J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

“Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial”

In 1766, at the age of thirty-one, Peter Ingersoll opened a tavern and inn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (It still exists in greatly expanded form as a bed-and-breakfast called the Wainwright Inn, shown here.) He was from one of the town’s leading families, though not from one of its leading branches.

In 1775, Ingersoll was one of the town’s militia captains. News of the fighting at Lexington and Concord reached Berkshire County on 21 April. Ingersoll and his men assembled, and they marched east five days later. When Massachusetts organized an army for service to the end of the year, Ingersoll and many of the men signed on as part of Col. David Brewer’s regiment.

That regiment ran into problems in the fall. Col. Brewer was tried by court-martial and dismissed on 23 Oct 1775 for insisting that his son, also named David, be ranked and paid as a lieutenant. Such nepotism wasn’t uncommon, but in this case David Brewer, Jr., was back home in Berkshire County while his father was still collecting his pay. So that left the regiment leaderless, and perhaps resentful.

In early December, Capt. Ingersoll was brought up before another court martial—apparently at the regimental level since it’s not mentioned in Gen. George Washington’s general orders. Lt. Gamaliel Whiting of Great Barrington wrote in his diary, transcribed in Charles J. Taylor’s History of Great Barrington: “Dec. 4. Peter Ingersoll try’d by Court Marsh’ll.”

A more detailed account, and a different date, appear in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby:
Dec. 7th, 1775. Thurs: Capt. Ingersoll was tried by a Court Martial for spreading false reports about the Country, tending to defame the General. He was fined £8, and dismissed the service. —

8th. Friday. The same Court fined one man £8.7s., and sentenced him to two years imprisonment in the New Gate Prison in Simsbury [Connecticut], for stealing & deserting; and another man, John Smith, for similar offences, was fined £8, and sentenced to six months at Newgate.
A third diarist, Sgt. Henry Bedinger of Virginia, also recorded court-martial verdicts on 7-9 December, overlapping with Bixby’s account, but not exactly. (He wrote that one man was named John Short.) So it’s not clear whose diary is most reliable. Yet it does seem significant that Bedinger didn’t mention Ingersoll’s case, nor have I found references to it elsewhere. Mike Sheehan was kind enough to look for the captain’s name in Summer Soldiers, James C. Neagles’s listing of more than 3,000 courts-martial in Continental Army records, and it’s not there. So was this proceeding deliberately kept quiet?

Perhaps manuscript records of this proceeding survive in some unexpected archive. They could offer details of what “false reports” Ingersoll spread and how they tended to “defame the General”—namely Washington. Was the tavern-keeper frustrated by the slow pace of the siege? Angry about Brewer’s dismissal? Pessimistic about the Patriot cause?

Whatever the details, Ingersoll went home to Great Barrington, probably in a huff. He went away without filing the paperwork the state would need to pay his men. Since it was already December, and people’s enlistments were up at the end of the year, his early return might not have been that conspicuous. (After all, David Brewer, Jr., had come back much earlier.)

Still, word got around town. The next March, after one of Great Barrington’s militia companies narrowly elected Ingersoll their captain, some men complained. New colonel Mark Hopkins described the problem to the Massachusetts Council:
a large number of the soldiers appear to be very uneasy with the officers elected. Those of the South Company say that Captain Peter Ingersoll was broke last fall by the sentence of a Court-Martial in the Continental Army, and was then declared incapable of sustaining any office in the Continental service.
By July, Ingersoll was out of Hopkins’s regiment and in another, still a captain. But I don’t know how long that lasted. Ingersoll died in 1785.

Local histories—even the one that quoted a neighbor and fellow officer saying he went before a “Court Marsh’ll”—treat Capt. Peter Ingersoll as an admirable contributor to the American cause. They say nothing about how he was cashiered for defaming Gen. Washington.

TOMORROW: Trouble in the Berkshire County militia.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

“Rhode Island’s Revolutionary Artillery” in Newport, 8 Dec.

On Thursday, 8 December, I’ll speak at the Newport Historical Society on the topic “The Launch of Rhode Island’s Revolutionary Artillery.” I wrote about that development in The Road to Concord, but for this talk I’m assembling more information and analysis.

