WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

” we both of us haveing been talking and wishing for you”

A newsy letter from ABIGAIL ADAMS to her sister MARY CRANCH in Salem. Abigail has one child, a daughter Nabby, and Mary has a daughter Betsy.
Happy to be home after a visit to Weymouth Abigail is feeling a little “lonesome” even though she is welcomed back by her servants. I love the way Abigail, eager for news, interrupts her writing when husband John returns home with “News papers.” Expressing her sorrow over the absence of Mary and her husband, she is happy that her sister ELIZABETH SHAW has stopped for a visit, albeit a short one.

Braintree Jan’ry. 31 1767My Dear Sister
I have just returnd from Weymouth, where I have been for a week past. It seems lonesome here, for My Good Man [John Adams] is at Boston; after haveing been in a large family, for a week, to come and set down alone is very solitary; tho we have seven in our family, yet four of them being domestick when my partner is absent and my Babe a sleep, I am still left alone. It gives one a pleasing Sensation my Dear Sister, after haveing been absent a little while to see one’s self gladly received upon a return, even by one’s Servants. I do not know that I was ever more sensibly affected with it than I was to Day; I could behold joy sparkle in the Eyes of every one of them as I enterd the House, whilst they unaffectedly express’d it some to me and some to my Babe.—One runs to the Door, O Mam, I am glad to see you come home again, how do you do? Whilst an other catches the child, and says Dear creature I was affraid she would forget me, and a third hovers round and crys Nab, do you know Polly, and will you come to her?—These little instances shew their regard, and they endear them to us.
Thus far I wrote last fryday. But my good Man arriving with the News papers, put an end to writing any further at that time. However I have now reassumed my pen, tho I am something tierd, haveing dined Nine Gentlemen to Day. When I set down with such a friendly circle, I always look round and wish that the company was not incompleat by the absence of two Dear Friend’s. Here now sets our Sister Elizabeth [Shaw], and we both of us haveing been talking and wishing for you. She will leave me to morrow, tho She came but to Day, and has not been here since She came from Salem, before now. Father, the Doctor and Mr. Wibird (who made three of the company to Day) tell me that they all of them design for Salem to morrow. I know how rejoiced you will be to see them. I feel glad for you, but methinks so many good Friends ought not to go together—if they went but one at a time I should chance to hear three times from you which would as Sarah Cotton used to say make me three times glad.—I sent your Camblet* to Unkle Smiths last week, and hope it has reach’d you before now. The coulour I know you will not like. I do not think Dawson used me well, tis a discourageing thing, when one has tried to have a thing look well and done their part towards it, then to have it ruined in the dying or weaveing, is very provoking, but if Mr. Cranch dislikes it, I would not have you think yourselves under any oblagation to take it, for I shall not be any ways troubled if you send it back again.—I have a couple of Books, which when I have read thro I design to send to you, for your perusal—they are called Sermons to young women. . . . My Letter will be a mess medly in Spite of any efforts to the contarary—for from Sermons I must desend to Cards and tell you I should be glad, Mr. Cranch would send me a pair**. Nabby sends her Love to her cousin Betsy and would be very glad of her company, to tend Miss Doll, who is a very great favorite of theirs.—I send you a little yarn for a pair of Stockings and a little flax for some thread—because I know you seek wool and flax, and work willingly with your hands. Accept of them with my sincere regards to you and yours From your affectionate Sister,
Abigail AdamsP.S. You must burn this for it is most dismal writing.

* Camblet is a woven fabric that might have originally been made of camel or goat’s hair, later chiefly of goat’s hair and silk, or of wool and cotton. It is unclear whether Abigail had sent the fabric or an article of clothing made from the fabric. Shown is a pumpkin-colored dress made of camblet.
**Cards are used in combing wool. Mr. Cranch was a cardmaker as well as a watchmaker.

“Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 31 January 1767,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0048. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 60–62.] The illustration is of a 1770s pumpkin-colored dress made of camblet by Goldenhind on Easy.

“that quilted contrivance”

The correspondence between ABIGAIL SMITH ADAMS, MARY SMITH CRANCH, and ELIZABETH SMITH SHAW/PEABODY reveals the strong bond that existed between the Smith sisters. Mary was the eldest, followed by Abigail, and Elizabeth “Betsy.” Mary was living in Salem Massachusetts in 1766 while Abigail was in Braintree. The two were too far apart to be able to see each other frequently and they sorely missed the visits and chats they used to have. Mary Cranch had a daughter Betsy and Abigail had her first child Abigail called Nabby. Mary’s husband Richard had been ill and Abigail hopes she is not too “cast down”, that is depressed, by it. The letter ends with an interesting request from Abigail.

