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, April 12, 2015

“Poor Mrs Brown, who was Betsy Otis”

James Otis’s 1783 will didn’t exactly brim with love for his oldest child, Elizabeth, who toward the end of the siege of Boston had married a British army officer, Leonard Brown.

As I quoted yesterday, Otis wrote that he’d heard his daughter’s husband had left her, and that she was suffering from consumption, and then he bequeathed her five shillings. And that was supposed to be in a moment of sanity.

I haven’t found any indication that those rumors were true. Elizabeth Brown lived for decades. And while I can’t confirm the Browns lived together happily, they remained a couple.

In October 1785, after John Adams became the U.S. of A.’s minister to Britain, Elizabeth Brown contacted him, saying, “my Comp[limen]ts: attend Mrs: Adams and inform her I still retain a pleasing remembrance of the agreeable Week I pass’d with her at Plymouth.” She said that she was living “at Leonard Browns Esqr. Sleaford Lincolnshire”—probably her father-in-law’s house.

The biggest problem Elizabeth Brown faced then was not the lack of money from her father but lack of access to bequests from other relatives. Two months later Brown laid out her difficulty for Adams:

my Grandfather at the Decease of my much’d Hond: Father Bequeath’d me one Thousand pound Lawfull Money which his Executors M: J— and Mr: A— Otis were to pay me, and I expected to receive the interest. untill it was convenient to them, to pay the principal
“M: J— and Mr: A— Otis” were Brown’s uncles Joseph Otis and Samuel Allyne Otis. Her uncle by marriage, James Warren, was supposed to be her attorney in Massachusetts, receiving and passing on the money. But the Otises’ business had failed in the tough postwar American economy, so they didn’t have any cash to send. And Warren wasn’t representing Elizabeth Brown’s interests well.

In May 1786, Abigail Adams wrote from London to her sister Mary Cranch about the case:
Poor Mrs Brown, who was Betsy Otis, had all her Grandfather left her, in the Hands of Mr Allen otis and Genll Warren. She has written several Letters to mr Adams upon the subject requesting his advice what to do. Her Father left her nothing. It is very hard she Should lose what her Grandfather left her.
The case hung on. In 1789, Elizabeth’s mother, Ruth Otis, died, leaving her more wealth.

Finally, in February 1790 the Massachusetts legislature passed a law allowing “Leonard Brown and his Wife” to take possession of land belonging to Samuel Allyne Otis as he went through bankruptcy and to sell it to satisfy a debt to them. The attorneys in that settlement were Harrison Gray Otis, Otis’s son, and William Tudor, Adams’s former clerk and father of James Otis’s future biographer.

According to William Tudor, Jr., Elizabeth Brown made “a short visit in 1792” to Massachusetts, perhaps to wrap up those bequests. He also wrote that her husband, “coming into possession of a handsome property, resigned his commission” in the army and retired to a genteel life in the British countryside. That might have been in 1796, when the Monthly Magazine reported the death “At Sleaford, aged 82, Leonard Brown, esq. of Pinchbeck, for many years a magistrate for the district of Kesteven.”

As I wrote yesterday, St. Mary’s church in Pinchbeck contains an inscription about the death of Capt. Brown in 1821. Tudor wrote that Elizabeth Brown was still alive at that time. According to Lincolnshire Pedigrees (which names her father as “Thomas Otis of Boston”), Elizabeth Brown died 18 Apr 1839 at age eighty-two.

That same genealogical book says that Elizabeth and Leonard Brown had a son, also named Leonard, born around 1777. He lived until 1848 and was survived by his widow, Anne. I found gossip about them in Letters of James Savage to His Family, privately printed in 1906. Savage was a genealogist, and in 1842 he went to Britain, determined to track down James Otis’s descendants. Writing from the other Boston, he told his wife what he’d heard about this Leonard Brown: “he was domineered over by his mother, after father’s death, and had only within a short time married his housekeeper or cook, and had no children.” And that was the end of that branch of the Otis family.

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