Mary Palmer, born into a genteel family fallen on hard times, was about fourteen years old when she was hired for a year, in 1789, by Elbridge Gerry and his wife Ann to assist in tending their four-month-old baby. Gerry had been elected to the newly formed Congress, and Mary was to travel with the family from Boston to New York City, the nation’s capital.
Now you must bear in mind that this was the darkest time in my father’s life. . . . He . . . was clerk in a store with a very small salary; my mother had an infant in her arms not a year old . . . and five other children besides myself and Joe, who was gone to sea. You will understand the idea of my going where I should be appreciated and introduced to some of the first people . . . we were all persuaded to think it was a fine thing. . . .
Aunt Kate came at the appointed time and took me and my little trunk to Cambridge, and left me. Mr. Gerry . . . received me with his wonted suavity and preceded me into a room and presented me to a handsome lady saying, ‘Here, wife, Miss Hunt has brought your little girl.’ She turned to me and said, ‘How do you do?’ with a pleasant smile, but coldly; turning to a young woman who seemed to be assisting her packing for the journey asked her to show me up to the nursery, and where to put my things. All this was so entirely different from what I expected that my heart sank within me. I saw I was considered a servant. . . . I had long known, that my father and Mr. Gerry had been intimate friends in the days of our prosperity, and foolishly expected to be received and treated like the child of an old friend in adversity. . . . I went with a heavy heart to the nursery, where was a woman with the baby in her lap, and a little four-year-old girl playing about the room with her doll. The woman spoke kindly to me . . . and soon asked me to take the baby, as she had a great deal to do, as the family went on Monday. This was Saturday. I could tend the baby; that was what I had done ever since I could remember anything, and took it. I could scarcely restrain my tears, I could not speak, but walked the room with my little charge, till Mrs. Gerry came and told me to go, with the young woman who entered with her, to the hall where their tea was ready and she would nurse the babe the while; I suspected this was the servants’ hall, and would not go, saying I did not wish for any tea. They urged me, but I persisted, and went supperless to bed that night. Oh, what would I not have given to be at home where I had always been loved and petted more than I deserved and here everyone looked cold and strange towards me; no doubt I behaved very badly and no one could like me. . . .
The next morning I felt calmer, but dreadful homesick! Again I was told to go to the hall for breakfast. I went, and was surprised to see a large room with a long table set, surrounded by domestics of every age and appearance, only they were all white people. . . . The woman who had the baby, when I first went to the nursery, sat at the head of the table and presided over the coffee and tea, and a middle-aged man sat at the foot; these . . . were the housekeeper and steward, who were to take care of all things till master came back, and appeared decent people, but the rest were the most vulgar rude set I ever had seen, both in manners and language. I took a little breakfast, and left the table more heartsick than ever.
The above passage can be found on pages 210-211 of In the Words of Women. The illustration of Elbridge Gerry is a detail of an oil painting by James Bogle, 1861, after a portrait by John Vanderlyn; it is in Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia. Gerry became the fifth vice president of the United States, serving under James Madison. Mary Palmer married Royall Tyler, a playwright and jurist, who was almost twenty years her senior. The couple had eleven children. In his youth Tyler was a womanizer and led a profligate life. He courted Nabby Adams but, pressured by her parents, she rejected him.