Dear Sister
I heard to Day that the Doctor had a Letter from Mr. Cranch, and that he was still very Ill, poor Man. I am grieved for him, and for you my dear Sister, who I know share with him in all his troubles. It seem[s] worse to me when I hear you are unwell now than it used to, when I could go and see you. Tis a hard thing to be weaned from any thing we Love, time nor distance has not yet had that Effect upon me. I think of you ten times where I used to once. I feel more concern’d for you, and more anxious about you—perhaps I am too much so. I would not have you cast down my Sister. Sufficient to the Day is the Evil thereof. . . . Tho things may not appear so agreable and encourageing at present, perhaps the Scale may be turned. Mr. Cranch may, and I hope he will have his Health better, and we may all have occasion to rejoice in Each others prosperity.
I send my little Betsy some worsted for a pair of Stockings to go to meeting in. You must remember my Love to Mr. Cranch. Mr. Adams would be very glad if he would write to him, and I should take it kindly if you could write to me by Father, and let me know how you all are. I should be obliged if you would Lend me that quilted contrivance Mrs. Fuller made for Betsy. Nabby Bruses her forehead sadly she is fat as a porpouse and falls heavey. My paper is full and obliges me to bid you good Night. Yours,
A Adams

The “quilted contrivance” that Abigail speaks of is a pudding cap. This was a padded cap tied onto the heads of toddlers beginning to walk. It was intended to protect their heads from injury by falls. It was commonly thought that frequent bumps on the head would turn children’s brains to mush— as in pudding, thus the phrase “pudding cap.” Small children were often called by the endearing term ” little pudding heads.”

“Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, 13 October 1766,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0045. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 1, December 1761 – May 1776, ed. Lyman H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 56–57.] A glossary of children’s clothing and the above image can be found on the Colonial Williamburg SITE.

Hercules Revisited

Back in January of 2016 I posted two pieces about a slave named Hercules who was George Washington’s cook for many years both in Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. See them here and here. There was an additional post about Hercules in 2017. Hercules “absconded” in 1797 and could not be located although Washington made attempts to recover him, as did his widow.

This portrait, supposedly of Hercules, appeared in the post. Thought to be by Gilbert Stuart it is in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, a strange place for an artifact associated with George Washington. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would Washington have wanted a portrait of the enslaved man who was his chef? Slaves had appeared in other paintings of Washington and his family but they were always subordinate characters. Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? He was quite the dandy and made a fair amount of money by selling leftovers from Washington meals.

A recent post by J.L. Bell brought new information about the portrait to my attention. Experts have come to the conclusion that both the subject and the artist have been misrepresented. Although the painting definitely dates to the 1700s, on careful examination the technique and details are not typical of Gilbert Stuart. As for the hat in the portrait, it was assumed to be the toque that chefs wore, but the toque in fact did not appear until the 1820s. The hat in the portrait is now thought to resemble the kind of headdress worn by men on certain islands in the West Indies, as seen in paintings by Agostino Brunias of Dominican Creoles in that era.

This article by Craig LeBan provides more information on Hercules. It turns out that Hercules as a teenager was sold to George Washington by a neighbor who owed him money. The neighbor’s name was John Posey. It was common for enslaved workers to take the last name of their owners, so Hercules’ last name was likely Posey. Since the last known location for Hercules was New York City, researchers checked death notices there and found a Hercules Posey, formerly of Virginia, who lived on Orange Street and died in 1812 at the age of 64.

It seems fair to conclude that the man whose death is recorded above is Washington’s cook. But the mystery surrounding the portrait still remains. Who is the man in the famous portrait and who painted it?

posted April 29th, 2019 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Hercules, New York, Stuart, Gilbert, Washington, George

” . . . in some points I am very obstinate”

Although MARY “POLLY” HEWSON lost her husband in 1774 and was left to raise her three children on her own (see previous post), in that same year Polly’s aunt died leaving her a small inheritance that eventually when it was settled enabled her to live in relative comfort. “I shall be rich enough to indulge myself and my children in any occasional expences that will essentially gratify me or benefit them.”
With all hope of reconciliation between Britain and her American colonies abandoned, Polly’s friend and mentor Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1775. The United States, at war with Britain, sent Franklin to Paris in 1777 to seek French aid and negotiate a treaty. Polly and Franklin continued to correspond as best they could during wartime, Polly forwarding news about Franklin’s friends in England.

My letters are a kind of private newspaper, I give the articles just as they happen to occur without regard to order or connection. I fancy this kind will be most pleasing to you, as it will not require an answer, and will make you feel somewhat like having your English friends about you.

Of course Polly described her children’s progress. She had a mind of her own and did not hesitate to go against custom when it seemed sensible to do so. She refused to dress her daughter in stays for example.

