Thursday, December 7, 2017

"the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary" - The Crazy Antics of "Lord" Timothy Dexter

Ah…”Lord” Timothy Dexter, the man who easily personifies bat sh*t crazy.  How this atrocious speller and outrageously eccentric character slipped through the cracks of American lore is beyond us.  

Timothy Dexter was born in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22, 1747. He apparently had little schooling and by the time he was eight years old he was employed as a farm laborer.  As a teenager, he was an apprentice to a leather-dresser.  When Dexter turned twenty-one, he left the apprenticeship and opened his own shop in Charlestown.  While there, he met and somehow charmed a wealthy widow named Elizabeth Frothingham.  By 1769, the two had married, relocated to Newburyport and purchased a mansion.




Towards the end of Revolutionary War, Dexter took all of his savings and bought vast amounts of depreciated Continental dollars.  He sat on the currency for years.  When the United States Constitution was finally ratified, the federal government stipulated that the worthless paper could be traded in for treasury bonds at one percent of face value.  Dexter became rich overnight.

With his newly found fortune, he built two ships and began an export business.  He also purchased a stable of brilliant cream colored horses, a coach emblazoned with his initials and a “princely chateau with tasteful and commodious outhouses” that overlooked the Atlantic.  Dexter then hired artists to carve and mount over forty massive wooden statues on his property.  According to period accounts “the tasteless owner, in his rage for notoriety, created rows of columns, fifteen high feet at least, on which to place colossal [statues] carved in wood. Directly in front of the door of the house, on a Roman arch of great beauty and taste, stood general Washington in his military garb. On his left was Jefferson; on his right, Adams. On the columns in the garden there were figures of indian chiefs, military generals, philosophers politicians, statesmen...and the goddesses of Fame and Liberty.”  

Not surprisingly, the final statue Dexter erected was a monument to himself.  On the pillar was the inscription:  “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world.”  

Mortified by Dexter’s behavior, his wife Elizabeth moved out and took up residence in another part of Newburyport.

After his separation, Dexter began to host his social gatherings which quickly devolved into odd spectacles.  Women of “ill repute” came and went throughout the night and the fine interiors of Dexter’s mansion, including curtains once owned by the Queen of France, were soon covered in “unseemly stains, offensive to sight and smell.”


Disgusted with his antics, many of his neighbors intentionally offered erroneous investment advice in the hope he would go bankrupt and have to move away.  One suggested Dexter sell bed warming pans in the West Indies.  Dexter took the advice and  shipped no less than 42,000 pans.  Upon arrival it was discovered there was no need for them in the hot climate.  Undeterred, he had the pans re-labeled as ladles and sold them to sugar and molasses plantation owners. The demand was so great that Dexter significantly marked up the price and returned with a massive fortune.

He was also duped into shipping wool mittens to the same islands.  As luck would have it, Asian merchants were in the West Indies at the time and bought them to export to Siberia.  

Yet another neighbor convinced Dexter that there was a great demand for coal in Newcastle, England.  What he did not know was large coal mine already existed there and any foreign shipment of coal was unnecessary.  Of course, when Dexter arrived, Newcastle miners were on strike.   Dexter immediately jacked up the price of his coal and sold it to desperate locals.  He was so successful in the venture one account suggests he returned to Newburyport with “one [barrel] and a half of silver”.

On another occasion he was encouraged to ship gloves to the South Sea Islands. His ships arrived there just in time to sell the items to Portuguese sailors en route to China.

When a Caribbean island experienced a rat infestation, Dexter rounded up Newburyport stray cats and shipped them off to the island for considerable profit.  He also mistakenly hoarded over three hundred and twenty tons of whalebone, but ended up with a monopoly because of a sudden high demand for the item in women’s clothing.

Dexter may have been far more intelligent than he let on.  He later wrote “I found I was very lucky in spekkelation . . . Spekkelators swarmed me like hell houns.”  Historian Sarah Anna Emery suggested “Though ignorant and illiterate, and doubtless somewhat indebted to luck for his good fortune, still it is evident the man was both shrewd and sagacious.”   

