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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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

“Essay’d on the following Saturdays”

The Boston News-Letter was launched in 1704, the first ongoing newspaper in British North America.

The Boston Gazette followed in 1719. Like the News-Letter it was a weekly licensed by the province and indeed funded by government officials.

On 7 Aug 1721 James Franklin began the New-England Courant with the support of several gentlemen opposed to Boston’s Puritan orthodoxy. That meant poking fun of government officials, Congregationalist ministers, and their public concerns, such as the Rev. Cotton Mather’s ludicrous support for smallpox inoculation. 

Slightly more than a month after the Courant began running, a group of Harvard College students started “a Paper call’d the Telltale, or Criticisms on the Conversation & Beheavour of Schollars to promote right reasoning & good manner.”

The text of this “Paper” survives because Ebenezer Turell (1702–1778, shown here) from the Harvard class of 1721 copied the contents from Saturday, 9 September 9, to Wednesday, 1 November, into a little notebook. Indeed, Turell might have been the organizer of the Telltale to begin with.

That document came to the Harvard University library almost two centuries later, and it’s now digitized. Back in 1909 William C. Lane did a presentation on the manuscript to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and we can read his text here, including transcriptions of some parts of the Telltale.

As the Telltale told its own history, the first item was a little handwritten essay titled “The Preface”:
Tis a common observation, he yt remarks ye Folly of others has his own severly remark’d upon. However abjiciendus Timor quoties urget necessitas [throw away disgrace whenever necessity urges]. The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us must have their career obstructed by some seasonable animadversions wch (Divino anuente numine [with God’s divine approval]) shall be essay’d on the following Saturdays.

Perhaps your enquiries will run more after my Person than the reason of my Discourses. But take this Caution. I am so envelop’d with clouds & vizards yt the most piercing eye can[not] distinguish me from Stoughton’s Hall. In this I am happy. What I intend is for the benefit of the Society & tho in some passages I may seem pritty facetious (wch erroneously call light & vain) It must be attributed to my natural constitution. I hope ther’s no Gentleman (I know ther’s none of worth) will be my antagonist in so laudable an undertaking. But if any man will appear so vain & foolish I defy his strength & Laugh att his attempt.

I would propose and desire ye Gentlemen of Witt & good Sense (of whom we have a considerable number) would unite in the Servasable affair & assume their rights in the other 5 Days. The time yt would be taken up in this matter would not amount to above an hour in a week, & yet how great the advantage!

Sign’d Telltale
The author of that notice left it “upon a pair of Stairs.” Someone picked it up and wrote something underneath in reply. But that someone wasn’t the person that Telltale wanted to hear from.

TOMORROW: “that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch”.

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