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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Tuesday, April 02, 2024

“Twang them at the American rebels”

Maj. Robert Donkin ran advertisements in the New-York Gazette promoting his upcoming book Military Collections and Remarks and thanking the latest subscribers from January through June 1777.

In the latter part of that year, the Gazette’s printer, Hugh Gaine, actually produced the book.

According to the accounting published inside, the print run was 1,000 copies, folded, bound, and covered.

But the book turned out to need more work.

Maj. Donkin had no good words for “this unnatural rebellion,” as his ads said. But on one page inside the book, he let his anger run away on him.

In a short section titled “Bows,” the major added this footnote:

Dip arrows in matter of smallpox, and twang them at the American rebels, in order to inoculate them; This would sooner disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages, than any other compulsive measures. Such is their dread and fear of that disorder!
In Pox Americana, Elizabeth Fenn analyzed this passage as showing how British officers could picture spreading smallpox among the enemy as long as they saw those people as “savages.” There had been similar talk of infecting Native Americans during the last war.

Fenn also reported that only three copies of Donkin’s book with that footnote are known to exist. One, now at the Clements Library in Michigan, belonged to Gen. Valentine Jones of the 62nd Regiment, a subscriber.

All other copies have that footnote on page 199 sliced out, as shown below in the University of California’s volume, digitized by Google and also available through the Hathi Trust.

This excision became well known among book dealers and collectors. Around 1900, catalogues describing copies of the book noted the deletion and added “as usual.”

All the copies I’ve found online are missing the footnote. Most of the excisions are neater and more complete than the one I’m showing here. For instance, through this page one can find the American Revolution Institute’s volume. Another copy on Google Books shows how the British Library staff patched the hole with blank paper.

The thoroughness and neatness of the footnote’s removal suggests that some authority demanded that Donkin and Gaine delete it. Soon after the major started to distribute the book, it appears, someone had to go through every remaining copy with a sharp blade. That certainly took more time, and probably more money.

Fortunately, the other side of that page was blank in that spot, so those copies didn’t lose any other text.

In fact, it appears that subscribers and purchasers of the censored version got something extra.

TOMORROW: He is their hero.


twfmd said...

Christie's actually sold a copy in 1998 without the emendation for about 860 GBP.


DONKIN, Major Robert (1727-1821), publisher. Military Collections and Remarks. New York: H. Gaine, 1777.

8° (200 x 122mm). (Lacks frontispiece, small tear at title hinge.) 19th-century speckled calf, spine gilt, red leather spine label. Provenance: J. Plumbe, Capt. Royal Lancashire Militia, Muker, 1796 (ownership inscription on title).

....It is notorious for the footnote on page 190, usually deleted but present in this copy, in which he suggests (in a piece on 'Bows'): 'Dip arrows in matter of small pox, and twang them at the American rebels, in order to inoculate them; This would sooner disband these stubborn, ignorant, enthusiastic savages, than any other compulsive measures.' Sabin 20598; Howes U.S.iana 422.

J. L. Bell said...

I see that this copy conforms to the rule I posited a couple of posts after this: copies with the controversial footnote don’t have the frontispiece, and vice versa.