In 1797, Dexter authored A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress, in which he complained about politicians, the clergy, and naturally, his wife. The book lacked punctuation but contained random capitalizations.  Dexter initially handed his book out for free.  It was so popular it had to be reprinted eight times. In the second edition, Dexter added an extra page which consisted of thirteen lines of punctuation marks.

By the end of the 18th Century, Dexter completely went around the bend.  When a painter made a mistake on one of his statues, Dexter tried to shoot him.  Dexter often told Newburyport residents that his estranged wife had died and the woman they saw walking around town was actually her ghost.  Outraged that Newburyport high society refused to accept him into their social circles, Dexter suddenly declared himself “the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport.” He insisted everyone refer to him as “Lord Dexter”.  He even copied the King of England and hired a poet laureate to publish verses extolling his greatness. Unfortunately, unlike His Majesty's poet who hailed from Italy and was an accomplished writer, Lord Dexter's poet was a witless purveyor of pornography and a fishmonger who sold halibut out of a wheelbarrow in Market Square.  

True to his nature, Dexter even faked his own death just to see who would show up to the funeral.  He forced his wife and children (yes, this guy reproduced) to participate in the scheme and gave them specific instructions on how to behave during the service. More than 3,000 people came, most only out of curiosity. Of course, he was discovered alive and well immediately after the ceremony as he beat his wife for not grieving sufficiently at his passing.

Dexter died on October 26, 1806.  Some historians have suggested his wife and children refused to accept the body and as a result Dexter was buried in a simple grave.  In his will he left his fortune to the poor of Newburyport.  

In 1848, Attorney Samuel L. Knapp shared his personal thoughts on Dexter and his legacy.  “There are but few men who are sufficiently attentive to their own thoughts, and able to analyze every motive or action. Among these, Timothy Dexter was not one.”

In a final postscript, most of the gaudy statues on his property were damaged in a hurricane that struck Newburyport in 1815.  Two of the carvings, entitled “Peace and Plenty”, survived and recently sold at auction for almost $60,000.




Thursday, November 30, 2017

"We Fired on Them" - What Likely Happened at Parker's Revenge

In the hours after the Battle of Lexington, Captain Parker assembled his men on the village common. According to local folklore, the company then marched westward as fifer Jonathan Harrington played the Jacobite tune The White Cockade.

When the Lexington Company arrived at the Lexington-Lincoln border around 12:30 in the afternoon, Parker signaled the company to halt and then instructed his men to prepare for an ambush. Absent from the company was the confusion and hesitation of the earlier encounter with the British regulars. More than anyone else on that day, the Lexington Training Band wanted revenge.

So what really happened when Captain Parker’s Company attacked the retreating British column the afternoon of April 19th? Thanks to an archaeological survey and a subsequent report by Dr. Margaret Watters Wilkes, we now have a better sense of what transpired at the battle site better known as Parker’s Revenge. 



Parker selected a position near the Tabitha Nelson Homestead. This site included a house, barn, farmyard, orchard and woodlot. There were also several out buildings such as privies, sheds, and chicken coops dispersed throughout the property. Dozens and dozens of boulders of various sizes dotted the farmland. Along the eastern and southern boundaries of the property was a geological seep. A small bridge part of the Concord Road crossed over it. Adjacent to the homestead was a ledge that overlooked the property.

The site offered several tactical advantages to Parker and his men. The bridge would be a point of constriction for the retreating British forces - the retreating soldiers would have to slow down to cross the structure and would be more vulnerable to an attack. The boulders, structures and trees provided ample coverage and could serve as obstacles to a British counter assault. From their vantage point, Parker’s Company had a clear view down Concord Road. Not only would the militia have heard the battle coming toward them, but from their elevated position they could watch the British approach. Finally there was an accessible route that ran through the woodlot. The pathway not only provided an easy path of withdrawal but also permitted the men to re-engage the retreating column at the Bloody Bluff and Fiske Hill.