Here’s the event description:
In December 1774, the Rhode Island Assembly voted to move almost all of the cannons in Newport’s Fort George to Providence in order to, as the governor stated, “prevent their falling into the hands of the King.” The Assembly also formed a new “Train of Artillery,” a military company assigned to use those cannon to defend the colony. Oddly, however, the train’s commanders were from Boston. Within a few months, Rhode Island’s artillerists became one of the most respected units of the new Continental Army.
What links the Boston Tea Party, Providence’s First Baptist Meetinghouse (shown here),  and Rhode Island’s new Train of Artillery? That’s one of the new topics I’ll discuss. I may even venture an explanation about why Rhode Island suddenly promoted Nathanael Greene from a mere private in the Kentish Guards militia company to general in command of its “Army of Observation” around Boston.

This talk will start at 5:30 P.M. in the society’s Resource Center at 82 Touro Street. Admission is $1 for members and active and retired military personnel, $5 for others. To reserve seats, visit this webpage or call 401-841-8770. I’ll happily sign copies of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War afterward.

Oney Judge and “the President’s Wishes”

As I reported yesterday, George Washington has been our richest President so far. Most of his property consisted of land, both plantations in Virginia and unsettled claims to the west, and slaves. A lot of those slaves had come to his wife Martha or her children, inherited from her first husband’s family, and George felt obliged to preserve that wealth.

When the federal government moved to Pennsylvania in 1791, that state’s law gradually ending slavery posed a problem for the Washingtons. If they brought their household servants to Philadelphia—and how could a rich couple live without their household servants?—then those people were entitled to be free after six months in the state.

On 24 April Washington’s plantation manager, Tobias Lear, wrote to him about what the U.S. Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, had said about that law:
But he observed, that if, before the expiration of six months, they could, upon any pretence whatever, be carried or sent out of the State, but for a single day, a new era would commence on their return, from whence the six months must be dated for it requires an entire six months for them to claim that right.
Lear then discussed the specific situations of several enslaved people, including: “Mrs Washington proposes in a short time to make an excursion as far as Trenton, and of course, she will take with her Oney & Christopher, which will carry them out of the State; so that in this way I think the matter may be managed very well.”

Oney Judge was Martha Washington’s personal maid. She had been born at Mount Vernon around 1774. Judge was part of Martha’s property, and the First Lady planned to bequeath her to a granddaughter. So the Washingtons made sure that she was never in Pennsylvania for six months at a stretch.

Five years after Lear’s letter, on 21 May 1796, Judge slipped away from the Presidential mansion. She later told an interviewer, “I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington’s house while they were eating dinner.” Frederick Kitt, the President’s steward in Philadelphia, placed an advertisement seeking Judge in the 24 May Philadelphia Gazette.

At the end of June, Thomas Lee, Jr., wrote from New York to President Washington in response to, as he wrote, “the desire you expressed that I should make enquiry about your runaway Woman.” Lee reported a cook saying that Judge had gone north to Boston, and he planned to make inquiries there. Washington knew multiple men named Thomas Lee, and I’m not sure which one this was, but he appears to have been pursuing Judge as a private favor.

Later that summer Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Sen. John Langdon, recognized Oney Judge on the street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Slavery was already unenforceable in that state. According to Washington’s understanding, Langdon “was about to stop and speak to her, but she brushed quickly by, to avoid it.”

The President moved to track Judge down—but instead of continuing his efforts through private channels, he began to use the resources of the federal government. On 1 Sept 1796 he wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott:
Enclosed is the name, and description of the Girl I mentioned to you last night. She has been the particular attendent on Mrs Washington since she was ten years old; and was handy & useful to her, being perfect a Mistress of her needle. . . .

