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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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams’s Revolution

According to Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, the wire-worker and former town crier, he:

  • was six years old when the Stamp Act protests occurred, eleven in the year of the Boston Massacre, fourteen during the Tea Party, and sixteen in the first year of the war.
  • helped the Sons of Liberty, reportedly by guarding the door when they had their meetings along with other boys.
  • somehow served the Continental side during the Revolutionary War.
  • conducted a prisoner from Worcester to Boston Jail during the Shays Rebellion.
  • Ended up with a large striped banner that had been flown from a pole beside Liberty Tree when Boston’s Sons of Liberty had their meetings, which has since become known as the “Sons of Liberty flag.”
It’s good to know more now about this Samuel Adams’s life in the early 1800s, when he was a prominent character in Boston, but there’s still a frustrating dearth of information and evidence about his Revolutionary activity. I’d love to have a first-hand account of what it was like to be a teenager during the years leading up to the break with Britain. But the scraps Adams left simply offer more questions.

Liberty Tree was felled late in the summer of 1775, during the siege of Boston. That means this Samuel Adams’s connection to the tree has to date from his teens, well before he came of age. By what means did he become the keeper of the Sons of Liberty’s flag?

All signs point to Adams having grown up in the North End. Liberty Tree was far down in the South End. Rivalry between North End and South End gangs turned violent on most Pope Nights. So how easy would it have been for Adams to guard a door down on Essex Street?

Almost all the reports of a flag on the pole at Liberty Tree, mostly from the late 1760s, describe it as an ordinary British or “Union flag.” A Customs report said it was a “red flag,” which could have meant a red banner with the Union canton. No one described a flag with five red and four white stripes, which would have begged for interpretation.

When the Sons of Liberty raised their flag on their tall flagpole, sticking out above a tall elm tree, they were calling for a public meeting. They wanted masses of people. Often those gatherings were outdoors at the tree. The flag was not associated with closed-door strategy sessions that might need guarding.

Recent examination of the “Sons of Liberty flag” has found that it’s made from machine-woven cloth, which was rare in the 1760s and not made in America. Since a big part of the Boston Sons of Liberty tactics was to promote a boycott of goods imported from Britain, would they have chosen a rare British cloth for their banner?

Some descendants of this Samuel Adams said that he was the private of that name that Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors lists as serving in Capt. Josiah Harris’s company, Col. William Bond’s regiment, in late 1775. All we know about that Samuel Adams is that he joined up in Charlestown, like many of the regiment’s other men. But Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors has more than three pages of listings of men named Samuel Adams.

“Rat-trap” Adams lived long enough to apply for a federal pension based on Revolutionary service. We know he sought money from the state. But no Samuel Adams of Suffolk County appears on the lists of federal pensioners, and no one seems to have found an application from him describing his military experiences. So did he not serve long enough to qualify under any of the pension laws?

All told, Samuel Adams’s Revolution, how he came to possess the “Sons of Liberty flag,” and the origin of that flag remain shrouded in mystery. He and the banner definitely appeared at Boston historical commemorations and political rallies in the mid-1800s. They thus symbolize the radical reformers’ claim on the city’s Revolutionary heritage, along with every other political grouping. But “Rat-trap” Adams hasn’t convinced me we can say more than that.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Samuel Adams’s Petition to the Legislature

Yesterday I mentioned a New England Historical and Genealogical Register obituary for Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams after his death in 1855. After giving some details about his parents it said:
At the time of the Revolution he was old enough to perform services in that cause, which he did, on the patriot side. About five years ago he applied to the General Court for remuneration for some losses which he sustained in the service. There were those in that body disposed to slight his application, but the Hon. J. T. Buckingham [a state senator from Suffolk County in 1850-51] effectually brought a majority to sustain it, and a small appropriation (probably more than was asked for) was granted for the relief of the truly deserving old citizen. In sustaining the application, Mr. Buckingham paid a well merited tribute to the honest old gentleman, whose peculiarities in matters of religion and politics, though admitted, were not allowed to debar him from his just rights.
Now that looks like a lead! A statement from Adams about his work “in the service” of the “patriot side” during the Revolution. A written statement in the most formal of circumstances, with potential legal ramifications if it were found to be exaggerated. A document that might still be on file in the state archives.

Alas, that anecdote turned out to be untrue in several respects. Adams did petition the Massachusetts legislature for support in 1850. But his claim was “for compensation for bringing a prisoner from Worcester to Boston jail, during Shays’ rebellion, 68 years ago,” according to the 25 February Daily Atlas. That would have been 1782, though the uprising in western Massachusetts actually happened in 1786-87.

Furthermore, while Buckingham may have been behind the favorable vote in the Massachusetts senate, which approved giving Adams $100, the bill aroused opposition in the Massachusetts house. An acidic letter from Boston published in the Barre Patriot on 15 February said:
If they give him money, why not vote as much more to the lady in Lexington who is now 102 years old, and needs it more than a hale man of only 90, or thereabouts. She succored the wounded in the Revolution.
So I had to look for that lady. She was Mary (Munroe) Sanderson, who died in 1852, less than a month after a private party raised $300 for her.

Back to Samuel Adams’s bill. The lower house discussed it twice before letting it die. Adams renewed his petition the next year. The committee on claims recommended paying him $100—but once again the bill died.

Newspapers in 1852 and 1853 refer to more rejected petitions from Samuel Adams. By that time Buckingham was no longer in the senate. The published journal of the Massachusetts House shows that in January 1854 yet another Adams petition “for compensation for services rendered during ‘Shay’s Rebellion’” was introduced, given leave to be withdrawn (i.e., rejected) the next month, reconsidered, and rejected again.

The Massachusetts State Library has just launched what it calls DSpace, offering digital copies of many public documents, including the Acts and Resolves for each year showing what bills did pass. And a search through those files shows that Samuel Adams never got special compensation for his work in 1782. Or 1787. Or whenever.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Looking for Samuel Adams’s Family

I’ve been writing about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, a well-known character in Boston who died in 1855. He was honored as a survivor of the Revolution, and he owned a red and white striped flag that he said had been flown from a pole on Essex Street beside Liberty Tree.

Adams’s 1855 death notices say he was ninety-six years old, implying he was born around 1759. But I haven‘t found a period record of his birth or baptism. Boston vital records were unfortunately spotty.

The New England Historical and Genealogical Register has published two items about “Rat-trap” Adams’s ancestry, both hearsay rather than original records, but at least they’re starting-points.

In the mid-1800s a man named John Haven Dexter wrote in a copy of the 1789 Boston directory beside the name of Samuel Adams, a “truckman” on “Elliot-street”: “the well-known Wire Worker, brother of Abraham—was the father of Mrs. Wm. Fenno, confectioner and keeper of a Hotel.—Died [blank]. He kept a wharf bottom Cross Street 1794.—Town Crier 1800.” The same directory listed Abraham Adams as a leather-dresser.

And shortly after Adams’s death the Register published a death notice that said: “Mr. Adams was a wire-worker by trade, and born at the North End, as we have heard from himself. His father (Benjamin) was of the Newbury family of Adams, and his mother was Abigail, dau. of Capt. Caleb Kendrick, of West Newton.”

