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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Tuesday, October 31, 2023

“Discovered to be active in exposing our works to the enemy”?

Benjamin Boardman (1731–1802, shown here) graduated from Yale College in 1758, and two years later he became the minister in Middle Haddam, Connecticut.

When Gen. Joseph Spencer led Connecticut troops to the siege of Boston in the spring of 1775, Boardman went along as a chaplain.

He kept a diary from 31 July to 12 November, at least, and that document was published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1892.

Boardman recorded mostly events in the Connecticut regiments’ camp in Roxbury, particularly deaths, and news about big events elsewhere.

The minister’s frustration with rumors comes through in several places. On 9 November, for example, he wrote a detailed account of a British army raid on Lechmere’s Point in Cambridge and the Continental response. Then he added, “The above acct. cant be relied on,” and wrote down different details; “indeed there is no certainty can be come at,” he concluded.

Nonetheless, two entries stood out for me. On 31 August, the chaplain wrote:
I collected this day in cash for the encouragt. of Mr. Bushnels Machine the sum of £13.4.4. in cash out of our regt.
That must refer to the invention of David Bushnell, which turned out to be a small submarine and an underwater bomb or mine. This entry shows that Connecticut men were talking about the inventor’s work in the summer of 1775, even if they didn’t know the top-secret details.

On 31 October, Boardman’s entry was:
Bought me a flanel waistcoat this day, cost 9/2. We hear that Coll. [Joseph?] Gorham with about 40 tories are taken from ye. eastward who went after wood; also that Harry Knox, who married Secretary Fluckers daughter, and offered himself last July as a voluntary engineer to lay out our works, is taken & discovered to be active in exposing our works to the enemy.
At some later point Boardman returned to that entry, put marks around everything after the semicolon, and wrote: “Mistake of ye. clause in the crotchets.” In other words, never mind that thing about Knox. For that matter, the rumor about Gorham doesn’t seem reliable, either.

Nonetheless, this diary entry shows that some people in the American camp were suspicious about Knox’s family ties in the same month that Gen. George Washington had started angling to get him appointed to command the whole Continental artillery.

That October had started with news of “Doctr. [Benjamin] Church under an arrest for keeping up a correspd. with the enemy in Boston,” as Boardman wrote. Men were deserting both to and from the enemy. So it was easy to be suspicious about someone with such strong ties to the royal government as Knox had. Even if such rumors were quickly deemed to be unfounded.

Monday, October 30, 2023

A New Look at a Very Old Lottery

On Saturday Erich L. tweeted out a photograph of a 90-page book that the London firm of Maggs Bros. Ltd. was offering at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair.

It’s titled Benefit Tickets in the Government Lottery of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, for the Sum of Thirty seven Thousand Five Hundred Pounds.

Erich L. commented that this was “Arguably the most MA thing to ever show up at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair,” as well as “the only surviving copy of the first official lottery results in the colonies.”

Indeed, according to Maggs Bros.’s sales material, this book isn’t listed in any of the standard catalogues of early American printed materials, nor found in the largest archives of our area. The firm’s representative at the fair, who really is named Fuchsia Voremberg, told WBZ that this is the only known copy of this book.

I suspect the book itself is supremely uninteresting to read. Judging by lottery results I’ve seen printed in newspapers, it probably consists of nothing but a list of the numbers on the lottery tickets with indications of which won how much money, if any. Maybe also the text of the law authorizing this new way of raising money.

In reporting on this news, Universal Hub added a link to this article about the 1744/45 Massachusetts lottery from the fine Colonial Currency webpages at Notre Dame. The Ephemera Society offers another view. And twelve years ago Neal E. Millikan published his thorough study Lotteries in Colonial America.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Chandler on Stamp Act Protests in New England, 1 Nov.

On Wednesday, 1 November, Abby Chandler will speak to the North Andover Historical Society about her new book, Seized with the Temper of the Times: Identity and Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary America.

As Chandler explained in an interview at the Journal of the American Revolution:
My original plan was to write a biography of Martin Howard who was a Loyalist from Rhode Island who later became the Chief Justice of North Carolina. He refused to disavow his loyalty to Britain in Rhode Island in 1765 and again in North Carolina in 1777 and had to flee for his life both times.

The reason I found him interesting was because the arguments that he made for supporting the British Empire are rooted in the same political traditions used by the men who argued in favor of revolting against the British Empire. . . .

The problem, however, with studying a man who had to abandon everything twice and died in exile is that he left very few documents explaining his thought processes.
So Chandler’s book became a study of the political movements swirling around Howard. Both Rhode Island and North Carolina were overshadowed by large neighboring colonies that became known for leading resistance to the Crown. Yet arguably each of those smaller colonies saw more resistance to authority in the pre-war period. And they were also the last two holdouts against the Constitution.

For the North Andover Historical Society, Chandler will focus on the Stamp Act protests of 1765, and how the movement in Rhode Island played out. While the Crown had appointed Francis Bernard to be governor of Massachusetts, and he felt a duty to enforce the new tax, Rhode Island elected Gov. Samuel Ward. He refused royal instructions to uphold that law. While Bostonians targeted the house of the appointed lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, in August 1765, Newporters had to find a different sort of target for their wrath—which is where Martin Howard comes in.

Abby Chandler is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She serves on the 250th American Revolution Anniversary Commission in Massachusetts. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her speak at many forums, most recently this summer’s History Camp Boston.

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M. in the Stevens Center on the Common, 800 Massachusetts Avenue, North Andover. Register through this site.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Learning about Phillis Wheatley in London and Boston

Ade Solanke is a British playwright of Nigerian descent. She earned an M.F.A. in screenwriting at U.S.C. on top of British degrees, and she’s now a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths College in London.

Solanke specializes in stories about the African diaspora. In 2018 her play Phillis in London debuted at the Greenwich Book Festival. It dramatized the experiences of Phillis Wheatley in the summer of 1773, visiting the imperial capital to promote the publication of her book of poetry.

On Monday, 30 October, Solanke will be at the Massachusetts Historical Society for a reading from that play and a panel discussion about researching it, titled “Bringing Phillis to Life.” The other panelists will be:
That event starts at 5:30 with a reception, and the program will begin at 6:00. Admission is $10, free to members. People can also watch online for free. Register to attend one way or the other through this page.

On Friday, 3 November, Solanke’s new play Phillis in Boston will premiere at the Old South Meeting-House—no doubt the event that’s bringing the playwright to Boston. (There will be preview performances the previous two nights.)

Directed by Regge Life, Phillis in Boston explores the life of the poet soon after she returned from London. Revolutionary Spaces says:
The play celebrates friendship, love, community, and joy by centering Wheatley’s relationships with her friend and confidant Obour Tanner, her husband-to-be John Peters, and the dynamic abolitionist Prince Hall. Phillis in Boston examines slavery in New England through the lens of Wheatley’s complex relationship with her enslaver Susanna Wheatley, who supported Wheatley’s literary ambitions even as she kept her in bondage.
Phillis in Boston is designed to be performed in the meetinghouse where Wheatley and other revolutionaries were congregants.

