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, November 19, 2019

“A family mansion with a history of the stirring times”

Yesterday I quoted a letter that appeared in the Boston Evening Traveler on the day after the centenary of the Boston Tea Party. It described how a young woman named Sarah Bradlee helped prepare her four brothers and future husband to disguise themselves as they destroyed the tea and to conceal themselves afterward.

That letter offered no evidence for its story beyond the belief of a descendant, and there were discrepancies between its details and the historical record. Nonetheless, a young Bostonian named Samuel Bradlee Doggett picked up on the tale. He spent decades repeating, and perhaps improving, the account.

In his 1894 book A History of the Doggett-Daggett Family, Doggett described himself this way:
Born [29 May 1858] and always living in a family mansion with a history of the stirring times of the Revolution, and associated in early life with those who could tell of those times, he developed an interest in ancestry, which resulted first in a short account of the Bradlee family, printed in 1878, and since that time in the accumulation of material for the present work.
The house Doggett referred to appears above in a photograph from the Digital Commonwealth collection. Nathaniel Bradlee built that home about 1770, and it stood on the corner of Hollis and what became Tremont Street until 1898.

The Traveler letter said Sarah Bradlee was active “at her father’s house,” which would have been difficult since he’d lived in Dorchester and died five years before. Doggett fixed that by stating that Bradlee had disguised the men in her brother’s house—the very house he lived in.

As a genealogist Doggett also corrected the timing of Sarah Bradlee’s marriage. She and her husband, John Fulton, married more than a decade before the Tea Party rather than afterward. In Doggett’s telling, the fact that she lived in Medford and had small children didn’t stop her from going to her brother-in-law’s house in Boston to help on the night of the Tea Party.

Doggett first printed his version of the lore as a single sentence in his History of the Bradley Family (1878), quoting from the Traveler letter (while leaving out the awkward incongruous bits). A few years later he communicated with Francis S. Drake, who retold the story in Tea Leaves (1884), incorporating detail that first appeared in the Traveler letter.

According to Drake, all four Bradlee brothers “lived in the house yet standing, on the southerly corner of Hollis and Tremont Streets.” (Nathaniel did, and Josiah, aged nineteen, might have. David and Thomas were married with families and homes of their own.) The Tea Leaves version:
Their sister, Sarah, assisted her husband, John Fulton, and her brothers, to disguise themselves, having made preparations for the emergency a day or two beforehand, and afterwards followed them to the wharf, and saw the tea thrown into the dock. Soon returning, she had hot water in readiness for them when they arrived, and assisted in removing the paint from their faces. As the story goes, before they could change their clothes, a British officer looked in to see if the young men were at home, having a suspicion that they were in the tea business. He found them in bed, and to all appearance asleep, they having slipped into bed without removing their “toggery,” and feigning sleep. The officer departed satisfied. Mrs. Fulton helped to dress the wounds of the soldiers who were in the battle of Bunker Hill. She died in Medford, Mass., in 1836, and is the authority for the above statement.
Since Doggett wasn’t born until 1858, there must have been some intervening transmission to him. There were direct descendants old enough to have heard from Sarah Bradlee Fulton herself, such as grandson John A. Fulton of Cambridge.

The most dramatic detail of this story—how “a British officer looked in” suspiciously—makes little sense since in 1773 the one British regiment in Massachusetts was stationed out on Castle Island. Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie provided a report on the tea destruction for the royal government from that perspective, but he wrote nothing about officers searching houses in Boston.

Other versions of the tale presented that detail in different ways. The 1873 Traveler version said, “a spy or officer…put his head within the door.” In an 1893 Boston Post article that referenced Doggett, “an indignant Britisher…insisted on doing a thorough search.” An 1897 article for the American Monthly magazine by Helen Tilden Wild, reprinted in the Medford Historical Society Papers, said, “a spy…peered in at the kitchen window.”

In 1896 a number of American newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald, printed an article describing a conversation with Doggett, his father, and John A. Fulton at age 91. The writer presented Sarah Bradlee Fulton’s story in her voice, not saying whether her descendants supplied those words or the journalist came up with them. In this version, “some soldiers or spies” came into the kitchen of that old house on Hollis and Tremont. Again, there was no evidence offered to corroborate that detail beyond the belief of descendants and its dramatic power.

TOMORROW: The legends of Sarah Bradlee Fulton.

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