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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Friday, April 04, 2014

The Other Fleet Brothers: “brought up to work at press and case”

Last week I spoke to the Freedom Trail Foundation guides as they were preparing for a new season leading people around Boston.

I talked about newspapers and the people who printed them—a group that included not only white men but women (Margaret Draper), children (apprentices like Benjamin Russell and Peter Edes), and blacks—and for that last group I couldn’t offer any specifics beyond Isaiah Thomas’s memory of a man carving woodcuts for a rival printer.

But then I dug a little deeper, finding some information I should have remembered reading and some that appears to have been lately brought to light—and perhaps a detail that’s new.

Here’s the initial statement from the “Memoir of Isaiah Thomas” published by a descendant in 1874:
At this period there were few persons in Boston who could “cut” on wood or type metal. Thomas Fleet, the printer of the Boston Evening Post, was also a rival of [young Isaiah’s master Zechariah] Fowle in the printing of ballads. Fleet had a negro who illustrated his ballads by cuts. Young Thomas was induced to try his hand in decorating those printed by Fowle. He “cut” about an hundred plates, rude and coarse indeed, “but nearly a match,” he says, “for those done by the negro.”
Thomas had had more to say in his History of Printing in America, first published in 1810. In his entry on Thomas Fleet (1685-1758), he wrote:
But the principal performances of Fleet, until he began the publication of a news paper, consisted of pamphlets, for booksellers, small books for children and ballads. He made a profit on the latter, which was sufficient to support his family reputably. He owned several negroes, one of which worked at the printing business, both at the press and at setting types; he was an ingenious man, and cut, on wooden blocks, all the pictures which decorated the ballads and small books of his master.

Fleet had also two negro boys born in his house; sons, I believe, to the man just mentioned, whom he brought up to work at press and case; one named Pompey and the other Cesar; they were young when their master died; but, they remained in the family and continued to labor regularly in the printing house with the sons of mr. Fleet, who succeeded their father, until the constitution of Massachusetts, adopted in 1780, made them freemen.
Pompey and Caesar were very common names for male slaves in New England, almost cliché, but at least Thomas left names to look for.

In 1924, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts published a short article by Samuel Eliot Morison that quoted from Thomas Fleet’s 1759 estate inventory in a footnote. Among the people that printer owned at his death were:
  • Pompey, 14 years old, [value] £40
  • Caesar, 11 years old, £33.6.8
Isaiah Thomas himself was ten years old in 1759, apprenticed to Fowle. Thus, Pompey and Caesar Fleet were in some ways his peers, in some ways his rivals, and in some ways—since they were legally the property of another man—in a completely different category. Isaiah ran away from his master, absconding to Halifax at the age of eighteen. Caesar and Pompey remained bound to their master’s sons, Thomas and John Fleet.

TOMORROW: Pompey and Caesar’s father.

[The photograph above shows some of the printing staff at Colonial Williamsburg.]


G.Lovely said...

Wasn't Thomas Fleet's mother-in-law "Mother Goose"?

J. L. Bell said...

The first Thomas Fleet did indeed marry into the Vergoose family. The idea that that woman was "Mother Goose" doesn't stand up to scrutiny. French books were referring to "Mere Oye" or "Mere l'oye" early in the previous century.

Thomas Fleet published some books for children in the mid-1700s, but not the traditional Mother Goose tales or rhymes. Charles Perrault's Mother Goose tales were first printed in America by Isaiah Thomas in 1786.

Charles Bahne said...

It's clear that Elizabeth (Foster) Goose -- Thomas Fleet's mother-in-law -- was not the original "Mother Goose". But my personal take is that she may well have been called "Mother Goose" by her family and friends. After all, she lived to the age of 92, and for her last four decades or so she dwelled in the home of her daughter and her daughter's husband (Thomas Fleet), and their many children. Just as today, the live-in grandma might be called, informally, "Mother Smith" or "Mother Jones"; in this case, the last name was Goose, so by extension Elizabeth might be known as "Mother Goose". (Isaac Vergoose had shortened the family name to Goose at some time before his first wife Mary died in 1690.)

The first English-language Mother Goose books had been published in London during Elizabeth's lifetime, and had gained considerable popularity; this timing makes it even more likely, in my mind, that Elizabeth acquired the "Mother Goose" nickname during her own long life. That doesn't mean that she wrote or even told any nursery rhymes, just that her own family and friends may have called her "Mother Goose" as a term of endearment.

Of course, there's no way of proving, or disproving such a supposition!

An 1882 article that I found on Google Books notes that Elizabeth (Foster) Goose had a grandson named John Fleet Elliott [sic], making it likely that "Mary Lincoln Eliot [sic] of Cambridge" was indeed one of her descendants.

The slavery aspect of the family story makes it all the more interesting.