Solanke’s play will run in that space through Sunday, 3 December, on evenings from Wednesday through Sunday. Tickets cost $15–35. For more information and to reserve seats, visit this page.

(The striking image above comes from the webpage of an event at the British Library earlier this month, all inspired by the sestercentennial of Wheatley’s book.)

Friday, October 27, 2023

“He gave me accordingly three great Puffy Rolls”

In another form of “experimental archeology,” earlier this month Katie Maxwell of the Library Company of Philadelphia commemorated young Benjamin Franklin’s arrival in that city in 1723 by trying to recreate his first meal there.

Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
I went immediately to the Baker’s he directed me to in second Street; and ask’d for Biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia, then I ask’d for a three-penny Loaf, and was told they had none such: so not considering or knowing the Difference of Money & the great Cheapness, nor the Names of his Bread, I bad him give me three penny worth of any sort.

He gave me accordingly three great Puffy Rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and having no room in my Pockets, walk’d off, with a Roll under each Arm, & eating the other. Thus I went up Market Street as far as fourth Street, passing by the Door of Mr. Read, my future Wife’s Father, when she standing at the Door saw me, & thought I made as I certainly did a most awkward ridiculous Appearance.
Franklin was used to Boston’s way of doing things. The Boston selectmen regulated the size of bread loaves sold in the town markets, trying to ensure the bakers could make a fair profit but not gouge their customers. That must have led to a certain uniformity.

In addition, each colony issued its own paper money, and regions calculated the value of Spanish coins relative to British currency differently. Fortunately for young Benjamin, he got more bread for his dough than he expected.

Maxwell found a recipe for a “French Roll” recipe in Court Cookery: or, the Compleat English Cook (1725). It started with “a Pound of the finest Flower, a little Yeast, and a little sweet butter, temper them lightly with new Milk warm from the Cow.”

Not having a cow, I might have given up at that point, but Maxwell forged on. See her results here.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Watching Flax Grow in New Hampshire

For the last several months Kimberly Alexander and her classes at the University of New Hampshire have been exploring a staple crop of colonial New England: flax.

Following a student’s suggestion, the team started growing flax (as well as cotton, rye, and indigo) in partnership with the university’s Sustainable Agriculture program.

Further steps will include harvesting, stooking, retting, breaking, scutching, and hackling the flax to make enough fibers to spin into linen thread and possibly weave into cloth.

As those unfamiliar terms suggest, flax requires its own processes, dictated by the plant’s needs and traits. The stalks have to be dried, soaked just right, dried again, and then knocked around to leave only the useful long fibers.

In colonial America that work was usually left to women, children, and enslaved workers. The only detail I can remember from past reading is that young farmworkers tending flax were trained to walk backwards so that their toes wouldn‘t catch and yank up the stalks.

The project has its own blog with such content as:
As the university’s article on the program says, this project is expected to run through next spring. The big question will be how much useable fiber all that effort will produce.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Jacob Bates Finds New Pastures in Newport

On 25 Oct 1773, two and half centuries ago, the Newport Mercury reported:
Last week Mr. Bates, the famous horseman, arrived in town, from Boston, and ’tis supposed he will perform this week.
Jacob Bates may have planted this item with printer Solomon Southwick, but it’s more tentative than his usual style.

When Bates arrived in New York and then Boston, he took out long advertisements proclaiming his skills, his triumphs in Europe, and exactly when locals would have the fortunate opportunity to see him perform.

But no such advertisements appeared in the Newport newspapers, not even little ones. Was he out of money? Or did he not need to advertise in Rhode Island because there was already plenty of interest in horsemanship—as reflected in this newspaper item?

Southern New England was known for producing horses. Since the late 1600s, Rhode Island’s governors usually listed horses first on their lists of the colony’s exports. The principal market was the sugar islands in the Caribbean, where the animals provided power for planting and refining as well as transportation.

In 1715 the governor of Barbados complained about how French and Dutch colonies had come to rival his island in producing sugar “owing to the great Supplies of Horses they receive from New England.” In 1729 a British merchant claimed that New England captains had told him they didn’t have to pay fees on French islands as long as they arrived with sixty horses. Two years later, British Caribbean planters asked Parliament to forbid the sale of horses outside the empire, but the mainland traders managed to head off that legislation.

Rhode Island was also a center of horse racing. The Rev. James MacSparran wrote in America Dissected (1753) that Rhode Island’s “fine horses…are exported to all parts of English America. They are remarkable for their fleetness and swift pacing, and I have seen some of them pace a mile in little more than two minutes, a good deal less than three.” Eventually these horses would be recognized as Narragansett pacers.

Thus, in moving his equestrian exhibitions from Boston to Newport, Jacob Bates was shifting to a smaller town but perhaps finding more appreciative audiences.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Turning London’s Queer Underground into a Game

In 2017 Wehrlegig Games released the first version of John Company, an interactive historical game based on the rise and fall of the British East India Company.

Players had to navigate the company’s world-spanning bureaucracy and the fallout of their actions in India. That game is in its second edition.

Now Wehrlegig Games is preparing to release Molly House, a game based on the lives of queer people in eighteenth-century London. This game has been in development for a few years, and its launch is more than funded through the crowdfunding site BackerKit.

The description on Board Game Geek says:
In Molly House, players take the roles of the gender-defying mollies of early eighteenth century London. Throw grand masquerades and cruise back alleys while evading moralistic constables who seek to destroy your community. Be careful, there may even be informers in your midst!

Over the course of an hour, players will draft hands of vice cards representing the different gestures, desires, and encounters that were frowned upon by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, a citizen group that sought to stamp out any behavior it deemed deviant in late 17th and early 18th century London. These cards allow players to host festivities with the help of their fellow mollies and create joy. But, those same cards can also lead players to be arrested and to the ultimate ruin of the molly house.

As players encounter the Society’s enforcers, they will often have to pay bribes or may be coerced into becoming informers for the Society. Informers must try desperately to undermine the community around Mother Clap’s Molly House without being discovered by their fellow mollies.
The description on Backerkit lays out how the game connects to historic developments:
The rapid growth of London in the late 17th century allowed for greater anonymity, and the increase in population gave access to a wider range of people, allowing queer people to congregate in burgeoning communities. Molly House is a game about how these communities formed and flourished even in the shadow of great persecution. It is an intimate game about the very idea of intimacy.

Molly House is also a game about policing. Here the primary policing actors are not city officials but instead a citizen group, the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which sought to weaponize the legal apparatus of the city in order to destroy a community it perceived as a threat. Critically, this goal could not have been accomplished without the intimidation and eventual compliance of a handful of informers, drawn from the ranks of the house’s patrons.

