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, February 29, 2024

A Busy Week in Boston in March 1774

Even before Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver died on 3 Mar 1774, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson knew he had to postpone his trip to Britain.

Oliver would have taken over certain gubernatorial duties while Hutchinson was out of Massachusetts. But if both men were gone, the executive power would have devolved onto the Council.

That upper house of the Massachusetts General Court hadn’t become as radical as the lower house, but it was still dominated by Hutchinson’s opponents.

Among those opponents was John Hancock, who on 5 March delivered Boston’s annual oration commemorating the Boston Massacre. This was probably the most politically radical thing he ever did before July 1776.

On Monday, 7 March the house sent a long response to Hutchinson’s message, quoted yesterday, dismissing the effort to impeach Peter Oliver, chief justice and brother of the now late lieutenant governor.

Much of that response was written by Robert Treat Paine of Taunton, as shown by a rough draft in his papers. However, some touches are more political than legal and may have come from Samuel Adams. Most pointedly, the response quoted the phrase “an abridgment of what are called English liberties” from one of Hutchinson’s own leaked letters, which was kind of rubbing it in.

The assembly’s response concluded with yet another complaint about officials like Hutchinson and the Olivers misrepresenting the state of the province:
We assure ourselves, that were the nature of our grievances fully understood by our Sovereign, we should soon have reason to rejoice in the redress of them. But, if we must still be exposed to the continual false representations of persons who get themselves advanced to places of honour and profit by means of such false representations, and when we complain we cannot even be heard, we have yet the pleasure of contemplating, that posterity for whom we are now struggling will do us justice, by abhoring the memory of those men ”who owe their greatness to their country’s ruin.”
That last quotation came from Joseph Addison’s Cato.

On the evening of 7 March, men carried out the second Boston Tea Party, dumping twenty-nine crates of tea from the ship Fortune. Some traders had thought that Bostonians would accept that tea since it wasn’t owned by the East India Company. They didn’t.

The funeral for Lt. Gov. Oliver was on 8 March. Prominent members of his family didn’t feel safe attending, and it did not go smoothly.

Meanwhile, there was still a stalemate on impeachment as the legislative session neared a close. On 9 March the house resolved, “it must be presumed that the Governor’s refusing to take any Measures therein is, because he also receives his Support from the Crown.” That same day, Secretary Thomas Flucker brought in Gov. Hutchinson’s message proroguing the legislature until April.

As it turned out, there would be no April session. The impeachment effort was dead.

TOMORROW: In the courtroom.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

“I cannot shew any Countenance to it”

When the Massachusetts house informed Gov. Thomas Hutchinson on 25 Feb 1774 that it had voted to impeach Chief Justice Peter Oliver, his first response was that “he desired the Message may be reduced the Writing.”

The house named Samuel Adams, Joseph Hawley, and Robert Treat Paine a committee to do that reduction, then a larger committee to deliver the paragraph to the governor.

That afternoon, they asked where Hutchinson’s promised response was. Secretary Thomas Flucker replied that the governor had gone home to Milton.

The next morning the house received this message:
Gentlemen of the House of Representatives,

By your Message of Yesterday you informed me that you had Resolved to Impeach Peter Oliver, Esq; Chief Justice of the Superior Court, &. before the Governor and Council of High Crimes and Misdemeanors, and that you had prepared Articles of Impeachment, and you prayed that I would be in the Chair that you might then have the Opportunity of laying them before the Governor and Council.

I know of no Species of High Crimes and Misdemeanors nor any Offence against the Law committed within this Province, let the Rank or Condition of the Offender be what it may, which is not cognizable by some Judicatory or Judicatories, and I do not know what the Governor and Council have a concurrent Jurisdiction with any Judicatory in Criminal Cases, or any Authority to try and determine any Species of High Crimes and Misdemeanors whatsoever.

If I should assume a Jurisdiction and with the Council try Offenders against the Law without Authority granted by the Charter or by a Law of the Province in pursuance of the Charter, I should make myself liable to answer before a Judicatory which would have Cognizance of my Offence, and His Majesty’s Subjects would have just Cause to complain of being deprived of a Trial by Jury, the general Claim of Englishmen except in those Cases where the Law may have made special Provision to the contrary.

Whilst such Process as you have attempted to commence shall appear to me to be unconstitutional, I cannot shew any Countenance to it.

T. Hutchinson.
Milton, 26 Feb. 1774.
The assembly sent their articles of impeachment up to the Council anyway.

On 1 March the assembly produced a longer version and sent that up as well. The impeachment was entirely based on Oliver’s refusal to accept the legislature’s salary instead of the Crown’s; now the legislature also voted not to pay the chief justice any salary, so there. 

John Adams spent that evening talking politics. In his diary he wrote: “Much said of the Impeachment vs. the C.J.—and upon the Question whether the Council have the Power of Judicature in Parliament, which the Lords have at home, or whether the Governor and Council have this Power?” The next day he wrote out the arguments against and for the Council being able to act alone.

Adams also wrote:
Lt. Govr. [Andrew] Oliver, senseless, and dying, the Governor sent for and Olivers Sons. Flucker has laid in, to be Lieutenant Governor, and has perswaded Hutchinson to write in his favour. This will make a difficulty. C. J. Oliver, and Fluker will interfere.
On 3 March, Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver died.

TOMORROW: End of an impeachment.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

“A Recess that I may attend to that Preparation for my Voyage”

On 24 Feb 1774, the day that the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court voted to impeach Chief Justice Peter Oliver, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson shared some news of his own.

Hutchinson sent this message written at his country home in Milton:
Having received discretionary Leave from the King to go to England, I think it proper to acquaint you with this Instance of His Majesty’s most gracious Condescension, and that I intend to avail myself of it as soon as his Service will admit.

I must desire you to give all Dispatch possible to such necessary public Business as may yet lie before you, for I must soon, by an Adjournment or Prorogation, give the Court a Recess that I may attend to that Preparation for my Voyage which His Majesty’s Service and my personal Affairs require.
The house received that news on 25 February. The legislators immediately sent a committee to ask the governor to preside over Oliver’s trial in the Council before he left.

Of course, Hutchinson had no desire to do that. The chief justice was his ally, in-law, and friend. He didn’t think the Massachusetts charter even allowed for impeachment.

Hutchinson had been asking the imperial government for permission to visit Britain for months, so his planned trip wasn’t just a ploy. At the same time, he was glad to have a reason to pressure the legislature to stick to “necessary public Business.”

Under the charter, while the governor would be out of the province, the lieutenant governor would take on his duties. At this time, that man was Andrew Oliver (shown above), the chief justice’s brother—even less welcoming to impeachment!

Also on 24 February, John Adams wrote home to his wife Abigail in Braintree: “General Court is preparing an Impeachment vs. the C. Justice. I must not add, but the Name of yr / John Adams.” That coyness might reflect his behind-the-scenes role in the impeachment.

Adams’s remark about “preparing an Impeachment” also shows how that process was still ongoing. At best, the house’s 24 February vote simply led the way to the real confrontation in the Council, and ultimately the Council’s vote.

Perhaps because of that drawn-out timeline, we can find authorities giving different anniversary dates for when the Massachusetts assembly impeached Chief Justice Oliver. The official vote came on 24 February, but there were months of actions leading up to that vote, and lots of work still to do.

TOMORROW: The final formalities.

Monday, February 26, 2024

“This House will impeach Peter Oliver, Esq;”

John Adams’s memoir, as quoted yesterday, offers his recollection of how he informed the Massachusetts assembly about the possibility of impeaching Chief Justice Peter Oliver—a rare practice, at least in Massachusetts.