Both Boston and Newton vital records show Benjamin Adams and Abigail Kenrick married in 1747. A 1753 mortgage to James Bowdoin identifies Benjamin Adams as a cordwainer, or shoemaker. The 11 Nov 1788 Massachusetts Gazette ran a death notice for Benjamin Adams, aged sixty-four (other papers said sixty-five), and said that the funeral would be from the home of his son Abraham Adams on Newbury Street. Abraham Adams was a leading leather-dresser in Boston at the end of that century, dying in 1806 at age fifty-six. So those two Register statements fit together with period sources.

Complicating matters, the Newton records also show a Benjamin Adams marrying Sarah Burridge (or Burrige or Burrage) in 1755. A Genealogical History of Robert Adams, of Newbury, published by a descendant in 1900, assumes that’s the same Benjamin Adams. That author concludes that Abigail died before 1755 and that Samuel’s mother was Sarah, his father’s second wife. Notably, that book also says “Rat-trap” Adams died in 1796, which we know is untrue, and that his children were born in Newbury rather than Boston. Weighing the evidence, it looks like two different men named Benjamin Adams came to Newton and married two different women eight years apart. As for that book’s statement that Samuel was born 7 June 1759, it would be nice to know the source since its other statements are so unreliable.

There’s a stone in the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground (shown above, courtesy of Find-a-Grave) memorializing Abigail and Eunice, wife and infant daughter of Benjamin Adams, who died 17 Jan 1764. That matches a town report of “Mrs. Adams” contracting smallpox. So was that Samuel’s mother, dying when he was four years old? The Register did say Adams claimed to have been born in the North End, where that burying-ground is.

The 1796 Boston directory lists Samuel Adams as a “truckman and lighterman”—someone in the business of moving goods, either in trucks or in small barges. That matches with his reported ownership of a wharf. By 1800 Samuel was listed as “town-crier” and living at “No. 71 Newbury Street.” Abraham was at number 72. There’s also a record of them doing a real-estate transaction together in 1798.

We do have records of:
  • Samuel Adams’s marriage to Catherine Fenno on 8 Mar 1781.
  • Catherine’s baptism at Old South on 6 Feb 1763, making her eighteen at her wedding.
In addition, the genealogy mentioned above lists their children as Benjamin Franklin (1782), Catherine (1783), Catherine Noyes (1785), Nancy (1787), John Fenno (1789), Samuel (1791), Elizabeth (1793), and Harriet (1796). Boston records show Catherine Noyes Adams married her cousin William Fenno in 1806.

Unfortunately, what I’m really looking for is a record of Samuel’s birth. Boston’s published town records and the Churches of Boston CD-ROM don’t contain any baptism or birth records for Benjamin Adams’s family.

As it is, we have only Samuel Adams’s own statements in the mid-1800s about how old he was. That number did creep up for some other survivors of the Revolution. George R. T. Hewes believed he was over one hundred when he revisited Boston, and he was still in his early nineties. Newspapers said Samuel Whittemore was ninety-nine when he died, and he was really ninety-six. A few years’ difference doesn’t mean much when you’re ninety, but it means a lot when you’re in your teens. Samuel Adams’s stories about being part of political meetings in pre-Revolutionary Boston would be hard to believe if he was only, say, eleven years old in 1773 instead of fourteen.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams’s petition to the state.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams

Yesterday I mentioned James Spear Loring’s Hundred Boston Orators, an oft-reprinted collection of profiles of prominent Bostonians from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As his biographical subjects Loring chose the men who delivered public orations in Boston on the anniversary of the Massacre, Fourth of July, and other notable dates.

Gov. Samuel Adams never actually delivered such an oration. He wasn’t a powerful public speaker, preferring to make his arguments in print and to organize political strategy. But that Adams was so important that Loring had to discuss him along with the orators.

In that discussion, Loring interviewed the younger Samuel Adams, the wire-worker known for speaking at town meetings in the early 1800s and for being old enough to have lived through the Revolution. The resulting passage said:
Samuel Adams was emphatically the man of the people; and the editor, who has had conversation with his namesake, the ancient towncrier, now ninety-two years of age and with clear memory, was informed that Adams once remarked to him,—“We, the people, are like hens laying eggs; when they hatch, you must take care of the chickens. You are a young man, Samuel, and as you grow old, you must abide by our proceedings.”

At another time, our political patriarch observed to him,—“It is often stated that I am at the head of the Revolution, whereas a few of us merely lead the way as the people follow, and we can go no further than we are backed up by them; for, if we attempt to advance any further, we make no progress, and may lose our labor in defeat.”

Samuel Adams was ever at the head of Boston deputations before the Revolution, and conducted the correspondence with patriots in remote places; or, to adopt the language of the venerable town-crier, “Samuel Adams did the writing, and John Hancock paid the postage.”
Those quotations, especially the second, seem to reflect the younger Adams’s democratic politics. But they also seem characteristic of the older Adams. John C. Miller quoted the second quotation in his 1936 biography while the wire-worker’s remark about Adams and Hancock became “a popular saying” in S. A. Drake’s Our Colonial Homes (1894).

TOMORROW: So what did Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams do in the Revolution?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

“Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation”

(I keep finding mid-nineteenth-century stuff about Samuel “Rat-trap” Adams, putting off my promised discussion of his youth in the Revolutionary period. But I’ll get to that topic eventually.)

In changing their form of government from a town to a city in 1822, Bostonians deprived political orators without office like Samuel Adams of a forum. (In fact, that might have been one goal of the change.) But he could still speak at other gatherings, or outdoors.

For decades Bostonians remembered Adams and some other town-meeting regulars. In fact, in 1842 he became internationally known with this stanza from the parodic “Rime of the Ancient Pedler” published in The Great Western Magazine in London:
And then burste out a thundering shout;
I thought the earth was quaking.
Such a clatter sounds in Funnell-Halle
When rat-trap Adams tries to bawle,
And the cits for funne immensely squalle,
Their sides with laughter shaking.
Ten years later, James Spear Loring published The Hundred Boston Orators, which profiled most of the town’s statesmen from the Revolutionary and Federalist periods. The Boston Transcript published a response by “A Friend of Neglected Genius,” claiming to make the case for two more well-known orators. That essay was reprinted in the 23 Oct 1852 Cambridge Chronicle, which has been digitized.

The “Friend” wrote:
A perfect book is an impossibility. It is not surprising, therefore, that the able and industrious Editor of “The Hundred Boston Orators” has overlooked two of our public speakers who have high claims on the admiration of posterity. He has exhumed from the grave of the past many orators whose efforts were forgotten in a month after delivery; but he has neglected to mention two gentlemen who during the last half century have often delighted the “solid men of Boston” with their exquisite fancy, and instructed them with their profound wisdom. As I write the names of William Emmons and Samuel Adams, (not the “Sam Adams” of revolutionary fame,) what a throng of recollections rise to my memory! I seem once more to hear the walls of Faneuil Hall echo with the stirring eloquence of the one, and to catch upon the breeze that floats across our beautiful Common the silver tones of the other. . . .

