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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Monday, October 31, 2022

“My desire is to restore to them the blessings of law and liberty”

Zoffany's portrait of King George III, wearing a red coat and seated at a gilded table
On 31 Oct 1776, Parliament opened a new legislative session. King George III addressed the assembled House of Commons and House of Lords.

The king spoke on behalf of the current government’s leaders, particularly prime minister Lord North and the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord George Germain.

The king strongly agreed with those men, so the remarks also reflected his own ideas about the American War:
My Lords and Gentlemen,

Nothing could have afforded me so much satisfaction as to have been able to inform you, at the opening of this session, that the troubles, which have so long distracted my colonies in North America, were at an end; and that my unhappy people, recovered from their delusion, had delivered themselves from the oppression of their leaders, and returned to their duty: but so daring and desperate is the spirit of those leaders, whose object has always been dominion and power, that they have now openly renounced all allegiance to the crown, and all political connection with this country; they have rejected, with circumstances of indignity and insult, the means of conciliation held out to them under the authority of our commission; and have presumed to set up their rebellious confederacies for independent states.

If their treason be suffered to take root, much mischief must grow from it, to the safety of my loyal colonies, to the commerce of my kingdoms, and indeed to the present system of all Europe. One great advantage, however, will be derived from the object of the rebels being openly avowed, and clearly understood; we shall have unanimity at home, founded in the general conviction of the justice and necessity of our measures.

I am happy to inform you, that, by the blessing of Divine Providence on the good conduct and valour of my officers and forces by sea and land, and on the zeal and bravery of the auxiliary troops in my service, Canada is recovered; and although, from unavoidable delays, the operations at New York could not begin before the month of August, the success in that province has been so important as to give the strongest hopes of the most decisive good consequences: but, notwithstanding this fair prospect, we must, at all events, prepare for another campaign.
In fact, three days before Gen. Sir William Howe had won a solid victory at the Battle of White Plains, part of the Crown’s recovery of New York City and Long Island into the British Empire. But of course that news hadn’t reached London yet.

After directing a request to continue funding the war through taxes to the Commons, as the British constitution required, the king concluded:
In this arduous contest I can have no other object but to promote the true interest of all my subjects. No people ever enjoyed more happiness, or lived under a milder government, than those now revolted provinces: the improvements in every art, of which they boast, declare it; their numbers, their wealth, their strength by sea and land, which they think sufficient to enable them to make head against the whole power of the mother-country, are irrefragable proofs of it. My desire is to restore to them the blessings of law and liberty, equally enjoyed by every British subject, which they have fatally and desperately exchanged for all the calamities of war, and the arbitrary tyranny of their chiefs.
Not everyone in the chamber agreed with that perspective.

TOMORROW: The Rockinghamites strike back.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

“To Begin the World Again” in Boston

Starting next week, the Associates of the Boston Public Library will host free performances of Ian Ruskin’s one-person show, To Begin the World Again: The Life of Thomas Paine.

The show description says:
Through his portrayal of this pivotal patriot, Ruskin will provide audiences with an intimate insight into Paine’s life and his important role in bringing about revolutionary changes in the world. The play’s period costuming and props, the soundtrack of original music by Joe Romano, and the sound effects by Keith Robinson will add immediacy and intimacy to Ruskin’s powerful performance.
Like Paine, Ruskin started his career in Britain before coming to America, in his case in 1985. He appeared on many television shows, often playing “the intelligent villain,” as his website says. (There are advantages to a British accent in our culture.)

Ruskin has developed at least three one-person shows reflecting his interests in history and social justice; the subjects beside Paine include labor leader Harry Bridges and inventor Nikola Tesla.

There will be two in-person performances in Rabb Hall of the Boston Public Library’s central branch:
  • Tuesday, 1 November, 10:00 A.M.
  • Wednesday, 2 November, 6:00 P.M.
At the second performance, Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, will introduce the show and connect it to today’s issues. He is the author of, among other books, How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy.

Reserve tickets for those live performances through this page. Folks can also tune into showings of a prerecorded performance on 3–9 November. Again, that requires tickets, but the tickets are free.

(Some folks might remember the film of To Begin the World Again directed by Haskell Wexler, which aired on PBS for several years. These performances are, of course, Ruskin’s latest iteration.)

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Digging into the Archeology of the Revolution

Here are a couple of items from Revolutionary War archeology.

After the Battles of Saratoga, the “Convention Army” of Crown prisoners of war marched to eastern Massachusetts, where they were supposed to board ships for Britain.

Instead, the Continental Congress decided to toss out the surrender agreement between Gens. Horatio Gates and John Burgoyne and keep those men (and not a few women and children traveling with them) in inland parts of the U.S. of A.

Hundreds of people were still held captive in Charlottesville, Virginia, in early 1781 before being moved north to York, Pennsylvania. In what became Springettsbury township, the Continental authorities built a compound of huts surrounded by a stockade fence that was named Camp Security.

The next year, hundreds more Crown prisoners, this time from the Yorktown surrender, also arrived in the area. More huts went up, many outside the stockade for people who didn’t seem to warrant strict surveillance; that area got the name of “Camp Indulgence.”

When the formal end of war finally arrived, those prisoners were freed to go back to Europe or make new homes in America. Locals quickly reclaimed the land and the wood. But the memory of the prison camp remained. Unlike other former prisoner-of-war camp sites from the Revolution, the land that Camp Security sat on was never heavily developed.

Eventually people moved to preserve the site, now property of the township. Locals formed the Friends of Camp Security. The Conservation Fund added to the protected land.

A 1979 archeological study found buckles, buttons, and other items linked to British soldiers, confirming local lore about the location of the P.O.W. camp. This week researcher John Crawmer announced that his team had located part of the stockade wall, identifying a “pattern of holes and a stockade trench that matched stockades at other 18th-century military sites.” Next season those archeologists will try to determine the full dimensions of the stockade and search for other features.

In other news, this past summer a different team found the remains of thirteen Hessian soldiers killed in the Battle of Red Bank, New Jersey, in October 1777. That was the same time the “Convention Army” was moving east toward Boston.

Emerging Revolutionary War will host a conversation with one of those archeologists, Wade Catts, to learn about the discovery and what it might say about those soldiers.

That event will be live on Facebook on Sunday, 30 October, starting at 7:00 P.M. The conversation will also be recorded and made available through Emerging Revolutionary War’s Facebook and YouTube accounts.

Friday, October 28, 2022

“Battle of Red Horse Tavern” in Sudbury, 29 Oct.

On Saturday, 29 October, the Wayside Inn in Sudbury will host the annual Revolutionary War reenactment known as the “Battle of Red Horse Tavern.”

As organized primarily by the Sudbury Companies of Militia & Minute, this event isn’t an attempt to recreate a specific historic battle. Rather, it depicts a typical skirmish around a country tavern commanding a useful road.

The event page promises colonial music, sutlers selling stuff, handcrafts demonstrations, cannon firing, and lots of reenactors.

There are two scheduled engagements, one at 11:15 A.M. in the south field and a larger one at 1:30 P.M. beginning at the inn and moving to the east field across the street. At other times, there may be smaller scenarios for visitors and the reenactors to enjoy, and people can view the camps.

The Wayside Inn can provide sit-down meals and drinks, as well as restrooms and souvenirs. Within walking distance are are related historic buildings preserved by Henry Ford, including a chapel, schoolhouse, and grist mill.