The memoir doesn’t state when that happened, only that it occurred after Adams’s exchange of newspaper essays with William Brattle in early 1773.

We can say, however, when the assembly seized on the impeachment remedy. The 1773–74 legislative year started on 26 May, and on 28 June, the second-to-last day of its first session, the house resolved:
That it is the incumbent Duty of the Judges of the Superior Court without Delay, explicitly to Declare, whether they are Determined to Receive the Grants of the General Assembly of this Province, or to Accept of their Support from the Crown;…And in such Case [of delay] it will be the indispensible Duty of the Commons of this Province, to Impeach them before the Governor and Council, as Men disqualified to hold the important Posts they now sustain.
The house thus laid out its plan for the coming months. But that game plan still took a long time to play out.

The house reconvened on 26 Jan 1774. By then the colony was anxiously waiting to see how Parliament and its ministers in London would respond to the Boston Tea Party. But there were still unfinished local business.

On 1 February, the house noted a letter from Justice Edmund Trowbridge saying he wouldn’t take any salary from the Crown. (On that same day the house dismissed John Malcolm’s petition for redress.) The next day, the body demanded answers from the other justices within six days. (It also approved a payment of £500 to Benjamin Franklin for his services, which included the infamous leak.)

In a reply dated 3 February and read to the house on Monday, 7 February, Chief Justice Oliver said he had accepted the royal salary since July 1772. And that he would continue to do so “lest I should incur a Censure from the best of Sovereigns,” which would be George III.

On 11 February, the house approved a remonstrance against Oliver, “praying that he may not be suffered any more to sit and act in his Office of Chief Justice.” There were nine votes against. Three days later, the full legislature agreed that the superior court should be adjourned for three days as this was worked out.

The next day, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson responded to the remonstrance, promising to send it to the royal government in London but refusing to interfere with that government’s choice to put Oliver on the bench and pay him.

The day after that, the house invited the Council to respond to this action. In the afternoon, it resolved that the whole house wait on Gov. Hutchinson and give him a petition seeking “the Removal of the Chief Justice.” Two days later, on 18 February, the house went into the Council chamber and speaker Thomas Cushing read this petition to the governor.

On Monday, 21 February, the house passed another resolve saying it would be “highly improper, and contrary to Usage and Precedent,” for Chief Justice Oliver to sit on the court while this dispute was ongoing.

The next day, Gov. Hutchinson summoned the house members to the Council chamber. He told them he “was obliged to decline” the request to remove Oliver, and that they had misrepresented parts of the provincial charter. In response, at the end of the session on 22 February, the house resolved “That this House will impeach Peter Oliver, Esq; Chief Justice of the Superior Court, of certain High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

And finally on 24 February, the house did vote to impeach, with only eight nay votes. The was 250 years ago this week. The representatives chose a committee, headed by Samuel Adams, to “lay before the Governor and Council a Copy of the Articles of Impeachment.” 

Because impeachment in the lower house was only the start of the process. Based on the model of Parliament, the next step was for the upper house, the Council, to try the case. And, needless to say, Gov. Hutchinson was not ready to allow that.

TOMORROW: The governor’s move.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

“I saw your Street door vomit forth a Crowd of Senators”

During its 1773–74 session, the Massachusetts General Court spent a lot of time complaining about Chief Justice Peter Oliver accepting a salary from tea tax revenues.

But it wasn’t clear what the legislature could do about that.

Until the lawyer John Adams had a bright idea. Or at least that’s how he described the situation in his post-presidential memoir. And in this case he may well be accurate.

According to the older Adams, he was motivated by fear of popular violence:
I fully expected that if no Expedient could be suggested, that the Judges would be obliged to go where Secretary [Andrew] Oliver had gone to Liberty Tree [in 1765], and compelled to take an Oath to renounce the Royal Salaries. Some of these Judges were men of Resolution and the Chief Justice in particular, piqued himself so much upon it and had so often gloried in it on the Bench, that I shuddered at the expectation that the Mob might put on him a Coat of Tar and Feathers, if not put him to death.
Adams had served one term in the General Court in 1770–71, representing Boston, and then retired to Braintree for a while. In 1773 he was splitting his time between the towns and edging back into politics.

Adams recalled:
I happened to dine with Mr. Samuel Winthrop at New Bost[on], who was then Clerk of the Superiour Court, in company with several Members of the General Court of both Houses and with several other Gentlemen of the Town. Dr. John Winthrop Phylosophical Professor at [Harvard] Colledge and Dr. [Samuel] Cooper of Boston both of them very much my Friends, were of the Company.

The Conversation turned wholly on the Topic of the Day—the Case of the Judges. All agreed that it was a fatal Measure and would be the Ruin of the Liberties of the Country: But what was the Remedy? It seemed to be a measure that would execute itself. There was no imaginable Way of resisting or eluding it. There was lamentation and mourning enough: but no light and no hope. The Storm was terrible and no blue Sky to be discovered.

I had been entirely silent, and in the midst of all this gloom, Dr. Winthrop, addressing himself to me, said Mr. Adams We have not heard your Sentiments on this Subject, how do you consider it? . . . What can be done?

I answered, that I knew not whether any one would approve of my Opinion but I believed there was one constitutional Resource, but I knew not whether it would be possible to persuade the proper Authority to have recourse to it.

Several Voices at once cryed out, a constitutional Resource! what can it be?

I said it was nothing more nor less than an Impeachment of the Judges by the House of Representatives before the Council.

An Impeachment! Why such a thing is without Precedent.

I believed it was, in this Province: but there had been precedents enough, and by much too many in England: It was a dangerous Experiment at all times: but it was essential to the preservation of the Constitution in some Cases, that could be reached by no other Power, but that of Impeachment.
No one mentioned the Massachusetts legislature’s attempt in 1706 to impeach some associates of Gov. Joseph Dudley, squelched by the privy council in London. But of course any good lawyer could argue the differences between the cases meant that precedent didn’t apply.

Adams continued in a common vein for him, saying that even his learned colleagues told him he was wrong, but he showed them he was right:
The next day, I believe, Major [Joseph] Hawley came to my House and told me, he heard I had broached a strange Doctrine. He hardly knew what an Impeachment was, he had never read any one and never had thought on the Subject. I told him he might read as many of them as he pleased. There stood the State Tryals on the Shelf which were full of them, of all sorts good and bad. I shewed him Seldens Works in which is a Treatise on Judicature in Parliament, and gave it him to read. . . . We looked into the Charter together, and after a long conversation and a considerable Research he said he knew not how to get rid of it.

In a Day or two another Lawyer in the House came to me, full of doubts and difficulties, He said he heard I had shown Major Hawley some Books relative to the Subject and desired to see them. I shewed them to him and made nearly the same comment upon them. It soon became the common Topick and research of the Bar. . . .

The Members of the House, becoming soon convinced that there was something for them to do, appointed a Committee to draw up Articles of Impeachment against the Chief Justice Oliver. Major Hawley who was one of this Committee, would do nothing without me, and insisted on bringing them to my house, to examine and discuss the Articles paragraph by Paragraph, which was readily consented to by the Committee. Several Evenings were spent in my Office, upon this Business, till very late at night. One Morning, meeting Ben. Gridley, he said to me Brother Adams you keep late Hours at your House: as I passed it last night long after midnight, I saw your Street door vomit forth a Crowd of Senators.
Benjamin Gridley was a fellow lawyer, but one who leaned toward the Crown and later became a Loyalist.

