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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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

“An old woman, called Mother Barberick”

“The White Horseman,” the 1835 story in The Boston Pearl and Literary Digest, describes the surrender of a bunch of British soldiers on 19 Apr 1775 this way:

The party of soldiers who had the baggage in charge, ran to a pond and plunging their muskets into the water, surrendered themselves to an old woman, called Mother Barberick, who was at that time digging roots in an adjacent field. A party of Americans recaptured the gallant Englishmen from Mother Barberick, and placed them in safe keeping.
This was supposed to have happened in the western village of Cambridge called Menotomy, yet there’s no one in the Cambridge or modern Arlington records named “Barberick.”

But there is a family named Batherick, Bathrick, and Baverick, depending on the document. When the Rev. Samuel Abbott Smith collected versions of this incident in 1864, and Dr. Benjamin and William R. Cutter wrote their family and town histories around the same time, they all called the old woman “Mother Batherick.” They also said she had been out digging dandelions when the redcoats approached her. Other authors found that last detail too hard to believe.

In 1900, Edward Wheelwright of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts guessed that this old woman was Ruth Batherick, born Ruth Hook and married to John Batherick in 1747, when she was about thirty. That was six months after the death of his previous wife and seven months before the birth of their first child. Ruth and John’s first three children died before the age of seven, but Lydia (born 1752) and Ruth (born 1754) survived.

John Batherick died in 1769, leaving his widow and children from two marriages, who all seem to have been poor. One of his grandchildren was Phebe, born in 1757; according to Wheelwright, she was “bound out to John Wilson at the age of seven years” and continued to work for that extended family until she died in 1837. On 25 Sept 1773 John’s daughter Lydia Batherick gave birth to a son named as “Melotto” in the town records; that child was probably bound out as well.

The widow Ruth, who was Phebe’s stepmother and Lydia’s mother, died in the Cambridge poorhouse on 18 Sept 1795, aged 78.

Wheelwright knew Phebe Batherick when he was a child, and remembered her “compounding a nauseous liquid which she called dire drink and in which dandelions was one of the ingredients.” The term “dire drink” was a common form of “diet drink,” which Dr. Samuel Johnson defined as “medicated liquors; drink brewed with medicinal ingredients.” John Locke used the term metaphorically. William Thomas Brande’s 1842 Dictionary of Science, Literature, & Art defines diet-drinks as:
Alterative decoctions taken in considerable quantities; such as decoction of sarsaparilla, sassafras, dandelion, &c.
So it would have been quite easy for people who knew Phebe Batherick to imagine her step-grandmother out collecting dandelions on 19 Apr 1775. And perhaps she was.

Wheelwright said Phebe Batherick often spoke of her own memories of 19 April. In a 1880 speech John W. Candler also described hearing stories “from an old nurse, Phoebe Bathrick, of West Cambridge, who was sixty-two years a servant and dear friend in our family.” Candler recalled:
Before I was able to read the history, we children gathered about her, long years ago, to listen to her vivid recital of what that revolutionary year witnessed. We were with her when she was awakened in the night by the heavy tramp of the Redcoats as they passed my grandmother’s home on the road to Lexington. We were with her in the morning when the children were crowded into the ox-cart, and carried down to Spy Pond, away from the main street; and we were with her again in the day when she went back to look at the Redcoats with their glistening bayonets. And we went with her to see the dead soldier lying in the ditch, and when the sun went down we were taken back to the house that had been sacked by the British troops.
Though no one recalled Phebe talking about her step-grandmother capturing redcoats, she definitely contributed to Menotomy’s oral history of the Revolution.

The author of “The White Horseman” linked his (or her) story of Hezekiah Wyman to that tradition by stating that Wyman helped to ambush the British supply wagons and scare the soldiers into surrendering. The magazine tale called the old woman “Mother Barberick,” suggesting its writer was working off an oral tradition, not from a written source or close contact with the Bathericks.

So was that writer using already circulating stories to make a fictional hero named Hezekiah Wyman seem more real? Or was Wyman’s tale, like those of Ammi Cutter and Batherick, actually rooted in preceding tradition, and the writer embellished it?

COMING UP: Tracking Wyman from Lexington and Cambridge to Woburn.

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