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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Monday, August 17, 2009

Sing Along with Ebenezer Richardson?

In his essay in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s publication Music in Colonial Massachusetts, volume 1, Carleton Sprague Smith posited that a lot of the early American verses printed on broadsides were actually meant to be sung to well-known tunes.

This is one of his examples. The verse is “The Life, and Humble Confession, of Richardson, the Informer,” words supposedly from the mouth of Ebenezer Richardson—adulterer, Customs informer and official, and killer of Christopher Seider. Smith matched the verses up (though not exactly, he admitted) to the old tune “Confesse.”

That tune would be thematically appropriate, to be sure. But is the melody indeed a good match for the words?

Injured BOSTON now awake,
While I a true CONFESSION make,
Of my notorious sins and guilt,
As well the harmless blood I’ve spilt.

WOOBURN, my native place can tell,
My crimes are blacker far than Hell,
What great disturbance there I made,
Against the people and their Head.

A wretch of wretches prov’d with child,
By me I know, at which I smil’d,
To think the PARSON he must bare
The guilt of me, and I go clear.
[I wrote an article explaining these references to Richardson’s life for New England Ancestors a couple of years ago. It was online for a while, but no longer.]
And thus this worthy man of GOD
Unjustly felt the scourging rod,
Which broke his heart, it proved his end,
And for whole blood I guilty stand.

The halter now is justly due,
For now I’ve killed no less than two,
Their blood for vengeance loud doth cry,
It reach’d the ears of Heaven on high.

But yet still wicked, yet still vile,
I’ve lived on honest Merchant’s spoil,
For this I justly got the name,
The INFORMER, though with little gain.

Little indeed when I compare,
The stings of conscience which I bare,
And now I frankly own to thee,
I’m the INFORMER, I am he.

By my account poor BOSTON’S lost,
By me in only three years past,
Full sixty thousand pounds—yea more
May still be added to the score.

But what’s that to this last crime,
In sending SEIDER out of time!
This cuts my heart, this frights me most;
O help me, LORD, I see his ghost,

There,—there’s a life, you now behold,
So vile I’ve been,—alas so bold;
There’d scarce a Lawyer undertake
To plead my case, or for me speak.

On Tuesday next I must appear,
And there my dismal sentence hear;
But O!——my conscience, guilty cries,
For conscience never can tell lyes.

And now alas, my injur’d friends,
Since I can make you no amends,
Here is my body you may take,
And sell, a notimy to make.
That last line is a reference to how medical trainees sought out the bodies of hanged men to study anatomy, as Levi Ames worried about.

So this could be a natural lead-in to either a series about Ebenezer Richardson’s tangled past or another series of C.S.I.: Colonial Boston. Which do folks prefer?


Charles Bahne said...

His tangled past, indeed!

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

+1 for Richardson, please.

Rob Velella said...

I love the CSI: Colonial Boston stuff, so that's my vote!

Unknown said...

Kristin and Emily at the PRH would each like to vote for more on Ebenezer. RIP poor Christopher Seider!

Barbara Taylor said...

I've been reading your posts about Ebenezer Richardson and his trials and tribulations with interest. In the book "Descendants of George Fowle ..." page 36 the author states that the Ebenezer who was married to Rebecca Fowle (widow of Phineas Richardson) is NOT The same Ebenzer who married her sister Kezia. You have a very different take on the story so I'm trying to reconcile those discrepancies.
In the George Fowle book, it states that Rebecca was still alive on Oct 1,1773, though you seem to imply that she died near the time that Ke3zia and Ebenezer married.
Have you looked into the book at all? I can send you the page if you don't have access to it.

Barbara Taylor said...

I should add that I do know there are errors in the "Descendants of George Fowle ..." book. Just trying to verify if this is one of them. Also, trying to find Rebecca's death date and whether the two Ebenezer Richardsons are actually the same person. I am a 10th generation descendant of George Fowle so Rebecca Fowle and the Richardsons of Woburn are all related to me in some way. Thanks for your great stories :)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Fowle genealogy and the earlier Richardson Memorial by Vinton both avoid the conclusion that Ebenezer Richardson married and had children with sisters Rebecca and Kezia Fowle (not in the proper order). Stephen Wilf’s recent book Law’s Imagined Republic follows that same path.

However, I think the coincidences are too great, and the clamor about sexual/marital misdeeds in Woburn and Boston too loud, to assume that there was another Ebenezer Richardson involved. Wilf writes, “There is no evidence of Richardson’s paternity” of Kezia Henshaw’s child. But then he has to posit that another Ebenezer Richardson came along to marry Kezia in Boston while the Ebenezer Richardson who later worked for the Customs service in Boston just happened to be married to a woman named Kezia and just happened to be vilified as someone who got a woman pregnant in Woburn and let a minister be blamed.

My 2005 article in New England Ancestors has the footnotes I left out of these blog entries. (It also acknowledges that there was another Ebenezer Richardson in Woburn at the time, but his records show he and his wife stayed clear of this mess.)

As for Rebecca Richardson’s death date, I haven’t found a definite record. Her estate took a very long time to settle, probably because of Ebenezer’s behavior and moving around, and that may be why some researchers believed she lived well past her sister’s second wedding day.

Barbara Taylor said...

Thanks :) I'll look up your article. Your explanation does make more sense than some other "mysterious" Ebenezer that can't be documented. Again, I very much appreciate all the effort you have put into your articles.