“Boston . . . busily employd in communicating the Infection”

Having returned to Cambridge from Concord, HANNAH WINTHROP wrote to her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN in July 1776. She described the condition of her home, the reopening of Harvard, and life in Boston after the British evacuation (pictured) on March 17.

Last Saturday afternoon we went into Boston the first time since our removal from Concord . . . . Our Barrack or Wigwam, or whatever name you may please to give it, when you see it unornamented with broken chairs & unleggd tables with the shatterd Etcetteras, is intirely at your service. . . . we breath as sweet an air as ever Cam [bridge], afforded, the peacefull shades & meandring river conspire to give us delight. The Sons of Harvard who are collected here seem to be as well Settled & as happy as if they had not known an interruption, with zeal they are attending the Philosophic Lectures.

What an unexpected Blessing! the change from the din of arms & the shrill Clarion of war. Come my Friend taste & see if your too much dejected spirits will not revive in this Salubrious Soil. . . .

As to Political matters, Consonant to my natural ingenuity they appear rather gloomy, but the Settlement of these important points I hope an opportunity for, when you make me happy & indulge me with Laying our Political heads together.

The reigning Subject is the Small Pox. Boston has given up its Fears of an invasion & is busily employd in
communicating the Infection. Straw beds & cribs are daily carted into the Town. That ever prevailing Passion of following the Fashion is as Predominant at this time as ever. Men Women & children eagerly Crouding to innoculate is I think as modish, as running away from the Troops of a barbarous George was the last Year. . . .

But ah my Friend I have not mentioned the Loss I have met with which lies near my heart the death of
my dear Friend the good Madam Hancock, A powerfull attachment to this life broken off, you who knew her worth can Lament with me her departure. Ah the incertainty of all Terristrial happiness. . . .
Yours in Affection
Hannah Winthrop

The British forces, threatened by cannon mounted on Dorchester Heights, left Boston in March 1776 for Nova Scotia. Many Loyalists departed as well; some blacks and Native Americans joined them. Those inhabitants who remained faced the scourge of smallpox. The disease had once again become widespread in 1775. George Washington, concerned for his troops, had advised them not to associate with Bostonians leaving the city during the siege. When the British evacuated they left behind their soldiers infected with the disease, which further fueled the outbreak. Washington sent an occupying force of 1,000 troops who had already had smallpox and were therefore immune. Many fearful residents sought to be inoculated, a precaution strongly recommended by Benjamin Franklin, in spite of possibly serious complications. Hannah Winthrop, rather scornfully, termed this surge of interest “modish.” In 1777, Washington ordered that new recruits who had not had smallpox be inoculated. It was one of the most important decisions he made as commander of the Continental Army.

The correspondence between Hannah Winthrop and Mercy Otis Warren is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The letter in this post can be read in its entirety HERE. The illustration of the British evacuation is a German woodcut c. 1776. It is at the Library of Congress. The title page of Zabdiel Boylston’s An Historical Account of the Small-pox Inoculated in New England is from Wikimedia Commons.

“the Charlestown Conflagration”

HANNAH WINTHROP, distressed and heartsick over the treatment of Bostonians by British General Gage after Lexington and Concord, shares her feelings with her friend and long-time correspondent MERCY OTIS WARREN. In a letter of 17 August 1775, Hannah describes the sad plight of the many Boston residents who chose to leave the city during the British occupation. She also alludes to the burning of Charlestown by the British in order to rid it of American snipers during the Battle of Breed’s Hill, known more commonly by the name of the adjacent Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775. The British eventually won the battle in this the first major confrontation between British and American forces, but at a staggering cost: suffering many more casualties—lives lost and soldiers wounded—than the Americans. A Pyrrhic victory.

. . . . my heart Bleeds for the people of Boston my Blood boils with resentment at the Treatment they have met with from Gage. Can anything equal his Barbarity, Turning the poor out of Town without any Support, those persons who were posses of any means of Support Stopped & Searchd, not Sufferd to Carry anything with them? Can anything equal the distress of parents separated from their Children, The tender husband detaind in Cruel Captivity from the Wife of his Bosom she torn with anxiety in fearfull looking for & expectation of Vengance from the obdurate heart of A Tyrant, Supported by wicked advisers? Can a mercifull Heaven look on these things & not interpose? Is there not a day of retribution at hand? Should these things Continue what a horrid Prospect would a Severe Winter afford? how many must fall a Sacrifice to the unrelenting rigours of Cold & want? be ye cloathd & be ye warmd will be of little Efficacy to the trembling bared limbs or the hungry Soul of many a one who once livd in Affluence. . . .