When the roguish boys in the streets impolitely shouted “There goes old Rat-trap Adams,” they unconsciously did reverence to that extraordinary force of logic which in his public efforts attracted and surrounded as with a net-work of iron, whosoever came within the sound of his voice. Like a rat within a trap, the auditor could find no escape. It was easy to enter within the magic circle of his oratorical power, but impossible to escape from its thraldom. . . .

the calm steady flow of Rat-trap Adams’s argumentation [suggested that he had]…fasted for a day and a night that his mind might be clear and calm. . . . the ponderous logic of Adams, like the two-handed sword of the Lion hearted Richard, crushed whatever came in its path. . . .

My memory runs back to the days of my boyhood when I sometimes had the privilege of enjoying the private discourse of Mr. Adams. In the moments which were not devoted to public affairs he indulged the mechanical turn of his mind so far as to amuse himself by manufacturing divers articles of wire-work. He had a peculiar fancy for making rat-traps of that material. One of these dangled as a sign in front of the shop in which, for the accommodation of his fellow-citizens, he caused the products of his skill to be vended. This shop was kept in the first story of his mansion, in Federal street, near Milk street; a building which has long since been razed to the ground. For the benefit of the youth who were partial to piscatory pursuits, Mr. Adams constantly kept an assortment of canepoles in his yard; and I well remember often visiting his establishment after school hours and negotiating for the purchase of a fishing-rod.

Upon such occasions the venerable man (for Mr. Adams has seen the snows of ninety winters) was wont to address us urchins on the political topics of the day. My comrades, as well as myself, were more fond of achieving some practical joke at the good man’s expense than at profiting by his lessons of wisdom; and I have never forgiven myself for the levity which prompted me one warm summer afternoon to place a piece of cobbler’s wax upon the chair, just as he was taking his favorite seat. The consequences, when he endeavored to rise with his subject, were exceedingly embarrassing to Mr. Adams; and his feelings were still further wounded by the personally facetious comments of my thoughtless companions.
Cobbler’s wax was notoriously sticky in that circumstance.

It’s striking that the “Friend” shared those reminiscences when Adams was still alive. He didn’t die until three years later. On 30 Mar 1855 William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator ran a small piece headed “Death of a Veteran.” It said of Adams:
He was a participant in the Boston scenes of the Revolution. He has always been a radical in his political ideas, and an atheist in his religion. Latterly he has been associated with Mrs. Abby Folsom, and his venerable form has been conspicuous in spiritual and other conventions. He was a skilful and industrious mechanic, says the Post.
Most Abolitionists didn’t see associating with Abby Folsom (c. 1792-1867, shown above in a political cartoon) as a plus. She had become notorious in the 1840s for interrupting gatherings, including church services, anti-slavery meetings, and public debates about the new Mormon church, with long, semi-coherent speeches followed by complaints that her freedom of speech was being abridged. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Josiah Quincy, and others thought she was damaging to the cause, as well as personally annoying. Even after trying to see past the entitlement of Victorian gentlemen, I can’t help but suspect that Folsom was a bit mad. According to Kathryn Griffith, Adams wanted Folsom to have his “Liberty Tree Flag.”

As for the “spiritual” conventions where Adams had lately been “conspicuous,” Spiritualism had spread from upstate New York alongside reform movements and other religious ideas. Adams’s interest suggests that he wasn’t really “atheist” but just not interested in any existing church.

TOMORROW: Samuel Adams on Samuel Adams.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Wire-Worker Adams at Boston’s Last Town Meetings

The wire-worker Samuel Adams was a prominent character in nineteenth-century Boston, as Kathryn Griffith described in her recent profile for the Bostonian Society.

He started the century as town crier before going into the business of manufacturing screens and other wire objects. Later he became an indefatigable voice on the political left.

In 1884 James Mascarene Hubbard delivered a paper to the Bostonian Society about Boston’s transition from town to city in the early 1820s. His description of a town meeting in Faneuil Hall over the turn of the year 1822 offers glimpses of this Samuel Adams, as filtered through the Daily Advertiser:
[On whether to relabel Boston as a city.] Finally a hearing was obtained for Mr. Samuel Adams, wire-worker, that is, a maker of rat-traps, and late town-crier, who made a characteristic speech amid malicious “cries of Louder” although the orator appeared to labor excessively at his lungs. His opening words were, “Fellow citizens, you must consider me as on the brink of an eternal world,“ [Adams was then in his early sixties, but he would live three more decades] and the burden of his speech was, “Names is nothing. Only let us have Boston, and I care not what you call it.” Later on in the debate, which from this time took a more serious turn, he “rose and moved that the word ‘Boston’ be added to the word ‘city,’” to the great merriment of the assembly. . . .

[On what to call the new city’s top official.] Mr. Adams made a fresh appearance in the character of a New England Dogberry. “He was opposed to the term Mayor. A mare is a horse, and he had as lief be called a horse or an ass as a mare. He preferred the name President. There was dignity in the sound. He should count it an honor to be called President, but had he the wisdom of Solomon and the riches of the East, he would not accept the office to be called a Mare.” . . .

[On whether to hold elections in the neighborhoods or at Faneuil Hall.] As the irrepressible Adams puts it: “Many persons can’t attend here. For instance a journeyman who is in your employ. They feel so delicate in your employ, they are afraid of offending you. They are the sinners [sinews] of the State.” . . .

On the clause authorizing the City Council to sell or lease the property of the city,…Mr. Adams [was heard] to say, among other things, that “a new set of men might get together under the capacity of selling city property.” . . .

Our final quotation shall be from a speech by Mr. Adams, whose office as Town-crier seems to have given him a power and persistence of lungs which no cries of “Question” could overcome. “I would examine the act,” he exclaimed; “Like David of old, I would not give sleep to my eyes nor slumber to my eyelids until I had pondered it well. I have done it, have lain awake all night ruminating on these here things.”
Hubbard suggested that Adams belonged in a group he called ”mushroom town-meeting orators, and weak heads.” He showed more respect for upper-class figures, including such men as Benjamin Russell, William Tudor, James T. Austin, future mayor Josiah Quincy, and S. A. Wells, descendant and biographer of the other Samuel Adams.

Boston’s business elite had been pushing to incorporate the town as a city like New York since the early 1700s. The populace had long pushed back, preferring the town-meeting form of government, which didn’t turn over power to just a few elected men.

Wire-worker Adams appears to have been suspicious about concentrating power, to judge by his support for neighborhood elections and poorly expressed worry about a conspiracy to sell public property. But he also seems to have been fairly resigned to the change. Boston had grown to more than 40,000 people, nearly three times its size when he was a boy, and a city charter may have seemed necessary.

Ironically, by 1835 the term “wire-worker“ became a synonym for “wire-puller”—someone who manipulated politics or government from behind the scenes. Samuel Adams was a real wire-worker, and he never seems to have held significant power, despite all his efforts.

TOMORROW: What did this Samuel Adams do in the Revolution?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Samuel Adams the Wire-worker

In two postings on the Bostonian Society’s blog, Kathryn Griffith just profiled Samuel Adams the wire-worker, source of the striped cloth in the society’s collection that’s become known as the “Liberty Tree Flag.”