TOMORROW: Putting the plan into action.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Two Salaries for Chief Justice Peter Oliver

One of the Massachusetts Whigs’ complaint about Thomas Hutchinson in the 1760s is that he amassed too many offices for himself.

Hutchinson was simultaneously the lieutenant governor, as such a member of the Council, the chief justice of the superior court, and a probate judge.

When Gov. Francis Bernard went home to Britain and Hutchinson became the acting governor, he gave up his judicial posts. Benjamin Lynde seemed like a natural fit for that role—his father, also named Benjamin Lynde, had been chief justice from 1729 to 1745.

After less than two years, however, Lynde resigned. Hutchinson, now governor in his own right, looked for a new chief justice. But first, he appointed his brother Foster to the court.

(Lyndes and Hutchinsons weren’t the only judicial dynasties. In 1772, William Cushing became a third-generation justice.)

Gov. Hutchinson decided to recommend elevating associate justice Peter Oliver (shown above) to the chief position. Oliver had been on the court since 1756. He was a strong supporter of unpopular Crown officials, as he’d shown at the trials of Ebenezer Richardson, Capt. Thomas Preston, and the British soldiers in 1770.

Oliver was also related to Hutchinson by marriage in three different ways. And his own brother Andrew was lieutenant governor. For the Whigs, Hutchinson giving his old jobs to his in-laws didn’t really look like sharing power.

One aspect of royal rule that should seem foreign to us is that Crown officials could keep a lot more of their actions secret from the public. Since the people’s representatives weren’t involved in choosing governors and justices or paying their salaries under the Townshend Acts, why did they need to know?

In July 1772 the Massachusetts General Court demanded that Gov. Hutchinson tell them whether he was getting paid by the Crown. He said he was. Joseph Hawley, a lawyer and representative from Northampton, drafted resolutions condemning this arrangement, but the legislature couldn’t do anything more about it.

It took even more time for the assembly to confirm that the royal government had offered salaries to Chief Justice Oliver and his colleagues. And even then it wasn’t clear the justices would accept that money. That didn’t stop Samuel Adams and the new Boston committee of correspondence from making that their primary complaint to other towns in late 1772.

In early 1773 the General Court tested the system by appropriating £300 to pay Oliver for the previous judicial term and £200 for the associate justices. In June, the newly elected legislature (many of the representatives having been reelected) asked treasurer Harrison Gray if the justices had collected that money. They had taken only half, Gray reported.

Aha! said the legislators. That means the justices were living off the royal government’s tax revenue. At the end of June, the General Court demanded that those men renounce any pay except what it had voted on. This is one of the paradoxical moments in Revolutionary confrontations: Massachusetts politicians demanding to pay government officials they disliked instead of letting the royal government do it. But it was the principle of the thing, you see.

The associate justices agreed that they wouldn’t accept any more royal pay. Chief Justice Oliver didn’t. The next move was up to the Whigs. But according to the provincial charter, they had no role in picking judges. So what could they do?

TOMORROW: John Adams’s bright idea.

Friday, February 23, 2024

“Becoming dependent for their Salaries upon their Crown”

The dispute that led to colonial Massachusetts’s second impeachment action started with the Townshend Acts of 1767.

Parliament imposed new tariffs on a handful of goods, particularly tea. And it said the revenue from those taxes would go to administering the colonies.

The expenses of that royal administration included salaries for the governors in most colonies and for the judges those governors appointed.

In the fallow period of 1771 to early 1773, with no new taxes and no troops on the streets of Boston, Samuel Adams didn’t have many issues to raise, so he highlighted those judicial salaries.

Through Boston’s committee of correspondence, Adams argued that not only had Parliament imposed taxation without representation, but those salaries would insulate judges from local pressure. The colonial legislatures would no longer be able to limit or delay judges’ pay to signal displeasure with their rulings.

On 14 Dec 1772, Cambridge called a town meeting to consider that problem. Most men at that meeting endorsed the Boston committee’s position. But one local big man objected.

William Brattle (shown here) was an old-fashioned type of country gentleman—a little bit of a lawyer, a little bit of a doctor, a little bit of a merchant, a little bit of a farmer. In politics he had become a member of the Council, and in the militia he had risen to the rank of general.

Back in 1765, Brattle had marched at the head of the anti-Stamp Act processions beside Ebenezer Mackintosh. Gov. Francis Bernard saw him as one of his most nettlesome enemies. But Gov. Thomas Hutchinson had apparently won Brattle over to the Crown side, possibly with those militia promotions.

Brattle told his fellow Cambridge citizens that judicial salaries weren’t anything to worry about. He claimed that judges were appointed for life as long as they maintained “good behavior.” Once judges were on the bench, therefore, neither the royal government nor the populace had leverage over them. (He also said that since official word about judicial salaries hadn’t come from London yet, the town shouldn’t vote on the matter.)

After losing that vote, Brattle published his argument in the 31 December Boston News-Letter.

In the 4 Jan 1773 Boston Gazette someone signing “M.Y.” addressed “W.B. Esq.,” asking how he could hold such a position when as a member of the Council he had heard that Gov. Bernard had written to Gov. Hutchinson that judicial salaries were definitely a go. Brattle denied having heard any such letter.

The 11 Jan 1773 Boston Gazette brought a more vigorous response to Brattle from John Adams. Citing various legal authorities, he wrote that judges were appointed “at the pleasure” of the Crown, forcing those men to maintain the approval of the royal government to keep their jobs.

The next week, Adams published another essay saying the same thing, with different sources. And then the week after that. In all, Adams published seven essays to Brattle’s two. By March, even Adams wrote in his diary: “I have written a tedious Examination of Brattle’s absurdities.”

In his diary Adams also claimed that in the town meeting Brattle had said “Mr. [James] Otis, Mr. Adams, Mr. John Adams I mean, and Mr. Josiah Quincy” wouldn’t be able to refute his argument, and that he had later issued a public challenge in the newspapers. I can’t find Brattle doing the latter. But Adams was clearly rankled. He also told his diary in March:
My own Determination had been to decline all Invitations to public Affairs and Enquiries, but Brattles rude, indecent, and unmeaning Challenge of me in Particular, laid me under peculiar Obligations to undeceive the People, and changed my Resolution. I hope that some good will come out of it.—God knows.
Remember the xkcd cartoon, “Someone is wrong on the internet”? That was basically Adams’s reaction.

Those newspaper essays didn’t have much effect. The exchange probably raised Adams’s profile a little and pushed Brattle further into the royal governor’s camp. But the London government had a plan, and all the resolutions passed by all the town meetings in Massachusetts wouldn’t change that.

In February, as John Adams’s essays rolled on, Gov. Hutchinson confirmed that Lord North had ordered the judges paid from the tariffs. The Massachusetts assembly, with Samuel Adams as its clerk and guiding voice, responded:
We conceive that no Judge who had a due regard to Justice, or even to his own Character, would chuse to be placed under such an undue bias as they must be under, in the Opinion of the House, by accepting of and becoming dependent for their Salaries upon their Crown. Had not his Majesty been misinformed with Respect to the Constitution and Appointment of our Judges by those who advised to this Measure, we are persuaded he would never have passed such an Order.
That dig about “misinformed” was how Samuel Adams and his allies were representing the larger situation: Bernard, Hutchinson, and other royal appointees were feeding the government in London false information, and the result were these unjust measures that Massachusetts didn’t deserve.

TOMORROW: Rival salaries.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Massachusetts’s First Impeachment

In 1706, the elected political leaders of Massachusetts were at odds with the appointed royal governor, Joseph Dudley.

