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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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Abraham Merriam and “envy against his father-in-law”

Yesterday I noted Sarah McDonough’s recent blog post for the Lexington Historical Society about how the notorious Levi Ames had robbed the house of the Rev. Jonas Clarke in the spring of 1773.

Alexander Cain, who knows more than a bit about Lexington, also wrote about Ames’s nefarious activity in that town last March at Historical Nerdery.

Cain drew particular attention to this passage from Ames’s autobiographical confession:
I stole ten or eleven dollars from Mr Symonds, of Lexington, whose son-in-law, Mr. Meriam, while I was in prison, informed me where the money was and how to get it, but he never received any of it; I supposed he gave me this information through envy against his father-in-law, through whose means he was then confined for debt.
Naturally, I was curious about the family dynamics there. Who were “Mr Symonds” and “Mr. Meriam”? Did a man put his son-in-law in jail for debt? Did the debtor just grouse about all the money his wife’s father had at home, or was Ames accurate about his fellow prisoner wanting him to rob a particular house?

Cain quoted a line from Clarke’s diary offering one lead: “Mr. Joseph Simond’s House broke open his watch stolen &c.” However, the only Joseph Simonds I could find in town that year, a militia lieutenant during the siege of Boston, was too young to have had a son-in-law. In addition, Ames was clear about robbing “ten or eleven dollars from Mr Symonds,” not a watch.

Instead, I think Ames’s victim was Daniel Simonds (1693-1777), whose daughter Sarah (1739-1805) married Abraham Merriam (1734-1797). There were a lot of Simondses and Merriams in and around Lexington at the time, but this family seems like the best candidate for that tale.

Ames spoke of two stretches in jail (or “goal,” as New Englanders then spelled it) before his final one. Once he was jailed “at Cambridge,” and once he was “in Concord goal.” Ames didn’t specify dates or when he met “Mr. Meriam,” but both those jails served Middlsex County, which included Lexington and its neighbors.

Though born in Lexington, Alexander Merriam was listed as “of Concord” when he married Sarah Simonds on 22 Apr 1756. The couple had children on a regular schedule: Abraham (1757), Ezra (1760), Silas (1762), Sarah (1766), Jonas (1769), Abigail (1772), and so on.

Notably, two of the last three children were listed in the Lexington town records as having been born in Woburn. The Merriams were living in one town while attending church in another. For a farmer to do that suggests that Abraham didn’t own enough land to support himself and was working for someone else.

Indeed, in a 2012 report for the Lexington Historical Society titled Research for the Re-Interpretation of the Buckman Tavern, Lexington, Massachusetts: Conceptions of Liberty, Mary B. Fuhrer discussed Abraham Merriam among the “Truly Poor Men in Lexington’s 1774 Valuation.” She wrote:
Abraham Merriam, 40, was one of six sons. His father Jonas was still alive in 1774, but appears to have sold his land. Since all of Abraham’s brothers moved away by 1774, it is probable that his father sold his estate and divided it equally among his many sons to allow them to purchase frontier estates elsewhere. . . . This appears to be a case where there were simply too many sons to allow any one to be favored with the homestead and still have enough resources left to provide for all the others.
We get another glimpse of Abraham Merriam’s financial situation in this document owned by the Lexington Historical Society and nicely digitized for our enjoyment. It’s a bond dated May 1771, by which Merriam borrowed £100 from Benjamin Waldo of Boston, promising to pay that sum back with interest within a year or be liable for £200. Waldo was a well established merchant captain and fireward. One of the witnesses to that bond was Daniel Simonds, Merriam’s father-in-law.

On the back of that document are notations of the payments Waldo received. None came from Abraham Merriam (at least directly), and none came on time. Instead, the first payments starting in 1774 were from Nathaniel Simonds, Sarah Merriam’s brother.

Was this the debt that landed Abraham Merriam in jail? Or was this big loan an attempt to consolidate debts after a jail term and start over? What responsibility did Daniel Simonds bear for that debt—did he push his son-in-law into taking out that loan, or was his son-in-law simply upset that the older man didn’t dip into the pile of cash in his house to repay it? Did Jonas Merriam sell his son Abraham’s inheritance to get him out of debtor‘s prison? Barring more family documents, we won’t know.

And how did that situation appear to Sarah Merriam? In 1772 her son Jonas died, but she still had five children to care for, including a newborn. Abraham had evidently been in debtor’s prison at least once. And then in 1773 Levi Ames’s confession was published, airing the accusation (no doubt easily deciphered by folks in Lexington) that her husband had set up her father to be robbed.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

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