The majority of Parker’s men broke ranks and formed a long, staggered skirmish line along an elevated finger of land inside the woodlot overlooking the footbridge. Around one o’clock in the afternoon, Parker likely received information that the regulars were now marching back towards Lexington.

As the British column approached the Nelson Homestead, they had been marching and fighting for over twelve hours. According to Captain William Soutar of the Marines, Lt. Col. Smith’s column was subjected to a continuous barrage of musket fire that they did not anticipate. “The Country by this time had took ye alarm, and were immediately in arms, and had taken their different stations behind walls &c. on our flanks and thus we were harassed on our front, flanks and rear…by a continual fire for eighteen miles, it not being possible for us to meet a man otherwise than behind a bush, stone, hedge or tree, who immediately give his fire and off he went. Our companies were not able to march half of its front on the open road, or more properly speaking in two platoons, the second in rear of the first. On our leaving Concord we were immediately surrounded on every Quarter, and expected to be cut off every moment. Sometimes we took possession of one hill, sometimes of another; at the last it was determined to push forward to Lexington, which we did through a plaguey fire…” The regulars were running out of water and ammunition, and discipline in the British column was quickly breaking down.

The British had already suffered close to one hundred casualties. The retreating soldiers’ pace had likely slowed down because it was now encumbered with scores of wounded soldiers and officers that clung to horses, carts, carriages or whatever else might help them reach Boston. In fact, research conducted by Dr. Watters Wiles suggests the column may have been travelling only four miles per hour as it approached Parker’s position.

When the column reached the bridge, Smith’s column was suddenly in a very dangerous position. In short, the soldiers entered the lowest point of a “valley” along the seep feature while the Lexington militia held an elevated position.

The head of the column likely caught sight of the Lexington men. In response, a vanguard composed of light infantry formed on the seep feature, remained clustered together as they crossed the bridge and started to deploy towards Parker’s Company in a close, tight formation. Naturally, this offered an excellent target for the Lexington militia.

Parker waited until the soldiers were within fifty yards of his position before ordering his men to fire. The Lexington men then unleashed a volley that swept along the vanguard, instantly killing or wounding an unknown number of regulars. Lieutenant-Colonel Smith was struck in the thigh and Captain Parson of the 10th Regiment of Foot was hit in the arm.

The British light infantry completed its flanking deployment and then returned fired at the Lexington militia. Two Lexington militiamen, Jedediah Munroe and Nathan Wyman, were struck and killed. Immediately after discharging their muskets, the regulars swept up the slope. However, Parker and his men had already started to withdraw. After discharging a single volley, the militiamen quickly retired up the access path to the top of the hill and then moved down the east side. Once at the bottom, the company moved to a new position down the road to attack the column again. According to militiaman Nathan Munroe “We fired on them and continued to do so until they met their reinforcement in Lexington.” The British vanguard did not pursue the militiamen and returned to the column.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"It Was Done by Fire and Water" - The Tea Burnings of Lexington and Newburyport

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act in an attempt to refinance the shaky economic base of the British East India Company. Established in 1709, the East India Company derived over ninety-percent of its profits from the sale of tea. However, by 1772, due to severe mismanagement, the company was in desperate need of a bailout. The company directors looked to Parliament for relief. Parliament’s response was the Tea Act, through which the East India Company was given exclusive rights to ship tea to America without paying import duties and to sell it through their agents to American retailers. American merchants who had for years purchased tea from non-British sources (Dutch tea was a particular favorite of New Englanders) faced the prospect of financial ruin.

Massachusetts immediately opposed the act and began to organize resistance. On November 29, 1773, the tea ship Dartmouth arrived at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston. Three days later, the Beaver and the Eleanor arrived at the same wharf. Bostonians demanded that Governor Hutchinson order the three ships back to England. On December 16, 1773, the owner of the Dartmouth apparently agreed and went to Hutchinson to beg him to let the ships return to England. Hutchinson refused, and at approximately six o’clock that evening, some 150 men and boys disguised as Indians marched to the three ships, boarded them and dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.