Harris wrote about this man:
Samuel Adams was born in 1759, reportedly in the North End, to a book-binder named Benjamin Adams and his wife Abigail. Samuel had an older brother, Abraham, who became a leather-dresser and a well-respected citizen. Samuel married Catharine Fenno in Boston in 1781. They had 8 children together, including a son named for Benjamin Franklin, and a daughter, also Catharine, who married William Fenno, and through whose descendents the flag passed to John Fernald.

Adams moved around quite a bit according to the Boston city directories and the advertisements he placed in newspapers. He had several occupations during his lifetime; in fact it seems he came late to wire-working. In the 1790s Adams owned a wharf at the end of Cross Street from which he sold various goods. In the early 1800s he became the town crier, and printed a number of interesting advertisements announcing things he had found throughout the town. As a wire worker, his business was known as the Sign of the Flying Man and Fender Manufactory, and his advertisements included beautiful designs of his work. His work in wire also earned him the nickname, “Rat-Trap Adams,” by which he was known affectionately (or not, depending on the source).
Because Adams was a minor public figure, his nineteenth-century life is fairly well documented. Indeed, his death in 1855 was reported across the country. One California newspaper ran this notice:
Death of a Veteran Citizen.—Mr. Samuel Adams, one of the oldest inhabitants of Boston, died at his residence on the 21st March, at the advanced age of about 96 years. The Traveller says: “He was a witness, and no doubt sometimes a participant, in the many exciting street scenes which occurred in Boston previous to the actual commencement of hostilities. He had in his possession as a relic of those glorious days, a flag which was hoisted on the liberty pole near Essex street, and which has of late been frequently displayed in this city. Mr. Adams was a mechanic—a wire worker by trade, and followed his business until within a few years. In religious matters he was an atheist, and in olden times a close attendant upon all town meetings and public gatherings, where his rather ultra democratic sentiments caused his opponents to taunt him with being a ‘French Jacobin.’”
Unfortunately, this Samuel Adams’s eighteenth-century activities, and his connection to Liberty Tree, are much less certain.

TOMORROW: Young Samuel Adams.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Will Happen with the Sawin House?

Back in 2012, I noted that there was a discussion about tearing down the Sawin House in Natick.

The oldest parts of that building are said to date back to 1696 and the first English settlers in that town, which was originally set aside for Native American converts to Christianity. The building also has a connection to the Lexington Alarm, though that’s more tenuous.

The house is now inside a MassAudubon wildlife sanctuary, and that organization says that preserving the structure is not within its mission.

This past week Brian Benson reported for the local newspaper that the Natick selectmen had deadlocked over competing proposals and would probably turn the question over to the full town meeting.
The Historical Society has proposed taking materials from the Sawin House, which is on South Street in MassAudubon’s Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, and reconstructing in Shaw Park on Rte. 16 a section of the home resembling its appearance when Europeans settled the area.

But, the proposal has sparked controversy with some people arguing the society’s plan would take the home out of its historical landscape and take away open space. Others have said it would help showcase the town’s history and protect part of a building that could otherwise continue to deteriorate.
The plan to move the house would alter the use of Shaw Park and alter the historic structure from how it exists today, and those changes would require approval from various levels of government. That’s unlikely to happen unless the community reaches a consensus on what it wants. But it doesn’t appear to be an easy question.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Half a Million Steps Along the Freedom Trail

Big congratulations to Charles Bahne for reaching the “half a million copies in print” milestone with his Compete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail!

This paperback is not only a thorough and affordable little guide to Boston’s most famous historic sites from the Revolutionary and Federalist eras, but it’s also a fine example of micro-publishing. Charlie saw the need for such a book years ago while instructing tourists about the Freedom Trail, and he created the first edition before computers and the internet and print-on-demand made self-publishing as easy as it is today.

Now in its fourth edition with color illustrations, The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail has survived into the world of smartphones and apps. Of course, it’s very light, has a larger reading surface than a phone, and needs no electricity. The book is available through Boston shops, the big online booksellers, and this local website.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Politics of the Doctors’ Riot

The New York doctors’ riot of 1788 arose from a popular emotional response to medical students’ grave-robbing and disrespectful treatment of corpses. But it also had a clear political component.

Those students tended to take bodies from the cemeteries for the poor and powerless, particularly the Negro burying-ground and the potters’ field, both outside the city limits. When African-Americans started guarding their large cemetery at night, some historians say, the grave-robbing switched to smaller private burying-grounds, again concentrating on those for the poor. But it wasn’t until white bodies began to disappear that the city’s laboring class rose up.

Most accounts say the attack on the Columbia medical school was led by a mason who had just lost his wife—both figuratively and literally. But none preserves that man’s name, nor the names of the five members of the mob who died. All our detailed accounts come from upper-class citizens who showed more sympathy for the cause of anatomical study than for the rioters’ passions. Their narratives may not be fully accurate, but they certainly show how the elite viewed “popular rage,” and they established the storyline for future chroniclers.

One political result of the riot was a New York law passed in 1789 providing for the corpses of executed convicts to be dissected. The practice remained distasteful to many people, however, especially those whose families were too poor to benefit from medical education or the treatments that proponents of dissection promised. In 1790 some medical students responded to that social pressure by forming what became the New York Dispensary to provide free medicines to the poor; it received a legal charter from the state in 1795.

It’s tempting to ask what effect the New York riots of mid-April 1788 had on the debate over ratifying the new U.S. Constitution. The Continental Congress had left Philadelphia in 1783 because of an uprising there. The Regulation movement in Massachusetts, which authorities dubbed Shays’ Rebellion, had prompted the Constitutional Convention. And just as states were debating the resulting plan for a new government, New York City was roiled with more unrest. Did the doctors’ riot make America’s political leaders fear that they had to act quickly or the U.S. of A. would crumble into anarchy?

I haven’t found evidence of that episode having a direct effect on the ratification debate. At one point authors speculated that John Jay’s injury during the riots had kept him from writing more of the “Publius” essays with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, but it appears that those essays (now known as The Federalist Papers) were finished weeks before the riot. By June, when New York’s ratifying convention began, Jay had recovered.

The New York legislature had already decided to hold that convention in Poughkeepsie, well away from the capital. The delegates chose Gov. George Clinton to chair that convention; he’d led the efforts to suppress the riot, but he remained an Anti-Federalist, opposed to a stronger national government.

In the end, the New York convention wasn’t that decisive anyhow. After their first week of meetings in June, the delegates got word that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify the new document, meaning that under its own rules (Article VII), it would take effect. Then Virginia ratified as well. New York’s opponents therefore focused on demanding a Bill of Rights and other amendments, getting the most they could out of the situation. Clinton and others abstained from voting, and the proposal passed. So instead of being a significant event in U.S. constitutional history, the doctors’ riot is recalled as a curious social incident.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chasing Down the Obnoxious Dr. Hicks

The New York doctors’ riot of April 1788, most chroniclers agree, was set off by a doctor named John Hicks making a tasteless and ill-timed joke about a corpse he was dissecting.

Identifying that man is complicated by the fact that two men named John Hicks practiced medicine in New York City in the late 1700s.

