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, August 19, 2009

And the People’s Choice Is...Ebenezer Richardson!

Ebenezer Richardson was born in Woburn on 31 Mar 1718, eldest son of Timothy and Abigail Richardson. The family farm was along the town’s border with Stoneham.

Woburn was one of the older British towns in the colony of Massachusetts, and had already spun off the town of Wilmington. This old photograph shows the meeting-house built in 1732 for Woburn’s “second parish,” which in 1799 became Burlington. (Check out the Burlington Historical Commission’s heritage trail for other sites in that town.)

When Ebenezer was twenty-two years old, he married a widow named Rebecca Richardson, formerly Rebecca Fowle. A large portion of the Woburn population was named Richardson, descendants of two of the town’s earliest settlers. As far as I can tell, Rebecca’s first and second Richardson husbands weren’t closely related. (To complicate matters, there was another Ebenezer Richardson living in Woburn at the same time, an occasional town official.)

When Rebecca married the second time, she was thirty-four years old and had six children. She had the “widow’s third” of her husband’s estate, and her kids were due to inherit more when they came of age. Ebenezer became responsible for managing Rebecca’s property and for helping to raise her children (for which he was reimbursed from their father’s estate). In the 1740s the couple had three more children of their own. Then Ebenezer inherited his own father’s property, giving him quite a solid Middlesex County farm while he was still in his early thirties.

The household also included Rebecca’s younger sister Kezia, whose husband, Thomas Hincher, had died, leaving her with one child and little property. Thomas had served in the province militia, and Massachusetts owed him £42.10s. (in depressed local currency, probably). In 1746, Ebenezer went into Boston to collect that money for his sister-in-law.

Clearly the Richardsons had taken in Kezia Hincher (sometimes spelled Henshaw) as a poor relation. She earned some money for herself by working as a housekeeper for the Rev. Edward Jackson, the unmarried minister of Woburn’s first parish.

The first surviving sign of trouble in the Richardson household came in early 1751, when Ebenezer was “put into the Goal [i.e., jail] at Charlestown—from which he broke out” by March 1751. It’s unclear what that was all about. Was he in debt? Was he suspected of a minor crime? (A major crime would probably be better documented.)

But the real stink arose later that year when Kezia Hincher became pregnant, and people in Woburn whispered that the new child’s father was the Rev. Mr. Jackson.

TOMORROW: The midwife and the ministers.


Robert S. Paul said...

This sounds like it could be as juicy a tale as The Scarlet Letter (which was totally ruined for me by CA public education).

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

I'm eating this up, sir! Woburn has no lack of heroes, yet it is a pleasure to learn of its villains too. I await the next installment with great anticipation.

BTW, The Second Parish Meeting House is now known as the United Church of Christ, Congregational in Burlington. It is greatly altered but still recognizable in a modern picture on the church's homepage:

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that additional link for the Burlington church. I found other modern photos, but decided to go with the oldest because it seemed closest to what the people of the mid-1700s would have seen. But even so, I bet that porch in the photo above came later.

Corinne said...

Very interesting! I was raised in Reading, which is not too far from both Woburn and Winchester. I look forward to reading the next chapter.

Rob Velella said...

I, too, immediately thought of The Scarlet Letter... but I often do anyway!

J. L. Bell said...

I’m intrigued by the Scarlet Letter comparison, though the stories will diverge markedly soon. Nathaniel Hawthorne did take inspiration from history, and, as we’ll see tomorrow, this Woburn tale involves a young woman referred to in some documents as “Hester Poole.”

Robert S. Paul said...

Well, hopefully, you won't require me to analyze every last word in this story to find deeper meaning. Forests aren't dark because of the darkness in people's hearts; They're dark because trees block the sunlight.

J. L. Bell said...

One of the rules of writing fiction is that “Unlike real life, novels have to make sense.” In history, people can do irrational things, and forests can be dark for natural reasons. In literature, we’re supposed to be able to understand characters (eventually), and the forest can reflect their states.

Robert S. Paul said...

Which is a good reason for using a forest, which is dark, to set the mood.

But the forest still isn't dark because of Hester's internal conflict.

J. L. Bell said...

Unlike real forests, fictional forests are intelligently designed.

Bill West said...

I have ancestors from the are, so I'm looking forward to this series.
Ironically, I just found a record of my ancestor Ralph Farnum Jr. facing
a similar problem in 1682.