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, February 12, 2019

“She had no Idea of being with child”

On 10 Feb 1788, Abigail Adams wrote from London to her sister Mary Cranch in Braintree that she was “very near when I am to quit this country.”

It was one day short of four years since Adams had first written about bringing John Briesler to Europe as a family servant—“as good a servant as ever Bore the Name,” she now called him.

In Britain, Adams, knew, the thirty-one-year-old Briesler had developed a relationship with another of the family servants: Esther Field, still only twenty-three.

But a few days before her letter, Field had broken the news that she was several months pregnant. Adams wrote:
I must believe that she had no Idea of being with child, untill the day before she came in the utmost distress to beg me to forgive her, and tho I knew that it was their intention to marry when they should return to America Yet so totally blinded was I, & my physician too, that we never once suspected her any more than she did herself, but this was oweing to her former ill state of Health.
Because Field had often been ill during their European travels, Adams was very worried that she wouldn’t survive childbirth: “her Life has been put in Jeopardy, as many others have before her, ignorantly done.” What was even more dangerous, the baby was due to come while the family would be at sea. “I look upon her situation as a very dangerous one.”

Adams quickly took steps. She told her sister, “I have engaged an Elderly woman to go out with me, who formerly belonged to Boston, and I hear there is an other woman going as a stearige passenger.” Thus, there would be at least two women aboard ship experienced in childbirth who could help Field when she went into labor.

Adams asked Cranch to break the news to Field’s mother in Braintree, but “do not let any thing of what I have written be known to any body but her mother.” Adams added, “poor Brisler looks so humble and is so attentive, so faithfull & so trust worthy, that I am willing to do all I can for them.”

Five days after that letter, Esther Field and John Briesler married at the St. Marylebone Church outside London. (That building, taken down in 1949, appears in the photo above.) As Adams anticipated, the couple’s child was born at sea in May. The parents named her Elizabeth.

Esther Briesler’s own parents, John and Abigail Field, had married in Braintree on 12 Apr 1744 and become parents that June, so they couldn’t really complain about the timing of their daughter’s nuptials—if they even knew when the wedding had taken place. They might just have been pleased to see Esther come home.

The Brieslers and their employers, John and Abigail Adams, couldn’t stay in Braintree for long. Within a year of their return, John had been elected Vice President of the United States. And he wanted his manservant John Briesler to come with him to New York.

TOMORROW: Can this marriage be saved?

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