One, working out of Magazine Street, had been a “supernumerary mate” at the army hospital in 1783. On 15 Apr 1788, immediately after the riot, this “John Hicks, Sr.,” swore publicly that he hadn’t been in the hospital since that year and had no connection to any dissection. He was trying to distinguish himself from the real culprit, a medical student with a similar name.

John Brovort Hicks was born about 1768. He was actually the second person with that name; his older brother had died young, immortalized in a mourning ring. John B. Hicks was thus twenty years old during the doctors’ riot.

Hicks didn’t end up in the besieged jail with some other doctors. According to William Alexander Duer, he had fled on his own to the house of a former surgeon general of the Continental Army:
The obnoxious Dr. Hicks fled in the first instance to Dr. [John] Cochran’s, nearly opposite Trinity Church. Relying for protection upon the general respect in which Dr. Cochran was held, and that from his having relinquished practice, his house would escape search. But the mob had an intimation of Hicks’s retreat, and searched the house from cellar to garret, without success. They even opened the scuttle and looked out upon the roof, without perceiving the Doctor, who lay perdue [i.e., concealed] behind the chimney of the next house, suffering probably under a more violent sudorific [i.e., drug that induces sweating] than he ever ventured to administer to a patient.
That same story might have been what the Virginian William Heth heard when he wrote that one medical student “took refuge up a chimney.”

Young Hicks survived to complete his medical training. In 1792 he put a notice in the newspaper that he had successfully operated on a stone—a gallstone or kidney stone—at the City Hospital. The next year Columbia granted him an “M.D.” In 1796 Hicks and some colleagues got the mayor of New York to bar a supposedly unqualified doctor from practicing; Alexander Hamilton represented that other doctor and got the mayor’s order quashed.

In August 1797 Hicks and one of those colleagues had to advertise in the newspapers after dissected body parts were found in a sack in the river. They acknowledged that that corpse was a man named John Young, but since he had just been hanged for murder, under a new law he was eligible for dissection. The surgeons insisted that they had anatomized Young “in as decent and secret a manner as the nature of the business would admit of.” (As secret as any activity in what they called their “Anatomical Theater.”) But “the persons to whom the remains of the body were committed to be interred”—probably medical students—had tossed the pieces in the water and neglected to weigh down the bag.

Dr. John B. Hicks was thus involved in two public scandals involving dissected corpses within ten years. In one of those incidents, his insulting behavior had resulted in a riot. In the other, he was simply careless. And yet Hicks remained a respected physician. It probably didn’t hurt that he came from the city’s upper class: his late father, Whitehead Hicks, had been mayor of New York for the decade before the Revolution.

On 2 Oct 1798, in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic, the Daily Advertiser reported Hicks’s death. It lamented his
indefatigable zeal & pursuit to administer relief to the poor and distressed in this trying hour of distress and melancholy, and for which he would receive no compensation. But alas! he falls a devoted victim himself to the prevailing epidemic. . . . He was possessed of a truly philanthropic spirit, and his principal study was to do good. In him the poor have lost a valuable friend, and the public a useful member of society.
Hicks left a wife and at least one child.

TOMORROW: The political side of the doctors’ riot.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Child’s Memories of the Doctors’ Riot of 1788

A few days back I mentioned William Alexander Duer’s New-York as it Was, During the Latter Part of the Last Century, published in 1849.

Duer (shown here in a copy of a daguerreotype) was born in 1780, son of the British-born Patriot politician William Duer and grandson of the Continental general William Alexander, Lord Stirling.

Duer called the doctors’ riot of 1788 the “public occurrence that made the earliest, if not the deepest impression upon my memory.”

His retellings of events included details he couldn’t have been privy to at the time, and thus must have heard secondhand or taken from previous accounts. But he also described some dramatic moments that he or his family personally witnessed, recalled with the enthusiasm of a seven-year-old.

For example, the clash of an upper-class militia company on horseback and the crowd:
Never shall I forget the charge I saw made upon a body of the rioters by [Capt. John] Stakes’s light-horse. From our residence opposite St. Paul’s, I first perceived the troop as it debouched from Fair, now Fulton-street, and attacked the masses collected at the entrance of the “fields,” whence they were soon scattered, some of them retreating into the church-yard,—driven sword in hand through the portico, by the troopers striking right and left with the backs of their sabres.
And the wounding and care of Gen. Steuben:
The Baron de Steuben was struck by a stone which knocked him down, inflicted a flesh wound upon his forehead, and wrought a sudden change in the compassionate feelings he had previously entertained towards the mob. At the moment of receiving it, he was earnestly remonstrating with the Governor against ordering the militia to fire on the people; but, as soon as he was struck, the Baron’s benevolence deserted him, and as he fell he lustily cried out, “fire! Governor, fire!”

[Footnote:] Upon the occasion mentioned in the text, he was brought bleeding into my father’s house, accompanied by most of the cortege which had assembled at the gaol, and there being no surgeon to be had, my mother [Catherine Duer] staunched his wound, of which the old soldier made very light, and bound up his head. After his departure, Governor [George] Clinton amused the company by relating the above anecdote.
Duer thus left us both a delicious story about Steuben and the provenance for it: from Gov. Clinton to his mother and thence to him.

Another eyewitness, not so young, was William Dunlap (1766-1839), whose history of New York was posthumously published in 1840. He wrote that during the doctors’ riot, “The house of Sir John Temple, the British consul, in Queen Street, was with difficulty saved. It was said ‘Sir John’ was misinterpreted ‘Surgeon.’”

Temple was James Bowdoin’s son-in-law, a friendly Customs official in Boston before the Revolution, and the most likely conduit for Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s letters to Benjamin Franklin. However, I can’t find any confirmation from Temple’s published papers for his house being mobbed in 1788.

TOMORROW: What about the medical student who started all the trouble?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fight at the New York City Jail

When we left off William Heth’s account of the New York doctors’ riot of April 1788, the anti-dissection crowd had started to attack the city jail, where some anatomy teachers and students had taken refuge. Heth wrote:

The militia were ordered out, small parties were sent to disperse them [the rioters], but they instantly disarmed those attachments, broke their guns to peices, arid made them scamper to save their lives.

The evening advanced apace, and the affair became very serious. The Governor [George Clinton, shown here], after trudging about all day, first with the mob in the morning, endeavouring to pacify and accommodate, and in the afternoon to assemble a body respectable enough to preserve the goal [i.e., jail] and to restore peace and good order, advanced about dusk with a number of the Citizens, but without any kind of order or without any other than a few side arms and canes, while the Adjutant-Gen’l of the militia [Nicholas Fish], about 300 yards in his rear, led up in very good order about 150 men, tho’ not more than half with firearms, among whom were many gentlemen of the city and strangers, volunteers.

This body were not long before the goal before the bricks and stones from the mob provoked several to fire, and perhaps their might, on the whole, have been 60 guns discharged, but this is mere guess. This body made their way into the goal where a party remained all night, but a sally of 60 or 70 were defeated. Three of the mob were killed on the spot, and one has since died of his wounds, and several were wounded. One of them was bayonetted on attempting to force into a window of the prison which he saw filled with armed men, a proof of the astonishing lengths to which popular rage will sometimes carry men.