Meanwhile, as tempers boiled over in Boston, the citizens of Lexington assembled three days prior to the Boston Tea Party to discuss the unfolding events. The matter was referred to the town’s committee of correspondence, which quickly drafted an emotional and stinging condemnation of the Tea Act.

"[It] appears that the Enemies of the Rights & Liberties of Americans, greatly disappointed in the Success of the Revenue Act, are seeking to Avail themselves of New, & if possible, Yet more detestable Measures to distress, Enslave & destroy us. Not enough that a Tax was laid Upon Teas, which should be Imported by Us, for the Sole Purpose of Raising a revenue to support Taskmasters, Pensioners, &c., in Idleness and Luxury; But by a late Act of Parliament, to Appease the wrath of the East India Company, whose Trade to America had been greatly clogged by the operation of the Revenue Acts, Provision is made for said Company to export their teas to America free and discharged from all Duties and Customs in England, but liable to all the same Rules, Regulations, Penalties & Forfeitures in America, as are Provided by the Revenue Act . . . Not to say anything of the Gross Partiality herein discovered in favour of the East India Company, and to the Injury & oppression of Americans; . . . we are most especially alarmed, as by these Crafty Measures of the Revenue Act is to be Established, and the Rights and Liberties of Americans forever Sapped & destroyed. These appear to Us to be Sacrifices we must make, and these the costly Pledges that must be given Up into the hands of the Oppressor. The moment we receive this detested Article, the Tribute will be established upon Us . . . Once admit this subtle, wicked Ministerial Plan to take place, once permit this Tea . . . to be landed, received and vended . . . the Badge of our slavery is fixed, the Foundation of ruin is surely laid. "

The committee also issued six resolves pledging to preserve and protect the constitutional rights that Parliament had put into jeopardy, to boycott any teas "sent out by the East India Company, or that shall be imported subject to a duty imposed by Act of Parliament," to treat as enemies anyone found aiding in the landing, selling or using of tea from the East India Company, and to treat the merchants of the East India Company with contempt. Finally, the town expressed its gratitude to Boston for its undertaking in the name of liberty, and pledged

"We are ready and resolved to concur with them in every rationale Measure that may be Necessary for the Preservation or Recovery of our Rights and Liberties as Englishmen and Christians; and we trust in God That, should the State of Our Affairs require it, We shall be ready to Sacrifice our Estates and everything dear in Life, Yea and Life itself, in support of the common Cause."

Upon completion, the Town of Lexington with a unanimous vote adopted the resolves. Immediately afterwards, an additional resolve was passed, warning the residents "That if any Head of a Family in this Town, or any Person, shall from this time forward; & until the Duty taken off, purchase any Tea, Use or consume any Tea in their Famelies [sic], such person shall be looked upon as an Enemy to this town & to this Country, and shall by this Town be treated with Neglect & Contempt."

That evening, the residents of Lexington gathered all tea supplies and burned them. According to the December 16, 1773 edition of the Massachusetts Spy "We are positively informed that the patriotic inhabitants of Lexington unanimously resolved against against the use of Bohea tea of all sorts, Dutch or English importation; and to manifest the sincerity of their resolution, they brought together every ounce contained in the town, and committed it to one common bonfire."

Lexington was not the only Massachusetts town to protest via tea burning. Evidence suggests Newburyport also undertook a similar demonstration. However, this seaport’s method of protest was far more reserved and somewhat unusual in comparison to Lexington.

According to the December 4, 1773 edition of the Essex Packet and Merrimack Journal, "notifications were posted up in all parts of the town" detailing a proposal to block the landing of tea in Newburyport with "a united and forceful resistance." However, no attempt to unload tea in Newburyport was ever made.

On December 9th, the citizens of the town "selected a committee of prominent citizens" to craft the town’s position of support for the growing protests in Boston. According to town records, the committee ultimately pledged "[we] are Determined to give them all the Assistance in our power even at the Risque of our Lives & Fortunes." The next week, a town meeting was held "to consider the serious condition of public affairs." After some debate the citizens voted to assist the residents in Boston "with utmost Endeavors."