Whether she is Stationary at Portsmouth, or was there en passant only, is uncertain; but as it is the last we have heard of her, I would thank you for writing to the Collector of that Port, & him for his endeavours to recover, & send her back: What will be the best method to effect it, is difficult for me to say. If enquiries are made openly, her Seducer (for she is simple and inoffensive herself) would take the alarm, & adopt instant measures (if he is not tired of her) to secrete or remove her. To sieze, and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria which I should like better, seems at first view to be the safest & least expensive. But if she is discovered, the Collector, I am persuaded, will pursue such measures as to him shall appear best, to effect those ends; and the cost shall be re-embursed & with thanks.
The “Collector” was Joseph Whipple (1738-1816, shown above), the head of the Customs service in Portsmouth and thus a federal employee who answered to Wolcott. He had held the same position for the state of New Hampshire until 1789, and the new President had reappointed him on John Langdon’s recommendation.

Whipple wrote back to the Treasury Secretary on 10 September, “I shall with great pleasure execute the President’s wishes in the matter.” The next month, on 4 October, he wrote again, telling Wolcott that Judge had expressed “a thirst for compleat freedom” as well as “great affection & reverence for her Master & Mistress”; she was (at least initially) willing to return to Mount Vernon if the Washingtons guaranteed her freedom on their deaths.

The President replied directly to Whipple on 28 November, rejecting those terms. He also told the Collector:
…you would oblige me, by pursuing such measures as are proper, to put her on board a Vessel bound either to Alexandria or the Federal City; Directed in either case, to my Manager at Mount Vernon, by the door of which the Vessel must pass; or to the care of Mr Lear at the last mentioned place, if it should not stop before it arrives at that Port.

I do not mean however, by this request, that such violent measures should be used as would excite a mob or riot, which might be the case if she has adherents, or even uneasy sensations in the minds of well disposed Citizens. rather than either of these shd happen, I would forego her services altogether; and the example also, which is of infinite more importance. The less is said before hand, and the more celerity is used in the act of Shipping her, when an opportunity presents, the better chance Mrs Washington (who is desirous of receiving her again) will have to be gratified.
Again, this wasn’t government business. Washington was asking Whipple to do him a big favor, one gentleman for another. But Whipple was a federal government employee, and he owed his position to Washington. Today that would strike us as a clear conflict of interest.

There’s more to Oney Judge’s story, and the Washingtons’ pursuit of her. Today I’m just looking at how having the resources of government presents a great temptation to a President with private interests.

Monday, December 05, 2016

How Rich Were the Early Presidents?

Wikipedia’s entry on the wealth of U.S. Presidents has been updated with an estimate—and, in the absence of full financial disclosure, it can only be an estimate—of President-elect Donald Trump’s wealth.

The original source for the other estimates is this article and chart from 24/7 Wall St.

Until 2017, these articles say, the richest U.S. President by far was George Washington. He had extensive land holdings, many slaves, and uncommonly successful plantations. Other southern planters—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson—are also high on the list.

More recent very wealthy Presidents include several men who inherited large fortunes, such as Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, though none as large as the one Trump received on the death of his father. In the twentieth century we also see men who rose from modest upbringings to fortunes through business or marriage, such as Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson.

This list estimates the net worth of Presidents at their height. In this modern media age, that height for some Presidents came after they left office as they earned money from memoirs, speeches, and other rewards of celebrity. In the case of Bill Clinton, his wife’s earnings are bundled with his own—which takes us back to how Washington became rich in the first place.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the first President to create a “blind trust” to insulate himself from his businesses—primarily radio stations that came to him through his wife. But biographer Robert Caro found that Johnson secretly stayed in touch with the both the general manager of the station and the primary manager of that trust.

After Watergate, Congress passed laws requiring government employees to either put their assets into a true blind trust or to divulge all those assets publicly, so that the public and press can look for conflicts of interest. Since 1989 the President is no longer liable to criminal prosecution for breaking that law, but it’s still an important ethical guideline.

After all, even George Washington faced the temptation to use the assets of the federal government for his own private benefit, as I’ll discuss next.

TOMORROW: The Treasury Department and Oney Judge.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Weather Report for 4 December 1775

Last month Timothy Abbott shared on Facebook a glimpse of life in the British camp on Bunker’s Hill in late 1775. After the battle of 17 June, the British army had fortified those heights, securing the whole Charlestown peninsula from the Continentals.