There were many bones of contention, but Gov. Dudley looked most vulnerable for being in league with wealthy supporters who traded with the French in Canada even during Queen Anne’s War.

Dudley, a merchant named Samuel Vetch (1668–1732, shown above), and associates used the cover of arranging prisoner exchanges to ship goods, even weapons, to Acadia.

Through a London printer, the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather published the documents of the case as:
A memorial of the present deplorable state of New-England, with the many disadvantages it lyes under, by the male-administration of their present governour, Joseph Dudley, Esq. and his son Paul, &c.:

Together with several affidavits of people of worth, relating to several of the said governour’s mercenary and illegal proceedings, but particularly his private treacherous correspondence with Her Majesty’s enemies the French and Indians.

To which is added, a faithful, but melancholy account of several barbarities lately committed upon Her Majesty’s subjects, by the said French and Indians, in the east and west parts of New-England.
Elected politicians made up the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court, or legislature. Under the colony’s original charter, that body really was a court—in fact, it was the highest court in Massachusetts.

Under the new charter of 1691, however, that legislature’s power was more limited. It no longer chose the governor. It no longer tried cases. But it did have this ill-defined power called “impeachment.”

The legislators decided to use that to get at Gov. Dudley. The lower house would indict his associates, as the House of Commons could, and the upper house, or Council, would try them.

That effort ran into trouble. The charter limited impeachment to a “High Misdemeanor,” not full criminal charges.

Then Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, a member of the Council, advised that the legislature really didn’t have jurisdiction. Sewall might have hoped the case would proceed in his own court, which could treat the behavior as criminal and even impose the death penalty.

Dudley stepped in and urged the Council to proceed anyway with their misdemeanor charge. That upper house found Vetch and his fellow defendants guilty. They weren’t sure what to do next, but eventually a joint legislative committee produced a “bill of punishment” imposing fines and prison time.

Vetch headed to England to argue his case and wield his influence with the imperial government. The privy council ruled the Massachusetts bill invalid, ruling that the General Court had exceeded its authority.

Vetch, having previously run guns to the Acadians, now presented the Crown with a plan to conquer Canada. Then he came back to Massachusetts to lead the invasion. New England Puritans were ready to get behind any plan to attack Catholics, so they went to war behind Vetch in 1710.

As for impeachment, the Massachusetts General Court didn’t try that again until 1774.

TOMORROW: Impeachment resurfaces.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Is That a Phrygian Cap or Are You Just Glad to See Me?

One thing I learned last year and am still working through is that a Phrygian cap isn’t the same as a Liberty Cap, but became the same in the 1790s.

In classical Greek and Roman cultures, the Phrygian cap and Phrygian helmet were markers of someone from greater Anatolia, or in general east of the civilized world. The Phrygian cap was a soft cloth cap with a bulge at the top that flopped forward. Lots of statuary and other artwork from that ancient period used the floppy cap as a sign of exoticism.

The Romans had another type of cloth cap with symbolic meaning: the pileus. Made of felt, it was used in the ceremony of freeing a slave. This cap was conical and symmetric, without that bulge. The pileus thus came to symbolize liberty in general, especially when it was held up by a spear.

That’s how the pileus appears in many eighteenth-century pictures of Liberty, and in British (and British-American) pictures of Britannica, since of course the British constitution provided the most liberty.

William Hogarth caricatured John Wilkes in 1763 as holding a spear and domed cap helpfully labeled “LIBERTY.” Some analyses say contemporaries would have recognized that thing on the spear as a chamber pot, not a cap. I’m not sure, but it definitely doesn’t look like cloth.

The allegorical woman on the masthead ornament of Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette held a spear and pileus, as did figures on the 1774 and 1781 cuts for Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy.

Paul Revere engraved such figures many more times: on the picture of the Stamp Act repeal obelisk, in the frames around his portraits of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and so on. When he adapted the London print “Britannia in Distress” into “America in Distress” and “A Certain Cabinet Junto,” he transferred the spear and pileus from Britannia’s arm to America’s.

In those years, the object was called the “Cap of Liberty.” The phrase “Liberty Cap” appeared in American newspapers only once before the Revolutionary War, in a 3 Feb 1774 New-York Journal article signed “An English Yeoman, with his Liberty Cap on.”

When you hold a cloth cap up on a spear, the top doesn’t naturally flop over. All those Liberty Caps are conical or in the shape we’d now call bulletheads. (Bullets were spherical then, remember.)

During the French Revolution, fashion and art merged the Cap of Liberty, the bonnets rouges of a 1675 anti-tax revolt in France, and the Phrygian cap. After a short while, iconographic Liberty Caps were mostly red, and they all had that little bulge flopping over. Even when they were on spears!

(Back when I wrote about rattlesnakes, I found an image of the Continental Congress’s Board of War and Ordnance seal. It showed that the flying snake originally had a rattle, though that detail has disappeared in later U.S. Army redesigns. Now I wonder if the Liberty Cap on that original seal had the bulge of the Phrygian cap, or if that was a later addition. Alas, the image from 1779 is no longer on the web.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

“The Art of Horsemanship in all its different branches”

As I wrote yesterday, by 1781 a man named Jacob Bates was living north of Philadelphia and breeding horses.

Was this the same Jacob Bates who had visited Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Newport in 1772 and 1773, exhibiting feats of horsemanship for paying audiences?

Starting in mid-1785, a man named Pool advertised similar equestrian exhibitions in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. I’m looking into Pool, and what I’ve found so far is surprising enough that I have to pause to catch my breath. I hope to tell you soon.

What’s important to this story is that in August 1785 Pool came to Philadelphia and erected “a MENAGE, as a very considerable expence.” It stood “near the Centre-House,” a prominent tavern. Back in 1772, folks could buy tickets for Bates’s shows at the same Centre-House.

Bates had used the same term for where he showed his horses, spelling it “Manage.” Strictly speaking, it meant a riding school rather than a theater, but of course he wanted to elevate his craft.

Pool moved on from Philadelphia. It looks like he was in New York at the end of September 1785, and in 1786 in Boston and New York again.

On 28 Apr 1787, a year and a half after Pool’s departure from Philadelphia, Jacob Bates announced that he was starting a riding school:
At the Center-House will be Opened on the 7th day of May, by the subscriber, for the instruction of Ladies and Gentlemen in that manly, useful and healthy exercise, the Art of Horsemanship in all its different branches: as he had the honour of instructing several Gentlemen 6 years ago, and likewise last summer, he hopes the pupils that may in future come under his care, will not find the least reason to complain, either of his abilities or attention.

The days of exercise will be on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for the Gentlemen; and in order that business may not be interrupted, nor Gentlemen incommoded with the heat of the day, he proposes to begin each morning at 4 o’clock and close at 8 o’clock.


N.B. Ladies will be attended to on the other three days.
I don’t think there’s any way to know if Pool’s “MENAGE” had stayed up until Bates started to use it, or if Bates had to rebuild from scratch. But the fact that the two men referred to the same spot is probably why some authors say Bates took over or even rented Pool’s establishment.

Back in 1772, Jacob Bates didn’t sell horseback riding lessons, however much he hinted that his equestrian displays were instructive. But perhaps he was getting too old for those tricks, and genteel riding lessons looked like an easier way to make money.

It looks like the riding school didn’t last more than a season, however, and Bates went back to his property in the Northern Liberties.

In September 1788 Bates advertised the auction of the Richard Hopkins estate in the Independent Gazetteer. However, on 26 Nov 1789 the sheriff advertised the same estate for sale, apparently having seized it under a prior writ.