This event is free and open to the public. There are designated parking areas to keep the roads safe. Prepare for New England fall weather, including possible damp grass.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Four Decades of “Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector”

I’ve been discussing the historical background behind Lillian de la Torre’s mystery short story, “The Great Seal of England.”

In 1943 De la Torre was in her forties and known around Colorado Springs as Lillian McCue, wife of a Colorado College professor. Then she sold that story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

That launched De la Torre’s career as a writer. She was an Ellery Queen favorite for the next four decades. A couple of years after that first sale, she even visited Hollywood to consult on some movies. Eventually she served a year as president of the Mystery Writers of America.

With her “Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector” stories, Lillian De la Torre invented a new subgenre of whodunnits. Although Melville Davisson Post had written Uncle Abner mysteries set in the ante-bellum past starting in 1911, De le Torre innovated by basing her “detector” and the characters around him on actual historical figures, and crafting her plots around real events.

De la Torre’s first published book was a fictionalized analysis of what happened to Elizabeth Canning in 1753, called Elizabeth Is Missing. She wrote other books in this vein, such as The Heir of Douglas. Though these were originally published as fiction, De la Torre believed she had identified the correct solutions to those historical enigmas, and they’re now presented as “definitive accounts” of the underlying events. (Other authors would differ.)

For her stories about Dr. Johnson, De la Torre had the advantage of James Boswell’s extensive writings about the man. She produced an entertaining pastiche of Boswell’s voice, including not only his language and details but even dialogue structure.

To her credit, De la Torre also recognized the limitations of that narrative approach, as when Johnson’s other and closer biographer, Hester Thrale Piozzi, makes an appearance. “Boswell did not like Mrs. Thrale,” the author noted in an afterword; “he considered her his rival for ‘that great man.’” (Adam Gopnik wrote about Johnson and Thrale for the New Yorker.)

The stories jump around in time to take advantage of different events in George III’s realm. Some involve figures from the American Revolution, such as waxwork artist and spy Patience Wright and scientist and diplomat Benjamin Franklin. Mike Grost noted that De la Torre wrote about thefts as often as murders.

In some ways, De la Torre’s stories show the biases of her own time. Dr. Johnson had a servant and heir named Francis Barber (shown above), who had been freed from slavery in Jamaica. De la Torre brought Barber onto the scene in her first published story, but gave him no more life than a piece of furniture. Not until “The Blackamoor Unchain’d” (1974) did he become a full character, and then only for one tale. These days I’m sure authors would see much more potential in Barber’s own life.

There were four collections of De la Torre’s “Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector” stories, and the Mysterious Press has reissued them in digital form:
As of this writing, they’re on sale at a discounted price on the major ebook platforms.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

“The tantalizingly respectable reticence of contemporary chroniclers”

In addition to the theft of the Great Seal of Britain, discussed yesterday, the writer Lillian de la Torre took inspiration from two other details of the life of Baron Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor in 1784.

One was this fact, as De la Torre noted it at the start of her mystery story:
In August of that year, Lord Chancellor Thurlow very graciously intimated to the friends of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson that that learned philosopher might draw against him at need for as much as £600.
James Boswell mentioned that offer of credit in his Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D. In an 1831 edition John Wilson Croker discussed it at more length, printing documents and his own acerbic commentary (“It is strange that Sir John Hawkins should have related… The editor cannot guess why Mr. Boswell did not print his own letter…”).

The circumstances were not actually that mysterious. In early 1784 Dr. Johnson, aged seventy-five, had a serious health crisis. His friends wanted him to take a trip to Italy to recover. Money was tight. Boswell and others hoped the government would increase the pension granted to Johnson for his work as a lexicographer and propagandist during the American war.

In July Boswell wrote to Thurlow, asking for that favor. Thurlow responded positively. In a conversation with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Lord Chancellor offered to personally loan Johnson the money, based on a mortgage against his future pension. Thurlow later said he was trying to get the lexicographer money quickly rather than wait through the uncertain pension process.

Dr. Johnson declined the offer when he learned about it. He never set out for Italy. He died on 13 December.

The other detail of Thurlow’s life that De La Torre used involved his household. The Lord Chancellor lived with a woman called “Mrs. Hervey” and had children by her, all illegitimate. This didn’t seem to affect his government career, social standing, or visits from his brother, an Anglican bishop. Thurlow did have to pass on one of his baronies to a nephew.

Because Thurlow’s children weren’t legitimate, it’s hard to find vital information about them. De la Torre wrote:
The tantalizingly respectable reticence of contemporary chroniclers about Thurlow’s irregular household has forced me to invent his daughters, known to me by name alone, out of whole cloth.
Her story’s characters include Catharine, aged eighteen, and Caroline, “not more than fifteen,” while a younger sister is off with her mother at Bath.

Genealogists have since nailed down when those daughters were born:
  • Caroline in 1772.
  • Catherine in 1776.
  • Maria in 1781.
That accords with a picture George Romney painted of the two older girls around 1783, shown above courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

However, it doesn’t accord with De la Torre’s story, set in 1784. Her mystery depends on the two oldest girls being adolescent at the time of the Great Seal theft with Dr. Johnson still alive. Such is the challenge of writing historical fiction with imperfect historical sources.

Had De la Torre but known the actual ages of Thurlow’s daughters, she may never have imagined her debut story “The Great Seal of England” as she did. Or she might have proceeded with the same plot and added a note informing readers about how she’d shifted from strict historical accuracy, as she did in this very story in regard to the last hanging at Tyburn. Such is the freedom of writing historical fiction.

TOMORROW: De la Torre’s books.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Who “stole the great seal of England”?

Edward Thurlow (1731–1806, shown here) entered Parliament in 1765 and quickly made a name for himself as a Tory by defending the government’s actions to keep John Wilkes from taking his seat.

When Lord North became prime minister, he appointed Thurlow the solicitor-general of Great Britain. A year later the man became attorney-general, and in that role was involved in the discussions about which individuals could be tried for the Boston Tea Party and other resistance.

In 1778, at the urging of of King George III, Thurlow was made a baron, a member of the Privy Council, and the Lord Chancellor. The last post had a variety of duties, one of which was to look after the Great Seal used to signal that laws and commissions had received government approval.

Thurlow remained Lord Chancellor after Lord North’s fall and through the Whiggish governments that negotiated the Treaty of Paris. When a coalition of Charles James Fox and Lord North made the Duke of Portland prime minister in April 1783, Thurlow was replaced by a committee, but at the end of the year William Pitt the Younger first came to power and reinstated him.

Thus, as of March 1784 the Great Seal of Britain was back in Thurlow’s keeping. It was a gold disk, about six inches across, engraved with images and symbols of the king and the words “GEORGIVS III DEI GRATIA MAGNÆ BRITANNIÆ FRANCIÆ ET HIBERNIÆ REX FIDEI DEFENSOR” (George III, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith).

On 23 March, someone broke into Baron Thurlow’s mansion on Great Ormond Street in London and stole the gold seal, along with some money and two swords with silver hilts.

One might think that government ministers, especially those overseeing the judicial system, would be secure from such break-ins. But people of the time don’t show much surprise that crime could affect the Lord Chancellor. Indeed, back in the fall of 1774 Lord North himself had been the victim of a highway robbery while traveling from London to Oxfordshire.