On 26 Jan 1776, Abbott found, the Derby Mercury of Britain ran a brief “Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Camp on Bunker’s Hill, dated Dec. 4”:
You would be amazed how I am able to write at this Instant, for it Hails, Rains, Snows, and blows very bleakly on my Canvass House. The Regulars and the Provincials squint at one another like wild Cats across a Gutter, and it is very probable we shall keep our Distance till the Cessation of the Winter enables us to open the Campaign.
I decided to look for how the American troops were experiencing the same weather on 4 Dec 1775. Did they complain about how it “Hails, Rains, Snows, and blows very bleakly”? Were they huddled in their barracks and around their fires?

And I found Pvt. Daniel McCurtin of the Maryland riflemen writing:
December 1st, 1775. 1, 2, 3. I have seen nothing of note,…Yet those 3 days were fine days and clear weather.

10. From the 3rd untill this day I heard nothing material…During this time the weather has been very favourable.
Hmm. Well, Pvt. James Stevens of Andover noted a little poor weather the morning before:
Sunday Des the 3 I workt on the Baruk it raind som in the fore nune
Down in Plymouth, on 4 December the Continental naval agent William Watson reported “warm weather” to the commander-in-chief’s aide Stephen Moylan. So warm that it “had a very happy influence on the minds of the people” on board a ship who had refused to sally out against the Royal Navy; “The brig sailed Sunday afternoon [3 Dec] and has had fine weather ever since.”

So the officer writing from Bunker’s Hill wasn’t huddled up against the snow and wind. He was actually experiencing a fair, warm day in his “Canvass House.”

To be sure, the two armies had experienced far worse weather in the preceding month. Here’s how McCurtin reported those days:
  • 12 November: “A very blustering cold frosty day”
  • 17 November: “monstrous deep frost. This day its as good as 5 inches deep and very blustering winds. Last night I stood Picquet, I never yet felt such cold.”
  • 18 November: “Cold frosty weather and snow.”
  • 19 November: “Desperate cold weather, snow, frost and high winds.”
  • 25 November: “Still continues colder and colder.”
  • 26 November: “a severe cold day, frost, snow, high winds, and rain sometimes.”
  • 27 November: “Very cold weather.”
So that British officer had experienced a New England chill up on Bunker’s Hill—just not when he actually wrote. He had saved up that story to tell the folks back home.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

New Education Center at the Paul Revere House

Years back, I gave a teachers’ workshop at the Paul Revere House in the North End. It took place upstairs in the neighboring Pierce-Hichborn house.

As I recall, we had about two dozen people crowded into a small, irregularly shaped room with sloping ceilings. It really gave one a sense of what it must have been like to live in that neighborhood in a family of fourteen.

Now the Paul Revere House has a lot more space. This weekend it opens its new Education and Visitor Center at Lathrop Place. The museum bought another neighboring building—an old tenement put up in 1835—and fixed it up into new exhibit, meeting, sales, and office space. In the process, the Revere house became wheelchair-accessible as well.

All told, this project required raising more than $4 million and overseeing extensive construction. As museums have to do these days, several of the new spaces are named for donors. Thus, there’s an Revere Education Room, a Curtis Classroom, and a Citizens Bank Enrichment Center [get it?].

I visited the new building last night along with other friends of the site. It’s a very impressive expansion—all the more impressive when one sees photographs of the same rooms before renovation. Lathrop Place will be open to the public all this weekend. There will be refreshments, music, and demonstrations of tinware and basketmaking.

This diorama is part of a new permanent exhibit about Revere’s many businesses, including as a silversmith, engraver, and dentist. It shows pre-industrial production in Revere’s shop.
Ben Edwards, Boston tour guide and Revere descendant, told me that this scene was originally made for the Boston Museum of Science maybe fifty years ago. After years on display there, the diorama was retired. Later, when that museum decided to throw it out deaccession it, a manager called to ask if the Paul Revere House wanted it. The scene spent several more years in storage until the house had just the right spot to display it, and now it does.

To go with its new building, the Paul Revere House also has a new website with good resources for people who can’t get to the North End.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Putting Down Rebels

The first ten issues of the Rebels comic book have been collected in a single volume from Dark Horse.