You kindly enquire after my Sister, I have seen her but once since the Charlestown Conflagration, She is poorly accomodated at Stoneham, I found her & my Brother Mason Too much affected with their Loss. I really think their prospects peculiarly discouraging. He has been out of business for a Twelve month past, a Large Family to provide for. He advanced in life & losing his habitation by the hands of as barbarous an enemy as ever appeard on the theatre of life, to torment mankind. Where is the Historic page that can furnish us with such Villainy. The Laying a whole town in ashes, after repeated promises that if they would protect their troops in their return from Concord, it should be the last place that should suffer harm. How did they give shelter to the wounded expiring Soldiers & their houses, their beds were prepard to receive them, the women readily engagd in pouring balm in to their wounds, making broths & Cordials to Support their exhausted spirits, for at that time the Softer Sex had not been innured to trickling blood & gaping wounds. Some of the unhappy Victims died, they gave up the . . . ghost Blessing the hands that gave relief, and now in return for this kindness, they take the first opportunity to make 500 householders miserable, involving many a poor widow & orphan in one common ruin. Be astonished o heavens at this & let the inhabitants of america tremble to fall into the hands of such a merciless foe!. . .

I now write from the Solitude of Andover, & the reducd & humble life, yet by no means is my firm persuasion Staggerd in the glorious Cause we are Struggling in, the Cause of Virtue truth & justice. Your Faith, that the united Efforts will be Blest with Success animates me. I catch a spark of that heavenly flame which invigorates your breast. Knowing your Faith has a permanent Foundation & your acquaintance with those in the Cabinet must enable you to form a better Judgment than those who have not those advantages . . . .

Read the entire letter HERE. The print is titled “An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17, 1775 by Bernard Romans, a Dutchman to who worked as a surveyor and cartographer for the British. He joined the American side when the war began. In the illustration the Battle of Breed’s Hill is depicted on the left; in the center is Charlestown afire; on the right is Boston. This is a somewhat different perspective than is usually seen. The print is in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.

” the grand Artillery of Heaven”

HANNAH WINTHROP and her husband were able to move back into their house in Cambridge after having fled to Andover following the battles of Lexington and Concord. MERCY OTIS WARREN paid a visit to her friends for which Hannah sent a letter expressing her thanks in June 1775. Hannah included a description of lightning bells in this paragraph which is of special interest.

With a painfull anxiety I parted with my dear Friend Mrs. Warren last thursday evening, & very soon found the rising Sable Cloud predicting a Rougher Scene than those happy moments afforded us in the warm Effusions of reciprocal Friendship with which the day had blest us. We had a convincing display of the Utility of pointed Conductors by the ringing of our Lightning Bells which I wish you had seen, though to some persons it appears in a Presumptous light for mortals to meddle with the grand Artillery of Heaven.

Hannah is describing an approaching storm with flashes of lightning. She makes reference to lightning rods, the “pointed Conductors” advocated by Benjamin Franklin to ground lightning and render it harmless. These tall pointed metal rods were usually attached to a house’s chimney. (There was disagreement over whether the rods should be pointed or blunt. Franklin preferred pointed.) In the Winthrop house the rods were connected to a set of bells activated by the discharge of electricity from the lightning which caused clappers to move back and forth between two oppositely charged bells. In this way Franklin converted electrical energy into mechanical energy. Hannah’s husband was a scientist and astronomer so it stands to reason that he would be interested in these “Lightning Bells.” For more complete explanations of how these worked see this article and this article.

Note Hannah’s comment that many people frowned on this sort of experimentation with lightning believing it was not for mortals “to meddle with the grand Artillery of Heaven.”

Read the entire letter by Hannah HERE. The illustration is from this ARTICLE.

posted April 19th, 2018 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Franklin, Benjamin, Warren, Mercy Otis, Weather, Winthrop, Hannah Fayerweather

“the roads filld with frighted women & children”

HANNAH WINTHROP continued her letter to MERCY OTIS WARREN in May of 1775 describing the flight from Concord to a place of safety. She is saddened by the closure of Harvard and the disruption of education for its students. She fears for the library and worries that her husband will not be able to continue his work in astronomy.

Thus with precipitancy were we driven to the town of Andover, following some of our acquaintance, five of us to be conveyd with one poor tired horse & Chaise. Thus we began our [pilgrimage] alternately walking & riding, the roads filld with frighted women & children Some in carts with their tallest furniture, others on foot fleeing into the woods but what added greatly to the horror of the Scene was our passing thro the Bloody field at Menotomy which was strewd with the mangled Bodies, we met one Affectionate Father with a Cart looking for his murderd Son & picking up his Neighbours who had fallen in Battle, in order for their Burial.

I should not have chose this town for an Asylum, being but 20 miles from Seaports where men of war & their Pirates are Stationed, but in being fixd here I see it is not in man to direct his steps. As you kindly enquire after our Situation, I must tell you it is Rural & romantically pleasing. Seated in a truly retired spot, no house in sight, within a mile of Neighbours, thinly settled, the House decent & neat stands
under the shade of two venerable Elms on a gently rising, one flight of steps with a View of a spacious meadow befour it, a Small Rivulet meandering thro it, the grassy Carpet interspersd with a Variety of flowery shrubs, several little mounts rising in the Conic form intersected with fertile spots of waving grain. The Horizon bounded with a thick wood as if nature intended a Barricade against the Canonade of some formidable despot. But here all is perfect Silence, nothing is heard but the melody of the groves & the unintelligible Language of the Animal Creation. From the profound stillness & serenity of this Woody region I can almost persuade myself we are the only human inhabitants of Creation, & instead of Losing my fondness for Society I shall have a higher relish for the pleasures of friendly Converse & Social endearments, tho the Family we live with are very obliging.