When word reached Newburyport of the destruction of tea in Boston, yet another town meeting was convened. Ultimately the town "voted unanimously to address the Boston committee in its strongest language yet."

However, Newburyport did not move to destroy its own stock of tea until approximately January 17, 1774. According to a report printed in the January 26, 1774 edition of the Essex Journal "A large quantity of the forementioned pernicious stuff was consumed here last week; in order to imitate at the same time both Boston and Charlestown. It was done by Fire and Water; and so general was the spirit, that all ranks and degrees of people, high and low, rich and poor, Whig and Tory, agreed in the affair."




If the above statement was the entirety of the account one would conclude the residents of Newburyport gathered most of the tea in town and collectively destroyed it in a massive bonfire.  However, this was not the case.  It appears Newburyport’s tea protests were actually private in nature.  According to the same newspaper account the protest "was done not in in the manner of some others, on the wharves and the public streets, but by each one under own roof, and, as if by a general agreement about the same time."

Why was Newburyport’s tea burning private while Lexington’s was out in the open?  Honestly….we don’t know.  However, we suspect Newburyport residents may have believed the act of publicly destroying tea may have been too offensive and radical for their liking.

Update 11/14/17:  We were contacted this morning by Newburyport historian Jack Santos.  After reading our blog post, he had a very interesting (and probably correct) take on the January 26, 1774 article.  Jack suggests that the article was actually a satirical piece mocking Newburyport for its inaction during the tea crisis.  The statements of everyone participating in the "protest", the event taking place "at the same time" and destruction of the tea "by fire and water" were actually references to the traditional "tea time" and the making and consumption of the drink.


Naturally this raises a question destined for research... did Newburyport even have its own tea protest??

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"True Sons of Liberty Throughout the World" - The Toasts of Newburyport

If you have ever joined Untapped History for one of its historic walking tours of Newburyport, you would have concluded the tour with a sampling of alcoholic drinks from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  During the sampling, it’s likely Alex and Eric (the “nerds”) would have invited you to partake in a series of historically accurate toasts documentable to the American Revolution.  

The nerds of Untapped History tell us they relied upon period accounts and records from New York and Pennsylvania to come up with the toasts they offer.  However, thanks to the Newburyport Independent Marines, Untapped History may be introducing a series of period correct toasts directly tied to 18th Century Newburyport.

As Untapped History has previously written, the Newburyport Marine Society was founded on November 5, 1772 by ship captains and merchants.  In September, 1774, the members formed their own military unit known as the “Independent Marines”.  Shortly thereafter, the organization was on a wartime footing in preparation for a conflict with England.  

The September 21, 1774 edition of Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet details some of the early activities of the Independent Marines.  “Wednesday last the independent military society in this town met at the town-house compleat in arms and ammunition: After having been reviewed by their officers chosen by the society, they performed the manual exercise and filings, after which they marched to the Mason's arms tavern, and there performed the evolutions; and from thence marched to Mr. William Tell's (a gentleman that has always not only talked, but acted upon the genuine principles of patriotism), who had prepared an elegant entertainment for the society; after spending a few very agreeable hours with a number of gentlemen (whom Mr. 'Feel had invited) in conversation, repast, and drinking a number of loyal and patriotic toasts, the society again rally, march to the town-house, and after firing three vollies lodged their arms. All was conducted with the greatest order and good humour.”

The nerds of Untapped History recently discovered a second account describing the Independent Marines’ wartime preparation.  The report appeared in the October 26, 1774 edition of the Essex Gazette.  While the article describes the unit performing complex military maneuvers, including “different modes of firing”, it is notable that the unit also sponsored a post drill social gathering that included no less than twenty four toasts.

Here is a copy of the article which details the toasts made:



The two dozen toasts paid homage to a variety of “patriotic” individuals and organization, including Committees of Correspondence, Bostonians, John Hancock, Josiah Quincy and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

We look forward to seeing Untapped History introducing these Newburyport specific toasts to their tours.  Hopefully the guests will be able to keep up!