Lastly, Molly House is a game about the practice of history itself. So much of queer history has been lost: hidden, suppressed, or outright destroyed. But, the story of the molly houses of the eighteenth century was protected in the most unexpected of places. As witnesses were pulled before the authorities in London, they gave their testimony and their accounts were preserved in the proceedings of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court). 
Board Game Geek also offers perspectives on the development of the game by Cole Wehrle, co-founder of the company, and Jo Kelly, the primary designer.

I don’t play board games often, especially these more esoteric games. And the culture of developing those games is even more fascinatingly foreign, with its own vocabulary and traditions. Like period fiction, dramas on stage and screen, and video games, well designed board games and role-playing games offer unique ways to explore the dramas and contingencies of history.  

Monday, October 23, 2023

Local Archeology for Local Historians in Charlestown and Medford

On Thursday, October 26, folks have a choice between two events on local archeology north of the Charles.

At 6:00 P.M., the City of Boston Archaeology Program, Boston’s Commemoration Commission, and the National Park Service will hold a “public listening event” at the Bunker Hill Museum, asking what people want to know about that battlefield and the destruction of Charlestown.

Co-sponsored by the Charlestown Historical Society and Charlestown Preservation Society, this session will feature Joe Bagley and the City Archaeology Program team, Genesis Pimentel of the Commemoration Commission, and Meg Watters Wilkes of the National Park Service. They will discuss previous archeological work around the battle and how new technology and methods might reveal more.

Folks can help the presenters prepare, or participate in the ongoing discussion, by filling out this form asking about interests in the battle.

At 7:00 P.M. the Medford Historical Commission will host “History Beneath Our Feet: The Archaeology of Thomas Brooks Park” at the Medford Public Library.

This event description says:
Located in West Medford, the wooded and grassy parcel is an important reminder of Native Americans, northern slavery and the Brooks family. The Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc. and the Commission will share artifacts which were excavated by volunteers from the recent archaeological dig and talk about how these tiny fragments provide greater insight into the people who inhabited the landscape.
Thomas Brooks owned that land in the mid-1700s, and he also owned a man named Pomp, who around 1765 built a decorative brick wall that’s preserved in the park. The area was recently restored, as described on the historical commission’s website, and part of that work was the new study.

(The photo above, courtesy of the Medford Historical Commission, shows one of the bricks from Pomp’s wall, preserving the impressions of the fingers of the person who made it.)

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Peone on “Invisible Agents,” 25 Oct.

On Wednesday, 25 October, the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston will host an online presentation by Dr. Tricia Peone on “Invisible Agents: Witchcraft in Congregational Church Records.”

The event description:
Today, people typically think of the Salem witch trials and little else when the history of witchcraft is mentioned. In fact, the belief in magic, witchcraft, ghosts, and other invisible agents of Satan continued to affect congregations beyond Salem well into the eighteenth century.

Join Dr. Tricia Peone, Project Director for New England’s Hidden Histories at the C.L.A., as she explores two lesser-known cases of witchcraft that took place in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the decades after Salem. Drawing from examples in Congregational church records, she will discuss how people determined whether or not witchcraft was the cause of their problems and how they dealt with this continuing threat to their communities.
This is interesting in that the Salem Witch Trials quickly became an embarrassment for New England culture. The government authorities started to release and pardon the accused (those who were left). By the Revolutionary period, people on both sides of the political divide used that episode as an example of public hysteria. Indeed, I suspect that the Salem trials would be as obscure as every other early modern witch hunt if it weren’t for the quick backlash.

This presentation might cover a case in Littleton that the Rev. Ebenezer Turell wrote about skeptically in 1728. Turell left a mark on Boston 1775 earlier this season as I analyzed his grad-school notebooks.

This online event is scheduled to start at 1:00 P.M. Register for the link here.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Book Signings in Boston and Newport

On Monday, 23 October, the Old South Meeting House will host the launch of the paperback edition of Stacy Schiff’s biography The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams.

After the hardcover appeared last year, the Wall Street Journal named The Revolutionary one of its Best 10 Books of 2022 and Barack Obama listed it among his recent favorites.

Schiff will discuss the book in the space where a town meeting on 6 Mar 1770 empowered Adams to lead a town committee demanding that the royal government remove all troops from the streets of Boston. John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Adams depicts that effort.

The Old South will open its doors at 6:30 P.M., and the event will begin at 7:00. It is free and open to the public, but Revolutionary Spaces encourages people to register at this link.

The next night, Tuesday, 24 October, Schiff will appear with Brooke Barbier, author of King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father, at the Colony House in Newport, Rhode Island.

This authors’ discussion will look at the Boston Tea Party as a milestone in the collaboration of the two Boston politicians. Adams and Hancock served together in the Massachusetts General Court in the 1760s and 1770s and later were back-to-back governors in the 1790s. (There were some serious bumps in their relationship in between.)

This event is scheduled to run from 6:00 to 7:30 P.M. The Newport Historical Society is hosting, and admission is $20, or $15 for members. Charter Books will have copies of the two biographies available for purchase. Register here.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Exploring the Boston Slavery Database

Speaking of the city of Boston’s Archaeology Program, its staff took the lead in developing the “Slavery in Boston” exhibit in Faneuil Hall that I discussed back in June.

Its webpages host the online complement of that exhibit.

Those webpages include the Boston Slavery Database, a spreadsheet listing (as of 12 October) “2,357 Black and Indigenous people enslaved in Boston between 1641 and 1783.”

It looks like that listing was compiled mainly by compiling the enslaved people named in “the probate records for Boston proper and Dorchester,” along with research by historians Aabid Allibhai, Jared Ross Hardesty, and Wayne Tucker. The agency acknowledges that it’s incomplete.

Indeed, I ran some test searches for people like Onesimus Mather, Caesar Marion, Surry (Adams), Nero Faneuil, and Sharp Gardner, and didn’t find them.

Printers Pompey and Caesar Fleet appear, but not their father, Peter Fleet. Oliver Wendell appears twice as a slaveholder, but his servant Andrew, documented as testifying about the Boston Massacre, doesn’t show up.

The Boston Globe said one goal of this effort was to inform the public about colonial Bostonians in bondage “beyond the better known names of Phillis Wheatley and Prince Hall.” Ironically, neither of those names appears in the database.

All those missing names show how much larger the institution of slavery was over its fourteen decades in Boston. They also show the limits of one type of historic record. Enslaved people don’t appear in probate records if they died or were freed before their owner died, or if the vagaries of an owner’s estate mean that they weren’t specifically bequeathed or valued. Or if those documents simply disappeared.

The website says: “If you have done research and found evidence of an enslaved Bostonian who is not yet on this list, please email us with your data so that we can add them, with credit.” So this database is like Wikipedia, in that spotting an error or omission also confers some opportunity and responsibility to do something about it. Unfortunately, it’s easier to poke holes than to fix them. But I’ll add figuring out this database to my list of tasks.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Open House at Boston Archaeology Program, 25 Oct.

