New England’s Dark Day, as later told by Jane Austin

Richard Miller Devens, Our First Century (Springfield, Mass: C.A. Nichols & Co.) p. 88.

Richard Miller Devens, Our First Century (Springfield, Mass: C.A. Nichols & Co.) p. 88.

235 days ago today, on 19 May 1780, New England experienced a mysterious “Dark Day”. The sky was reported as dark or yellow, and the sun was reported as red or completely obscured. Ash filled rain fell from the sky in some areas, and some reported the smell of smoke in the air. For many it was taken as a possible sign of the coming apocalypse. Today it is believed that massive forest fires in and near present-day Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario were the cause of New England’s Dark Day. Tales from that day were passed down for generations.

Over one hundred years later, Plymouth writer Jane Goodwin Austin [not THE Jane Austen] included a chapter about New England’s Dark Day in her 1890 novel Dr. LeBaron and His Daughters: A Story of the Old Colony. Austin’s book is both a delight and a challenge to interpret today, as a modern Plymouth historian. Austin was fascinated by local history and genealogy, and enjoyed reading old records and letters, parts of which often make their way into her work. But she also loved gathering supernatural tales from Plymouth’s “old folks” – which often had a least a kernel of truth to them. Austin then often re-interpreted or further exaggerated these tales as well, so attempting to get to the original “truth” of these superstitious tales, if ever there was truth to the matter, can be tricky.

The chapters of Dr. LeBaron and His Daughters are woven throughout with the fictional tale of Plymouth witch “Mother Crewe” (although she was probably a much-exaggerated composite of several women of Plymouth who were called witches in the 18th century – a blog post for another day!). Austin’s “Dark Day” chapter culminates in Mother Crewe’s death, in which her reputation was in part restored by rescuing a lost boy (a fictional Butler child), before she died in the Plympton graveyard, atop the grave of her (fictional) daughter Bathsheba.

Beyond the fictional tale of Mother Crewe, Austin’s chapter “The Dark Day” is a good example of her walking the line between truth and fiction or exaggeration. Much of her physical description of the day surely had some basis in tales passed down.

“The strange yellow light and sultry murk of the air, so oppressive in its earlier hours, steadily increased as the day drew toward night… Darkness had now fully fallen, a darkness so intense that it seemed ponderous and palpable rather than the mere absence of light… The Day of Judgment has come! was the cry of those who believed, and non-believers no longer scoffed at such possibilities, but gazed upon each other with bewildered and anguished doubt”.

Austin portrays a humorous anecdote in which Plymouth’s minister Chandler Robbins chides Deacon Foster on the Dark Day – which while perhaps had some original basis in truth, is made impossible by the fact that Deacon Thomas Foster had died of smallpox several years prior to the Dark Day. At Deacon Thomas Foster’s death, however, he was in the midst of a scandal, in which the majority of the parishioners were determined to sever his appointment as deacon due to his Loyalist beliefs during the Revolutionary War.

Parson Robbins, whose wide reading and correspondence told him that such phenomena had occurred before, and were attributed to natural causes, whether those might be astral, or volcanic, or atmospheric, or merely the effect of vast forest fires, went busily from house to house, imparting this information to his people… finally… he desisted, and when [Deacon Foster] interrupted him with, “No use kicking against the pricks, Parson, nor in denyin’ the power of an angry God to destroy a wicked world,” [Robbins] suddenly changed his based, and exclaimed, “You are right, Brother Foster, and since the Day of Doom is at hand, it behooves us sinners to hasten our repentance, and bring forth works meet for acceptance. Have you ever paid Widow Doten for that cow?”

“It died on my hands, Parson!” expostulated the deacon in a whine of mingled wrath and terror.

“You had owned it a week, and if you are about to be called into judgment-”

“I’ll pay her, Parson, I’ll pay her! Here, I’ll get out the money now. There, there’s twenty good silver dollars, and if you’ll come along with me I’ll give it to her this minute. It won’t make any difference to either of us by this time tomorrow.”

“Yes, it will make a great difference to your soul, brother”

“Oh yes, yes. Well, come along, and ye – don’t it look a little mite clearer than it did?”

