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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Monday, February 10, 2014

What Isaiah Thomas Wrote about Ezekiel Russell’s Wife

Back in 2009, I quoted the passsage above from Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in America (1874 edition) about Ezekiel Russell and his wife. I then added:
Josiah Snow’s [1847] account (quoted yesterday) credited those ballads to Penelope Russell herself, even saying she could compose them while she set the type. Perhaps Thomas’s phrase “A young woman who lived in Russell’s family” was a coy way of alluding to Penelope without pointing the finger directly. Or perhaps Ezekiel Russell’s struggling shop was kept afloat by the work of two young women instead of just one.
After I mentioned the Russells in my lecture on Friday, I checked out Thomas’s history again—but this time the original, 1810 edition. And here’s what Thomas first published.
So no wonder Josiah Snow thought Ezekiel Russell’s wife wrote those ballads—that’s exactly what Thomas’s book said. The “young woman” didn’t appear in print until decades later.

Thomas left a copy of his book with handwritten corrections at his American Antiquarian Society, which undertook to update and republish it. If that copy still exists, it could confirm if Thomas himself entered the revised information about the Russell printing house.

Given that Thomas and the Russells were both printing in Boston in the early 1770s, and that Thomas kept track of Ezekiel Russell in his movements to Salem, Danvers, and back to Boston, it seems odd for him not to know who wrote those tragical ballads. The passages also shift away from saying that Russell’s wife “made herself acquainted with the printing business,” leaving her just assisting.

That again raises the possibility that the mention of a “young woman” was a ruse designed to fit Mrs. Russell into a more traditional “help meet” model rather than a business partner writing for publication. The couple’s son, Nathaniel Pope Russell (1779-1848), became an important insurance broker in ante-bellum Boston. (In fact, his business records are at the American Antiquarian Society.) So the family may have wished for a more genteel portrait of their ancestress.

TOMORROW: More revisions about Ezekiel Russell’s wife.


J. L. Bell said...

Tom Knoles from the American Antiquarian Society writes: “We actually have two annotated copies of the 1810 History of Printing in the Thomas papers. One was annotated by Thomas himself, and the other by the 1874 editors. The change first appears in Thomas’s copy (Thomas papers, Box 12, folder 1) and is clearly in his hand, suggesting he learned after the book was published that he was incorrect in thinking that it was Russell’s wife who had published poetry. It is copied verbatim into the 1874 editors’ copy.”

Thanks so much!

J. L. Bell said...

I still think it was possible Thomas changed his text not because it was factually incorrect but because it was more polite or politic to ascribe the verses to a “young woman.”

Josiah Snow described Ezekiel Russell’s wife being able to compose verse by picking out letters for the press, without writing anything on paper. Snow got that female printer’s name and dates wrong (he called her “Penelope Russell” and said she took over the Censor, which stopped publishing before the Russells even married). Nevertheless, it seems like an odd tradition to make up.

But at this distance, we’re unlikely to know for sure.