On Wednesday, 25 October, the city of Boston’s Archaeology Program will open its new Mary C. Beaudry Community Archaeology Center to the public.

At this open house in West Roxbury, visitors can meet staff members, take a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, and see the new exhibit on the archaeology of a Charlestown house dating from the 1630s.

The new facility features, behind glass walls:
  • two processing laboratories
  • an artifact-digitizing lab with 3D scanners, printers, and photography equipment
  • a repository of over 1,000,000 artifacts from dozens of ancient and historical sites in Boston
  • an extensive collection of historical ceramic and lithic raw material for comparisons
  • a “specialized wet laboratory”
  • a research library containing over 2,000 reference books and archaeological reports
The Archaeology Program still shares a building with the City of Boston Archival Center. Neighbors include archivists and collections librarians from the Boston Planning & Development Agency and the Boston Public Library.

This open house will start with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with special guests at 9:00 A.M. and last the whole workday at the City of Boston Archival Center, 201 Rivermoor Street. The first-floor exhibits will be available for viewing year-round during business hours.

For the curious, Mary C. Beaudry (1950–2020) was a historical archaeologist and professor at Boston University. In the latter part of her career she focused on the anthropology of food. Among many other sites she studied the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm in Newbury.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

“This Day Published…Mr. Bates and his Horses”?

Two hundred fifty years ago today, on 18 Oct 1773, the Boston Post-Boy published this advertisement:
And to be SOLD at the New Printing-Office
in Hanover-street, Boston,
A Pamphlet, entitled,
Mr. Bates and his Horses,
Weighed in the Balance.

In which is shewn, with great Brevity, that his Exhibitions in Boston, are impoverishing, disgraceful to human Nature, and downright Breaches of the Sixth Commandment.

OH BE A MAN! Young.
This was very similar to the advertisements that had appeared back on 27 September, as previously quoted. The big difference is that the first ad had started, “In a few Days will be published…”

The 17 October was even more similar to an ad in the Post-Boy on 4 October, and again on 11 October. In fact, those three notices were all identical. And they all said that “Mr. Bates and his Horses” was published that day. The text never shifted over to say “Now available” or any other phrasing to indicate the pamphlet was already off the press.

Combined with how no printed copy of “Bates and His Horses Weighed in the Balance” has survived, nor any mention of it in writings of the time, that repeated advertisement raises the question of whether that screed was actually ever printed.

Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks, printers of the Boston Post-Boy since April, could have sold ad space for a certain number of weeks and kept the type in place for each new issue of the paper until that time ran out. If they didn’t hear from their client about updating the wording, they had no strong motive to quibble with it.

On the other hand, Joseph Greenleaf, proprietor of the printing office on Hanover Street, would probably have wanted some payment before investing time and paper in the pamphlet. With Jacob Bates heading out of town in early October, public interest in his moral standing probably dried up.

But we can’t be sure. Perhaps some author really had a lot to say about Bates’s equestrian exhibition and did pay to have it printed, only for no one else to care enough to preserve the result. People could always find a use for scraps of rag linen paper.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Hanson on Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, 22 Oct.

On Sunday, 22 October, Old North Illuminated will host two events featuring John G. S. Hanson speaking about the nearby Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.

A tour of that cemetery with Hanson is already sold out, but it’s still possible to take in his talk “The Stones Cry Out” in the church or online.

The event description says:
Many people visit Boston’s historic burying grounds to see the monuments of historical figures like Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Crispus Attucks, Samuel Sewall, Prince Hall, and Cotton Mather. But few pause to read the inscriptions on the stones of other early “every day” Bostonians, whose names and lives are now long forgotten.

For those who take the time to look and “listen” closely, these gravestones convey highly personal messages that not only reveal a glimpse into their personal lives, but also the literature that they read, the hymns they sang, and the poetry that moved them. These stones also can tell us a great deal about colonial Bostonians’ attitudes toward life, death, and eternity.

Join burial ground expert John Hanson for “The Stones Cry Out” and explore the history and poignancy of the Copp’s Hill Burial Ground epitaphs, followed by a reception and multimedia presentation at the Old North Church, as we illuminate history through the artistic disciplines of poetry, verse, and music.
Most of the names in that description are buried at the Granary Burying Ground, but Copp’s Hill is the resting-place of Mather and Hall, as well as firebrand merchant captain Daniel Malcom, both men named Robert Newman, Benjamin Edes, and Shem Drowne.

John G. S. Hanson is the author of Reading the Gravestones of Old New England (McFarland, 2021), based on years of research into grave markers and the sources for their texts.

The lecture is scheduled to take place from 5:15 to 6:30 P.M. People can register for in-person or online attendance through this webpage, and Old North Illuminated asks those attendees to donate what they can.

Monday, October 16, 2023

The Case of Mary Squires

Back in 2014 I wrote about Elizabeth Canning, a young Englishwoman whose brief disappearance in 1753 became a sensation in the courts and the press.

Eventually Canning was convicted of perjury and transported to Connecticut. A couple of years after arriving in America, she married, had children, and led an apparently normal life for a colonial housewife until dying in 1773. One of her sons served in the Continental Army.

Lancaster University’s EPOCH history website just published James Peate’s article about Mary Squires, a woman Canning falsely accused of keeping her confined.

Peate writes:
According to Canning, Squires ‘took her by the hand, and asked me if I chose to go their way’, an insinuation that she become a prostitute, offering her fine clothes if she agreed. Unhappy with her answer, Squires slashed Canning’s petticoats and confined her in a loft with only a quarter loaf of bread, until twenty-seven days later when she was able to jump from an upstairs window and escape.

Because assault was a civil matter, the case was instead pursued as one of theft of the petticoats Squires had slashed, which being the value of ten shillings meant that if found guilty Squires would face execution. Despite bringing forth a witness who testified to Mary being elsewhere during the alleged kidnapping, she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. . . .

The trial’s judge, Lord Mayor of London Sir Crisp Gascoyne, had been unhappy with how the trial had proceeded. He was upset that Canning’s supporters had prevented witnesses for the defence from appearing and he was unconvinced by Canning’s testimony. His investigation found that the primary witness for the prosecution, Virtue Hall, had only agreed to testify under the threat of arrest from Henry Fielding – writer of Tom Jones and by 1753 a magistrate. This revelation aided Gascoyne’s investigation in obtaining a pardon for Squires . . .

Yet despite Squires’ acquittal, the case brought forth a wave of antiziganism in a media storm of newspaper stories, satirical prints, and pamphlets that were printed on the case.
“Antiziganism”? That’s hostility to Romani or gypsies, like Squires. The press often referred to her as “the Gypsy” rather than by name. Prints caricatured her features and portrayed her performing magic and telling fortunes, never part of the court case. Supporters of Canning called for a revival of capital punishment for vagrants, an anti-traveler law that England had instituted centuries earlier. (Eventually, in 1783, the government repealed that largely unenforced law.)