Some folks speculated that there was a political reason for the theft. It was a remarkable coincidence that the seal disappeared on 23 March just as Parliament was clearly about to dissolve. Did some political actors take the seal to delay that action and the new parliamentary elections to follow? Or perhaps Thurlow didn’t notice the seal was missing until he checked for it on that date.

As it turned out, the loss of the seal had no official effect. The government just commissioned a new one with the year “1784” added in several places. That was in Thurlow’s hands by 25 March as the king officially dissolved Parliament. Another new seal, this one engraved with more care, was unveiled the next spring. By then Pitt had won a big majority and was firmly in power.

Still, lack of evidence didn’t stop prose and graphic satirists from accusing prominent Whigs like Fox of stealing the seal. If not to delay the election, then for its monetary value.

British reference books say the real seal thieves were never found. However, at All Things Georgian, Sarah Murden noted an item from the 21 April Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser:
William Vandeput was on Monday committed to New Gaol, Southwark, where he is now doubled ironed, on a charge of burglary in the house of the Lord Chancellor, and stealing there-out the Great Seal. A Jew in Petticoat Lane was yesterday apprehended, on an information against him for having purchased and melted the Great Seal into an ingot; but while he was conducting to the Rotation Office in Southwark, for examination, he was released from the Peace Officer by eight ruffians. The Jew melted the seal, while the robbers remained in his house.
The Lewis Walpole Library shares a broadside describing the execution of nine men on 1 Dec 1785. Those include Vandeput, identified as “by trade a jeweler, born of creditable parents.” He had been convicted with two other men of stealing silk from a warehouse. But the broadside added:
He was the person who broke open the Lord Chancellor’s house, and stole the great seal of England. For this fact he was tried, but for want of sufficient evidence, acquitted.
Thus, even if that theft officially remains unsolved, people blamed William Vandeput for it.

TOMORROW: Thurlow’s loan and Thurlow’s daughters.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Lillian de la Torre and “the ‘detector’ possibilities”

Lillian de la Torre Bueno (1902–1993) grew up in Manhattan reading mystery stories. After teaching in the New York schools for a few years, she earned master’s degrees from two Ivy League universities. At the age of thirty she appears to have put aside her own academic aspirations to marry a fellow graduate student, George McCue.

The McCues moved west to Colorado College, where George became a professor of English. Lillian took on the no-longer-current role of faculty wife. With no children to look after, she helped to found a local choir and joined an amateur theater company. Over time she taught some courses and helped other professors with their research—for example, she worked with Prof. Lewis Knapp on the life of Tobias Smollett, identifying some forged letters.

Around the time she turned forty, Lillian McCue embarked on a writing career that combined her interests in mystery stories and British history. She later told the scholar Douglas G. Greene that one early inspiration was John Dickson Carr’s book The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1931), a nonfiction account using the structure of Carr’s whodunnits. Another impetus was a conversation with one of her husband’s colleagues, Prof. Frank Krutzke, about “the ‘detector’ possibilities of Dr. Sam: Johnson.”

Lillian McCue had evidently noticed the parallel between the classic detective and sidekick/narrator model, as established by Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Life of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D. by James Boswell. Dr. Samuel Johnson was prodigiously smart, given to cutting remarks and paradoxical advice, and full of quirks, both physical and social. Boswell was an admirer, sometimes exasperated but always loyal, with an eye for detail and a strong prose style. (Boswell’s diaries also disclose enough of his own habits, such as womanizing, to make him more than a mere observer.)

McCue used portions of Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides to fashion a tale in Boswell’s voice about Johnson detecting and foiling an exotic Scottish murderer. In 1943 she made her first sale to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, using the nom de plume Lillian de la Torre. This was a more successful story about “Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector,” titled “The Great Seal of England.” That story begins:
On the night of March 23, 1784, the Great Seal of England was stolen out of Lord Chancellor Thurlow’s house in Great Ormonde Street, and was never seen again.
And indeed that was an actual mystery of the eighteenth century.

TOMORROW: The fate of the great seal.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

New Edition of The Minutemen and Their World

One of the most important books about Revolutionary New England is coming out in early November, and came out almost fifty years ago.

Robert A. Gross published The Minutemen and Their World in 1976. It won the Bancroft Prize and quickly became a fundamental book in thinking about the American Revolution in New England.

There was a 25th-anniversary reissue with a new foreword by Alan Taylor. But next month we’re getting a “Revised and Expanded” edition, which looks much the same from the outside as the previous version but offers more inside.

What does “Revised and Expanded” mean? I don’t think the publisher’s webpage lays out the details fully, perhaps because the changes outstripped the original plan. I’ll quote Bob Gross himself:
This edition has a sharper picture of Concord’s stance in pre-Revolutionary politics up through 1774, particularly in comparison to its neighboring towns (Lexington was militant from the start of protests in 1765, Concord far less so); it presents new material about the tense atmosphere on the eve of April 19, 1775 and in its aftermath; it has new material on enslaved and free people of color; and it offers a fresh picture of Concord's important role as a center for incarcerating prisoners of war.

The book also has a new afterword, in which I set Minutemen in relation to the changing historiography of the Revolution over the decades since it was first published.
For years Gross was review editor for the William & Mary Quarterly, so he got a close-up view of that historiography. Presently his title is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut, but everyone in the field knows him as Bob.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Following News Stories about Historical Memory

In August, I passed on news about the sudden closing of a small post office near James Madison’s Montpelier.

The stated reason was an exhibit on segregation in another part of the building, though that exhibit has been up for years. The action came shortly after a dramatic change of leadership at Montpelier.

The latest report from that part of Virginia is that the post office has reopened as suddenly as it closed.

Another story about how we publicly remember the Revolutionary era that I’ve followed involves the far-from-hagiographic murals about George Washington in San Francisco’s George Washington High School. This month N.P.R. ran a story by Jon Kalish about the choices schools face with those and other historic murals which people find problematic for different reasons.

In addition, a documentary on the Washington High School controversy by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow called “Town Destroyer” premiered in California. Here’s the movie’s trailer.

Closer to home (my home), Christ Church in Cambridge is currently the home for an art installation titled “Here Lies Darby Vassall.” It remembers a man born enslaved in one of the “Tory Row” mansions along Brattle Street before the Revolution. He reportedly met Washington when the general moved into the house where his parents were working.

As an adult Darby Vassall maintained a business in Boston and was active in the local abolitionist movement. He died on the eve of the Civil War and was buried in the tomb of the family that once owned him and his own family.

Nicole Piepenbrink’s art installation “Here Lies Darby Vassall” can be viewed from 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. until 6 November.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Mystery of “Mr. Inspector Williams”

I’ve been laying out a new interpretation of these entries from Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s journal of his trip to London in 1774:
November 17. Proceeded to London, where I arrived about 11 oClock a.m. . . . Was waited upon by Messrs. Thomas Bromfield, and Edward Dilly, and Mr. Jonathan Williams—from all of whom I received many civilities. . . .

November 18. This morning Jonathan Williams Esqr., Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay[,] waited upon me and we had more than an hour [of] private conversation together.
The only Jonathan Williams from Massachusetts in London in late 1774 was the one born in 1750, a young merchant using his status as the famous Benjamin Franklin’s great-nephew to amass contacts.