The series was conceived and scripted by Brian Wood on the model of his Northlanders series about Vikings: a variety of stories—different characters, different points of view, different lengths—all drawn one from extended historical conflict.

Most of this volume consists of a story titled “A Well-Regulated Militia,” illustrated by Andrea Mutti; it tracks a soldier from Vermont through the war. Then come much shorter stories following two women, a Native American, a British soldier, and (as seen through the eyes of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia”) a black Loyalist; each of those stories has art from a different artist.

I looked at the first issue of Rebels back in August 2015. I hoped the comic’s depiction of Revolutionary events would improve. It didn’t.

In a word, the historical content of this book is godawful. Wood presents such events as the conflict over land grants in Westminster, Vermont; the mission to bring heavy cannon from Lake Champlain to Boston; and the battles of Bunker Hill, Harlem Heights, Saratoga, Cowpens, and more. He mixes real people in with his original characters. But very little is accurate.

The errors aren’t at the level of “The author hasn’t read the latest scholarship” or “He hasn’t read Don Hagist’s guest posting about Pvt. Mathew Kilroy leaving the British army in 1776.” They’re more like “He didn’t bother to check Wikipedia for basic information.” Or if he did, he ignored it.

For example, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill, with Gen. George Washington and Benedict Arnold nearby. Henry Knox heads out to Fort Ticonderoga in the summer of 1775, already a major general. A sergeant, not an officer, commands an artillery company. The Continental Navy flag of late 1775 (the “Grand Union Flag”) flies over a British fort in the Ohio Valley in 1755. Every long firearm is called a “rifle.”

Many errors reveal not just carelessness but basic misunderstandings about the Revolutionary conflict and the society in which it took place. Sometimes those arise from old nationalist assumptions. Thus, we see army regulars getting involved in real-estate disputes in the New England backcountry. The one British soldier we meet in depth is forced to enlist to avoid prison. Sometimes the problems grow out of modern inclusive preferences, not acknowledging how different society was. A woman of color owns a printing press in Boston, operates it entirely on her own, and posts anti-Stamp Act placards years after the Stamp Act has been repealed—which causes the British army to lock her up in Connecticut’s New-Gate Prison. And some errors are just plain errors: U.S. military officers interview people about government pensions instead of distant civil bureaucrats making the decision as they almost always have.

The art is quite good, in a range of realistic styles. Wood often gives the artists free rein for dramatic pages, sometimes wordless. But there are visual anachronisms blazing on every spread. Eighteenth-century British-American men appear with sculpted beards, mustaches, and sideburns. Women wear modern hairstyles and no caps. Civilians often appear in nineteenth-century clothing. Mounted hussars with tall, furry caps charge up Breed’s Hill. An 1802 dining room features furniture, fenestration, and houseplants out of the 1980s.

Even forcing myself to read this collection as stories from another universe, not rooted in Revolutionary history, left me unimpressed. In the first episode the hero and his father shoot at a group of redcoats. One teenager in uniform makes the choice to desert and ends up part of the hero’s family—but we’re just told about that change in a caption. We never see that character make a decision. We never see the family decide to take him in. And we never see major consequences from that arrangement—the character and the potential drama fall away.

A second volume of the Rebels series is slated for next year, following the son of the hero of “A Well-Regulated Militia” through the naval conflicts of the early republic. At this point, I don’t expect much better.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

John McMurtry: “He did not know it was loaded”

On 1 Dec 1775, Pvt. Aaron Wright, stationed in Cambridge, wrote in his diary about a fellow rifleman:
John M’Murtry, in Capt. [James] Chambers’ company, killed John Penn, by his rifle going off, when, he says, he did not know it was loaded. He was cleaning the lock, and put it on and primed it to see how she would “fier.” It shot through a double partition of inch boards, and through one board of a berth, and went in at Penn’s breast, and out at his back, and left its mark on the chimney. Penn put his hand on his breast, and as he turned round, fell down dead, and never spoke more.
I haven’t been able to find out anything more about John Penn.