“It is a little lighter for you,” replied the parson, significantly; and the Widow Doten received her money…[once] the peril was over… the widow bestowed her dollars in the old teapot on the top shelf of the china-closet, and the deacon mediated how he should regain possession of them either as a loan, an investment, or by the sale of some unseasoned swamp-wood, which might, by a little “deaconing”, be made to pass for sound oak.

Apparently Plymoutheans could hold grudges for more than a century!

Wishful Wednesday: Seeking the Bible of Rev. Thomas Smith of Pembroke MA

Putting this request out:

I am hoping to locate the Rev. Thomas Smith Bible. The bible of Rev. Thomas Smith (1706-1788) of Pembroke, Massachusetts was mentioned in A Memorial of Rev. Thomas Smith (Second Minister of Pembroke, Mass.) And His Descendants , Compiled by Susan Augusta Smith (Plymouth, MA: Avery & Doten, 1895).

There are many references in the Smith Memorial to this bible, such as:

In the bible of his son, Rev. Thomas Smith, occurs this quaint record, in his own handwriting, now dim with age and almost illegible: “My father died March 4th, 1746, it being on Saturday about Sun Setting in the 80th year of his age, and was buried on Monday – Our Fathers, where are they?”

The bible also records the birth dates and times of his children, which are all included in the book.

However, I am interested in the reference to the two slaves of Rev. Thomas Smith: Joan and her daughter Margaret alias “Peg”. Susan Augusta Smith notes that the deaths of Peg and Joan “are recorded in the family Bible”, however she does not include a transcription of these records.

It seems that as of 1895, the bible was in the possession of Susan Augusta Smith (daughter of Nathaniel Smith, granddaughter of Nathaniel Smith, great-great granddaughter of Rev. Thomas Smith). Susan was born 19 Oct 1843 and had only one brother, Moses Bass Smith, who had died in 1861. In the 1900 Census, Susan Smith’s occupation is listed as “genealogist”. But since she never married nor had children, it is unclear to whom the bible passed down to, or where it is located today.

NEHGS has a bible titled “Bible record for the Rev. Thomas Smith family, 1706-1855. [manuscript]”  however, this is not the same bible referred to in the Smith Memorial. The family records in this bible are all in one hand and detail Rev. Smith’s family with a focus on the families of his son Joseph Smith,  grandson Joshua Smith and wife Saba Drew and great grandson Joseph Smith and wife Helen Estes. The bible therefore may have been written by Joseph Smith or Helen Estes Smith in the 1850s or later (NEHGS’s copy is missing the title page of the bible and therefore does not include a publication date). According to NEHGS’s notes, this bible was found at Clay Eldridge’s Antique shop on Plympton Green, Mass. and was donated by NEHGS member Mrs. Don. Whiston of Upland Meadows, Kingston, Mass on 12 May 1958.

If anyone has details about the whereabouts of Rev. Thomas Smith’s bible today, please let me know!

Surname Saturday: John Everson of Plymouth, Massachusetts

Everson Title Image

As NEHGS celebrates its 170th anniversary, this week the New England Historical and Genealogical Register launched a beautiful new format and style. This Register features my article “Descendants of John Everson of Plymouth, Massachusetts” which identifies and untangles the early Everson family of Plymouth Colony. In the 17th century, John Everson was an unwelcome transient in both Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony, and he ultimately gave up custody of his three young children, who were each taken in and raised by separate Plymouth families. Very little has been published on the family up until now, and the few publications that have included references to them have often confused the early generations – a significantly repeated error being the division of Richard2 Everson into two men, one who married Elizabeth (_) and another who married Penelope Bumpas. However, my research shows that they were in fact the same man.

The article is part of my larger Everson project, a book which documents John Everson’s descendants through to the sixth generation (as yet unpublished). While many Eversons remained in Plymouth County, some lines were a part of the westward migration through New York and beyond, and others to Northern New England and into Canada.

Below is a copy of the article, which can be cited as: Mary Blauss Edwards, “Descendants of John Everson of Plymouth, Massachusetts,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 169 [2015]:35-50.