Numbers on the Governor’s side, besides himself, are severely bruised. Baron Steuben rec’d a wound just above the corner of his left eye and nose, from which he lost a great deal of blood. Mr. [John] Jay got his Scull almost cracked, and are both now laid up. Gen’l [John] Armstrong has got a bruised leg, but is able to go out.

Yesterday the militia turned out again, and made a respectable appearance, and paraded about exceedingly, both Horse and Foot, but it must be observed that the enemy were not be heard of.

In truth numbers who were in the mob on Monday evening turned out yesterday to support government.
It looks like “Gen’l Armstrong” was John Armstrong, Jr. (1758-1843), adjutant general of Pennsylvania and central figure in the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy.” He was in New York as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and would soon settle in that state.

According to a letter from John Jay’s wife Sarah to her mother, it took a while for doctors “to decide whether his brain was injur’d or not.” While they debated, the doctors bled him, of course. Jay recovered.

TOMORROW: Treating the baron’s injury.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Virginian on New York’s Doctors’ Riot

In the spring of 1788 a Virginia planter and retired colonel named William Heth (1750–1807) was in New York, commissioned by his state as a negotiator with the young national government on ceding Virginia’s claims to western lands.

While in New York, Heth witnessed parts of the doctors’ riot that I mentioned yesterday. On 16 April he sent a private letter to the Virginia governor, Edmund Randolph, describing that event:
We have been in a state of great tumult for a day or two past—the causes of which, as well as I can digest them from various accounts, are as follows:

The young Students of Physic have for some time past been loudly complained of for their very frequent and wanton trespasses in the burial ground of this City. The Corpse of a young gentleman from the West Indias was lately taken up, the grave left open, and the funeral clothing scattered about. A very handsome and much-esteemed young lady of good connections was also recently carry’d off. These, with various other acts of a similar kind, inflamed the minds of people exceedingly, and the young members of the faculty, as well as the Mansions of the dead, have been closely watched.

On Sunday last, as some people were strolling by the Hospital, they discovered a something hanging up at one of the windows which excited their curiosity, and making use of a stick to Satisfy that curiosity, part of a man’s arm or leg tumbled out upon them. The cry of barbarity, &c., was soon spread; the young sons of Galen fled in every direction; one took refuge up a chimney. The mob rais’d and the Hospital appartments were ransacked. In the Anatomy-room were found three fresh bodies, one boiling in a kettle and two others cuting up, with certain parts of the two sexes hanging up in a most brutal position.

These circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the mob beyond all bounds, to the total destruction of every anatomy in the Hospital, one of which was of so much value and utility that it is justly esteemed a great public loss, having been prepared in a way which costs much time and attention and requires great skill to accomplish.

On Monday morning the mob assembled again, and increased thro’ the day to an alarming size. Vengeance was denounced against the faculty in general, but more particularly against certain individuals. Not a man of the profession thought himself safe. An innocent person got beat and abused for being only dressed in black.

Two of the young tribe were unfortunate enough to fall into their hands, but the Mayor [James Duane, shown above] obtained them upon a promise of sending them to gaol—a measure to which in their rage they submitted, not reflecting that sending them to goal would secure them from their violence and resentment, and therefore, as soon as they found themselves thus defeated in their furious intentions respecting their captives, they repaired to the goal and commenced their attack (with all that intemperance and folly which ever marks the conduct of people assembled in that way), vainly endeavouring to break in, when they could do nothing more than break windows, &c., which they will be taxed to repair.
TOMORROW: The jail under attack, and the militia called out.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The New York Doctors’ Riot of 1788

In January 2011 the Lancet published a brief article about protests in 1788 over how medical students in New York dug up corpses from the burying-grounds for dissection training.

Through juxtaposition that article suggests that the city’s African-American community, their petitions and newspaper letters ignored, finally rioted over the practice in April 1788. But this New York Magazine article on the same events makes clear that the riot occurred only after “students began digging up white graves, too.”

From the Lancet:
In April, 1788, a group of children playing outside the New York Hospital ventured near [Dr. Richard] Bayley’s rooms where a student named John Hicks was dissecting an arm. Hicks is said to have waved the arm out the window at the children, including one small boy who had recently lost his mother. Hicks supposedly called to the child: “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!” The youngster ran home, his father enlisted help to exhume his wife’s coffin, which was found to be empty—and the riot was on.

Citizens began to mass around the hospital building. Hicks, with other medical students and professors, beat a hasty retreat. By the time the mob broke in, the hospital was abandoned except for [Dr. Wright] Post and four senior medical students, all determined to save a valuable collection of anatomy specimens accumulated over many years. But they were outnumbered, and although not harmed themselves all the specimens were taken and destroyed.

James Thacher, a physician who witnessed the riot, described it in his memoirs: “The concourse assembled on this occasion was immense, and some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged at this discovery, they seized upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.”
Though the article doesn’t note this fact, most of its details about the start of the riot ultimately come from William Alexander Duer’s New-York as it Was, During the Latter Part of the Last Century, published in 1849.

Dr. James Thacher didn’t in fact witness the riot; he was home in Plymouth in 1788. Thacher wrote the passage quoted above for the section on the history of medicine in New York in his American Medical Biography (1828). That book includes the word “memoirs” in its subtitle because it contains memoirs—i.e., profiles—of eminent American physicians.

In that book Thacher described the career of Dr. Richard Bayley, in whose rooms the controversial dissection took place. Not only did Bayley train in Britain, but he returned there in the autumn of 1775 and then came back to America as a British army surgeon. Thacher wrote that taking that position had been “a step of necessity rather than of inclination,” and that Bayley resigned in 1777. Nevertheless, Dr. Bayley stayed in British-occupied New York throughout the war.

Evidently an experienced surgeon (known particularly for his treatment of the croup) was valuable enough to the community that Bayley felt he could stay in New York at the end of the war. His reputation also survived the doctors’ riot, and he became a Columbia University medical professor. Dr. Bayley died in 1801 of yellow fever. (His daughter Elizabeth Ann is better known as Mother Seton.)

TOMORROW: A real eyewitness account from April 1788.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

News from Newport

The Newport Historical Society is commemorating the city’s Stamp Act protests of late August 1765.

The society has created an online timeline of the protests, where the above clipping from the Newport Mercury comes from. The three effigies represented stamp agent (and Rhode Island attorney general) Augustus Johnston and two men who had written in favor of the law and stronger central authority, Dr. Thomas Moffatt and lawyer Martin Howard.

Today at 11:00 A.M., the Newport History Tours collaboration offers a walking tour titled “The Stamp Act Riot and the Road to Revolution,” going past some of the sites involved in those protests. That costs $15 per person; call 401-841-8770 to see if there are still spaces.

Next Saturday, 23 August, starting at 1:00 P.M., a team of reenactors will stroll the Old Quarter of Newport, chatting with visitors about the new Stamp Act. In the late afternoon those pedestrians will congregate in front of the Colony House on Washington Square, and the action will escalate into a riot. Perhaps some houses will be mobbed, as in 1765.