Monday, October 23, 2017

"With a Pounce Like Great Guns" - The Earthquake of 1727



New Englanders were a superstitious lot in the 17th and 18th Centuries. One natural event that occasionally terrified Yankees were earthquakes. Most, if not all, colonists understood earthquakes were a natural occurrence, but saw them as part of a divine intervention by God. According to one 17th century account, "it pleased God suddenly to raise a vehement earthquake coming with a shrill clap of thunder, issuing as is supposed out of the east, which shook the earth and the foundations of the house in a very violent manner to our great amazement and wonder, wherefore taking notice of so great and strange a hand of God's providence, we were desirous of leaving it on record to the view of after ages to the intent that all might take notice of Almighty God and fare his name." 

Of course, what colonists did not know at the time was Massachusetts sat on its own fault line. Worse, the geographic "hot spot" for this fault line was located between Cape Ann and Newburyport.

In the evening hours of October 29, 1727 (Julian Calendar), an earthquake struck Massachusetts. Scientists disagree as to the exact epicenter, but most have narrowed it down to three possible locations: Amesbury, Newbury or off the coast of Hampton, New Hampshire. It is believed that when the earthquake struck, it measured between 5.3 and 6.0 on the modern Richter Scale.

One Newbury resident wrote that the earthquake began "with a pounce like great guns." According to Cotton Mather "The night that followed the 29th of October, was a night whereto New England had never, in the memory of man, seen the like. The air never more calm, the sky never more fair; everything in all imaginable tranquility; but about a quarter of an hour before 11, there was heard in Boston, passing from one end of the town to the other, a horrid rumbling like the noise of many coaches together driving on the paved stones with the utmost rapidity. But it was attended with a most awful trembling of the earth, which did heave and shake so as to rocque the houses, and cause here and there, the falling of some smaller things, both within doors and without. It cannot be imagined but that it gave an uncommon concern unto all the inhabitants, and even a degree of consternation unto very many of them. The first shock, which was the most violent, was followed with several others, and some repetition of the noise, at sundry times, pretty distinct from one another. The number of them is not entirely agreed; but at least four or five are allowed for; the last of which was between five and six of the clock in the morning. It extended for scores of miles, west and south. . . . What added unto the terrors of it, were the terrible flames of light in the atmosphere, which accompanied it. . . .The vessels on the coast were also made sensible of it by shivering that seized on them."

An article from the November 3, 1727 edition of Boston’s Weekly News-Letter, described the shocking event in great detail. "The night after the last Lord's Day about 40 minutes after 10, in a calm & serene hour, the town was ... [suddenly] extremely surprised with the most violent shock of an earthquake that has been known among us. It came with a loud noise like thunder. The earth reel'd & trembled to a great degree. The houses rock'd & crackl'd as if they were tumbling into ruins. Many of they inhabitants were wakened out of their sleep, with the utmost astonishment: and others affrighted run into the streets for safety. Thro' the Goodness of GOD, the shock continued but about 2 or 3 minutes: and tho' some damage was done in the houses; yet none of the people received any bodily injury. For several times in the morning, there were heard some distant rumblings; and some fainter shocks were felt. But since that, the Earth, has been quiet; and tho' the minds of the people are yet greatly and justly affected."

In Newbury, the quake left large fissures in the ground, while the inhabitants described the roaring of the earthquake as similar to a massive firing of cannon. Minister Matthias Plant noted "Many chimneys were thrown down, stone walls fell, springs destroyed and others opened . . . it was a terrible, sudden and amazing earthquake." 