But alas the gloomy appearance of mortal things sets the Vanity of the Clearest demonstration before me, nor can I forbear to drop a tear over that Seminary which has been the glory of this Land, and Lamenting those walls early dedicated to the Study of Science & Calm Philosophy Instead of the delightful harmony of nature nothing but the din of arms & the Clarion of War. the Youth dispersd, the hands of their preceptors sealed up, those fountains of knowledge the Library & Apparatus entirely useless & perhaps may fall into those hands whose highest joy would be to plunge us into darkness & Ignorance that we might become fitter Subjects for Slavery & Despotic rule, my partner wishes some attention might be paid to these important Treasures. Oh shall we ever be restord to that peacefull abode, that happy roof where retird from all the glitter & noise of the gay & busy world my Consort would joy to finish his mortal life in investigating the great Temple of the Skies & adoring the Divine Architect of Heaven & quietly quitting this Lower Creation.

When I think of the Sufferings of my Friends in Boston I am ashamed that my inconvenience should have such an undue effect upon me. I blush that I have so little Fortitude to encounter the Struggles we must expect to meet before the unnatural Campaign is over. I must Confess I sometimes Indulge Fears which excite mirth rather than Sympathy in my Philosoper. I have not seen our Son Since his return from Sea. It is a satisfaction that our Sons possess that love of Liberty which will engage them in the Cause of their Bleeding Country. It would give me great pleasure to pay you a Visit in your hospitable abode of peace & Elegance, but the Length of the journey & the uncertainty of the times forbid it. It would add Inexpressible pleasure to us to see you in our Rural retirement, then might I profit by your Example of Equanimity & patience in times of Affliction. We are now cut off from all our Living, but those divine intimations in that Sacred Book which have been the Consolation of Many an Exild one must be our Support. pray Let me hear from you as often as possible.

As it has been the mode of some distinguished Patriots on the other side the water in their Late letters to a person of my acquaintance in these perilous times not to affix any Signature to them but that of Sentiment & Affection, so in humble imitation after offering my partners & my best Affection to you & Coll. Warren
I Subscribe Yours Unalterably

Read the entire letter HERE. The engraving of Amos Doolittle’s “The engagement at the North Bridge in Concord, 1775” is a focal point of the gallery at the Museum of the American Revolution dedicated to the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

“the horrors of that midnight Cry”

HANNAH WINTHROP continued her correspondence with MERCY OTIS WARREN, sharing news of the occupation of Boston by the British: “Loads of english goods…the fortifying of Boston neck, [and] the huge canon now mounted there,” that has led to the move from their house in Cambridge to a “humble habitation at Concord.” In a letter written at some point in May 1775 she describes in considerable detail the battles that occurred in the previous month at Lexington and Concord.

. . . . [S]ince we were dispossest of our earthly enjoyments, all nature has seemd to be reversd, & with it the weakned mind of your friend renderd incapable of attending to those pleasures which made life agreable. Nor can she yet forget, nor will old Time ever erase the horrors of that midnight Cry, preceeding the Bloody Massacre at Lexington, when we were rousd from the benign Slumbers of the season, by beat of drum & ringing of Bell, with the dire alarm, That a thousand of the Troops of George the third were gone forth to murder the peacfull inhabitants of the Surrounding Villages. A few hours with the dawning day Convincd us the Bloody purpose was executing. The platoon firing assuring us, the rising Sun must witness the Bloody Carnage. Not knowing what the Event would be at Cambridge at their return of these Bloody ruffians, and seeing another Brigade dispatchd to the Assistance of the former, Looking with the ferocity of Barbarians, It seemd Necessary to retire to some place of Safety till the Calamity was passd. My partner had been a fortnight Confind by illness. After dinner we set out not knowing whither we went, we were directed to a place Calld fresh pond about a mile from the town, but what a distressd house did we find there filld with women whose husbands were gone forth to meet the Assailiants, 70 or 80 of these with numbers of Infant Children, Crying and agonizing for the Fate of their husbands. In adition to this scene of distress we were for Some time in Sight of the Battle, the glistening instruments of death proclaiming by an incessant fire, that much blood must be shed, that many widowd & orphand ones be Left as monuments of that persecuting Barbarity of British Tyranny. Another uncomfortable night we passd, some nodding in their chairs, others resting their weary limbs on the floor. The welcome harbinger of day gave notice of its dawning light but brings us news it is [?] to return to Cambridge as the enemy were advancing up the river & firing on the town, to stay in this place was impracticable, methinks in that hour I felt the force of my Mother Eves Soliloquy on being driven out of Paradise. . . .

In the next post, Hannah describes fleeing from the scenes of battle and finding a refuge for herself and her husband.

The two letters in this post can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society HERE and HERE. The illustration of Concord is at the Library of Congress.


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