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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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Seeking a Clear Image of Moll Pitcher

To figure out what sort of fortune-telling Mary “Moll” Pitcher of Lynn did requires getting around the romanticized descriptions and legends that grew over the nineteenth century.

For example, in Moll Pitcher’s Prophecies; or, The American Sibyl (1895), Ellen M. Griffin claimed that Maj. John Pitcairn visited Pitcher on 17 Apr 1775, and she took information about the march to Concord that she gained from him to the Marblehead Patriot Elbridge Gerry. (Who was actually out of town that week.)

Likewise, there was a widely commonly reprinted picture of Pitcher, shown here. People who had actually seen her in life said it was a terrible likeness. Authors wrote that she was thin, with “a long Athenian nose,” and as she aged “Her nose became peaked and her features seemed to lengthen.” An 1879 profile said, “Her most habitual mode of covering her head, and one perhaps peculiar to herself, was to bind a black silk handkerchief about her forehead.” Nothing of the sort shown in the picture.

That mythologizing process started even in Pitcher’s lifetime. The only reference to her fortune-telling that I’ve found from before her death in 1813 is a series of letters published in the Boston Weekly Magazine. These started as a debate between the fashionable Boston woman Mary Ann Smartly and the Lynn Quaker Rebecca Plainly. The 26 Feb 1803 Smartly letter says:
And now to address you in your own shocking style.—Good Rebecca, (lord, what an old fashioned name) how knowest thou that my wig is red? Hast thou been to Moll Pitcher, to know what colour it is of? Pray thee, how much did it cost thee and the old witch to ascertain the colour of my wig? For I suppose it is some trouble to Mrs. Pitcher, to conjure up her infernal agents.
A Plainly letter dated 6 March likewise alluded to “Moll Pitcher.” And then on 2 April the magazine published a letter dated from Lynn on 17 March with Moll Pitcher’s name at the bottom. That was a protest against her being misrepresented, using Christian language and allusions. It also mentioned having read Hannah More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, published in England four years before.

For all of this Moll Pitcher’s protests against people misusing her name, I can’t help but suspect that the real Mary Pitcher of Lynn wasn’t involved in that debate at all. The correspondents and their letters all appear to be literary creations. Smartly and Plainly were voices for an ongoing philosophical debate, and whoever wrote the Moll Pitcher letters appears to have treated her as equally symbolic, even though the real woman was still active.

When Pitcher died, the Rev. William Bentley of Salem wrote in his diary for 19 May 1813:
The death of Widow Mary Pitcher, aet. [aged] 75, in Lynn furnishes two facts to the World. This woman has been commonly resorted to by this neighbourhood as a fortune teller & died in the full reputation of her skill. Some dared to insinuate she was a Witch, but there was no fire or halter in the Law for her. Superstition in this sort is still general among seamen & even among such as are not of the lowest order of them. It is a more pleasing circumstance attending the death of “Mother Pitcher” as she is commonly named by those who call upon her, that her death is said to be the only one in Lynn, for five months past from a population exceeding 4 thousand.
The basic source about Mary Pitcher is Alonzo Lewis’s history of Lynn, published in 1829, revised in 1844, and re-edited by later scholars. Lewis saw Pitcher personally as a child, and his attitude toward her was neither credulous nor disdainful. I quoted what he first wrote about Moll Pitcher a couple of days ago. According to him, “Her only ostensible means of obtaining secret knowledge” was reading tea leaves.

Lewis described people coming to Pitcher with three main questions:
  • “affairs of love.” Yet I haven’t come across a single anecdote about this sort of prophecy.
  • “loss of property.” In his History of the Town of Groton (1848), Caleb Butler wrote that Pitcher was “employed in the search” for valuable millstones lost when a flood destroyed a gristmill around 1700; however, the stones were never found.
  • “surmises respecting the vicissitudes of their future fortune,” particularly ocean voyages. Many sailors visited Pitcher, as did eccentric leather-dresser and merchant “Lord” Timothy Dexter after his first fortune-teller of choice, Jane Hooper of Newburyport, died in 1798.
Pitcher’s pronouncements could affect the maritime labor market. In the first volume of his Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817), Amasa Delano wrote about the grand ship Massachusetts, launched from Quincy in 1789 to trade with China under captain Job Prince and supercargo Samuel Shaw. It didn’t actually set out until the following year. Why?
It is worthy of remark that the Massachusetts had more than three crews shipped before she sailed from Boston. The greatest part of them left the ship in consequence of a prediction by an old woman, a fortune teller, Moll Pitcher of Lynn, that the Massachusetts would be lost, and every man on board of her. Such was the superstition of our seamen at that time, that the majority of them believed the prophecy, and were actuated by it in their conduct.
Ten years later George Whitney wrote in Some Account of the Early History and Present State of the Town of Quincy, “It is commonly reported that this ship was lost in her first voyage. This, however, is not true. The report probably arose from a prediction, of Moll Pitcher of Lynn, a fortune-teller, that she would be lost and every man in her.” And from the fact that the Massachusetts never did return to America; Shaw sold the ship to some even more desperate Danish merchants in the Pacific.

TOMORROW: Visiting Moll Pitcher.


G. Lovely said...

I trust Mr. Shaw did not part with the Massachusetts at a loss.

I only regret that with my last name I was not involved in the exchange between misses Smartly and Plainly.

J. L. Bell said...

The Danish East India Company paid $65,000 for the Massachusetts, but I don't know how much it cost to build. That trading voyage was a business failure, and future China Trade investors chose smaller ships and made sure to bring furs from the Pacific Northwest rather than the general assortment of goods Shaw sailed with and then couldn’t sell.