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, August 09, 2012

Something to Take Pride In

I’m back in greater Boston after my trip to California, including the Monterey peninsula, and catching up on news, including an impressive tale out of Monterey, Massachusetts.

As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, fifteen-year-old Shelby M. Sebring tackled the mystery of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s surviving papers while working as a paid intern at the Bidwell House Museum. The first impressive thing is Sebring’s accomplishment. The second is that a small history museum could offer a paid internship.

The Rev. Mr. Bidwell (1716-1784) left only a few “sermons in a private code: a mixture of early forms of English, Greek, Latin, symbols and shorthand.” (Descendant Edwin M. Biddle described seeing a diary with accounts of his service as a chaplain and fill-in minister in the 1740s, before he settled in what became Monterey.) Bidwell’s Wikipedia entry, last updated in March, says, “his shorthand code is too complex to gain more than the basic feel of a sermon.”

Using Fred B. Wrixton’s Codes, Ciphers and Other Cryptic and Clandestine Communication: 400 Ways to Send Secret Messages from Hieroglyphs to the Internet, which she had received as a Christmas gift, Sebring set out to fill in the gaps of the Bidwell manuscripts. The Eagle stated:
She also used an online guide to 18th-century shorthand and penmanship, Biblical references and “common sense” to chart the four-page sermon, titled “Proud.” It is labeled with three dates: 1759, 1761 and 1783.

Sebring filled three notebooks, first by writing down all the recognizable English, then mapping the numbers and symbols, and then trying to substitute words for the symbols in a way that made sense.

“There was a lot of guess and check,” Sebring said, noting that she has no background in Greek, Latin, middle English or the Bible.

Eventually, she figured that the numbers in the sermon referred to Bible verses. Ultimately, Sebring revealed an eight-page typed sermon about why people should be wary of exhibiting pride.
I suspect the three dates indicate when Bidwell preached that sermon. A chaplain on the Louisbourg expedition of 1745 and other campaigns, he might have responded to the British military victories of 1759 and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but I’m not sure what could have prompted the 1761 call. A local history says that the minister’s infirmities meant he needed assistants during the last two years of his life.

This fall Sebring will be a sophomore at a military prep school in Virginia. The Bidwell House Museum is hosting a colonial garden party on 11 August.

[Image of the Bidwell House Museum above courtesy of Passport Magazine, which features lifestyle in the Berkshires and Litchfield County.)


Anonymous said...

This right here? Pure awesome. Thanks for the post, John.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...


J. L. Bell said...

I guess I should start referring to the First and Second Treaty of Paris to be absolutely clear.

RodFleck said...

A great story and that 15 year old deserves a heck of a lot recognition for what she accomplished. Thanks for sharing it.

Jessica Murray said...

Interesting story, normally fifteen years old are too focus on themselves and love to do nothing which makes Sebring's accomplishment more admirable.