minutemen and other historical re-enactors, musket demonstrations, children’s crafts, and fife and drum performances. General admission is free, though tickets will be required for the oxcart rides. (Photo below courtesy of the National Park Service.)

(As the park’s website explains, there’s a walking path from the large Lexington Visitor Center parking area through the scenic woods, a culvert, and more scenic woods to the Hartwell Tavern. There’s also limited parking and space for dropping off and picking up people near the tavern itself.)