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, January 21, 2015

The Real Story of the Fake Sarah Munroe Letter

Last week I noted a letter describing George Washington’s Presidential visit to Lexington in 1789. And I said it looked like a fake.

Polly Kienle of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum helpfully commented on that post confirming that young Sarah Munroe didn’t write that letter. Rather, it came from the pen of James Phinney Munroe (1862-1929), president of the Lexington Historical Society. And he spent years trying to live it down.

On 5 Nov 1889, J. P. Munroe wrote, he was invited to speak about the hundredth anniversary of Washington’s visit at a public dinner. He recalled, “Wishing only to be informal, to avoid the conventions of after-dinner speaking, to relieve the solemnity of history with a touch of human nature, in an evil hour I forged the name of a great-aunt (dead these many years) to a letter that she did not write, that (kindly soul) she would not have written, that so circumstantial is it she could not have written, had she tried…”

And then he placed the letter in the inaugural issue of the Proceedings of the Lexington Historical Society. That magazine also printed his prefatory remarks:
When I was asked to assume the honorable task of representing my great-grandfather here to-night, I, naturally, searched the old Munroe tavern for memorials of him, but without success. A hunt through the garret of the old Mason house, was, however, more fortunate, as it resulted in this letter. The original, of which this is a copy, bears the date Nov. 7, 1789, and is indorsed, in a fine Italian hand, “Miss Sarah Munroe, Lexington, to Miss Mary Mason, New York.” Sarah was the second daughter of Colonel William Munroe, the other children being William, Anna, Jonas, Lucinda, and Edmund. Mary was the only daughter of Mr. Joseph Mason, a famous pedagogue, and for many years, including 1789, town clerk. Of the reason of Miss Mason’s sojourn in New York, we are not informed.
Later J. P. Munroe wrote, “the Mason house having no garret worth mentioning, the non-existence of that attic suggested a manufactured letter.”

But clearly not enough people picked up that clue. Over the next few years, Munroe saw the letter cited as an authentic source in publications like the Boston Evening Transcript. It was reprinted in the program for an 1898 banquet of the California Sons of the American Revolution (who obviously hadn’t explored deeply enough in the Mason house). Munroe insisted that “Real historians” weren’t fooled, but, as Kienle commented, he was “caught up in a ‘viral’ whirlwind before the days of instantaneous online dissemination.”

Munroe wrote at least two letters to the Transcript proclaiming that the letter was a fake. In 1900 he published a pamphlet titled A Sketch of the Munroe Clan with an appendix all about the letter. In that he wrote, “The fraud seemed to me so patent, the possibility of belief by any one that a half-educated young girl would prepare a narrative so straightforward and circumstantial appeared to me so remote, that I had no thought of the skit being taken seriously.”

Two years later, the Dedham Historical Register published the letter again as a genuine document. In 1917, the Journal of American History did the same. In 1924, it even appeared in St. Nicholas magazine for young readers. And now, will the internet bring it back?

(Hear genuine stories of President Washington’s visit to New England in 1789, and his interactions with Gov. John Hancock, when you come to the Cambridge Forum tonight.)


sbh said...

I would have thought his use of the phrase "fine Italian hand" might have at least raised an eyebrow, if not a red flag.

Charles Bahne said...

Not a red, white, and green flag??

J. L. Bell said...

The “Italian hand” was actually an eighteenth-century term for a fancy type of handwriting. Not what a rural young woman would have used, but not a total anachronism.

PKienle said...

Thanks for the tip of the hat! My husband comments that it's great to see my name mentioned somewhere other than the police log.