Attending the outdoor reenactment is free, though the society welcomes any donations. Immediately afterward, from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M., the society with host a Stamp Act party; admission to that is $25, or $20 for members, and presumably there will be no mobbing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Legend of Mme. Jumel

Ben Carp alerted me to this gossipy Gothamist article by Danielle Oteri about Eliza Jumel, long-time owner of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan. A taste:
Eliza Jumel’s New York Times obituary [from 1865] states that her mother died shortly after giving birth and that she was placed in the care of “a good woman, and many clergymen visited her comparatively humble dwelling, so that the early years of the little one were passed amid good influences.”

In fact, Eliza “Betsy” Bowen was born in either 1773 or 1775 to a mother who worked as a prostitute for a black madam in a Providence, Rhode Island brothel.

Though the means of her ascent aren’t entirely clear, Jumel left Providence in the early 1790s for New York, then a town of 60,000 people. She worked as an actress, and seems to have used her considerable wit and beauty to gain access to many of the city’s elite.

However, her obituary claims that Eliza was brought into these circles when she eloped to New York with Col. P. Croix; that she attended the inauguration of George Washington, was best friends with Benedict Arnold’s wife, and inspired Patrick Henry to fall in love with her. The obituary also claims she was present at the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, which would have made her exceedingly distinguished for a 1-year old.
Jumel did have some genuine top Revolutionary connections. Her house, abandoned by its Loyalist owner, was Gen. Washington’s headquarters for a short time in 1776. Her second (documented) husband was Aaron Burr; when that marriage soured, she had the dramatic sense to hire Alexander Hamilton’s son as her attorney.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Furnishing Lectures in September

Next month the Paul Revere Memorial Association is sponsoring a series of lectures on “18th-Century Massachusetts Furniture: Form, Function & Fabrication,” to take place in the Old South Meeting House. Each event starts at 6:30 on a Wednesday evening.

3 September
High-Style Craftsmanship and Patronage in Marblehead on the Eve of Independence
Known more for its pivotal role in the American Revolution and its exceptional legacy of early American architecture, Marblehead also has a noteworthy but relatively unfamiliar heritage of furniture craftsmanship. Judy Anderson, Principal, Marblehead Architectural Heritage, will show how, in contrast to the clamor and boisterousness of the working harbor front, Marblehead cabinetmakers and clockmakers produced high-style furniture for a clientele that comprised more than thirty merchants in Massachusetts’ celebrated Atlantic codfish trade.
10 September
Seat of Empire: Refurnishing Boston’s Historic Council Chamber
The Council Chamber in Boston’s Town House (now the Old State House), where the Royal Governor of Massachusetts met with members of his Council, was once an important administrative center for the British Empire in North America. This historic room has recently been returned to its appearance during the 1760s, when the fate of the British Empire turned on the decisions made within its walls. Dr. Nathaniel Sheidley, Historian and Director of Public History at the Bostonian Society, will describe how, thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between the Bostonian Society and North Bennet Street School, visitors can now sit in the Governor’s chair and thumb through reproduction documents at the Council table.
17 September
Restrained Elegance: Boston Furniture in the Rococo Style
Bostonians in the mid-eighteenth century only cautiously embraced the lively international “modern” style that collectors have come to call “Chippendale” and art historians the “rococo.” Nevertheless, some Boston cabinetmakers and carvers, such as George Bright, John Cogswell, and John Welch, created masterworks in this ornamental, curvilinear mode that owes its name to the Englishman Thomas Chippendale and his influential book of designs. Using objects from important public and private collections, Gerald W. R. Ward, Senior Consulting Curator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will examine Boston rococo furniture in the context of its heyday in Boston in the 1760s and 1770s.
24 September
The Best Workman in the Shop: Cabinetmaker William Monroe of Concord, Massachusetts
In June 1800, 21-year-old cabinetmaker William Munroe arrived in Concord with a set of tools and $3.40 in cash. Forty years later he proudly recorded having more than $20,000 in assets, a remarkable achievement for a craftsman. Concord Museum Curator David F. Wood will describe how, influenced by fashion and international politics and motivated by self-esteem and good food, William Munroe steered a path through the treacherous economic landscape of Federal New England and along the way helped make some of the most beautiful clocks the new nation ever produced.
All these talks are free and open to the public.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Benjamin Franklin Leaves Boston in Style

Among the first generation of leading American statesmen, Benjamin Franklin is often said to be the only one who was ever in bondage to another person. Sure, he was an apprentice with a limited time until he became free, and his master was his older brother James, but he still chafed at that status.

Paradoxically, Benjamin was formally identified as the publisher of the New England Courant, a ruse to get around the authorities’ ban on James issuing a newspaper. But James was master of the shop.

Benjamin started to talk about working somewhere else. James reportedly went to the other printers in Boston and warned them not to hire his brother. Benjamin then started to talk about going to New York instead.

In Franklin’s autobiography, he described how he made it out of Boston this way:
I determin’d on the Point, but my Father now siding with my Brother, I was sensible that, if I attempted to go openly, Means would be used to prevent me. My Friend [John] Collins, therefore, undertook to manage a little for me. He agreed with the Captain of a New York Sloop for my Passage, under the Notion of my being a young Acquaintance of his that had got a naughty Girl with Child, whose Friends would compel me to marry her, and therefore I could not appear or come away publicly.

So I sold some of my Books to raise a little Money, Was taken on board privately, and as we had a fair Wind, in three Days I found myself in New York, near three hundred Miles from Home, a Boy of but seventeen, without the least Recommendation to or Knowledge of any Person in the Place, and with very little Money in my Pocket.
Such a classy start for the future Founder.

William Temple Franklin published the autobiography after his grandfather’s death, he substituted “had an intrigue with a girl of bad character” for “got a naughty Girl with Child.” That doesn’t really address the fact that it takes two to be naughty in that fashion. Furthermore, once he settled in Philadelphia, Benjamin proved himself fully capable of doing just what his friend Collins had described him doing back in Boston.

(Collins eventually followed Franklin to Philadelphia, but their friendship didn’t last.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dispatch from the Green Dragon

I’m typing this in a coffee house in Carlsbad, California. But not just any coffee house—the one attached to the Green Dragon Tavern and Museum.

I reported on the plans for this complex and its opening last year. So when I made plans for a convention in San Diego, I included time to drive forty minutes up the coast to south Carlsbad and check it out for myself.

I went thinking I’d find something fairly kitschy: a replica of the original Green Dragon (as depicted by John Johnson) tacked onto a California strip mall.

And in fact the site is in an area of strip malls. Next door is a car wash with a lovely Southwestern tile roof, as seen in the background of this photo. The first thing one sees getting off that exit from I-5 is a giant windmill attached to a motel.

But the Green Dragon Tavern and Museum is a more extensive and substantive enterprise than I’d expected. In size, it’s not just part of a strip mall—it’s an entire strip mall’s worth of structures. The part made to look like the original tavern is the main restaurant dining room, two levels high, and the coffee shop and bookstore. On the far side are a series of meeting rooms for special dinners.