According to British newspapers, Mary Squires died in early 1762 in Surrey; “There were near one hundred lights, and forty of the Gypsy sort were mourners.” The parish recorded her name as “Mary Moore, stranger.”

Sunday, October 15, 2023

“We presume to know exactly what they meant with the words they used”

I was struck by this passage from an interview by Jack Miller Center Resident Historian Elliott Drago with J. L. Tomlin, a professor at Fairmont State University:
We read early American source material too often with the arrogance of speaking the same language we are reading in the sources. We presume to know exactly what they meant with the words they used. The prevalence of anti-Catholic language, for instance, was simply chalked up to Protestant fear and hatred of Catholics for decades of scholarship. This explanation, however, doesn’t hold up when we realize they were calling each other Papists or labeling certain behaviors Popish [despite all obviously being Protestants].

The popular culture of the time had taken the word and developed it into an expression of something entirely different. It becomes clear we didn’t understand how these words or phrases were actually being used or their real meaning.
That understanding of “popery” as something infused through Roman Catholicism but not confined to it, Tomlin argues in his dissertation, gave “anti-popery” a wider meaning than just anti-Catholic bias.
…religious slurs came to be a vehicle to articulate aspects of a preferred political economy and governing system. In so doing, it reveals a founding paradox of American history: language born of xenophobia, sectarianism, and fear was used to articulate a political and social vision based in gradually expanding pluralism, tolerance, and political optimism.
Of course, vocabulary that equated Catholicism with authoritarianism reinforced the underlying prejudices against Catholics even as it might prove useful in discussing the overwhelmingly Protestant politics in America at this time.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

“He wanted to be liked”

This fall brings us King Hancock by Brooke Barbier, Ph.D., a historian, teacher, and tour guide here in Boston.

The Wall Street Journal just ran Prof. William Anthony Hay’s laudatory review, which zeroes in on a fundamental aspect of John Hancock’s character:
As Ms. Barbier emphasizes, Hancock possessed an innate sociability—it was a core aspect of his identity: He wanted to be liked. Not for him the disciplined reserve of his fellow New Englanders, the aloof dignity of George Washington and the Virginia planter class, the intellectual ferocity of John Adams. He was, though hardly ordinary, never a grandee; for all his display, he radiated an affability that would appeal to social orders well below his own. . . .

Hancock was not “all-in” for independence at first. Far from seeing a march to inevitable confrontation between the colonies and the crown, he hoped that the reversal of certain policies—like the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties, a range of taxes on goods imported from England—would restore good relations. Tensions would fade, he believed, along with resistance. And tensions did fade for a while.

It was a tax on imported tea—the only duty left over from the hated Townshend program—that pulled Hancock back into an oppositional mode. Trouble peaked on Dec. 16, 1773, with the Boston Tea Party, during which a disguised mob threw cargo into the harbor. Hancock took no direct part in the act but had rallied a crowd at the Old South Meeting House that night by declaring: “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes.” . . .

It is safe to say that, at this point, the “moderate” Hancock was in abeyance, but he was not gone. At the Continental Congress—which began in 1774—Hancock tried to balance the proponents of reconciliation against the radicals, though he did see the necessity of independence once British authorities rebuffed overture after overture. Ill health took him from the forefront of events when he stepped down from the congress in 1777.

Still, Hancock kept his hand in affairs. During the war, he tempered local hostility to France, a Roman Catholic ally that had lately been a bitter foe in Canada. After the war, he checked tensions arising from the discontent of indebted farmers and artisans. He urged Massachusetts to ratify the federal Constitution—but with amendments that would safeguard liberties.
I think that last part of the review shortchanges Hancock’s dominant role in Massachusetts’s state government. He was, after all, governor for eleven of the thirteen years from October 1780 to October 1793, never losing a race. That was also the period when he fully threw himself into being a politician instead of a merchant who dabbled in politics.

Barbier’s book doesn’t omit Hancock’s activity after the Declaration of Independence, devoting a quarter of the chapters to those years. Being the biggest man in Boston may seem anticlimactic to Wall Street Journal readers, but in a period when state governments wielded more power than the national government, being the popular governor of a big state was a very big deal.

Friday, October 13, 2023

“He takes the honey, but preserves the bees”

As discussed yesterday, in the early 1770s there were two men named Wildman exhibiting bees in London.

The uncle, Thomas Wildman (1734–1781) of Plymouth, appears to have been an apiarist who discovered a way to impress people with his bees. One witness wrote:
He walked about with six swarms about him, which covered his head, breast, and shoulders, leaving only his nostrils and his mouth clear. These he shook off upon a table, and then drove them into their hive.
That seems to have been the limit of Thomas’s exhibitions; his heart was in the hive.

The nephew, Daniel Wildman (d. 1812), brought a bunch of circus and conjuring skills: standing upright on a galloping horse, doing tricks with cards, seemingly cutting the head off a live chicken and restoring it, and so on. He then added his uncle’s bees to his repertoire.

In 1772 the Mirror praised the Wildman beekeeping method, presumably developed by Thomas:
HE with uncommon art and matchless skill,
Commands those insects, who obey his will;
With bees others cruel means employ,
They take the honey and the bees destroy;
Wildman humanely, with ingenious ease,
He takes the honey, but preserves the bees.
But of course Daniel’s tricks commanded more attention. In 1774 the younger man took his performances, including the bees, to the Colysée in Paris.

Over time, however, Daniel also became a bee man. In 1775 he published a much-condensed version of his uncle Thomas’s compendium on beekeeping, which he titled A Complete Guide for the Management of Bees, Throughout the Year, and kept that in print for the rest of the century.

By the 1780s Daniel was running a shop: “Wildman’s Honey and Wax-Candle Warehouse, No. 326, Holborn, almost opposite Gray’s-Inn-Gate.” His stock included “a great VARIETY of the New-invented Mahogany, Glass and Straw Bee-Hives, (Both for CHAMBER and GARDEN,) so much approved of by the Nobility, Gentry, and Others.”

Curiously, Wildman’s shop also manufactured and sold archery equipment. Was this another of his skills, or did arrows just seem to offer good synergy with bees?

When Daniel died in 1812, he was still a listed as a “Honey-Merchant” from Holborn. I wonder if he ever cut the head off a live chicken for old times’ sake.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The King of Bees and His Heir Apparent

After reading the description of the feats of conjuring and bee-training by “Mr. Wildman” in London quoted yesterday, I went looking for more about that man.

It turns out:
  • There were two men named Wildman attracting attention in London at this time, and many books mix them up.
  • I never found a British source for that particular description of Wildman’s act, but found enough overlapping descriptions to be confident about who performed it.
  • Those other descriptions are even more wild!
One of my sources is an Eighteenth-Century Life article by Deirdre Coleman of the University of Sydney titled “Entertaining Entomology: Insects and Insect Performers in the Eighteenth Century.” Others are books on public entertainers in London published over the decades, including Ricky Jay’s Extraordinary Exhibitions. However, I might sort out the two Wildmans differently from those references.

