A “fine child may be producd in less than five months…”

The young lawyer Royall Tyler had become acquainted with “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of Abigail and John, when he was a boarder in the household of Mary Cranch, Abigail’s sister. The two fell in love but Nabby’s parents had reservations about Tyler. Abigail whisked Nabby off to Europe with her in the spring of 1784 to join John, and the relationship did not survive. Nabby married Colonel William Stephens Smith in London in 1786.

In September of that year, Mary Cranch had some interesting news to convey to her sister regarding Tyler who had moved from the Cranch household to that of Joseph and Elizabeth Hunt Palmer in Braintree, Massachusetts. She was not a little surprised at the consequence of that move.

We live in an age of discovery. One of our acquaintance has discover’d that a full grown, fine child may be produc’d in less than five months as well as in nine, provided the mother should meet with a small fright a few hours before its Birth. You may laugh but it is true. The Ladys Husband is so well satisfied of it that he does not seem to have the least suspicion of its being otherways, but how can it be? for he left this part of the country the beginning of september last, and did not return till the Sixth of April, and his wife brought him this fine Girl the first day of the present Month. Now the only difficulty Seems to be, whether it is the product of a year, or twenty weeks. She affirms it is the Latter, but the learned in the obstretick Art Say that it is not possible. The child is perfectly large and Strong. I have seen it my sister: it was better than a week old tis true, but a finer Baby I never Saw. It was the largest she ever had her Mother says. I thought So myself, but I could not say it. It was a matter of So much Speculatin that I was determin’d to see it. I went with trembling Steps, and could not tell whether I should have courage enough to see it till I had Knock’d at the Door. I was ask’d to walk up, by, and was follow’d by her Husband. The Lady was seting by the side of the Bed suckling her Infant and not far from her—with one sliper off, and one foot just step’d into the other. I had not seen him since last May. He look’d, I cannot tell you how. He did not rise from his seat, perhaps he could not. I spoke to him and he answer’d me, but hobble’d off as quick as he could without saying any more to me. There appear’d the most perfect harmony between all three. She was making a cap and observ’d that She had nothing ready to put her child in as she did not expect to want them so Soon. I made no reply—I could not. I make no remarks. Your own mind will furnish you with sufficient matter for Sorrow and joy, and any other sensations, or I am mistaken.
Adieu yours affectionately

Mary Cranch was clearly implying that Elizabeth Palmer had borne a child fathered by Tyler while her husband, Joseph Pearse Palmer, was away from Boston in 1786. While Abigail was saddened by the behavior of Tyler, whom she had in fact rather liked, it is interesting to note that she placed the blame for the incident entirely on the woman.

In this case it may be difficult to determine which was the Seducer, and I feel more inclined to fix it upon the female than the paramour, at any rate She is more Guilty, in proportion as her obligations to her Husband her children her family & the Religion of which she is a professer are all Scandalized by her and she has sacrificed her Honour her tranquility & her virtue.

Tyler not only bedded Elizabeth Palmer but married her daughter Mary. The pair moved to Vermont and had eleven children. Tyler became a noted jurist and author. His play, The Contrast, was the first American work to be professionally produced and commercially successful.

Cranch’s letter and Abigail’s response are on pages 192-93 of In the Words of Women. The portrait of Nabby by Mather Brown (1785) can be seen at the Adams National Historic Park.

posted November 26th, 2012 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, Childbirth, Courtship, John Adams, Marriage, Scandal


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