And in between is a museum devoted to the owner’s interests in New England history, particularly the Revolution but starting in Plymouth Colony and including the Salem Witch Trials. The displays include replicas of significant documents and many original artifacts bearing the signatures of famous historical figures: legal documents signed by Samuel Sewall, Thomas Hutchinson, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine, for example.

Throughout the building are framed copies of early American newspapers, mostly from the last two decades of the eighteenth century. And by throughout, I mean throughout. The hall to one set of restrooms, for example, includes a 1783 issue of the Providence Gazette and two issues of Benjamin Russell’s Columbian Centinel from the early 1790s. In another issue of the Centinel I spotted a big advertisement from Samuel Gore, one of “my guys.”

Amidst those genuine period documents are reproductions of nineteenth-century popular art, posters of the most famous Founders, postcard photographs of national monuments, and so on. So there’s definitely the potential for hagiographic kitsch. But the quotations on those Founder posters all have citations to particular documents (which is more than some folks can provide). There’s a display clearly explaining the eighteenth-century long s to visitors. Some of the labels discuss how American historiography or commemoration has changed over time.

I quibble with some of the historical statements I see in the displays or literature. I don’t think of the Sons of Liberty as a “secret society” but rather an amorphous political label like “Tea Party” or “Occupy Movement.” I don’t think “Paul Revere departed the Green Dragon Tavern for his famous ride,” though he definitely spent a lot of time there. But for me the list of quibbles is small.

The bookstore attached to the coffee shop includes a lot of popular titles for both kids and adults, focusing mostly on the Founders (and including some I think are flawed). However, the selection includes ground-breaking biographies from academics, including Woody Holton on Abigail Adams and Jill Lepore on Jane Mecom. And I can’t complain about any store carrying Reporting the Revolutionary War, with two essays by me.

The restaurant has wood paneling and a fireplace, but it’s not trying to be a period site (at least at lunchtime). There are multiple televisions tuned to sports channels. The menu may have sandwiches named after Boston Revolutionaries, but they’re all California cuisine, heavy on the avocado.

Overall, the Green Dragon Tavern and Museum is a solid little private museum with a significant number of print artifacts to examine, particularly newspapers. In its emphasis on the most prominent Founders, their signatures, and genealogy, its sensibility is old-fashioned, but within that sensibility the standards are high. The site is a very short drive off I-5, so I feel confident recommending it to folks traveling between San Diego and Los Angeles and seeking a genuine taste of the Revolutionary Era (as well as California cuisine).

Monday, August 11, 2014

Celebrating Benjamin Thompson

On Sunday, 17 August, the Rumford Birthplace Museum in Woburn will celebrate two anniversaries:

  • the 300th of the construction of the house’s oldest rooms.
  • the 200th of the death of the man who made that house famous enough to be preserved: Benjamin Thompson, later Count Rumford.
Thompson is one of our favorite Revolutionary characters here at Boston 1775.

As part of the day’s celebrations, a member of His Majesty’s 10th Regiment reenacting unit, Lincoln Clark III, will portray Thompson describing his military actions with the King’s American Dragoons late in the Revolutionary War. (Presumably this Thompson will keep his activity as a spy in 1775 under wraps.)

Living history interpreter Dean Howarth will describe Thompson’s achievements as a scientist. (His equally impressive achievements as a social climber, civil administrator, and roué will probably wait for another year.)

There will also be presentations on items and displays in the house, including “an old artifact that was stolen, located, disappeared, found, and used for scrap.” And there will be a demonstration of eighteenth-century social dance.

Since Thompson was a Loyalist who rose high within the British government and army, the museum is particularly interested in having people who portray the king’s supporters at the anniversary. The event is scheduled to last from 2:00 to 4:00 P.M.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cockburn’s Cure

Westminster Abbey explains:
William Cockburn, a wealthy physician of St James Street Westminster, was buried in the middle aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey, near the entrance to the Choir, on 24 November 1739, aged 70. He has no monument or marker. His first wife, a widow called Mary de Baudisson, was buried on 12 July 1728.

He was born in 1669 and educated in Edinburgh and Leiden. Nothing is known of his parents. In London he had a wealthy patron and published several books on physic. He was a member of the Royal College of Physicians and physician to the Royal Navy's blue squadron. His secret remedy for dysentry made his fortune.

In 1729 he married secondly Lady Mary Fielding, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. The story goes that on a visit to Lady Mary he found her weeping saying she could no longer afford to live in the town and would have to go into the country away from her friends. He said he hoped he was one of her friends, and she agreed, and he said “if an old man and £50,000 can be acceptable to you, you may put off your journey...”. After ten days they were married. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and was physician to Greenwich Hospital.
But really.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Founders’ Favorite Quotations, part 3

Here’s the final run of “quotations” from America’s founders as chosen by some current tech company founders earlier this year. I put “quotations” in quotation marks because not all of them are, in fact, quotations from the people said to have said them.

I’m not holding these sayings to the original standards of punctuation, capitalization, or spelling, but I do want to see all the same words in the same order for them to qualify as quotations.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” –Thomas Paine
From Paine’s The American Crisis.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” –Patrick Henry
From Henry’s 23 Mar 1775 speech to the Virginia Convention, the same that includes the phrase “Give me liberty or give me death”—at least as reconstructed by Henry’s biographer William Wirt in 1817. But a lot of Henry’s contemporaries thought Wirt’s work was bogus.

“Fear is the passion of slaves.” –Patrick Henry
Henry said this in a speech to Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788. At the time he was arguing against the new U.S Constitution.

“The circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money.” –James Madison
Madison said this in a speech to Virginia’s ratifying convention in 1788. At the time he was arguing for the new U.S. Constitution.

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.” –Abraham Lincoln
This use of the word “hustle” would have been anachronistic for Lincoln, and he was, again, not a Founder.

“Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, we pursued a new and more noble course: We accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.” –James Madison
Madison wrote something like this in The Federalist, Number 14, in 1787. However, this misquotation says “we pursued” and “We accomplished” when Madison wrote “they,” referring to “the leaders of the revolution.” Madison was only twenty-four when the Revolutionary War began and didn’t claim to be a leader of that movement.

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin
Oh, please—that’s not eighteenth-century style. This appears to be a modern translation of a Chinese proverb, but that could be a myth as well.

“Lost time is never found again.” –Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1748. Franklin later elaborated on this sentence in “The Way to Wealth,” so I’m willing to give him credit even if he had a habit of quoting old sayings.

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” –James Madison
Someone took a longer sentence that Madison wrote to a friend in 1825 and stitched together this short sentence; at the very least there should be an ellipsis mark after “knowledge.”

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” –Benjamin Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1736. But the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations dates it to the late 1500s.

Out of these ten statements, five are correctly attributed to prominent American Founders, though one of those attributions has been debated since it appeared. Two more are significantly changed from what a man wrote, one is a much older saying, and two are falsehoods.

So what have we learned? First, for generations Americans have been attributing pithy things to Benjamin Franklin that he didn’t write or didn’t originate. More recently, we’ve been doing the same with Thomas Jefferson—not just on political matters but also lifestyle wisdom.

Finally, as the dueling speeches from Henry and Madison about the Constitution show, we can’t expect to treat the Founders as a single bloc of wise folk when they had hearty disagreements and temperamental differences among them.