So let’s meet the Wildman family.

In 1754 some British gentlemen founded the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in Great Britain, eventually known as the Royal Society of Arts. In the summer of 1766 a man from Plymouth in western England named Thomas Wildman (1734–1781) demonstrated various tricks with bees to this group. A newspaper described one of his visits to the society’s secretary:
About five o’clock Mr. Wildman came, brought through the city in a chair, his head and face almost covered with bees, and a most venerable beard of them hanging down from his chin. The gentlemen and ladies were soon convinced that they need not be afraid of the bees, and therefore went up familiarly to Mr. Wildman, and conversed with him. After having staid a considerable time, he gave orders to the bees to retire to their hive that was brought for them, which they immediately obeyed with the greatest precipitation.
That was so impressive that the society granted Wildman £105 (a hundred guineas) to publish his secrets for the benefit of the public.

Over the next two years Wildman appeared publicly with his bees several times, not revealing secrets. Coleman’s article states:
Attired in his “bee dress,” Wildman would usually perform with up to three different swarms of bees “which he made fly in and out of their hives at pleasure.” At the conclusion of one act, he grabbed handfuls of bees and “tossed them up and down like so many peas” before making them “go into their hive at the word of command.”
Wildman accepted the title of “king of bees.” Ironically, he probably controlled the swarms by moving around their queens.

In 1768 Wildman published A Treatise on the Management of Bees; wherein is Contained the Natural History of those Insects; with the Various Methods of Cultivating Them. This book was a digest of old lore and recent European writing about beekeeping translated by the Society of Arts secretary. It included fold-out copper-plate engravings of bees and hives, as shown above. Among the men subscribing for an early copy was Benjamin Franklin. A second edition was printed in 1770.

By 1772, Thomas Wildman was joined in the capital by his nephew Daniel Wildman (d. 1812). The younger Wildman had an even wilder approach to showing off bees. In June of that year he performed at the Jubilee Gardens, and in July at Richard Astley’s Riding-School in London. The name of the latter establishment is the tip-off that Daniel Wildman’s act included not just bees but horses.

Specifically, a June 1772 announcement said:
The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before, the rider standing upright, one foot on the saddle, and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face.

He also rides, standing upright on the saddle, with the bridle in his mouth, and by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.
And that wasn’t all. As shown by the advertisement quoted in the Boston Evening-Post 250 years ago this week and others, Daniel Wildman performed conjuring tricks with coins, cards, watches, “his Oriental caskets,” and live birds. (At least he promised that one “Fowl shall be alive and perfectly well as before the” performance.)

It’s striking that the Evening-Post item said nothing about Wildman as a trick rider even though someone sent it to the newspaper in response to the equestrian exhibitions of Jacob Bates. Evidently Daniel Wildman had so many talents that he could tailor his act to the venue, small and intimate or big and brash.

TOMORROW: Settling down with the bees.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

“For the further amusement of the Town”

On 11 Oct 1773, 250 years ago today, Jacob Bates ran his last advertisement in the Boston newspapers.

It appeared in the Boston Post-Boy, repeating his announcement in the 7 October Boston News-Letter that his performance at 2:00 P.M. on the 12th would be his last in town. Unless it rained. In which case, he’d perform “the first fair Day after.” But that would be “Positively the last Time here.”

That same day, Thomas and John Fleet at the Boston Evening-Post ran this item sent in by a reader (and set in small type to fit it all in):
Messi’rs FLEETS,

AS the extraordinary feats of Horsemanship now performing here by Mr. Bates, has much engrossed the attention of the Town; please to insert, for the further amusement of the Town, the substance of an Advertisement to be seen in the London Ledger of last July, relative to the more astonishing Performances of the famous Mr. Wildman,

“who lets any Person in company cut off the Head of a living Cock, Hen, or other Fowl, and he will immediately join the Head to the Body again in the presence of the company, and the Fowl shall be alive and perfectly well as before the operation—

He will likewise exhibit many astonishing Performances with his Oriental Caskets, and several Pieces of new invented Machinery—

He tells the Ladies and Gentlemen Thoughts by several methods never attempted by any other Person—

He puts a Piece of Money into a Lady or Gentleman’s hand, and takes it away without their knowledge, let them hold it ever so fast—

And fifty other different astonishing Deceptions with Cards, Money & Watches, that cannot possibly be inserted in his Bill.—

He concludes with his much admired exhibition of Bees, when he will command them the leave the Hive, and settle on any Gentleman’s Handkerchief, Sword, Cane, or any other part the Company shall request; from thence he will order them to settle on his naked arm, representing a swarm of Bees on the Boughs of a Tree; he will then remove them from his Arm to his naked Head and Face in a most extraordinary manner; and afterwards makes them march over the Table at the word of Command:—

He likewise offers to give One Hundred Guineas if his Performances can be equalled by any Person in the Kingdom.”——
The Connecticut Journal of New Haven had run a similar item from the London press back on 20 August. Similar but not identical—that announcement about the feats of “Mr. Wildman” included cutting off the head of a cock and card tricks, but it said nothing about bees.

The Connecticut newspaper didn’t add any editorial comment. The Boston Evening-Post’s correspondent tied the material to public interest in Jacob Bates. But what point was he (or she) trying to make?

Was this correspondent criticizing the Boston public for its fascination with a showman? The apparently admonitory “Bates and his Horses” pamphlet would be advertised in the Post-Boy another week, though since no copies survive it’s not certain it was ever printed.

But perhaps this Evening-Post reader simply wanted to share another curious glimpse of London-based entertainment. If you think Bates’s horsemanship is impressive, you ain’t seen nothin’!

If we lived in that society, the implications of reprinting the description of Wildman’s act for the Boston public might be clearer. Or perhaps people had just as much trouble discerning tone and irony in print then as now.

TOMORROW: Wildman and his horses.

(The playing card above comes from this set, courtesy of Harvard, showing people caught up in the South Sea Bubble early in the 1700s.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

“His Majesty’s Ship under my Command ran on the Rocks”

On 11 Dec 1774, Capt. William Maltby of H.M.S. Glasgow wrote from off Cohasset to his commander, Adm. Samuel Graves, with some bad news:
His Majesty’s Ship under my Command ran on the Rocks at this Place Yesterday Morning at 5 O’Clock.

She is now at an Anchor in a very narrow Place environ’d with Rocks and about half her Length from some of them, her Rudder is lost and she has received very considerable damage, if timely Assistance arrives, I hope She will be saved, She now makes as much Water as all the Pumps can free, I am taking every Method for her Preservation, but want Craft for Her Guns &ca.

as there is a little more Water than She draws at Low Water, but it would be very dangerous to throw her Guns Overboard here as She would strike on them at Low Water; for other particulars I refer You to the Bearer who seems to be a very communicative and civil Person.
The man Maltby entrusted with that message was Ebenezer Dickinson. He evidently did his job since the next afternoon Maltby could file this report:
Sir, I have your favor by Mr Dickinson, Lieutenant [Alexander] Greme is arrived in the Sloop; Lieutenant [Joseph] Nunn in the Halifax; Mr [William] Lechmere by Land; You may be assured I shall lose no time or Opportunity in doing everything in my power for the Preservation of the Ship,

an able Carpenter with two or three of that Profession would be of great Service in constructing a Rudder of this Plan.