Nonetheless, Bates was still out at Point-no-Point in July 1792 when he offered an “Eight Dollars Reward” for the finding “a Negro boy named RICHMOND, about eighteen years of age.” Bates stated: “he may pretend to know something of breaking, riding, and taking care of horses as he has seen something of it.” Presumably young Richmond’s experience working with horses for Bates was precisely why Bates wanted him back.

Finally, on 18 Mar 1793 Johoshaphat Polk and Philip Redman advertised the settlement of “the Estate of Jacob Bates, late of Point-no-Point, deceased.” If this Pennsylvanian was indeed the man who had toured colonial ports showing of his riding skills in 1772–73, he had returned to the continent and died as an American.

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Return of Jacob Bates?

You thought I was done with Jacob Bates when we saw him off to London four days before the Boston Tea Party.

However, in The Circus: Its Origin and Growth Prior to 1835, Isaac J. Greenwood wrote:
…he is said to have been conducting a riding-school in Philadelphia after 1786.
Incidentally, Greenwood also published on his ancestor John Greenwood and early American naval hero John Manley.

S. L. Kotar and J. E. Gessler echoed that report in The Rise of the American Circus, 1716–1899, stating:
Bates returned to Philadelphia in 1787 and rented an equestrian building from Thomas Pool and established a riding school.
I’m not completely convinced this man in Pennsylvania was the same Jacob Bates who billed himself as an equestrian before the war. He did display horses, but as a breeder rather than a performer. He did offer riding lessons, but didn’t promise any special tricks. But maybe he was getting too old for that stuff.

The name of Jacob Bates appears in the city of Philadelphia’s roll for the “effective supply tax” in 1781 and 1782, even before the formal end of the war. This Bates’s property in the “Northern Liberties,” north of the city, was valued at somewhat over £900. In 1781 the entry just below Bates was “for Thomas Hopkins’s,” and in 1782 it was “Robert Hopkins.”

The next sign of Jacob Bates that I’ve found is an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet on 30 Apr 1782:
A beautiful high-blooded bright-bat STALION, will COVER this season, at Point-no-Point, on the Farm late the property of Robert Hopkins, deceased.

HE is full 15 hands high, entirely free from blemish and well marked, bread from Fearnought and Herod, and out of a Juniper Mare; for beauty, carriage and speed ’tis supposed that no horse on the continent excels him, now rising five years old, and in fine order. His Pedigree will be given to those who send their Mares.

The Price is FIVE POUNDS for each Mare and a Crown to the Groom.

Good Grass and careful Attendance given to the Mares on the Farm. The Money to be paid before they are taken away.

April 6.

He will be shewn on Market-days (if the weather proves fair) at the Coffee-house.
Bates advertised Eclipse at much greater length on 12 Apr 1785. Later that month he offered to sell a mare named the Ulster Lass. In 1789 he offered the stud services of Atlass, the Ulster Lass’s colt.

Point-no-Point was a spot on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia. John Adams rode out there in 1777 and wrote home:
The Road to Point No Point lies along the River Delaware, in fair Sight of it, and its opposite shore. For near four Miles the Road is as strait as the Streets of Philadelphia. On each Side, are beautifull Rowes of Trees, Buttonwoods, Oaks, Walnutts, Cherries and Willows, especially down towards the Banks of the River. The Meadows, Pastures, and Grass Plotts, are as Green as Leeks. There are many Fruit Trees and fine orchards, set with the nicest Regularity. But the Fields of Grain, the Rye, and Wheat, exceed all Description. These Fields are all sown in Ridges; and the Furrough between each Couple of Ridges, is as plainly to be seen, as if a swarth had been mown along.
That was prime farmland, near the country’s largest city. The area is now the part of Philadelphia known as Bridesburg.

TOMORROW: Menage à deux?

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Getting Inside the New England Primer

The American Antiquarian Society’s Past Is Present blog recently shared Mitchel Gundrum’s essay on New England Primers, the region’s standard reading textbook for many decades.

Gundrum was at the A.A.S. as a Conservation Intern, having trained in book binding and restoration at the San Francisco Center for the Book, the North Bennet Street School, and West Dean College. His essay analyzed those schoolbooks as physical objects.

New England Primers were little books printed in huge numbers. Gundrum noted two ways the sample of surviving copies differs from the larger body of books from the period.

First, “Of the 269 primers surveyed at the American Antiquarian Society, 105 were bound in scaleboard, 97 in paper wrappers, and 32 in paper-based boards.” And what does “scaleboard” mean?
scaleboard binding [is] a distinctly early American structure which deserves exploration in its own right. Scaleboard bindings are unique in their use of thin (1–3 mm) wooden cover boards nearly two hundred years after the uptake of paper-based paste- and pulpboard in the West. The lack of a developed papermaking industry in the American colonies, the expense of importing paper products from Europe, and the wealth of natural forest resources in the New World made scaleboard economically preferable in the Colonies, but the practice persisted for a variety of reasons through the 1840s.
Perhaps a high proportion of Primers were bound with wood was because customers expected those books to stand up to rougher handling than usual, carried from home to school and back day after day, pawed over by little fingers, perhaps passed down from one sibling to the next.

During his work, Gundrum noticed something else distinctive:
While fully colored and sprinkled edges are fairly common for 18th century bindings, the bands of red, blue, green, or brownish black ink found on several bindings are unique in both appearance and the fact that they are apparently exclusive to the NEP. When I first noticed this decoration during a survey at the Library of Congress, I was ready to write it off as personalization by a previous owner. After gathering more data, however, we’ve found 75 examples of this decoration on imprints spanning 100 years, 7 states, and 20 cities.

Edge decoration is important because these books were produced at minimal cost and maximum efficiency: the extra time and expense required to decorate these books must have had some financial justification. Was the bright decoration a form of advertising for the NEP, meant to catch the eye of children or parents? A nationalist attempt to distinguish the new American product from English imprints with similar content?
Because so many printers produced copies of the New England Primer, with customers expecting pretty much the same content, they might have competed on the basis of such decorative details.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

A True Crime Podcaster on Colonial America

Back in 2007 I launched a series of posts I called CSI: Colonial Boston.

I periodically returned to that theme over the next few five years with other tales of people investigating how other people died by looking at their remains.

At the time, the CSI franchise was dominating American television with three series. They all went off the air by 2016, though one has been periodically revived. Therefore, while the acronym CSI still has the same technical significance, it no longer carries so much cultural weight.

Instead, one of the hot trends today is “true crime podcasts.” I listen to a few myself while cooking and cleaning.

Among the leading practitioners of the genre is Kate Winkler Dawson, a journalist now based in Texas. She specializes in historical examples as an author and a host of three podcasts:
  • Tenfold More Wicked, said to be “a unique blending of narrative nonfiction storytelling with investigative journalism.”
  • Wicked Words, interviews with journalists and writers about crimes they looked into.
  • Buried Bones, in which Dawson presents expert forensics investigator Paul Holes with the details of cases from the past.
On Tenfold More Wicked, Dawson has just launched a short series focusing on deaths in the last years of colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

The first episode went where I expected it would, to the death of provincial treasurer and speaker of the house John Robinson in 1766. The narration does a lot of looking ahead to the Revolution, which I think it anachronistic. In that year Virginians and other North American colonists felt that the repeal of the Stamp Act by a new government in Britain held promise for better relations within the British Empire.