But based on the second journal entry, the editors of the Quincy diary concluded that he had secured a no-show job as “a customs inspector in Massachusetts.” When I read that, my first thought was that a twentysomething would have to be very lucky to snag a government appointment at that level. Maybe nepotism helped—he was Franklin’s protégé, after all, plus a nephew of John Williams, documented elsewhere as Inspector-General of Customs in North America. But I couldn’t find anything more about a Jonathan Williams being in the Customs service. And if he had that job, why had he been sailing back and forth to Boston with goods to sell? 

After several days I had a breakthrough. We have to read Quincy’s diary carefully—and to recognize his own confusion about Williamses.

Look at how Quincy wrote about his visitors on those two successive days: “Mr. Jonathan Williams” on 17 November and “Jonathan Williams Esqr., Inspector of the Customs” on 18 November. Under eighteenth-century etiquette, a plain ‘Mr. Williams’ ranked below a ‘Williams, Esq.’ In his journal Quincy was indicating two different men. One was a young merchant, the other a middle-aged government official. When in his diary Quincy went to the trouble of referring to “Jonathan Williams Esqr.” and “Mr. Inspector Williams” at the start of an entry, he was referring to the second man.

Furthermore, I think Quincy misstated the first name and title of the Customs official who visited on 18 November. That was actually John Williams, who had been Inspector-General of His Majesty’s Customs in North America since 1767. Knowing so many men from Boston named Jonathan Williams, Quincy slipped and created one more.

In writing “Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay,” Quincy referred to how John Williams was normally based in Boston, but the man’s job wasn’t limited to one colony. As Inspector-General, Williams didn’t inspect ships like lower Customs officers. Instead, he was tasked with visiting the Customs offices in all North American ports to make sure they were efficient and uncorrupted. Since he worked for a bureaucracy, Williams’s professional activity is well documented; here’s a whole William & Mary Quarterly paper based on his reports about the Chesapeake region.

Boston’s waterfront crowd attacked John Williams’s house during the Liberty riot of 1768, as reported by a colleague. He then got into a dispute with the Customs Commissioners over compensation. John Adams recorded Williams speaking snarkily about his bosses in late 1769. Soon he headed off to London to complain that he deserved more money. John Williams wasn’t a close relative of Franklin, being a half-sister’s daughter’s husband’s brother, but he did try to borrow funds in the summer of 1773.

Thus, in late 1774 Inspector-General John Williams was in London with, at least nominally, an important role in imperial government. He was somewhat alienated from the North American Customs department. He was also linked to the Boston Whig business community through his brother, Jonathan Williams, Sr. That position between the two hostile camps goes a long way to explaining why Inspector Williams tried to set himself up as an intermediary between Quincy and the government ministers in London.

My annotations for the diary passage above would be:
  • Mr. Jonathan Williams: Benjamin Franklin’s grandnephew (1750–1815). His father Jonathan, Sr., a wealthy Boston merchant and prominent Whig, had married Franklin’s niece, Grace Harris. In the early 1770s the younger Williams was establishing himself as a transatlantic merchant, using contacts gained during visits to his great-uncle. On January 16, 1775, he would deliver a letter from Dr. Joseph Warren to Quincy.”
  • Jonathan Williams Esqr., Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay: Quincy misstated the given name of John Williams, Esq., Inspector-General of Customs in North America (d. 1791). Inspector Williams was an uncle of the Jonathan Williams who had visited Quincy the day before. Quincy took care to use ‘Inspector’ or ‘Esq.’ when referring to the older man. At odds with his supervisors in Boston, Inspector Williams spent most of the 1770s in London lobbying unsuccessfully for better compensation. He would engineer Quincy’s meetings with Lord North, the Earl of Dartmouth, and Customs Commissioner Corbyn Morris.”
Again, blame for the confusion starts with Quincy not getting the Inspector-General’s given name right. But in Quincy’s defense, colonial Boston was just running over with men named Jonathan Williams.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Three Cousins Named Jonathan

As I wrote yesterday, Jonathan Williams, Esq., merchant and town official in Boston, married Benjamin Franklin’s niece Grace Harris in 1746. They had a son named Jonathan in 1750.

Jonathan, Jr., went into business, starting with a trip to London to make contacts. While there he lived with his great-uncle Franklin and helped to keep the man’s accounts.

Boston newspaper advertisements say Jonathan, Jr., arrived back in Boston in September 1771 with “English Goods” and “Bohea Tea” to sell.

In April 1773 the young merchant wrote to Franklin from Boston, angling for part of the East India Company tea franchise for himself and his father. That was before the Tea Act became controversial. By the end of the year, Jonathan, Sr., had taken a prominent role in how Boston organized to stop any tea from being landed.

Jonathan, Jr., set out from Boston again in May 1774, allowing him to be in London late that year. His correspondence with his great-uncle Franklin shows he traveled around the British Isles through October, making contacts among rich businessmen and noble families.

Jonathan, Sr.’s sister Mary married Samuel Austin, another Boston merchant and official. They had a son in 1751 whom they named Jonathan Williams Austin. He went to Harvard College (shown above), graduating in 1769. While studying law under John Adams, he was a witness at the Boston Massacre trial, which these days would be flagged as a honking conflict of interest.

In April 1773 the Massachusetts Spy published a version of James Otis’s argument in the 1761 writs of assistance case. Adams later wrote that this text was based on his notes, which Austin “stole from my desk and printed in the Massachusetts Spy, with two or three bombastic expressions interpolated by himself.”

By that time, Jonathan Williams Austin had moved out to Chelmsford to establish his own practice. In late 1774 that town elected him as a delegate to the Middlesex County Convention and then to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

Jonathan, Sr., and Mary’s brother John Williams also had a son named Jonathan, born in 1753. He went to Harvard College, class of 1772. Then he followed his Austin cousin’s career path by becoming a clerk for John Adams. His correspondence with Adams shows he was in Massachusetts in the fall of 1774.

That gives us some of the data we need to interpret these entries from Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s journal of his trip to London in 1774:
November 17. Proceeded to London, where I arrived about 11 oClock a.m. . . . Was waited upon by Messrs. Thomas Bromfield, and Edward Dilly, and Mr. Jonathan Williams—from all of whom I received many civilities. . . .

November 18. This morning Jonathan Williams Esqr., Inspector of the Customs in the Massachusetts Bay[,] waited upon me and we had more than an hour [of] private conversation together.
In the Colonial Society of Massachusetts multivolume publication of Quincy’s writings, the note for this passage identifies Jonathan Williams as:
Benjamin Franklin’s grandnephew. His father John, a wealthy Boston merchant and Patriot leader, had married Franklin’s niece, Grace Harris. The younger Williams studied law under John Adams’s tutelage and was then living in London with his great-uncle, his post as a customs inspector in Massachusetts essentially a sinecure.
That note conflates the two cousins named Jonathan Williams. The one born in 1750 was Franklin’s grandnephew, but the one born in 1753 was Adams’s law student. Only the first could have been in London in late 1774. The note also misstates the name of that eldest cousin’s father, the “wealthy Boston merchant and Patriot leader”—that man was also named Jonathan. The youngest cousin’s father was named John.

But the biggest error came earlier. I puzzled over this passage and other documents for weeks, trying to reconcile odd details. And I finally decided that the most likely explanation is that Josiah Quincy met with two different men and wrote down the wrong name for one of them.

TOMORROW: Who was “Mr. Inspector Williams”?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Identifying Benjamin Franklin’s “Cousin Williams”

A couple of weeks back I dissected the records of Josiah Quincy, Jr.’s 1774–75 visit to Britain, and in those postings I now believe I misidentified a man.