I purpose to get the Ship in safety to Night if possible, until I can get. her in a Condition to come to Boston; If the 40 Men are completed to a 100. it will vastly contribute to forward the Ship as her Men are much fatigued already; I must refer You to Lt Lechmere for particulars of which he has heard and seen
In a postscript the captain added: “the reason I mention the Men after what You have said in your Letter, the Officers are of Opinion that the King’s Men are more to be depended on than Others.”

Graves’s letter doesn’t appear to have survived, but I’m guessing Maltby wanted men already in the Royal Navy to help with the salvage effort, not trusting locals, even if they were experienced sailors. In late December, there was already an open split between rural Massachusetts and the Crown.

Graves was especially displeased about this accident since H.M.S. Glasgow had just been refurbished in Halifax. It was, he wrote, “a clean Ship, compleatly stored and victualled.” And it had nearly reached Boston. As Capt. John Barker of the army wrote in his diary, the Glasgow ran aground “within two or three Leagues of the Light House.” But that proximity also meant the navy was able to hurry resources out to Maltby. The frigate was refloated, moved into Boston, and slowly repaired by early March.

At the time of the accident, the Admiralty office had sent orders for Capt. Maltby to report to Spithead because he had “served three years successively.” He was in line for a new command. However, the grounding spelled the end of Capt. Maltby’s naval career.

On 10 Jan 1775 the merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary:
Capt. Maltby of the Glasgow Man of Warr was try’d this day by a Court Martial on board the Somerset & suspended.
The Glasgow’s gunner was court-martialed at the same time. Presumably Maltby sailed home to Britain shortly afterward, but I can’t trace him.

Adm. Graves reassigned the Glasgow to Capt. Tyringham Howe. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, the frigate fired shot across Charlestown Neck to discourage more provincials from going onto the peninsula.

Meanwhile, Lt. William Finnie, whom Maltby had wounded in a duel on Noddle’s Island back in 1773, was serving with the Marines’ 61st Company, also listed as grenadiers. He was among the many Marine officers killed in the Bunker Hill battle.

(The map shown above, viewable at Boston Rare Maps, was published in 1774. It includes at the bottom right “Konohasset Harbour” and the “Konohasset rocks.”)

Monday, October 09, 2023

A Duel on Noddle’s Island

On 9 Oct 1773, 250 years ago today, two British military officers fought a duel on an island in Boston harbor.

The Boston Evening-Post published two days later reported:

Last Saturday towards Evening, a Duel was fought on Noddle’s Island, with Pistols, between Captain Maltby of the Glasgow Man of War, & Mr. Finnie, late Lieutenant of Marines on board the same Ship, when the latter received a Ball thro’ his Neck, but it is thought will not prove mortal.
The merchant John Rowe recorded this duel in his diary, saying: “Lieut. Finney is wounded in the Breast & t’is thought mortally,” but the newspaper had better information.

I haven’t found a clue about why those two officers quarreled. The Boston Post-Boy ran the same paragraph about their duel and immediately added:
This Morning the Glasgow Man of War, Capt. Maltby, sailed for South-Carolina.
Presumably Lt. Finnie was left behind to recover, and everyone was happier. The Glasgow arrived in Charleston harbor on 22 November.

Lt. William Finnie had joined the Marines on 30 Sept 1759, according to the 1773 Army List. I’ve found nothing else definite about him.

William Maltby (c.1725–1793) had joined the Royal Navy by 1751 and passed the lieutenant’s exam in 1758. Over five years he had commanded the Nautilus, Favourite, and Aquilon before being assigned the Glasgow at the end of 1771.

Capt. Maltby’s most prominent act in those years was evacuating the small British force at Port Egmont when the Spanish Navy showed up in force in June 1770. The British eventually regained that first perch on the Falkland Islands.

Capt. Maltby later brought the Glasgow back to New England in 1774, but ran into trouble again. Before dawn on 10 December, the frigate ran aground near Cohasset.

TOMORROW: On the rocks.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

“Bartram with his two Daughters Nancy and Flora”

Last month the Connecticut History website shared Alec Lurie’s article “Black Loyalist Refugees: Toney Escapes During the Burning of Fairfield.”

Lurie writes:
July 7, 1779, presented a perfect opportunity for enslaved people in the town of Fairfield, Connecticut. With more than two thousand British soldiers marching through the streets of an almost undefended Patriot town, several enslaved people were able to make their escape—including a man in his early 20s named Toney. . . .

Toney, with his two young daughters in tow, fled slavery on the estate of Job Bartram, a captain in the town’s militia. Though no one recorded the details of their escape, when British troops returned to their ships and sailed across the Long Island Sound to the Loyalist stronghold of Huntington, New York, Toney and his daughters, Flora and Nancy, were on board.

For the next several years, Toney lived in British-controlled New York, probably receiving a meager wage for the work he provided to the British troops. Whether he was cooking, chopping wood, or carting supplies, the arrangement was undoubtedly an improvement from his life in Fairfield.

The danger, however, was not over; in spring 1783, Toney made a bold demand. In a formal petition, he pressed the British military to protect his family. At some point during his stay in New York, Nancy, Toney’s young daughter, was kidnapped. . . . According to British military records, Henry Rogers detained Nancy with the intention of selling her back to her former enslaver.
As shown by a document reproduced at the top of the article, the British military authorities ordered that Rogers release the girl. But it’s not clear that happened.

A Fairfield County Loyalist who testified to Toney Bartram’s escape was Nathan Hubbell, captain of an “armed boat company.” Like Toney Bartram, he settled in Nova Scotia after the war, but he later returned to Connecticut, still “a British Pensioner.”

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Dr. Henry Burchsted and the Whale

On 9 Dec 1755, Richard Pratt of Lynn wrote in his journal:
Was a Whale taken up at Sea and Brought in To Kings-Beach abought 75 feet Long
King’s Beach now straddles Lynn and Swampscott, but at this time Swampscott had not yet broken off.

The 15 December Boston Gazette reported:
We hear that a large Whale 75 Feet in length, was drove ashore dead on Lynn Beach a few Days ago.
The same day’s Boston Evening-Post added:
’Tis said she is claimed by a Cape-Cod Man, who struck her on the Banks, and 2 of his Irons were found in her. Several curious Persons from this Town have been down to view her.
Almost seventy-five years later, Alonzo Lewis shifted the whale’s gender and added a new detail as he wrote in his History of Lynn (1829):
Dr. Henry Burchsted rode into his mouth, in a chair drawn by a horse; and afterward had two of his bones set up for gate posts, at his house in Essex street, where they stood for more than fifty years.
Dr. Burchsted (1719–1807) was a third-generation physician. His grandfather had reportedly immigrated from Silesia about 1685. His father had died earlier that year. At least one of his brothers also went into medicine.