There are some other glitches, such as the common misunderstanding of the Quartering Act and allowing the Crown to install soldiers into people’s private homes. But Dawson has interviewed lots of people at Colonial Williamsburg to convey aspects of everyday life among the slaveowning gentry, which is more crucial to the stories she’ll tell.

A couple of years ago Dawson and Holes’s Buried Bones podcast tackled the Joshua Spooner murder from 1778 Massachusetts in an episode titled “Soldiers of Fortune.” As one might expect, there wasn’t a lot of reliable forensic information from 1778 for Holes to sink his teeth into, but fans of Revolutionary Massachusetts might still enjoy this take.

For folks who prefer their true crime in book form, there are a couple of modern books about the Spooner case:
  • Deborah Navas, Murdered by His Wife (1999)
  • Andrew Noone, Bathsheba Spooner: A Revolutionary Murder Conspiracy (2021)
The podcast has a list of its sources, many available freely over the web.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Cogliano on A Revolutionary Friendship, 17 Feb.

Back in 2020, I looked at the trend of dual (and occasional treble) biographies of major Founders.

These books use the friendship, rivalry, or simple collaboration of two early American politicians as a lens, using that relationship to produce a more focused view of the Founding period.

The occasion for those musings was the publication of Stephen Knott and Tony Williams’s Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America.

Starting with that book, one could move by degrees of separation from Hamilton to Madison (Jay Cost, The Price of Greatness: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of American Oligarchy) to Jefferson (Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson) to Lafayette (Tom Chaffin, Revolutionary Brothers: Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Friendship that Helped Forge Two Nations) and back to Washington (David A. Clary, Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved the Revolution).

I’m sure more examples of this trend have appeared since 2000. But this posting is prompted by a book coming out this month: A Revolutionary Friendship: Washington, Jefferson, and the American Republic by Francis D. Cogliano.

Some authors have looked at Washington and Jefferson together before, emphasizing the antagonism of the two men (e.g., Thomas Fleming, The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation).

As Cogliano explains on The Whiskey Rebellion podcast, which he produces with colleague David Silkenat, the two Presidents were friendly and productive for most of their careers, falling out only after Jefferson’s 24 Apr 1796 letter to Philip Mazzei became public.

Frank Cogliano is a Massachusetts native, a professor and dean at the University of Edinburgh, and the outgoing interim director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.

That institution will celebrate the publication of A Revolutionary Friendship this Saturday, 17 February. Although that book launch is sold out, it will be livestreamed for anyone interested on Facebook, YouTube, and Monticello’s own website starting at 4:30 P.M.

Cogliano will be joined in conversation about his book by Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, and Monticello’s new president, Jane Kamensky.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Some Museum Programs for School Vacation Week

Some of greater Boston’s Revolutionary sites have announced special programming for next week, which is a public school vacation in Massachusetts.

Thanks to support from the Highland Street Foundation, the Paul Revere House in the North End will be free to visit on Tuesday, 20 February.

On the two days that follow, the site is offering a drop-in family activity called “Share Your Love of the Written Word,” inspired by vintage postcards from its collection. Participating is free with admission. Regular admission is $6 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and college students, $1.00 for children 5-17, and free for members and North End residents.

Nearby, the Old North Church and Historic Site is usually closed to the public during the winter, but it will be open 17–24 February from 11:00 A.M. (12:30 P.M. on Sunday) to 5:00 P.M. Admission tickets, which costs $5 per person, include a self-guided tour of the church’s sanctuary, the current exhibit, and answers from the education staff. For $5 more one can enjoy a self-guided tour of the historic crypt and an audio guide.

Outside the city, the Concord Museum is promising unspecified “special family activities” on Monday, Thursday, and Friday, according to its calendar. That week is also the last chance to see the museum’s exhibit “Interwoven: Women’s Lives Written in Thread.” On Friday, 23 February, educator and reenactor Michelle Gabrielson will present the work of quilting a petticoat.

The Lexington Historical Society’s historic taverns will host special programs for kids of different ages on “Lighting the Way” and “Science and Medicine” during the vacation week. For more details, including the registration cost, visit its events page.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

“Tea which Lot Cheever shook out of his shoe”

Here’s another in the seemingly endless tales of tea surviving from the Boston Tea Party.

The earliest sign of this tea I’ve found is an article in the 7 Nov 1864 Boston Evening Transcript:
Some of the Tea not Thrown Overboard. After the tea was thrown overboard in Boston harbor, Feb 10th, 1774 [sic], one of the party engaged in that movement, Lot Cheever, whose direct descendants now reside in Salem, stopped at the house of Col. Abner Cheever in Saugus to change his disguise. Some of the tea then in his shoes was saved by an old lady of the family, and has from that time until now been carefully preserved.

A lady of the highest respectability and a direct descendant of the Cheever here spoken of, has presented to the manager of the Salem Table at the Naval Fair at Boston a remaining portion of the tea, which will be offered for sale.
The Naval Fair was a fundraiser for sailors in the U.S. Navy, then engaged in quelling another rebellion.

The famous Boston Tea Party didn’t take place 250 years ago this February, and neither did the less famous second Boston Tea Party. No previous source links Lot Cheever to that action. (A Bostonian named Ezekiel Cheever was one of the volunteers patrolling the docks starting in late November.)

In fact, the only man named Lot Cheever I’ve found in the Revolutionary period lived in Danvers. It makes little sense for a man from that far away to take part in destroying the tea in Boston on 16 Dec 1773. It makes even less sense that such a man would travel all the way from Boston to Saugus before removing his disguise.

Incidentally, the man that newspaper story called “Col. Abner Cheever” was only eighteen years old in 1773. He family home was in Lynn, evidently the part of that town which became Saugus in 1815.

People must have realized that some details of that family lore made no sense because over the following decades it evolved to come closer to the standard story.

In 1878 Horace E. Scudder wrote in his novel/travelogue The Bodleys on Wheels about the main characters visiting the East India Marine Hall in Salem and seeing “a little packet of tea which Lot Cheever shook out of his shoe after he had been at the Boston Tea-party.”

A correspondent to St. Nicholas magazine in 1893 described seeing at the Essex Institute in Salem “two bottles of the tea that was thrown over board at the Boston tea-party,—it was found in the shoes of Lot Cheever after removing his disguise.”

That same year, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the historical exhibits inside the U.S. pavilion included:
Tea in Bottle
Which was found in the boots of Col. Abner Cheever, of the Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1775 [sic], when changing his disguise after the affair was over. Loaned and collected by Dr. D. W. Cheever, Boston, Mass.
Lot Cheever was thus erased from the story. In 1888 the Essex Institute reported that it had received a “pocket-book of Col. Abner Cheever of the Boston Tea Party.”  

The longest presentation appeared in Lynn in the Revolution (1909), in the entry on Abner Cheever:
Family tradition says that he took part in the famous Boston Tea Party. His grand-niece, Miss Rachel Cheever, of Saugus, has still in her possession a small phial of tea which, it is said, he brought away from the party in his shoes.

Many of the older people remember the venerable patriot who was known as Colonel Cheever in his latter days. He was a tall man, rather thin in face, and smooth-shaven in accordance with the old-time custom. He was the last survivor but one in Saugus of the battle of Lexington. He died September 13, 1837, aged eighty-two, and was first interred in a private tomb which had been built upon his estate, but some few years ago his remains were transferred to the new Saugus cemetery and buried in the Perley lot. A marble stone and marker of the S.A.R. were erected at his grave in 1903.
Because one sample of tea can easily be divided, it’s possible there were multiple small containers of tea from the Cheever family on display in the late 1800s. These sources speak of “a little packet,” “two bottles,” one “Bottle,” and “a small phial.” These could all be separate items, or the family might have retrieved tea they loaned to various displays.