In a sermon given by Hampton’s Reverend Nathaniel Gookin, the minister declared "The shake was very hard, and was attended with a terrible noise, something like thunder. The houses trembled as if they were falling; divers chimneys were cracked and some had their tops broken off. It was especially so in the south parish, where the hardest shake seemed to be on the hill, where the house of God stands. Three houses on that hill had their chimneys broken, one of which was the house of the Reverend Mr. Whipple. When the shake was beginning, some persons observed a flash of light at their windows, and one or two saw streams of light running on the earth; the flame seemed to them to be of a bluish color. These flashes, no doubt, broke out of the earth; otherwise it is probable, they would have been seen more generally, especially by those who were abroad. The sea was observed to roar in an unusual manner. The earth broke open, near the south bounds of the town (as it did in divers places in Newbury) and cast up a very fine bluish sand. At the place of the eruption, there now (above two months after) continually issues out considerable quantities of water; and for about a rod around it, the ground is so soft, that a man can’t tread upon it without throwing brush or some other thing to bear him up. It is indeed in meadow ground, but before the earthquake, it was not so soft but that men might freely walk upon it. A spring of water, which had run freely for fourscore years, and was never known to freeze, was much sunk by the earthquake, and frozen afterwards like any standing water. There were divers other shocks the same night; yea, the sound was heard, and sometimes the shake felt every day for a fortnight after…"

The earthquake was felt as far north as Maritime Canada and as far south as Connecticut. The most severe damage was along the New Hampshire and Massachusetts coastlines.

The 1727 earthquake couldn’t have come at a worse time. New Englanders had experienced an abnormally hot summer coupled with a drought. In September New England was battered by a series of violent Nor’easters. Many concluded the sins of New England had incurred God’s wrath. As the Reverend Gookin reflected "All of us saw a necessity of looking to God for his favor and protection; and I would hope that many did, not only look to God in that time of their distress, but did truly and heartily return to him. Many are now asking the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. They say, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant, not to be forgotten."

A few New Englanders rejected the religious underpinnings of a vengeful God and instead put forth various scientific explanations for the quake. Some speculated the September storms had triggered the earthquake. Boston minister Thomas Foxcroft suggested that underground caverns filled with flammable vapors were exploding, thus causing the earthquakes. Thomas Prince, another Boston minister, believed earthquakes were caused by underground vacuums. Of course, Marblehead’s John Barnard was perhaps the closest when he theorized that the surface of the earth was shifting in response to subterranean shocks.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"The Savage in Man is Never Quite Eradicated" - The New England Vampire Panic

In the late 18th century, a bizarre panic set in throughout rural New England and continued almost until 1900.  Known today as the “New England Vampire Panic”, the century long fear appears to be in response to outbreaks of “consumption”, known today as tuberculosis.  The first known reference to an American vampire scare appeared in the June 1784 edition of the  Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. Moses Holmes warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that primarily attacked the lungs.   The infection spreads easily via a sneezing, coughing, speaking, or spitting.  As a result, the infection could easily pass among a family living in close quarters.  When one family member died of consumption, other members were often infected and gradually lost their health.

In the 19th century, the causes of consumption were unknown.  However, many New England residents believed that this was due to the deceased sufferer draining the life from other family members. Fearing that their dead family members may come back to life, many bodies were exhumed to see if any showed signs of being a vampire. The corpse was deemed to be feeding on the living if it was determined to be unusually fresh, especially if the heart or other organs contained liquid blood.



After the culprit was identified, there were a number of proposed ways to stop the attacks. The most benign of these was simply to turn the body over in its grave. In other cases, families would burn the "fresh" organs and rebury the body. Occasionally, the body would be decapitated. Affected family members would also inhale smoke from the burned organs or consume the ashes in a further attempt to cure the consumption and internal organs ritually burned to stop the "vampire" from attacking the local population and to prevent the spread of the disease.  In some areas of New England, participants would burn the heart of the deceased.  

The odd rituals were not simply a family affair.  Often whole towns would participate.  An account of a vampire ritual in Manchester, Connecticut noted hundreds of people appeared for such an event.  “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton . . . It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Many 19th Century New Englanders, including those in Newburyport, were justifiably skeptical of the practice.  One newpaper noted the practice was an "old superstition" and a "curious idea".  Another opined “we seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian” In 1859, Henry David Thoreau grimly noted “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont--who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”   

What caused this multi generational fear?  The Boston Daily Globe suggested “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”  European newspapers suggested the phenomenon was the result of copycat killings inspired by “modern novels”.  Somewhat humorously, a reporter for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition.  

Historians suggest the concept of “vampires” was likely introduced by German immigrants or Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution.  Desperate for a way to explain and combat the deadly disease, many New Englanders simply adopted the erroneous belief that the undead were the root cause of their misery.

