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, September 14, 2023

Theophilus Evedropper and the Chair Lifters

As I wrote yesterday, on 9 Sept 1721 a Harvard College student—quite possibly Ebenezer Turell—using the signature “Telltale” wrote a short essay inviting a friend to write back about “The shamfull impertinences & monstrous inconsistencies yt daily perplex us.”

Instead, someone else found that note and wrote back. Turell didn’t record the reply.

“Telltale” then wrote directly to his target reader, “J. L.”—perhaps John Lowell, like Turell in the Harvard class of 1721. (The president of the college then was John Leverett, but he seems a less likely addressee.) That second letter said: “If you have any inclination for an epistolary correspondence with me you may deposit your Letters in that Famous tree call’d the Pliable Crotch on Monday Ev’ning.”

J. L. did write back, and other authors joined in the exchange, sharing essays over such pen names as Blablonge and Courage. Telltale himself also used the name Theophilus Evedropper. He collected the essays in a notebook under date headings with classical or literary mottos underneath, imitating British magazines like the Spectator.

Evidently someone else at Harvard was circulating similar essays under the title “The Censure or Muster Roll.” The 30 September offering from Telltale was devoted to criticizing this rival, as in: “The Subject he would treat of is Learning wch I entirly forgott before I had finish’d the first Page.”

Other essays appear to lampoon fellow students, and it’s not clear whether those were friendly joshing within the group or snaps at rivals. By October, the articles veer toward setting up a group called the Spy Club (and sniping at something called the Mock Club).

The Harvard Archives has called the Telltale material “the first student publication” at the college. However, there’s no suggestion the material was ever printed, and I’m not convinced it counts as a publication without more copies. It definitely appear to be an extracurricular activity, however.

John Lowell and Ebenezer Turell were in the college class of 1721, which meant they had graduated by September when these essays started to circulate. They were probably still in Cambridge, reading for their master’s degrees. It’s possible that the greater freedom accorded graduates empowered them to write and share these essays.

On the other hand, the Telltale articles do offer some glimpses of life that seems undergraduate (and remember that at this time most college students were what we think of as high-school age):
There [are] a number of Persons in Colledge who delight in nothing so much as in doing Mischief. This is what they call clean, showing their Parts &c. The great Number of these Persons adds to the Vexation. They are of very different inclinations & each of ym has his particular Art wherin he excells.

I was t’other Day in Company with some of them who go by the Name of Chair Lifters. These Cowards attack you while you are sitting in a Chair (a most defenceless Posture) flinging you to the Ground with Great Violence. For wch Sometimes you[r] Head, arms and Posteriors curse them a fort night after. . . .

There a[re] Divers other Troblesome Fellows of other Species…as rappers, clappers, Trippers, nippers, Thigh Duffers, Stroakers, Pokers, &c all of them when I have opportunity shall be satyrically animadverted upon.
All in all, the Telltale appears to have been motivated by a wish to chide others into proper behavior rather than the satirize the powerful. In that respect, among Boston-area writing it was more like the establishment Boston News-Letter and Boston Gazette than the cheeky New-England Courant.

TOMORROW: Serious matters.

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