Might any of these tea samples survive today? The most likely depository would be the Peabody Essex Museum, successor of the East India Marine Hall and Essex Institute. But the last reports of the tea said samples were owned by “Dr. D. W. Cheever” and “Miss Rachel Cheever.”

(The photo of the Abner Cheever pocket-book above appeared in volume 5 of Elroy McKendree Avery’s A History of the United States and Its People [1908].)

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

James Duncan’s Diary of the Yorktown Siege

Last month Sotheby’s sold the diary that Capt. James Duncan kept of the Yorktown campaign, as reported by the Washington Post.

The 23 pages dated 2–15 Oct 1781 are part of a 110-page notebook that Duncan later used as a commonplace book, copying in the music and lyrics of the “Duke of Gloustr March” and lines from such literature as John Trumbull’s M’Fingal and James Thomson’s Seasons.

The notebook was originally up for auction, but the bidding didn’t reach the set minimum. The next day, some institution or collector reached a deal with Sotheby’s and the owner to purchase the document for over $300,000.

Duncan was a Pennsylvanian, twenty-five years old, who had left Princeton College early in the war to join the Continental Army. Afterwards he became a court official in Adams County, Pennsylvania, which contains Gettysburg.

The Post article quotes a fair amount from Duncan’s description of the siege, including criticism of Col. Alexander Hamilton: “Although I esteem him…I must beg leave in this instance to think he wantonly exposed the lives of his men.”

Duncan finished his 15 October entry near the top of one page and then stopped writing. That leaves us without his account of Gen. Cornwallis’s surrender just four days later.

The article doesn’t report that this diary was transcribed and published as “A Yorktown Journal” in the Pennsylvania Archives, second series, volume 15, in 1890.

Sotheby’s page on the document did report that fact and added: “Unfortunately, the editor, William Henry Egle, through silent emendation and ‘correction,’ introduced hundreds of discrepancies from the manuscript in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, contraction, paragraphing, and other matters.” But Egle didn’t remove significant historical information, or the auction house would have proudly noted that.

Monday, February 12, 2024

“Command of a vessel without arms, and with but one eye”

Aside from having several children, what did Sylvanus Lowell do after being so badly injured at the Marblehead smallpox hospital in 1773?

First he returned to the maritime business, as shown by this advertisement from the 23 Mar 1774 Essex Journal, published in Newburyport:
THE Schooner ROSE, JACOB LOWELL, master, now lying at Marquand’s wharf, will sail by the first of April.—For Freight or Passage apply to Robert Jenkins, or Silvanus Lowell.
Newbury Port, March 21st, 1774.
Shortly after that, Parliament closed the port of Boston to most trade from outside Massachusetts, thus making secondary ports like Newburyport more important for about a year.

But then the war began, and sailing out of any Massachusetts port put ships at risk for being seized by the Royal Navy. At the same time, the province needed military supplies, and there was money to be made in privateering.

Sylvanus Lowell, despite his injuries, went back to sea. As the Newburyport Herald copied from the Saco Democrat in 1830:
No better evidence of his enterprising spirit is watnng, than the fact of his obtaining command of a vessel without arms, and with but one eye. It is said he was enabled to do much of his own writing, by screwing a pen into the hook attached to his arm.
In February 1777, the Massachusetts board of war commissioned Lowell to sail to St. Eustatia to trade for salt and these goods:
500 Effective Fire Arms, fit for Soldiers, with Bayonets —
500 Soldiers Blankets —
50 Barrels Gun-powder
200 ps Ravens Duck or Tent Cloth —
300 lb Twine —
25 Casks 20d Nails —
30 do 10d do
15 do 4 do
If the above Articles are not to be got, bring the proceeds in Russia Duck, Cordage from 4½ Inches downwards, Coarse Checks & Linnens —
He commanded a crew of at least nine men. The captain was back by July, when he bought a house in Newbury for his growing family.

In 1779 Lowell became captain of a privateering brig listed as the Porgee (also Porgee and Pauga), with a letter of marque from New Hampshire. Though descendants recalled it as “a large war-ship,” the American War of Independence at Sea website says it carried only four guns and eleven men.

Nonetheless, the Porgee managed to capture a ship called the Lively, as shown by a legal notice in the 17 July 1780 Boston Gazette. AWIatsea.com says the ship then received a Massachusetts letter of marque and went out under another captain.

In 1781 Capt. Lowell invested in a privateering sloop named the Betsey, and reportedly he commanded other privateers himself. According to his 1830 obituary:
About 3 days before Peace was concluded, he was captured by the British; but by the time they reached the shore, this news was received, and he was liberated and sent home.

After this, he followed the sea 7 years, as master of a vessel out of Newburyport, in the employ of Tristram Dalton.
Dalton had backed many privateers during the war, including the Betsey.

Levi Mills of Newburyport sailed under Capt. Lowell to Richmond on the “good ship Diana” one winter in the mid-1780s. According to an item about Mills’s journal published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, this tobacco-buying trip meant navigating the ice and shoals of the James River.

In 1791, as I wrote yesterday, Lowell’s second wife Elizabeth died. By the end of the year he married a third wife, also named Elizabeth. It also appears that the captain’s remaining eye started to fail around this time, eventually leaving him totally blind.

Lowell “quit the sea,” sold that Newbury house, and moved his whole blended family up to Maine, where some of his siblings had already settled. His stepdaughter Fannie later described the part of Biddeford where they made their new home as “then a wilderness.”

I’m not sure how Sylvanus Lowell supported his family after that, but reportedly the children grew up “in comfort.” In Biddeford the captain was “greatly esteemed.” Around 1825 Lowell “was visited with a severe shock of the numb palsy,” and he died on 21 July 1830, aged 86. His third wife survived him for another nine years.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Families of Sylvanus Lowell

Looking at the vital records from various Massachusetts towns helps to fill in the details of the life of Sylvanus Lowell, the ship’s captain maimed by a cannon in December 1773.

But those records also show some gaps and mysteries.

The vital records of Amesbury show the future mariner born to Moses and Francis (usually spelled Frances) Lowell on 2 May 1746. His name was apparently spelled as “Salvenas,” which looks more like church Latin than classical. He had siblings named Sarah, Thomas, Moses, Affea, Daniel, and Willebe (Willoughby). Their mother died when Sylvanus was two.

The vital records of Bradford say that on 2 Aug 1770 “Silvanus Lowell of Amesbury” married Hannah Hopkinson, daughter of Ens. Solomon Hopkinson of Bradford. That marriage is also noted, without an exact date, in the Amesbury records.

The Bradford records add that Hannah Lowell died on 20 Sept 1771, or possibly 26 September, “in her 26th year.” Thus, Sylvanus Lowell quickly became a widower.

There’s no child listed of that marriage in Amesbury or Bradford. However, the Bradford records are notably sparse if you weren’t named Kimball. The next sign of the family appears in the vital records of Newburyport, which say that Hannah Lowell, daughter of Sylvanus and Hannah, was baptized there on 20 June 1775. Was this a daughter of the captain’s first marriage, baptized at about age four? There’s no answer.