Treasure Chest Thursday: The wedding dresses of Ida Edith (Payne) Edwards, 1949-1958

My husband’s grandmother Ida Edith (Payne) Edwards was a talented dressmaker.  From the ages of 14 to 16, she served a two year apprenticeship with a dressmaker in the west end of London.  She spent the majority of her working career as a ladies tailor or dressmaker throughout London. While working as a tailoress, she met her husband William James Stephen Edwards, a fellow tailor, and they married in 1913. In the 1930s she worked for a small couture dressmaker. During World War II, she worked as dressmaker for Debenham’s department store, remaining in London during the Blitz. She was very skilled, and would often make dresses for dowagers which cost thousands of pounds. Years later she shared that Queen Alexandra and later Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon preferred to have “Mrs. Edwards” as their fitter. At Debenhem’s, she quickly learned to write down the women’s statements and measurements exactly, especially if they quarreled over the measurements which Ida had taken (the women claiming they were smaller than their physical measurements had indicated!), so that later Ida could not be in trouble if the women later complained that the dress was too small, since she prided herself on her accuracy. Ida left Debenham’s after World War II and joined St. Francis Hospital in their linen room as a needlewoman where she worked until her retirement in the 1960s. During her time at the hospital, however, she missed dressmaking and therefore after hours would often work for commission or for free to create wedding dresses or other dresses for friends, neighbors, and others. Appreciative brides often sent Mrs. Edwards’ photographs from their wedding of “the dress”, which I have included below:

The dress she made for her niece Doris Fielder’s 1949 wedding:


The dress she made for her daughter-in-law Rene Royce’s 1955 wedding:

Chris and Rene Wedding

The dress she made for her neighbor Rosina Newton’s 1956 wedding:


The dress she made for Edna Dines’ 1957 wedding:


A dress for an unknown bride’s 1953 wedding:


A dress for an unknown bride’s 1953 wedding:


A dress for an unknown bride’s 1958 wedding:


A dress for an unknown bride’s wedding during the 1950s:


A dress for an unknown bride’s wedding during the 1950s:


A dress for an unknown bride’s wedding during the 1950s:


Tombstone Tuesday: An 18th Century Graveyard “Haunting” in Hingham, Massachusetts


Just in time for Halloween, a bit of historical haunting debunking…

By the 1820s, Dr. James Thacher of Plymouth, famed Revolutionary War surgeon and doctor, was on a mission: to provide scientific or medical explanations for superstitions he had encountered. He gathered evidence from medical journals as well as anecdotes from learned friends near and far and compiled An Essay on Demonology, Ghosts and Apparitions, And Popular Superstitions. Also, An Account of the Witchcraft Delusion at Salem, published in 1831.

He reported the following story:

“Were all the supposed apparitions and spectres to be met with the intrepidity displayed in the following instance, ghost stories would seldom be repeated.”

“About the latter part of the last century, a Mr. Blake of Hingham, Massachusetts, was passing the church-yard in the night, when he saw an object in human form, clothed in white, sitting near an open tomb. Resolving to satisfy himself, he walked toward it. The form moved as he approached, and endeavored to elude his pursuit; when he ran, the object ran before him, and after turning in different directions, descended into the tomb. Mr. Blake followed, and there found a woman, who was in a deranged state of mind, who had covered herself with a sheet, and was roaming among the silent tombs.” [p. 54]

Dr. James Thacher, courtesy Wikipedia Commons

The Mr. Blake who spotted this “haunting” in the late 1700s was perhaps Joseph or Solomon Blake of Hingham and churchyard mentioned was the Hingham Cemetery by the Old Ship Church.

Amanuensis Monday: The Broken Indenture of Ezekiel Sprague Jr. of Scituate, Mass.

While performing research in Scituate, Massachusetts town records, I came across an unusual record from a town meeting (edited slightly for spelling):

 25 May 1767

Upon the Petition & Request of Ebenezer Mott setting forth that he about four years ago took by indenture an apprentice named Ezekel Sprague to learn the trade of a cordwainer & to provide for him til he should arrive to the age of twenty one years he being now about 13 years old but so it is that yt Ezekel has been for some time troubled with uncommon fits and it is doubtful whether he will ever be cured & as said Ebenezer has been at great charge, he earnestly requests that said town upon the said indenture being vacated that said town would take said boy into their charge & care. Wherefore said town voted that upon the said indentures being exchanged & vacated that ye selectmen of said town should take said boy into their care as one of said town’s poor & do what may be needful for him.


