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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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Hezekiah Wyman “Picking Cherries”

When we last left Hezekiah Wyman in “The White Horseman” (1835), he had assembled his rusty-barreled musket, mounted his white horse, and rode out to kill British regulars.

According to that story, Wyman’s first kills are on the road between Concord and his own town of Lexington. Then the withdrawing redcoats meet up with Earl Percy’s reinforcements, and the combined forces “kept off the Americans with their artillery while they took a hasty meal,” which agrees with historical accounts of the day. (Curiously, Wyman shows no worry about his aged wife, last seen in their house within sight of Lexington common.)

Then the regulars resume their march east, and Wyman resumes his sniping:

…the powerful white horse was seen careering at full speed over the hills, with the dauntless old Yankee on his back.

“Ha!” cried the soldiers, “there comes that old fellow again, on the white horse! Look out for yourselves, for one of us has got to die, in spite of fate.” And one of them did die, for Hezekiah’s aim was true, and his principles of economy would not admit of his wasting powder or ball.
It wasn’t just revenge driving Wyman—it was good old Yankee thrift!

There’s a short interlude in Cambridge that I’ll get to tomorrow, and then “The White Horseman” ends:
Even after the worried troops had entered Charlestown, there was no escape for them from the deadly bullets of the restless veteran. The appalling white horse would suddenly and unexpectedly dash out from a brake, or from behind a rock, and the whizzing of his bullet was the precursor of death. He followed the enemy to their very boats; and then turning his horse’s head, returned unharmed to his household.

“Where have you been, husband?”

“Picking cherries,” replied Hezekiah—but he forgot to say that he had first made cherries of the red coats, by putting the Pits into them.
Ba dump bump!

There’s evidence for riders harassing the British troops on their way east from Lexington, but I know of nothing to support the notion of mounted snipers continuing to attack those soldiers after they reached the easily-guarded Charlestown peninsula and prepared to board boats to Boston. That last scene’s impossible to believe, and few authors repeat it.

If that text was all there was to Hezekiah Wyman, people would have little problem taking his story as fiction. It appeared in a literary magazine, the writer made no claims about truth or sources, and the action and details are clearly chosen for narrative effect.

“The White Horseman” takes the prevailing American understanding of the Battle of Lexington and Concord—that the Middlesex farmers were peaceful until roused by an invasion of bloodthirsty soldiers, and then they became frightfully efficient warriors—and boils it down into a single figure. That’s what H. W. Longfellow did in his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” That’s often what a lot of good historical fiction does.

Yet there’s still the possibility that “The White Horseman” was a fictionalized, exaggerated version of a real incident. Paul Revere really did warn a lot of Middlesex villages and farms, for instance. Back in April I analyzed the story of Samuel Whittemore, another old man credited with shooting more than his share of British soldiers. The Whittemore story seems outlandish, was exaggerated in some details, and grew more impressive as time went on. Yet its core looks accurate.

So is there any evidence that the writer of “The White Horseman” drew on little-known anecdotes from local history? And is there any evidence to support Wyman’s existence and activity on 19 Apr 1775?

TOMORROW: Wyman in West Cambridge.

(Powerful white horse photographed by PhotographyGal123, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Charles Bahne said...

The reference to Charlestown probably refers to what we now call Somerville, which wasn't set off from Charlestown until 1842 -- after the Wyman story was first published in the Pearl. And there was some significant fighting within the present limits of Somerville on April 19.

J. L. Bell said...

True, but the story’s description of Wyman following the redcoats “to their very boats” indicates that the writer had modern Charlestown and its waterfront in mind as well.