Contrary to fashion, and consequently to the opinion of most people (you know in some points I am very obstinate) I keep her without stays, by which means her shape retains its natural grace; being unconfined, and her motions free, her health too is preserved.

In January 1783, Benjamin Franklin wrote to Polly about the end of the war:

At length we are in Peace, God be praised; & long, very long may it continue. All Wars are Follies, very expensive & very mischievous ones. When will Mankind be convinc’d of this, and agree to settle their Differences by Arbitration? Were they to do it even by the Cast of a Dye, it would be better than by Fighting & destroying each other.

Franklin invited Polly and her children to spend the winter of 1784-85 with him in his residence in Passy. Much to his delight she accepted. Franklin loved small children and enjoyed their company. He wrote to her after she and the children had departed:

…My love to William and Thomas and Eliza, and tell them I miss their cheerful prattle. . . . I have found it very triste breakfasting alone, and sitting alone, and without any tea in the evening.

Polly was uncertain about where her children would be most likley to meet with success. Franklin offered this advice.

With regard to the future Establishment of your Children, which you say you want to consult me about, I am still of Opinion that America will afford you more Chances of doing it well than England. All the means of good Education are plenty there, the general Manners more simple & pure, Temptations to Vice and Folly fewer, the Profits of Industry in Business as great and sure as in England; and there is one Advantage more which your Command of Money will give you there, I mean the laying out a Part of your Fortune in new Land, now to be had extreamly cheap, but which must be increas’d immensely in Value before your Children come of Age, by the rapid Population of the Country. If you should arrive there while I live, you know you may depend on every Assistance in my Power to afford you, and I think my Children will have a Pleasure too in serving their Father’s Friend. I do not offer it as a Motive that you will be much esteem’d and respected there, for that you are & must be every where; but give me leave to flatter myself that my being made happier in my last Years by your Neighbourhood and Society, may be some Inducement to you.

Hewson did relocate to America with her children and lived in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin lent her some money, $185.30, in January of 1787 to help her get settled. During Franklin’s last illness, when his pain eased, Polly read to him from Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Franklin died in 1790, age 84.

Polly’s children did indeed do well in the United States. William Jr. obtained some land and became a farmer, Thomas became a medical doctor, and Elizabeth married an American. Franklin’s “surrogate daughter” Polly died the 14th of October 1795 aged 56.

“To Benjamin Franklin from Mary Hewson, 8 September 1776,” “To Benjamin Franklin from Mary Hewson, 23 December 1781,” “From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Hewson, 27 January 1783,” “From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Hewson, 7 September 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-22-02-0355. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 22, March 23, 1775, through October 27, 1776, ed. William B. Willcox. New Haven and London:: Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 287-289, 594–596, 67–68, 588–590.]
Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Viking Press, 1938), 638, 738, 776.
Autograph letter signed (“B. Franklin”) to Mary “Polly” Hewson, Passy, 13 April 1782.

“Our Family here is in great Distress. . . “

For MARY “POLLY” STEVENSON HEWSON 1774 was a bad year. Her two little boys contracted smallpox; they recovered. But her husband of only four years died leaving Polly pregnant with a third child. Doctor William Hewson had constructed a theater in the Craven Street house where he lectured on anatomy to students. At the same time he was carrying on his own research to better understand the human body, particularly its blood and lymphatic systems. Dissecting corpses was one way to increase his knowledge. Hewson died of septicaemia contracted from this hazardous work. He was only 34.

In 1998 when conservation work had begun at 36 Craven Street to create the museum that is there today a bone pit was discovered under what had been the garden during Hewson’s two-year residency. Some 1200 pieces of human and animal bones were found from a dozen or so bodies, including some children. There were saw marks and scalpel scars on many; holes had been drilled in a skull with some sort of trepanning device. Cadavers were difficult to come by; grave robbers delivered some, and there were bodies of unclaimed persons and of those executed. The practice of procuring and selling cadavers was illegal until 1832. Rather than transport the remnants of skeletons and bury them elsewhere, risking discovery, Hewson apparently decided to bury them on site. Benjamin Franklin, scientist that he was, almost certainly knew what Hewson was doing; indeed he probably visited Hewson’s laboratory to see the work in progress.

Franklin wrote to his wife Deborah in Philadelphia:

Our Family here is in great Distress. Poor Mrs. Hewson has lost her Husband, and Mrs. Stevenson her Son-in-law. He died last Sunday Morning of a Fever which baffled the Skill of our best Physicians. He was an excellent young Man, ingenious, industrious, useful, and belov’d by all that knew him. She is left with two young Children, and a third soon expected. He was just established in a profitable growing Business, with the best Prospects of bringing up his young Family advantageously.

For more on the bone pit and for the Franklin quote see HERE and HERE.


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