Because there’s a line of overlapping Henry Burchsteds, their genealogy isn’t entirely clear, but it looks like this physician married Anna Potter in 1742 and had a child, naturally named Henry, a short time later. At the start of the Revolutionary War, Dr. Burchsted owned one slave.

The doctor’s striking gate of whalebones “disposed in the form of a gothic arch” stood near the foot of High Rock, now a park with a tall stone observatory.

The doctor’s son Henry grew up to become a shoemaker on Boston Street, and another physician bought the house with the whalebone gate. That landmark was really helpful, local chroniclers said, for people trying to find their way to the fortune-teller Moll Pitcher, who lived in a small cottage nearby.

(The photo above shows not Dr. Burchsted’s gate, which is long gone, but a similar arch erected in front of the Captain Edward Penniman House in the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1969. This picture was taken shortly before those bones were taken down in 2018 because they were deteriorating, also after about fifty years.)

Friday, October 06, 2023

Whither the Weathercock?

Today’s Boston 1775 posting comes from Charles Bahne, a local historian based in Cambridge. In this “guest blogger” essay, Charlie discusses an artifact of the North End in the early 1700s and Cambridge in the late 1800s, making the case to preserve and reproduce it locally.

One of the most historic elements of the Cambridge skyline is coming down sometime soon: the big brown church with the rooster on top is losing its rooster.

The Executive Council of the First Church in Cambridge—the stone church on Garden Street, across from the Common—has decided to bring the cockerel weathervane down for its own safety. According to the church’s website, drone videos have revealed significant and dangerous erosion of the gilding on one side of the cockerel, especially its large tail feathers. After extensive consultation, nationally recognized experts in the field of American Folk Art and historic weathervanes have strongly advised removal. The date for its descent is still being determined, but the goal is to make the move as soon as possible.

The church adds, “Once the cockerel is safely down and securely stored, church leaders and the congregation will need to consider next steps in the stewardship of this national treasure, including discerning whether the time has come to consider selling it. Another future decision is whether the Shem Drowne original should be replaced with a replica or something else.”

At 302 years of age, the five-foot gilded fowl is one of the oldest weathervanes still in use in America. Perhaps the first rooster weathervane, or “weathercock,” made in this hemisphere, he was fashioned in 1721 by Shem Drowne, the same coppersmith who crafted the grasshopper vane atop Faneuil Hall.

For a century and a half—nearly half of his existence—he has dominated the corner of Garden and Mason Streets, a landmark for Cantabrigians. And before he landed in Cambridge, the cockerel perched atop a church in Boston’s North End, where he led quite an interesting life.

The weathervane originated with a 1719 dispute among members of a North End parish, over the ordination of a pastor named Peter Thacher. Following Rev. Thacher’s rather tumultuous installation, the dissenting parishioners seceded from the original congregation and erected a new meeting house just three blocks away. As a deliberate insult to their former colleagues, they commissioned the cockerel weathervane for their new building: an allusion to Peter’s betrayal of Christ at the crowing of the cock. Upon placing the new vane on its spindle, “a merry fellow straddled over it, and crowed three times to complete the ceremony.”

Officially the “New Brick Meeting House,” their 1721 structure was commonly known as the “Cockerel Church” in honor of its weathervane; and some people (perhaps not so jokingly) called it the “Revenge Church of Christ.”

Paul Revere worshipped in the Cockerel Church for most of his life; the back yard of his house abutted the meeting house property. The weathercock appears prominently in Revere’s 1769 print of “A View of Part of the Town of Boston,” where he towers over the North End neighborhood.

Before he changed his career from the ministry to writing, Ralph Waldo Emerson preached sermons under the cockerel weathervane for three years, as pastor of the Second Church in Boston, which had merged with the original New Brick parish.

A new building followed in 1845, on the same Hanover Street site, and the weathercock was placed atop it. When that building came down for an 1870 street-widening project, the vane was sold at auction. William Saunders, an antiquarian and a member of the First Church Cambridge congregation, bought it, and the cockerel found his new home, roosting atop First Church’s new stone building. Since 1873 he has graced the corner of Garden and Mason streets, overlooking Cambridge Common.

So our friend the rooster has quite a story to tell, over and above the weather forecast. It’s a story that’s unique to Boston and Cambridge. It’s important that he remain in our community, where he can continue to tell it to us. He must not be allowed to fly the coop, and land somewhere else.

In an ideal world, the historic fowl would be repaired and restored to the Garden Street perch where he has served for 150 years, fulfilling his ancient purpose of informing us which way the wind is blowing.

Should that ideal not be possible, for fragility or other reasons, then all of us in Cambridge and Boston have a stake in the decision. After a century and a half in our town—and another century and a half across the river—the cockerel weathervane has become a valuable member of our entire community. He’s an important part of our shared heritage, and not just an asset belonging to only one organization.

It is understandable, but always sad, when an institution chooses to monetize its patrimony, exchanging its heritage for financial gain. Given the significance of this historic weathercock, it would be a tragedy if he were sold to a distant museum, and exiled to a place where his story cannot be fully appreciated. It would be an even greater tragedy if he were sold to a private collector and locked behind closed doors where the public cannot appreciate him.

If the cockerel weathervane is to be sold, it is imperative for him to remain on public display locally, at the Museum of Fine Arts or a similar organization.

And what of us Cantabrigians who look skyward? We too will be losing a familiar friend, a piece of our history. If Shem Drowne’s classic cockerel is too fragile to remain on his perch above the Common, then he should be replaced with a likeness. Any monetary gain that First Church might realize from the sale should be used to finance the creation of a replica, to keep this fowl’s memory alive atop the tower which has been his home for so long.

After all, what is a big brown church without a rooster on top?

First Church is giving the community a chance to reflect on, ask questions about, and consider next steps following the decision to remove the cockerel, which was announced to the congregation on Sunday, September 10. A first listening session will be on Sunday, October 8, at 12:30, followed by a weeknight Zoom session on a date to be announced. For more information, including photos and videos of the weathervane’s current condition, visit the First Church website.

(And thanks to Cousin Lynn and the late Ol’ Sinc of “Hillbilly at Harvard” for coining the phrase “big brown church with the rooster on top,” many years ago.)

Thanks, Charlie! The Rev. Peter Thacher who prompted that rupture in the New North Meeting wasn’t the same Rev. Peter Thacher who was active during and after the Revolution, but they were collateral relations.

Boston 1775 readers may recall that another weathervane attributed to Shem Drowne was put up for sale through Sotheby’s in January with an asking price around $400,000. I can’t find the result of that auction, but it shows the potential value of this sort of famous folk art.