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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Thursday, February 16, 2012

“About the Time the prophetic Egg was laid in the Town of Plymouth”

After reading the nineteenth-century reports of a pro-William Howe message appearing mysteriously on an egg in Plymouth during the Revolution, I went looking for contemporaneous sources. I found only one reference in the America’s Historical Newspapers database.

That calls into question Dr. James Thacher’s statement in 1832 that “the story of the egg was the subject of newspaper speculation in various parts of the country.” Of course, there might be other articles not picked up by that system, or I may not have searched for the right terms. (Additional mentions welcome!)

The lone response to the egg appeared in The Freeman’s Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette, published in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 28 Jan 1777. That date supports Elkanah Watson’s memory of this event occurring at the same time that Plymouth received word of the American victory at Trenton in late December 1776.

The item started by dismissing superstition—but then it went on to both parody and exploit that credulity:


As the Superstition and Weakness of human Nature is such, that sometimes the most trivial Circumstance or grossest Absurdity, is attended with serious Consequences; you are desired to acquaint the Timid & Credulous, that Characters inscribed on Adamant are much more durable than when wrote only on an Egg-Shell. And also to inform the Public, that about the Time the prophetic Egg was laid in the Town of Plymouth, with this wonderful Prediction wrote on its Shell, “Oh, oh, America Howe shall be thy Conqueror,” a Hermit resembling the Genius of America, who had resided in a certain Forest from the first Settlement of the Country, found the following Lines inscribed on a Fragment of Marble near his Cave, visited by the Curious from all Parts of Europe, for the remarkable Eccho which oft reverberated in loud Peals, heard beyond the Atlantic,
TOMORROW: The following lines.


Joseph M. Adelman said...

I agree with your assessment that it only appeared in the Freeman's Journal. I ran a few searches of the keywords as well and came up with nothing at all. As you note, there are some gaps, so it's always possible, but it obviously didn't hit any of the major newspapers.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the second pair of eyes! (Or second set of keywords.)

JPC said...

Any possibility the “Prophetic Egg” riposte could have been authored by Mercy Otis Warren?

The poem’s style doesn’t seem quite right (though the poem’s introduction does), and I’m not sure why Warren would have published it in The Freeman’s Journal/New Hampshire Gazette (unless they just reprinted it).

But in Alice Brown’s biography of Warren (p 189), she writes, “When an egg was found in Plymouth, bearing the legend, ‘Howe will conquer,” it was Mrs. Warren who at once sat down – possibly in an interval of needlework or brewing – and wrote a counterblast in her customary satirical vein, reducing egg and prophesy to naught.”

Thanks. Love the blog.

J. L. Bell said...

I took up JPC’s question in this posting.

As part of that investigation, I found the newspaper item quoted above in the Boston Gazette one week before it appeared in New Hampshire. Why didn’t it show up in the newspaper database searches we did in 2012? Those databases might have improved in the intervening years. In addition, the Gazette set the article mostly in italics, which could have confused the O.C.R. programming.