“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.

“Lectures go on briskly”

In 1771, the year following her wedding to Dr. William Hewson, POLLY STEVENSON HEWSON had her first child, a boy they named William. Benjamin Franklin was the godfather. He was always delighted to hear news about the child: teething, weaning, walking. He had a bit of advice for Polly:

Pray let him have every thing he likes; I think it of great Consequence while the Features of the Countenance are forming. It gives them a pleasant Air, and that being once become natural, and fix’d by Habit, the Face is ever after the handsomer for it, and on that much of a Person’s good Fortune and Success in Life may depend.

In 1772 the Hewsons took over the house on Craven Street. In July Polly wrote Franklin, who was away, that her husband had made some changes.

My Mother I must tell you went off last friday week, took our little Boy with her and left Mr. Hewson the care of her House. The first thing he did was pulling down a part of it in order to turn it to his own purpose, and advantage we hope. This Demolition cannot affect you, who at present are not even a Lodger, your litterary apartment remains untouch’d, the Door is lock’d, and the Key in this House.

William Hewson was no ordinary doctor. Noted for his contributions in hematology, he was an anatomist and teacher. He had added a theater to the Craven Street house in order to give lectures to students. These were successful as Polly notes in a letter to Franklin in October: “Lectures go on briskly; a fresh Pupil to day who makes up the half hundred whose names are enter’d, besides some others who have promis’d. . . . ” It was in this month that Polly’s mother and Franklin moved to another house on Craven Street.

In 1773 Polly had a second child, another boy, who was named Thomas. The next year 1774 proved to be a sad one for Polly and those to whom she was dear.

“From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Hewson with a Postscript to Dorothea Blunt, 25 November 1771,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-18-02-0164. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 18, January 1 through December 31, 1771, ed. William B. Willcox. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 252–253, 341-342.]


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