No Son Unsung


Quick, vivid glimpses of the homely realities of colonial life are to be had in the catalogued trousseau of Rebecca Estabrook, which included, among other items, four gowns (and petticoats), five hoods, two bonnets, one pair of stays, eleven night caps, and nine “speckled handkerchiefs.” Or again, in the 1702 agreement made by the town of Sandwich with its minister, Rowland Cotton, that part of his salary was to be “all such drift whales as shall, during the time of his ministry in Sandwich, be driven or cast ashore.” And again in the prescriptions of Jared Eliot, an eminent parson and noted physician of the early eighteenth century, who told a patient complaining of a “Catarrhous humour” to “take a vomit once in awhile of Ipaccunia, and also bitters, as gentian, camamile & in powder or steeped in wine, and also the yolk of an egg in cyder sweetened with honey, once twice or 3 times a day.”

Among all the divines, physicians, judges, lawyers, and public servants whom Harvard gave to colonial America, scoundrels (or at least those readily identifiable as such) were few and far between. But now and again one appeared, and perhaps it is to Harvard—s credit that their crimes were generally colorful. There was, for example, Joshua Parker, who had an ear cut off in the pillory for forgery. Henry Phillips was indicted for murder after he had killed Benjamin Woodbridge in a duel at dusk on the Boston Common in 1728; he never stood trial, for he fled to France and died there, an unwilling exile, a few years later.

And finally, most famous or infamous of all, there was Thomas Bell of the class of 1734. Of him, Shipton writes: “Thomas Bell was one of the best-known Americans of his century, and is still a prominent figure in folklore for reasons thus succinctly stated long ago: ‘Tom Bell … greatly excelled in low art and cunning. His mind was totally debased and his whole conduct betrayed a soul capable of descending to every species of iniquity. In all the arts of theft, robbery, fraud, deception and defamation, he was so deeply skilled, and so thoroughly practised, that it is believed he never had his equal in this country.’ ” Whatever the judgment of his contemporaries, under the softening influence of time Bell seems one of the most engaging and ingenious confidence men ever to practice that imaginative calling. In a career that spanned more than twenty years and covered every colony as well as such outlying islands as the Barbados and Nova Scotia, he plied his trade with singular success. He passed himself off at various times as a Fairfax of Virginia (and drew bills against the head of the clan), as a son of the governor of the Barbados, as a Revivalist minister, as a Winthrop, and as a son of Robert Livingston. When things were really difficult, he stooped to robbery. He was in and out of jail constantly, usually escaping before he had served his full sentence. His notoriety finally became such that his mere presence in a town would elicit hysterical public warnings against him. It would be pleasant to be able to report that Thomas Bell came to a dramatic and spectacular end, but the truth is otherwise. When last heard of, he was teaching school in Charleston, South Carolina, and selling subscriptions to his memoirs.

In the stormy years that preceded the War of Independence, Harvard men were articulate and forceful champions of both the Tory and Revolutionary causes—evidence that, then as now, Harvard believed in teaching a man to make his own judgments. New England’s giants of the Revolution, John Hancock, Sam Adams, John Adams, James Otis, and John Quincy Adams, were Harvard men all. But in the patriotic exaltation that followed the war it was sometimes forgotten that some of the most brilliant men of the preRevolutionary and Revolutionary period were Tories. Governor Thomas Hutchinson is an outstanding example; through the accident of the Governor’s having been a Harvard man, Shipton has been able to retrieve a reputation lost to the slanders of posterity.