Likewise, I’ve found no answer about Sylvanus Lowell’s second marriage to a woman named Elisabeth. She pops up in the Newburyport records as mother of several children by him:
  • Elisabeth, baptized 6 Oct 1776 and buried 3 Sept 1777.
  • Elisabeth, baptized 12 Apr 1778.
  • Harrison, baptized 30 Jan 1780, probably died young.
  • Sylvanus, baptized 12 Aug 1781.
  • Sally, baptized 2 Feb 1783.
  • Thomas, baptized 11 Sept 1785 and buried 3 Sept 1786.
Newburyport also recorded the baptism of Harrison Lowell, son of Capt. Sylvanus and Elisabeth, on 29 Jan 1799. This may be the Maine legislator Harrison Lowell whose gravestone (shown above) gives his birthdate as 3 July 1791—though, again, that baptism would have been delayed.

Even more mysteriously, on 9 Mar 1791, Newburyport’s Essex Journal reported: “Died, Mrs. Lowell, wife of Capt. Silvanus Lowell of this town.” The vital records say that Elizabeth Lowell was buried that day. Obviously, she couldn’t have given birth to a son in July. Maybe the second Harrison was actually born in 1789 or 1790, and both the baptismal record and gravestone are off?

On 10 Oct 1791, just a few months after being widowed for the second time, Capt. Sylvanus Lowell married a widow about thirty-six years old named Elizabeth (McCard) Barriere or Berryer. She had a daughter, Fannie, from her first marriage.

I haven’t found any sign of Sylvanus having children by his second wife named Elizabeth. Each brought young children to the marriage to raise. Several of those children grew up, married, and had long lives. Both parents lived into their eighties.

This genealogical data shows Capt. Sylvanus Lowell having a fairly typical life for a New England patriarch of his time. Looking just at his three marriages and possibly eight children over more than a decade, one wouldn’t know that he’d come close to dying and lost significant portions of his body just before the Revolutionary War.

TOMORROW: What did you do in the war, Papa?

Saturday, February 10, 2024

“Of these injuries he was confined some time”

You may have noticed that the two newspaper articles I’ve quoted about Sylvanus Lowell’s injuries and recovery didn’t state his full name.

The Boston and Newburyport newspaper printers referred to him only as “Captain Lowell” of Newburyport, trusting readers to know who that was if they really deserved to know.

Last fall I decided to fill in that missing name by looking for other sources mentioning such an unusual accident.

Not only did I luck out in finding references to the captain, but his given name turned out to be Sylvanus. There were other Sylvanus Lowells in New England during his lifetime, of course, but the combination was rare enough to track him further.

Among the sources that named Capt. Lowell are:
  • Delmar R. Lowell, The Historic Genealogy of the Lowells in America (1899): “Capt. Sylvanus…On ‘Cat Island,’ in Boston Harbor, he lost his two arms and one eye while firing a cannon.”
  • Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1901): “Captain Sylvanus Lowell, who shortly before his marriage lost both his arms by the accidental discharge of a cannon, the right one being taken off just below the elbow, and the left just above it, and also lost the sight of one eye.”
  • John J. Currier, paper delivered to the Historical Society of Old Newbury (1911): “Sylvanus Lowell…was a sea captain, and while firing a salute on one of the islands in Boston harbor had the misfortune to injure both arms so that amputation was necessary, and at the same time lost the sight of one eye.”
The earliest source to provide a full name, and also more detail about the injury (not necessarily more accurate), was the captain’s obituary in the 7 Aug 1830 Newburyport Herald:
In 1773, he, with many others, were at Cat Island, in Boston harbor [sic], to be inoculated for the Small Pox—the physicians directed that two cannon should be taken to the Island for their amusement and recreation.—

Capt. L. was engaged in loading one of these, and while ramming down the cartridge, the piece went off—his left arm was blown off above the elbow, and his right just above the wrist; the right of one eye was entirely destroyed, and he was otherwise injured.

Of these injuries he was confined some time.
As you can tell from the date of that obituary, Capt. Lowell lived more than fifty-five years after his accident, even though most people felt he would die soon after.

But what sort of life did Lowell have, given his lack of hands and damaged sight? He had been a ship’s captain before, but how did he make his living afterward?

TOMORROW: Plus, a war broke out about a year later.

(Contrary to what those quoted sources say, Cat Island wasn’t in Boston harbor but off the coast of Marblehead. It’s legally part of Salem. In the 1850s the Salem Steamboat Company developed a seaside resort on the island. Because some of the investors were from the city of Lowell, they renamed their property Lowell Island. Thus, for several decades the site of Capt. Lowell’s injury shared his name. The resort didn’t last, though. The place is now home to a day camp and officially called Children’s Island. Presumably there are no working cannon for the children’s “amusement and recreation.”)

Friday, February 09, 2024

“His left arm was blown off and never found”

Last month I left ship’s captain Sylvanus Lowell lying near death at the smallpox hospital in Marblehead harbor in early December 1773.

Lowell had gone to that island hospital for inoculation. But then he loaded the island’s cannon for some sort of celebration, and it had exploded, severely injuring his neck, one eye, and both arms.

I paused to fill in the background of the doctor treating patients at that hospital, Hall Jackson, and his career in amputations.

That drew me into how Dr. Jackson volunteered as a military surgeon for the New Hampshire regiments at the siege of Boston, and how he got into a feud with Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., over whose hospitals were healthier.

And then I hit the Sestercentennial of the mobbing of John Malcolm in Boston, so I had to cover that significant incident.

Meanwhile, fans of Capt. Lowell must have been on tenterhooks, wondering what would become of him.

Good news! The next status report on the patient appeared in the Essex Journal, published in Newburyport, on 26 Jan 1774:
Capt. Lowell of this town, whom we some time ago mentioned to have been terribly wounded by the discharge of a cannon at the Essex Hospital, having recovered, the cure merits notice, and does great honour to the physician who has the care of the Hospital.--

He had been inoculated but twelve days, and the small-pox was just making its appearance, when the accident happened, by which his left arm was blown off and never found, and the remaining part was amputated within four inches of his shoulder: The right hand and part of the arm were torn to pieces; and this arm was amputated just below the elbow:

The large vessels of the neck, the windpipe and the lower jawbone, from the chin to the ear, laid quite bare; and three of the upper fore teeth broken off with a piece of the jaw: The coats of the right eye pierced and its humours discharged, and the bone between the eye and the nose broken through; the other eye greatly hurt, the whole skin of the face and breast much hurt, and several shivers of bones driven into the cheeks in different places:

Besides this, he also had a wound four inches long in the inside of his thigh, which was so filled with powder that it was not discovered ’till several days after the accident.

Notwithstanding, in the short space of thirty-seven days he is so far recovered as to need no further care of a Surgeon.
Lowell remained on the island until 16 January. On that day the Marblehead mariner Ashley Bowen wrote in his journal:
This day some snow. Came from Cat Island Captain Lowell. Ditto Jackson desired him not to snowball anybody.
I’m not sure whether to read “Ditto Jackson” as “Jackson also came from the island” or as “Doctor Jackson.” That has a bearing on who made the very dark joke of telling a man with no hands left not to throw snowballs.

As Lowell returned home, there was rising fear among Marbleheaders that the hospital’s security was too lax to keep infectious clothing and people away from the larger community. That anxiety came on top of resentment at the hospital pricing inoculation out of reach of most ordinary people. For more on that controversy, see Andrew Wehrman’s “The Siege of ‘Castle Pox’” in the New England Quarterly.

The night after the Essex Journal ran its article praising the skills of “the physician who has the care of the Hospital,” a score of locals went onto Cat Island and burned that hospital to the ground.

TOMORROW: What was left for Capt. Lowell.

(The picture above, courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, is Ashley Bowen’s rendering of Cat Island “Ware the Pestt House Was arected for Enocolation for Small Pox in the Year 1773.”)