John McMurtry was in his early twenties. He grew up in Somerset County, New Jersey, but went to Pennsylvania to sign up with a rifle company after the Continental Congress started to raise troops for its newly adopted army in June 1775.

After the shooting, McMurtry reenlisted in the Continental Army for the following year. In fact, he was promoted to corporal on 1 July 1776. According to his pension application, he saw action at White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown.

McMurtry recalled becoming a sergeant major and then an ensign on 1 Oct 1779. He resigned from the army on 1 Aug 1780. But then, he said, he went to Philadelphia and signed aboard a privateer named the Fair America under Capt. Stephen Decatur.

McMurtry and his new wife settled in what became Tennessee. He died in 1841. His pension application did not mention John Penn or any other event of note during the siege of Boston.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

“On the floating zephyrs of heaven”

When we left off the 1859 book Twelve Messages from the Spirit of John Quincy Adams, the spiritual medium Joseph Stiles had just channeled Adams’s meeting in the afterlife with George Washington.

Washington’s presence leads to another discussion of the evils of slavery. The spirit of Charles Follen, Harvard professor and abolitionist, joins in.

Having brought on Washington, where could the book go next? The next message puts Adams back into conversation with the spirit of Peter Whitney. Who? He was a minister in the Adamses’ home town of Quincy from 1800 to 1843. The two longtime acquaintances have a longer discussion about the spiritual world. A much longer discussion.

Message XI then shows us jubilant freed slaves, Jesus forgiving Judas, and James Monroe—which seems like a bit of an anticlimax.

The spirits divide into four groups. The leaders of the first three groups are, naturally, Josephine, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon. Adams says, “The Commander of the Fourth Division now arrests my attention. He was an intelligence. of invincible will and firmness, yet ever yielding when convinced he was in the wrong”—Thomas Paine!

Adams praises his mother, recalling how they watched the smoke from the burning of Charlestown in 1775. Abigail responds at equal length, describing how America needs good mothers.

Finally we reach the twelfth message. It starts with a look at “The Sphere of Prejudice and Error,” which includes “The Circle of Intolerance,” “The Circle of Bigotry,” and so on. The people who carried out what the book calls the “Massacre of St. Bartholomew” are there, for instance. Reflecting a deep misunderstanding of Islam, Muslims are in “The Circle of Idolatry,” though “the once partially inspired Spirit of the Prophet Mohammed had long since unfolded into the blessed Religion of the Only True God,—the Ever-living Jehovah.” And thus we conquer intolerance and bigotry.

But there’s still more to learn.

Helping Franklin to produce the defecated electricity are Isaac Newton and other scientists. They feed its charge to a circle of Native Americans including Samoset, Osceola, and Pocahontas.

Adams then turns back down to visit George Jeffreys, Lord Chancellor during the “Bloody Assizes” of the 1680s. We read another critique of the Fugitive Slave Act. Adams sees the martyr Jane Grey leading spirits to enlightenment. He describes welcoming “Calhoun, Clay, and Webster” to the afterlife. And after checking off all those boxes the former President offers readers a closing exhortation:
Ye who are travelling the ways of darkness, come forward, and aid us to start this Juggernaut of Truth on its glorious march of victory, until the Demon of Error, and its hideous children, Ignorance, Superstition and Bigotry, are crushed out of existence, beneath the ceaseless rotations of its ponderous wheels!
But that’s still not all! Just as Stiles finished writing Adams’s last message, “another spirit…immediately took possession of his arm.” He wrote out a letter to Adams from another spirit in a different handwriting. This is none other than George Washington again, expressing regret at slavery:
I am aware that the holding of human beings in bondage was incompatible and at war with the mighty cause for which I was so vigorously contending. And gladly would I have rid myself of this incubus to my happiness,—this source of deep mental anxiety. But the strong prejudices of that age were not easily surmounted, and they wound around me a fortress which my better feelings and impulses could not then storm.
After Adams’s brief reply, Stiles wrote out the signatures of “five hundred and forty individuals,” all in different handwritings and some in unintelligible scribbles so we know they must come from ancient cultures. And anyone who can write out five hundred different people’s signatures has got to be trustworthy.