I think I erred because of an error in the notes to Quincy’s London journal as edited by Daniel R. Coquillette and Neil Longley York for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. And I think Coquillette and York erred because of an error by Josiah Quincy, Jr., himself.

So let’s go back to the start of the eighteenth century. When Benjamin Franklin was a boy, he was already an uncle. That was because little Ben was the youngest son of the second marriage of Josiah Franklin (1657–1745). That man had had seven children by his first wife, starting in 1678 before the family moved to Massachusetts.

Baby Ben was thus almost thirty years younger than his oldest half-sibling, and the earliest half-siblings married and had children as he was growing up. When Ben was six years old, his half-sister Anne (1687–1729) married William Harris, and when Ben was twelve that couple had a baby named Grace (1718–1790). Grace was thus a niece of young Benjamin Franklin.

In 1746 Grace Harris married a man named Jonathan Williams. At this point the situation becomes confusing because there were two prominent men named Jonathan Williams in mid-1700s Boston, and authors have amalgamated the records of their lives. As a result, at Founders Online the editors of the Franklin Papers and the Adams Papers disagreed on when the Jonathan Williams who married Grace Harris was born and died.

The Adams Papers at one point said that man “(d[ied]. 1788),” probably based on a report in the Massachusetts Centinel of 29 Mar 1788 that “Deacon Jonathan Williams” had just died at age 88. The records of the First Meetinghouse say “Jonathan Williams (Son of the late Deacon Williams)” was himself chosen a deacon in 1737, and he appeared in those papers through 1776. However, that deacon’s widow was named Sarah, according to her own death notice in the 16 Sept 1789 Centinel.

On 14 Apr 1790 the Centinel reported the death of “Mrs. GRACE WILLIAMS, aged 71, the consort of Jonathan Williams, Esq. of this town, merchant.” That woman’s given name indicates she was Franklin’s niece. Her husband survived her for a few years, moving to his son’s home at Mount Pleasant near Philadelphia. Then the 1 Oct 1796 Columbian Centinel reported the death there of “Jonathan Williams, Sr., formerly a reputable merchant in this town [Boston].”

Therefore, after going back and forth on the question many times, I’ve decided that the Franklin Papers were correct in saying that the Jonathan Williams connected to the Franklin family lived “1719–1796.” (The Adams Family Correspondence volumes adopted these dates, too.) I can’t find confirmation for the birth year but can say that, contrary to many profiles of him, this man wasn’t the son of the Deacon Jonathan Williams who appeared in Samuel Sewall’s diary.

The Jonathan Williams who married Grace Harris was a successful merchant and Boston town official, thus earning the suffix “Esq.” As a Whig, he served on some town committees and in November 1773 moderated of one of the extra-legal tea meetings in Old South.

Franklin used this merchant Jonathan Williams as his business agent in Boston, referring to him as “Cousin Williams” and “Loving Cousin” since our language doesn’t have a specific term for a niece’s husband. However, when he was feeling conspiracy-minded, Thomas Hutchinson described that Williams as “a Nephew of Doctor F———ds,” making the relationship closer than it really was.

Now here’s where it gets more confusing. Jonathan Williams, Esq., had a brother named John (d. 1791). In 1767 Franklin told his son William that this man was “brother to our cousin Williams of Boston.” John Williams went to work for the Customs service in the late 1760s, though he ended up feuding with his superiors and spent most of the 1770s trying to go over their heads in London.

And here’s where it gets even more confusing. Both brothers, Jonathan Williams and John Williams, had sons in the 1750s whom they named Jonathan. So did their sister Mary, who married Samuel Austin. Two of those three first cousins named Jonathan studied law under John Adams. A different two spent years in France during the Revolutionary War. And two died during the war.

So who met with Josiah Quincy in London in 1774?

TOMORROW: Sorting through the Jonathan Williamses (and John).

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

“Women at War” in Washington, 18 Oct.

This evening the American Revolution Institute is hosting a panel discussion on the topic of “Women at War: Confronting Challenges in the American Revolution.” It’s based on the new collection of papers Women Waging War in the American Revolution and features the editor of and some contributors to the book.

The event description says:
The Revolutionary War dramatically affected the speed and nature of broader social, cultural and political changes, including shaping the place and roles of women in society. Whether loyalist or patriot, indigenous or immigrant, enslaved or slave-owning, going willingly into a battle or responding when war came to their doorsteps, women participated in the conflict in complex and varied ways that reveal the critical distinctions and intersections of race, class and allegiance that defined the era.
The panelists and their contributions to the book are:
  • Benjamin L. Carp, “The First Incendiary: A Female Firebrand and the New York City Fire of 1776”; Carp has a whole book on The Great New York Fire of 1776 coming.
  • Lauren Duval, “‘A shocking thing to tell of’: Female Civilians, Violence, and Rape under British Military Rule”; author of the award-winning article “Mastering Charleston: Property and Patriarchy in British-Occupied Charleston, 1780-82.”
  • Don Hagist, “Killed, Imprisoned, Struck by Lightning: Soldiers’ Wives on Campaign with the British Army”; managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution.
  • Carin Bloom, “A Black Loyalist’s Liberty: How Lucy Banbury Took Back Her Freedom”; manager of education and programming at the Historic Charleston Foundation.
  • Holly A. Mayer, moderator, editor; professor emerita of history at Duquesne University, author of Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution.
This discussion is scheduled to start at 6:30 P.M. and to last about an hour. It will take place in person at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., and also streamed online. To sign up for the feed, follow this link.

Monday, October 17, 2022

“The only house in the neighbourhood unprovided with an electrical apparatus”

I’ve been writing about the death of Lt. Albert Rémy de Meaux, artillerist in the French army, after he was struck by lightning in Philadelphia in March 1782.

That news reached the commanders of the French forces in Williamsburg, Virginia, the next month. They were sad at the loss, though grateful that the man De Meaux had been staying with, the chevalier de la Luzerne, had escaped the same death by coming to visit them.

Those commanders were well aware of the value of lightning rods, invented by Benjamin Franklin back in 1752. The military engineer d’Aucteville wrote about Williamsburg:
Upon nearly all the houses there are lightning rods [conducteurs]. The chimneys are all of brick, often outside the houses, and rising far above the roofs. Almost all of them are capped with cut stone placed carefully and symmetrically; also upon all the roofs are to be seen fire escapes—des échelles contre le danger des incendies.
Gen. Rochambeau himself wrote to his minister of war:
M. de Meaux, lieutenant of artillery, who was convalescing at M. de Luzerne’s residence, was killed. This fatality is a strong argument in favor of the conducteurs. The owner of the house in which M. de Luzerne lodged had always opposed the system of M. Franklin and had refused permission to have it installed.
There’s an echo of that remark in the memoir of one of Rochambeau’s aides de camp, the Baron von Closen:
M. de La Luzerne arrived in Williamsburg on the 17th… On the 26th he received the sad news of the thunderbolt which had struck his house during his absence; the circumstances…are very odd and prove how much one owes to Franklin for his invention of lightning conductors, which are much used in America.

The owner of M. de la Luzerne’s house, who was an enemy and rival of Dr. Franklin’s, had been skeptical until then of the value of conductors; but after that he had them erected on all his houses.
(Von Closen wrote his manuscript about 1823, based on his wartime records; the William and Mary Quarterly published it as his “Journal” in 1953.)

