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, November 21, 2019

Inspecting the Tea Party House

In the 1890s the old Bradlee house at the corner of Hollis and Tremont Streets became known as the “Tea Party House.” Until it was leveled in 1898, it was on lists of what tourists should see in Boston. Even after that, people sold souvenir photos and postcards. The Bradlee home was a setting in the 1899 teen novel When Boston Braved the King.

All that celebrity was based entirely on stories that Sarah Bradlee Fulton’s family shared with the world starting in 1873 but really taking off after 1884. As I’ve noted, there’s no documentation to support the stories.

So what do I make of the family lore about Fulton, particularly that she, her husband, and her brothers participated in the Boston Tea Party?

On the one hand, there’s definite contemporaneous evidence that Sarah’s brother David was involved in the Revolutionary movement. He was sued for tarring and feathering a Customs sailor. He saw another Customs man aim a gun at him. He lifted Crispus Attucks’s body off King Street. You can’t get more involved in the street-level resistance than that.

Furthermore, as I’ll discuss tomorrow, David Bradlee remained part of that crowd of pushy mechanics-class Patriots as the war began. So if I wanted someone to toss the East India Company’s tea into the harbor in 1773, Bradlee would be one of the first guys I’d go to.

On the other hand, no one publicly connected the Bradlee family to the Tea Party in the first century after the event. David Bradlee lived until 1811. He and his sons remained prominent in Boston’s business community and civic government well into the nineteenth century. If they talked about him helping to destroy the tea, Benjamin Russell or whoever else published the first list of Tea Partiers in 1835 would probably have heard about it.

Likewise, there’s no question that Sarah Bradlee Fulton lived through the American Revolution. She had brothers in Boston during the most tumultuous years. Her house in Medford was close to the siege lines. As a wife, mother, and farmer, she undoubtedly went through a lot of anxiety, and it would be great to know what she experienced. That doesn’t mean she disguised her brothers to look like Indians, scared off British soldiers, or carried secret messages across the Charles River for George Washington.

In the end, I’m not convinced by the legends of Sarah Bradlee Fulton. I can’t disprove them, but that’s not my job. It’s the responsibility of authors retelling those stories to assess and support them with evidence, and the mere fact that some of her descendants grew up hearing those narratives isn’t enough to convince me.

For me the stories about Sarah Bradlee Fulton, her husband, her brothers, and her punchbowl fit into a genre I call “grandmother’s tales.” Fulton was indeed a grandmother, widowed in 1790 and probably helping to raise descendants for her remaining forty-six years. I suspect she told her grandchildren and great-grandchildren stories of the Revolution, inspired by history but exaggerated, massaged, or wholly invented for better effect. Fulton wasn’t necessarily aiming to put herself and her family into the history books. She simply wanted to entertain, education, and inspire those children at home.

But then those children grew up with Grandma’s stories as part of their understanding of their family and their country. As adults, with the centenary of the Revolution coming around, they retold those stories for the public. Because they believed those stories and believed they were important.

With enough insistent retelling, those tales found a wider audience in post-Centennial Massachusetts and America. They hit a chord with the public, especially women looking for a model female Patriot of a certain type.

Meanwhile, evidence for David Bradlee’s street actions, which frankly weren’t so savory, was confined to archives. In 1965 The Legal Papers of John Adams included the documents linking Bradlee to the George Gailer and Ebenezer Richardson mobbings. It took another thirty-five years before someone [well, me] wrote an article stringing all his appearances together. But his sister Sarah was already famous.

TOMORROW: David Bradlee in and after the war.

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