Now it turns out that the notebooks in which Stiles originally wrote all this out survive in the Library of Congress. (To get there, by the way, they passed through the hands of Harry Houdini.) John Benedict Buescher has investigated those documents and shared his findings in this P.D.F. report.

Sadly, Buescher discovered that the text Stiles wrote under the influence of John Quincy Adams’s spirit is quite different from what was published. Material was moved around, shortened, lengthened, and reworded. Hancock, Henry, Warren, Arnold, and others originally made no appearances in Adams’s messages. So I’m sorry to say that the published book is not a reliable account of the afterlife.

Buescher also explored the reception for the book. William Lloyd Garrison, who actually gets a shout-out of praise from Adams’s spirit, responded with less than enthusiasm in The Liberator:
While, with unfeigned respect and good-will to Mr. Stiles…, we feel constrained to pronounce the claim set up for the spiritual origin of this work as preposterous and delusive, we are nevertheless highly gratified with its many excellent and fearless sentiments on the subject of slavery, war, the rights of woman, universal reform, and everlasting progression…
The Spiritual Telegraph, which we might expect to praise these revelations, stated:
We rather regard them as coming from that mid-region of dreams and phantasmagoria which is made up of the exuviae and odds and ends of all celestial, infernal and mundane spheres, agglomerated into mental and visual forms correspondent with the predominant associative spirit-thought and desire, and with the existing mediative susceptibilities.
And The Spiritual Age stated:
In fact, so markedly is the style throughout that of an uncultivated youth, and so different from what we should expect from the “Sage of Quincy,” the “Old Man Eloquent,” that it is difficult to believe he had any hand—or anything more than a hand—in it.
But then the Civil War broke out, and the parts of the book that warned of national division over slavery—particularly the parts said to come from Washington himself—gained new respect. “Had the people of this country been sufficiently enlightened to investigate these messages fairly, they would have seen that there was sufficient evidence that this warning really came from Washington,” wrote Joseph Rodes Buchanan in 1887.

Joseph Stiles went on to a long career as a performing medium. He died in Weymouth in 1897 at the age of sixty-nine.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Afterlife of John Quincy Adams

There’s a pretty fierce competition for the strangest Revolution-related book that I’ve encountered this year, but one very strong competitor is Twelve Messages from the Spirit of John Quincy Adams, through Joseph D. Stiles, Medium, to Josiah Brigham, prepared for the press by Allen Putnam and published in Boston in 1859, eleven years after Adams’s death.

At the beginning of the book Brigham attested:
The messages contained in this book, coming from the immortal spirit of John Quincy Adams, were written out in manuscripts, at various times, at my house in Quincy, Mass., and at the house of my son-in-law, C. F. Baxter, Boston, during the last four years, through the hand of Joseph D. Stiles, medium, when in an entranced state, and who, at the time of writing them, was unconscious of what was being written.

The whole was written in an almost perfect fac-simile of that peculiar, tremulous handwriting of Mr. Adams in the last years of his earthly life,—a handwriting which probably no man living could, in his natural state of mind, so perfectly imitate, and which is wholly unlike the usual handwriting of the medium.

The writing of these messages in manuscript was commenced in August, 1854, and closed in March, 1857. The medium (in trance] commenced copying and revising them for publication about the first of April following, and finished in June, 1858, making some additions and some omissions.
So what did the spirit of John Quincy Adams have to say? The book explains that he has discovered a “Celestial Telegraph” which works as “a thin line of clarified electricity” extending from a “Spiritual Circle” and lets him visit Earth through various mediums. (Media?)

Other figures from the American Revolution show up in the book, rather like the Florentines whom Dante meets in Hell. None other than John Hancock welcomes Adams to the afterlife. John and Abigail Adams are pleased to see him as well but don’t say anything particularly parental at first—they must have moved beyond earthly concerns.

Then two more spirits appear “in full military costumes, similar to those worn by the soldiers during the Revolutionary War”—none of those white robes. One comes forward and turns out to be…Lafayette! Adams was President when Lafayette made his return tour of America in the 1820s, after all.