It’s notable that none of those French officers named that landlord, nor did the Philadelphia newspaper articles that went into great detail about the damage the lightning had done. However, a letter published in “The Norris-Fisher Correspondence: A Circle of Friends, 1779-1782” (Delaware History, March 1955) clearly placed the blame on one prominent man:
There has within this few Days a very Meloncholy accident happen’d at the house of Johny Dickinson, ocupied by the french Minister, it was occasion’d by a dreadful flash of Lightning and thunder. the [h]ouse in every part is more or less shatter’d, the furniture mostly distroy’d, and [e]very thing almost inside the house carries the appearance of Devastation—all this is trifling compared with the horrid situacion it has thrown a poor Man in—he lays now in the Most extreem agony, if he survives he is an entire Cripple, what an affecting Circumstance
George Grieve also named John Dickinson in his 1796 translation of the Marquis de Chastellux’s Travels in North-America, in a footnote that closed, “It may be proper to add, that this was the only house in the neighbourhood unprovided with an electrical apparatus.”

In March 1782, Dickinson was the president of the state of Delaware. By the end of the year he was also president of the state of Pennsylvania. He owned a great deal of real estate in and around Philadelphia in addition to that lightning-struck house. The French commanders no doubt knew he was an influential man and chose not to name him.

I don’t know whether it’s accurate to say Dickinson was “an enemy and rival of Dr. Franklin’s” or simply conservative about that new-fangled lightning rod. If indeed he had them added to his properties after De Meaux’s death, we can credit Dickinson with being able to learn and change his mind, just as he did on American independence after July 1776. But that was too late for Lt. De Meaux. All told, this seems like an incident that Dickinson would prefer no one mention.

As I wrote in the first post of this series, I started looking into this story because of a chance remark by William Hogeland on Twitter. But what spurred me to finish was the title of one of the papers planned for the Dickinson Symposium later this week: David Forte’s “‘Like Lightening thro the Land’: John Dickinson and the Freedom of the Press.” I’m sure that’s a period metaphor, but, given De Meaux’s fate, it feels like an awkward one.

(My thanks once again to Dr. Robert A. Selig for help finding sources on this event.)

Sunday, October 16, 2022

“A living body not only singed, but scorched all over”

The Philadelphia Packet published its first detailed report about the lightning strike on the French minister’s house on 2 Apr 1782.

Four days later, on 6 April, a second long article appeared, also perhaps written by Arthur Lee and Benjamin Rush, who both had medical training. The second story went into detail about the artillery lieutenant hit by that lightning, Albert Rémy de Meaux:
He was alone, seated near a window, his right arm resting on the window cill, the electrical matter, proceeding from conductor to conductor, fell upon his shoulder, descended along his right arm on the window-cill, where it made so great an explosion, that every thing near it was broken in pieces: the arm making but a weak resistance to the explosion, was not broken or fractured, but bruised and burnt all over in a terrible manner.

All his body, and particularly his right side, from the shoulder to the end of his foot, served as a conductor for another part of the electric matter, which set fire every where as it passed.

It was not till six or eight minutes after he was struck that any body knew of his misfortune, when upon entering the room, they saw this unfortunate person surrounded with flames. When they had stripped off what little cloaths the flames had not time to burn, and had restored him to life again, he exhibited a most terrible spectacle; a living body not only singed, but scorched all over, and the miserable object making the most lamentable groans.

The parts which have been the most damaged are the left hand, which was burnt in such a manner that it must have undergone an amputation if he had lived; all the lower part of his belly, the inside of his thigh, was burnt so as to lose all feeling; the other wounds caused him to suffer incessantly for three days the most excruciating pains, when the gangrene began to appear in several places, after which his body gradually perished, and finally he died on the 3d of April at two o’clock in the morning; he preserved his reason, senses and presence of mind to his last breath.
In 1796, in a footnote to his translation of Chastellux’s Travels, George Grieve stated: “his private parts [were] reduced to ashes.” Grieve also wrote that De Meaux “survived but a few hours,” and we know he actually lived for six and a half days, so his information might not be totally reliable.

Another footnote to the lieutenant’s death appears in the papers of the artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière, who was assembling a museum in Philadelphia. He recorded acquiring in March 1782:
a fine miniature picture on vellum, representing a young gentleman with a large flowing wig, a laced cravat, and scarlet cloak turned over the Shoulder Supposed by the dress to have been done in france in the begining of this century

[Donor’s name in red ink] by Monsr. De Meaux officer in the artillery of the french army of Count De Rochambeau who died in Phila., from the hurt received by the lightning that struckt the minister of France’s house March 1782.
It’s possible that De Meaux gave Du Simitière this miniature portrait earlier in the month, before the accident, and Du Simitère added the note later. But the officer may have disposed of this possession in the days after he was badly injured and understood he was dying.

The lightning strike on the French ambassador’s house raises one big question. It happened in Philadelphia, the city where Benjamin Franklin had invented the lightning rod thirty years before. That invention had become internationally famous, establishing Franklin, Philadelphia, and America in the world of Enlightenment science. So how could lightning cause so much fatal damage to a Philadelphia house?

TOMORROW: The landlord.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

“Irritated by this obstacle, it broke the stove”

The Philadelphia Packet newspaper ran two long reports on the 27 Mar 1782 lightning strike on the Philadelphia house that the French diplomat De la Luzerne had rented, as I mentioned yesterday.

According to George Grieve, writing in a footnote to his 1796 translation of the Marquis de Chastellux’s Travels in North-America, “Mr. Arthur Lee, and Dr. [Benjamin] Rush, thought proper to publish a very long and curious account of” the calamity.

The newspaper articles are probably that account since there doesn’t seem to be any other candidate. Those articles also might show the signs of dual authorship with shifting tenses and sentence structures.

Both Lee and Rush had medical training, though only Rush was still a practicing physician. Lee (shown here) had spent most of the war in Europe as one of the Continental Congress’s diplomats, feuding with all the others. After he came back to Virginia, that state sent him to the Congress in 1782. Rush had left the Congress in 1778 but continued to be politically active in Philadelphia.

The 2 April Packet installment was an extremely detailed description of how the thunderstorm damaged the house:
The lightning struck it in three different places. The principal explosion was on the west side of the house. The chimney of monsieur le chevalier de la Luzerne was thrown down to the roof, and the bricks scattered to a great distance; the lightning descended down the chimney, attracted by a stove that stopped up the fire-place: irritated by this obstacle, it broke the stove in pieces, demolished entirely the mantle piece, split the funnel of the chimney, threw down and broke all the wainscotting near it, dispersed the bricks to the other end of the room, and cast pieces of the stove to the distance of ten or twelve feet, broke the furniture and glass, and the chamber was found covered with rubbish.

The electric matter appears to have scattered, by traces left on the wall at the front of the house, in returning upwards towards the roof, where the lead of the gutters attracted it without doubt. The same explosion which struck the chimney followed the course of the gutters and descended by a leaden pipe, the end of which terminated on the outside of the wall of the bedchamber of the chevalier: attracted by an iron bedstead in the chamber, it penetrated the wall and tore two bricks out of it, leaving a long black trace on the wall and collected by the iron bedstead set the curtains and bedcloaths on fire; it has started the flooring and made its way into the dining room, underneath this chamber, by a breach in the ceiling of the dining room of about six feet long and two feet broad; gliding along the wainscoting has fallen upon the window-leads and hinges of the shutters, which were all torn off, and has cast the window shutters to the other side of the room; split in several places a mahogany buffet and broke all the china within: the chairs were all broken by the force of the commotion, after which it passed out at a window of the court, without any other consequences.

