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, June 06, 2012

“He spoke of ‘Jimmy’ Otis”

In 1897, the year after the Boston Transcript and other periodicals published a new anecdote about James Otis, Jr.’s death in Andover in 1783, prolific historian Samuel Adams Drake wrote in In Our Colonial Homes about searching for the home where that happened:
I chanced upon a villager who had been a farm-hand on the place more than seventy years before. He spoke of “Jimmy” Otis as familiarly as if he had been on terms of personal intimacy with him, and glibly told, as he walked along by the side of his oxen, such little scraps of family tradition as had been treasured up relative to one of the most gifted and unfortunate of men. . . .

How much I would have given for a few minutes with some one who had seen and could appreciate such a man as Otis! I learned that he was very fat, a great gourmand, and “Oh, such a funny man!” I was shown the spot where he stood when struck down. To paraphrase an old saying for the nonce, I have learned that in pilgrimages of this sort, one must carry his information under the folds of his mantle.

Any search for actual memorials of this most unfortunate of men would be unavailing. We may recover only a few details concerning the manner of his death.
Clearly Drake had concluded that the old “villager” didn’t have any details worth adding. And that opinion was probably reinforced when he listened to a woman inside the old Osgood house:
…the blood of Otis had formerly bespattered the door; but then—and she seemed to say it regretfully—the door had been painted over by some thoughtless person, and all traces thoroughly obliterated. As to that story, it is known that there were neither marks of any kind on the body of Otis, nor the least distortion of his features.
According to the 1823 biography of Otis by William Tudor, Jr., that is. Drake based his own description of Otis’s death on that book.

Drake’s skepticism is especially striking to me because in books like Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston he seemed willing to repeat nearly any story he had come across. But the old villager’s familiarity with “Jimmy” Otis turned him off, and he resented the woman’s regret at not showing him the Patriot’s blood. Drake clearly felt these people could not “appreciate such a man as Otis!”

Now it’s possible that the Osgood family’s description of Otis’s death cleaned up the event considerably while working-class people in Andover preserved the real details, and Drake’s snobbery caused him not to believe them. But Drake’s anecdote suggests that before the 1890s the town’s residents had become somewhat practiced at telling visitors dramatic stories about the late Patriot. Indeed, Drake’s informant might have been the same man who told the Boston Transcript writer about fetching cider for Otis. I’m therefore more dubious about that late-appearing anecdote.

[Photograph of Samuel Adams Drake’s gravestone in Melrose by “Mr. Ducke” via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.]

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