Adams gets to meet Christopher Columbus and “Americus Vespucius,” which leads to a long discussion of scientific discoveries, such as spiritualism. For example, “The so-called Salem Witchcraft” turns out to have been “the attempt of spirits to manifest their presences to earth’s children.” Too bad about the people who were hanged and crushed to death.

Back to Revolutionary celebrities: John André, “dressed, not in a flowing robe, but in a British uniform”! Joseph Warren! Patrick Henry! Benedict Arnold!

Benedict Arnold? “Desiring to eradicate, as far as possible, the sins of his mortal career, and to become a useful member of Celestial Society, he earnestly sought the instruction of Higher Minds, and other means necessary to insure happiness and a perfect unfoldmept of his spiritual faculties.” So this book offers hope for everyone.

And the sight of a repentant Arnold leads swiftly to a condemnation of “the Fugitive-Slave Bill” and what it says to people seeking freedom:
No! Massachusetts cannot give
The boon thy soul doth fondly crave;
The poor and panting fugitive
Must on her soil Remain a slave!

Her Bunker Hill, where patriot blood
In freedom’s cause was freely spent,
Cannot a shelter give to thee
Beneath its tow’ring monument!
There’s a lot of anti-slavery rhetoric in this book, and a lot of poetry, too. Which makes perfect sense, since John Quincy Adams did devote a lot of time to both activities.

After some mild adventures, Adams and Lafayette ascend higher, thus reaching the same sphere as “William Penn, Shakspeare, Mary Washington, Augustine Washington, Martha Washington, Hannah More, Felicia Hemans, Jane Grey, Josephine, Elizabeth Frye, John Howard, Peter Whitney.” Followed by “Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Israel Putnam.”

Then Napoleon, the Duke D’Enghein, Joan of Arc, Peter Melanchthon, William Ellery Channing, Confucius, François de Fenelon, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elias, and, high above the others, Christ. Followed by Mary and Joseph.

But whom haven’t we heard from yet? Finally in the ninth message George Washington appears to speak to Adams—though their conversation gets interrupted by Martin Luther, of all people. Adams rhapsodizes about Washington:
Can any one doubt but that spirits from the immortal world sustained him through all the disheartening trials and almost unendurable sufferings of Valley Forge,—cheered his heart, and those of his desponding soldiers when they were so heroically laboring to release their dear native land from the clutches of a tyrannical potentate and his myrmidons?
Myrmidons including, you know, André.

TOMORROW: But wait, there’s more! We’re only up to Message IX.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Between Aphra Behn and Jane Austen

Today instead of writing about books I’ll write about a podcast about books.

Earlier this year Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the British magazine The New Statesman, hosted six conversations for its podcast Hidden Histories. That first series of recordings is titled “The Great Forgetting,” and it focuses on the early history of the British novel.

The standard summary of that topic presents a progression through Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, and a few other authors before getting to Jane Austen. And there’s nothing wrong with those novelists. (Well, except Richardson.)

Yet in that eighteenth century most British novels were written by women. Likewise, people expected women to be the main audience for most novels, so many if not most novels were about women. So how does that usual list of British novelists before Austen contain nothing but men?

“The Great Forgetting” aims to unearth the female novelists who worked before Austen, and the female literary society that existed in 1700s Britain. Lewis’s interlocutors are Sophie Coulombeau, Elizabeth Edwards, and Jennie Batchelor, scholars at different British universities. Their six conversations are on these topics:
  • Re-writing the Rise of the Novel: whom do conventional accounts of the era overlook?
  • Bluestocking Culture: how did women become writers?
  • Sociable Spaces: what did it mean to have a magazine by women?
  • Unsex’d Females: women writers and radical politics
  • Fight Club: who’s the most interesting female writer of the eighteenth century?
  • The Great Forgetting: why are the authors we remember mostly men?
For people who enjoy exploring eighteenth-century fiction (as well as essays, histories, biographies, poetry, plays, and other literary forms), the conversations will provide some long reading lists. The podcast page also includes links to supporting articles, such as this article about the Whig historian Catharine Macaulay. The recordings can all be downloaded from iTunes. I enjoyed them.