The lightning struck also the eastern side of the house…
And so on. The electricity “broke a china jug of milk, and reduced the milk to smoke.” It “went off in an iron cilender full of live coals, placed in the middle of a tray of water: it dispersed the coal in all directions.” And “there is scarcely a nail but what has been removed by the shock upon the house.”

There were actually people inside the house at the time to witness the damage.
Two persons who were in [De la Luzerne’s bed-chamber] saw the [iron] bedposts dart abundance of flashes of fire in the midst of a thick black smoke, which had a sulphurous smell; it has torn up all the flooring under the bedstead, and has opened a large passage into a parlour on the ground floor, by breaking away the intermediate boards, and removing joices four inches thick.
Only a couple of sentences within that scientific report stated that a person had been injured:
Unfortunately a French officer was near this window; the shock threw him into a swoon on a chair, and set fire to his cloaths. He was alone, and no one coming to his assistance for some minutes, he was terribly and dangerously burnt; his clothes were almost wholly consumed about him.
That French officer, unnamed in this account, was Lt. Albert Rémy de Meaux.

TOMORROW: The lieutenant’s injuries.

Friday, October 14, 2022

At the French Ministry in Philadelphia

Here’s a story I’ve been intermittently digging into since 2013, when a chance tweet about it from the author William Hogeland intrigued me. That’s a long time ago, and it feels like even longer.

Albert Rémy de Meaux was born in Vitry-le-François, in the French province of Champagne, on 11 May 1753. In July 1769 he entered artillery school, and a year later became a lieutenant in the Auxonne Artillery.

In 1778, after the French government decided to help the new nation irk Great Britain, it sent guns and money; a diplomatic minister, Conrad Alexandre Gérard de Rayneval (1729–1790); and a naval fleet under Adm. Charles Henri Hector, count d’Estaing (1729–1794).

The next year, France upped its stake by sending a more prestigious minister, the chevalier de la Luzerne (1741–1791, shown here). And the year after that, it dispatched an Expédition Particulière—a special expedition containing a significant number of soldiers (by North American standards) under Gen. Rochambeau.

Lt. De Meaux was part of Rochambeau’s army and thus probably saw action at Yorktown at the end of 1781. He appears to have sustained some sort of wound or injury early the next year and needed to convalesce.

For that the lieutenant was given a berth in the large home that De la Luzerne had rented in the American capital of Philadelphia. The 2 Apr 1782 Philadelphia Packet reported, “This building stands alone, at a considerable distance from any other, at the western extremity of the city.” In her diary Elizabeth Drinker described it as located “up Chestnut St.”

On 27 March, during “a considerable shower of rain,” that house was struck by lighting—“in three different places,” said a detailed report in the Packet.

De la Luzerne had taken to sleeping in an iron bed. According to George Grieve, writing a couple of decades later, this was “by way of security from the bugs.” The lightning went through the bed and “set the curtains and bedcloaths on fire.”

Fortunately for the minister, he was away in Virginia consulting with the army. Rochambeau wrote to the French minister of war from Williamsburg on 14 April:
It was lucky for him that M. de Luzerne has been paying us a visit. Had he remained in Philadelphia it is probable he would have been killed by the lightning flash which fell upon his house, where, as a result, his bed and everything else was destroyed by fire.
Not everything about the Philadelphia house was destroyed, but a great many things were badly hurt. And that included the unlucky Lt. De Meaux.

TOMORROW: “The electric matter appears to have scattered.”

(My thanks to Dr. Robert A. Selig for his help in identifying Lt. Albert Rémy de Meaux.)

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Winter Is Coming at Minute Man Park, 15 Oct.

On Saturday, 15 October, Minute Man National Historical Park will host a day of special programming on the theme of “Preparing for Winter, Preparing for War.”

The event description explains:
Autumn in Colonial New England was a time of change and transition when many gathered to share the fruits of summer labor and prepare to survive the coming winter. In 1774 it was also a time of preparation for the coming conflict; Colonial Militia mustered to train their soldiers and scrambled to secure military supplies. As Colonists ferried weapons and goods into Concord, local families brought in their harvests to be preserved as food sufficient to feed their family through the coming year.
October 1774 was a couple of months after the arrival of the Massachusetts Government Act from London, which produced massive resistance in the countryside. It was weeks after the “Powder Alarm” changed the de facto balance of power in the colony, and the same month when the Provincial Congress started to meet.

On the local level, at least some towns were ahead of that shadow legislature. Westborough had already voted to ramp up militia training and acquire artillery. Worcester had put actual money toward bringing cannon out of Boston, but its meeting balked later that month at buying powder and shot. In sum, there was a lot for people to talk about.

“Preparing for Winter, Preparing for War” will take place at the park’s Hartwell Tavern site in Lincoln from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. on Saturday. It is free for all visitors, supported in part by the Friends of Minute Man Park.

A version of this event was scheduled for last fall before a more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus spread. Since then, we’ve allowed yet more variants to evolve. So now’s the time for us to prepare for winter by getting up-to-date inoculations against both Covid and the flu. If there’s one species-changing lesson western civilization learned in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it’s how inoculations save millions of lives.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Remaking the Georgian Landscape

Britain’s North American colonies contained some very wealthy men, such as the New York land proprietors or the leading planters of Virginia.

But those men were nowhere near as rich as the landowning aristocrats in Britain. What counted for a mansion in North America would have been an average country manor across the ocean, where the richest lords were building giant palaces.

Furthermore, as Nicola Cornick wrote at the Word Wenches, some wealthy men even remade the landscape around their homes just for aesthetic reasons:
If we look at the Georgian and Regency period, there did seem to be a penchant for noblemen sweeping aside old villages in order to improve the look of their country estates. At Wimpole Hall, the 2nd Earl of Harwicke commissioned Capability Brown to redesign his parkland to improve the views from the mansion in 1767. Sadly this involved sweeping aside various small villages! . . .

In 1780, Joseph Damer, Lord Milton, decided that the market town of Middleton, adjacent to his home at Milton Abbey, was spoiling his rural peace and quiet. He commissioned an architect called William Chambers plus the ubiquitous Capability Brown to design a new village, Milton Abbas [shown above], in a wooded valley away from the Abbey.

Most of the townspeople were relocated there and Middleton was demolished and the site landscaped. Thirty six identical thatched cottages were built with the intention of each housing 2 families. Each house was fronted with a lawn and planted with a horse chestnut tree. No doubt Lord Milton felt he was being very generous and perhaps plenty of people were grateful for a new house. To us these days, however, does it feel like generosity or breathtaking arrogance?
American scholars often write about how much effort George Washington or Thomas Jefferson put in (and forced from others) to make their homes just the way they wanted. But no project in the colonies or early America reached that Old World level of grandiosity.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Schiff on The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams

A new biography of Samuel Adams comes out later this month, written by Stacy Schiff. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), but she’s no stranger to New Englanders of the long eighteenth century as author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (winner of the George Washington Book Prize) and The Witches.

