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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Friday, August 16, 2019

Memories of “Mr. Balch’s Mimickry”

As I detailed yesterday, Nathaniel Balch (shown here, courtesy of Balchipedia) was a hatter. But at heart he was an entertainer, known across Boston for his humor and charm.

When Josiah Quincy, Jr., was traveling in the southern colonies on 6 Mar 1773, he wrote in his diary: “In walking with ——— occurred a singular event, of which Balch could make a humorous story.” Unfortunately, Quincy didn’t record that event and we don’t know what Balch made of it.

Most of our descriptions of Balch come from after independence, when he became known as a bosom friend of Gov. John Hancock. The French political reformer Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) wrote of an encounter in 1788: “Governor Hancock…has the virtues and the address of popularism; that is to say, that without effort he shews himself the equal and the friend of all. I supped at his house with a hatter, who appeared to be in great familiarity with him.”

The most lively pictures of Balch appear in the memoirs of men writing in the mid-1800s who had been boys growing up in Hancock’s Boston. E. S. Thomas wrote about Gov. Hancock in 1840:
He was very fond of joke and repartee, so much so, that a worthy citizen of Boston, Nathaniel Balch, Esq., a hatter, who never failed to appear among the invited guests at his hospitable board, obtained the unenvied appellation of “the Governor’s Jester.
Sidney Willard wrote in 1855:
For his three-cornered hat, his cocked hat, my father resorted to Nathan Balch, a very worthy and respectable man, sometimes irreverently called Nat. Balch; a frequent guest of Governor Hancock, and entertainer of his other guests, adding zest to the viands and the vina at the dinner-board by anecdotes and stories, mimetric [sic] art, humor, witticism, and song, drawn from his inexhaustible storehouse.
And Samuel Breck’s posthumously published memoir said:
We had a medley of eccentric tradesmen in Boston in 1788, who were a compound of flat simplicity in manners and acute cleverness in conversation, shrewd, perhaps somewhat cunning; often witty; always smart and intelligent.

…above all, Balch, the hatter. His shop was the principal lounge even of the first people in the town. Governor Hancock, when the gout permitted, resorted to this grand rendezvous, and there exchanged jokes with Balch and his company, or, as sometimes happened, discussed grave political subjects, and, tout en badinant, settled leading principles of his administration.
So what material did Balch pull out for the Sons of Liberty dinner in August 1769, with more than three hundred of Boston’s leading gentlemen present?

According to John Adams:
After Dinner was over and the Toasts drank we were diverted with Mr. Balch’s Mimickry. He gave Us, the Lawyers Head, and the Hunting of a Bitch fox.
Hmm. I guess you had to be there.

TOMORROW: The party’s over.

2 comments:

Don Carleton said...

Fox hunting humor may be out of fashion, but lawyer jokes are perennial!

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, I'm sure John Adams really enjoyed hearing those.