The last recorded vampire ritual was near the end of the 19tth Century.  By then, the unusual panic caught the attention of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and possibly influenced some of their literary works.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Whipped Not Exceeding Ten Stripes" - Attempts to Curb the Violence of Boston's Pope's Night

Each year in 18th Century New England, November 5th was celebrated as Guy Fawkes' Day.  The holiday marked the 1605 disruption of the “Gunpowder Plot”.  


During colonial times, the annual commemoration became known as “Pope's Night” and quickly evolved into an anti-Catholic celebration. Effigies of the Devil, Pope, and government officials were often fought over by rival mobs and eventually burned in a huge bonfire.  


By the mid-18th century, violence had become an established part of the Pope Night tradition in Boston. Residents attacked each other with clubs and brickbats, often resulting in serious injuries and even death. Isaiah Thomas recalled that "altho' persons were seldom killed, yet broken heads were not infrequent".


Another resident complained in a letter to the Boston Evening Post “The rudest and lowest Sailors out of Boston ... fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlasses, in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire ... what Madness must seize the two Mobs, united Brethren, even as they would appear against Popery, to fall upon each other, break each other's Bones, or dash one another's Brains out!”


Naturally, Boston's elites were appalled by the rowdy festivities of Pope’s Night and described the revelers as "rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white".  Many residents urged authorities to crack down on the lawless behavior.  In response, in 1748, Boston justices of the peace announced that "whereas sundry persons have heretofore gone about the streets ... armed wh. clubs & demanding money of ye inhabitants and breaking ye windows of ye who refuse it", constables would be dispatched to keep the peace. In 1753 the Massachusetts General Court resolved that "all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies" were prohibited from  "carrying pageants and other shews through the streets and lanes of the town of Boston and other towns of this province, abusing and insulting the inhabitants".  Following an accident on Pope Night in 1764 which resulted in the death of a local boy, the "Sheriff, Justices, and Officers of the Militia" were ordered to clamp down on Pope’s Night activities.  




Of course, authorities also attempted to discourage extortion of residents by Boston youths. In the days leading up to Pope’s Night, young boys from the North End and South End of Boston would often go door to door ringing bells and begging for money to support their faction's activities.  If unsuccessful, the boys would often resort to threats of violence to secure payment.  In response, the Massachusetts General Court 1769 Riot Act imposed penalties for shaking down wealthy residents:  “Be it enacted, That if any Persons being more than three in Number, and being armed all or either of them with Sticks, Clubs, or any kind of Weapons, or disguised with Vizards (so-called) or painted or discolored Faces, or being in any other Manner disguised shall assemble together having Imagery or Pageantry for a public Shew, Shall by Menaces of otherwise exact, require, demand, or ask, any Money or other Thing of Value from any of the Inhabitants or other Person in the Streets, Lanes, of any Town within this Province ... shall for each Offense forfeit and pay the Sum of Forty Shillings, or suffer imprisonment not exceeding one month; or if the Offender shall be a Negro Servant, he may be whipped not exceeding Ten Stripes.”


Unfortunately, law enforcement officials were so overwhelmed during Pope’s Night celebrations that they were simply rendered ineffective and irrelevant.  However, in rare instances, offenders were apprehended and prosecuted.   In 1752, a sailor named John Crabb was clubbed to death on Pope’s Night by Thomas Chubb and a slave named Abraham. Chubb was arrested, tried and convicted.  Afterwards, he was branded on the hand and sentenced to a year in prison for his part in the killing. It is unknown what happened to Abraham.


Even General Washington attempted to discourage the destructive behavior of Pope’s Night.  During the Siege of Boston the commander ordered “As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

Ironically, it was time itself that led to the decline in celebrations.  The last Pope’s Night in Boston was in 1776.  Newburyport ceased celebrating the event after 1778.  Salem continued its celebrations until 1817.  Portsmouth appears to be the lone holdout...continuing its Pope’s Night celebrations well into the 1890s.