Smithsonian Magazine ran an excerpt from The Revolutionary in its October issue.
On a wet night in 1774, when a group of Massachusetts farmers settled in a tavern before the fire and, pipes in hand, discussed what had driven Bostonians mad—reasoning that Parliament might soon begin to tax horses, cows and sheep; wondering what additional affronts could come their way; and concluding that it was better to rebel sooner rather than later—it was because the long arm of Adams had reached them.

He muscled words into deeds, effecting, with various partners, a revolution that culminated, in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence. It was a sideways, looping, secretive business. Adams steered New Englanders where he was certain they meant, or should mean, to head, occasionally even revealing the destination along the way. As a grandson acknowledged: “Shallow men called this cunning, and wise men wisdom.”
Schiff will speak about her new book at two separate events hosted or co-hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society this fall.

Friday, 28 October, 6:00 P.M.
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams
Stacy Schiff in conversation with Sara Georgini

This book talk will be free for M.H.S. members and will also be shown online. There’s a large fee to attend the small reception preceding it. Register for one or both portions here.

Tuesday, 29 November, 6:00 P.M., online
American Inspiration
Stacy Schiff in conversation with Ryan J. Woods of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and Catherine Allgor of the M.H.S.

Again, Schiff book talk will be free, but for an additional cost people can participate in the subsequent question-and-answer session on the process of writing history, and receive a copy of the book. Register for one or both portions here.

Monday, October 10, 2022

“Leave to dig up a portion of Boston Common”

On 28 Sept 1852, the Boston Herald reported on the meeting of the Boston City Council. The very last petition taken up, at the end of a long paragraph, was:
John Griffin for leave to dig up a portion of Boston Common for the purpose of finding hidden treasure, buried there by his father in 1837.
That was inaccurate. On the same morning the Boston Post revealed that the treasure Griffin sought went all the way back to the Revolution.

The Boston Post article was widely quoted and paraphrased, as in this item from the Daily Evening Transcript for that date:
Treasure Buried on Boston Common. A Mr. John Griffin petitioned the city government yesterday for permission to dig a hole on Boston Common, six feet in diameter, for the purpose of obtaining $1000 which he asserts his father, John Griffin, who served in the army in the war of the Revolution, secreted during the “troubled times” preceding said war. Griffin says he is poor and wants the money bad. The petition was referred to the committee on the common.
One of those newspapers caught the eye of Jonathan Hill, as he described for the Vita Brevis blog of the New England Historic Genealogical Society last month. Folks at the Boston City Archives found Griffin’s petition, which specified that his namesake father had died in Nottingham, New Hampshire, in 1837.

Griffin also promised that his father had given him “full directions and measurements from standing monuments” to the burial spot, which was “seated in a path on the said Common,” so a dig wouldn’t disturb the trees or turf. (It would, of course, disrupt pedestrian traffic along that path.)

John Griffin didn’t uncover that treasure, however. The council’s committee rejected his request. No one has yet found further newspaper reports on Griffin, either supporting his request or critiquing it as a con or a delusion. The Post story was reprinted in New Hampshire, where people might have had a different perspective on Griffin, but I didn’t find any followup.

Using census records, Hill found a John Griffin living in Nottingham and then in Orleans County, Vermont, whose family details match the petitioner’s claim. He was very poor until his death twenty years after his petition.

Hill wasn’t able to find corroboration for Griffin’s story about his father. There’s no surviving record of a senior John Griffin dying in Nottingham in 1837. Several John Griffins served in the Continental forces, including a handful from New Hampshire, but there’s not enough detail to connect any of this story.

The lack of evidence in U.S. pension files seems significant. If the elder John Griffin was a Continental Army veteran who survived until 1837, then he had the opportunity to apply for a federal pension, but no John Griffin did.

Finally, there are logical questions about Griffin’s story. In “troubled times,” wouldn’t $1,000 be even more useful to keep around instead of burying? Wouldn’t it be safer to hide treasure on private property rather than a path on the common, where any burying would be publicly visible and many people might go over or dig in the ground?

Of course, if this were a short story, the Boston City Councilor who refused to let John Griffin dig just wants the poor man’s treasure for himself. He goes out to the Common late at night with a shovel. With great and unaccustomed effort, the politico excavates the spot where Griffin’s directions led. After a night of blisters and dirt, he unearths a metal box—only to be stopped by the Boston police. The officers are ready to send him home, but he insists on taking the box, arguing his way into an arrest. And when the box is finally opened, it turns out to contain $1,000 in Continental paper money from 1781.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

Knocking Down the Myths of Agent 355

Her Half of History is Lori Baker’s podcast about notable women in various times. Recently she’s been sharing episodes about women involved in espionage.

I like her take on the Culper Ring and whether those spies included a female agent, source, courier, or cover. You can glean her basic conclusion from the title of that episode: “Agent 355: Washington’s Mostly Mythical Spy.”

The historical record of espionage is always sparse, for obvious reasons. We know that Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge invented a code for his agents that used the number 355 for “lady” and the number 701 for “woman.”

We also know that Abraham Woodhull used the number 355 once, in a letter dated 15 Aug 1779. That dispatch referred to bringing a lady along on a trip into New York because the security was getting stricter.

As Baker says, per her transcript:
This brief mention is 100% of the solid, historical record on Agent 355. It is the only time she is ever mentioned. Everything else is either a speculation or an outright fabrication. And oh wow, does imagination run wild. . . .

Culper…wrote “355,” the code for lady. Much has been made of the fact that he did not write 701, the code for woman. . . . [Using 355] certainly meant she was either the wife or daughter of a gentleman. That is to say, she had some social standing.

Morton Pennypacker and more recently Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger have taken this linguistic nugget of truth and run miles with it. Agent 355 was, according to them a young coquette living in the height of New York society, attending parties with the cream of the British officers. She was also, according to them, a lover of Robert Townsend and later maybe even bore him a child.

Author Alexander Rose calls this an “utterly fantastical and fanciful tale” (Rose, 325), and he is absolutely right. He points out that the letter was written by Woodhull and he says a lady of my acquaintance, not Townsend’s acquaintance (Rose, 325).

Rose then goes on to inform the reader with absolute assurance that the lady in question was Anna Strong. Anna Strong was a Setauket neighbor of Woodhull’s…[who] may have been willing to pretend she was his wife. . . .

This theory seems far more plausible to me than the young New York coquette theory, but at the end of the day Rose does not offer any more proof than the others. Woodhull does not say that this happened. He certainly does not name Anna Strong, and surely she is not the only Long Island resident who could have posed as his wife, if anyone did.
Baker is also skeptical of the family lore about Anna Strong signaling Continental spies in Long Island Sound—and rightfully so, I think. I’ve never been able to figure out the practical logic of that tale, which Pennypacker published a century and half after the war without specifying a source.

Modern American culture thirsts for examples of women active in historical events. In the last century, the extremely sparse documentary tidbits about 355 have been spun out in all sorts of adventures: Agent 355, Turn: Washington’s Spies, The 355, Y: The Last Man. Those stories proudly present themselves as fiction. Most histories of the Culper Ring contain a large amount of fictional speculation as well.

(The picture above appears on Wikipedia’s page for Agent 355, which treats the competing claims too credulously. Its caption says it shows “Agent 355, as depicted in an 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly.” In fact, that magazine article was about Antonia Ford, who gathered information for Confederate commanders in the U.S. Civil War. The original caption, “General [J.E.B.] Stuart’s New Aid,” has been cropped out. Such is our interest in seeing Agent 355, if such a lady ever existed.)