This was Ezekiel Sprague Jr., born in Scituate 16 May 1755 [sic, 1754] and baptized at the Scituate Second Church (now Norwell) on 29 September 1754 to Ezekiel and Priscilla Sprague. Ezekiel Sprague Sr. married Priscilla Totman in Scituate in 1753. They later had children Abigail, Rebecca Prouty, and Samuel Sprague, all born and baptized in Scituate. Ezekiel Sr. had also been raised as an apprentice or indentured servant, and on 8 March 1729/30, he was baptized at the Hanover Congregational Church, “his master, James Tory, publickly promising to take care he should have a religious education”. There are no Scituate death or probate records for Ezekiel Sr. and Priscilla, so it is uncertain if they were dead by the time that Ezekiel Jr. was taken on by the Scituate selectmen as one of the town’s poor. Does anyone know what happened to Ezekiel Sprague Jr.’s parents?

Thankful Thursday: Boston Firefighter James M. Gibbons (1949-1981)

James M. Gibbons Medal of Valor. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

James M. Gibbons Medal of Valor. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.


This week the city of Boston mourns and honors Boston firefighters Lt. Edward J. Walsh Jr., 43, and Michael R. Kennedy, 33, who were trapped in a fire in a brownstone at 298 Beacon Street in the Back Bay. The era of the internet has been a remarkable force, garnering community support, thoughts and prayers, as well as encouraging donations to help the firefighters’ families.

Three decades ago a similar fire took the lives of my mother’s cousin Jimmy Gibbons, 31, and his friend Lt. Paul M. Lentini of Engine Company 37, in a brownstone at 0 Newbury St. in the Back Bay. The Boston Fire Historical Society reports that just after 3 p.m. on 6 January 1981, a fire was discovered in a historic retail brownstone building by the entrance to the Boston Public Gardens, and fire “spread through an open-cage elevator shaft to the upper floors, which housed several offices, including that of the Boston School Volunteers and former Governor Francis Sargent [who] was able to escape the building unharmed… after the fire had been knocked down and overhauling operations had begun, a partial collapse of the upper floors occurred (an event similar to the tragic Vendome Fire of 1972). The third floor gave way, with the fourth floor crashing down on top of the firefighters… Twelve firefighters were trapped in the rubble. The body of Fire Lieutenant Paul M. Lentini of Engine Company 37 was located, trapped by a fallen beam. Beneath Lentini were several firefighters, who were trapped but alive. Searches continued for other missing firefighters, until all were accounted for except for Firefighter James M. Gibbons of Engine 37. After many hours of searching, his body was recovered at 10:30 p.m at the bottom of the collapse area”.


Firefighter James Michael Gibbons was born in Boston in 1949, the son of James J. Gibbons, a newspaperman for the Boston Herald, and Mary Joan Granville. He was married with two young sons at the time of his death. The Gibbons were a large Boston Irish family. His great-grandparents, James and Celia (Doherty) Gibbons had emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland, then married and started a large family in Boston. Their eldest son, Charles James Joseph Gibbons (1884-1945) married Margaret E. Duff(e)y and had four children, including my Nana, Marie Gibbons, and her younger brother James J. Gibbons – the father of Firefighter James “Jimmy” M. Gibbons. Jimmy Gibbons became a Boston firefighter in July 1974 at the age of 25 and had served with Brighton Ladder 22 and Dorchester Ladder 6 before his assignment in December 1976 to Engine Company 37 on Huntington Ave.


I inherited a small collection of family papers from Marie (Gibbons) Buckley Marotta, including the following newspaper clippings she held onto. She would sometimes reflect upon her nephew’s tragic death and describe his bravery and sense of humor, and how awestruck the family was when thousands of firefighters came to pay their respects.


GIBBONS-In Quincy, January 6, in the line of duty, Boston Firefighter James M., Engine Company 37; beloved husband of Marie E. (Foley); devoted father of Sean and Dennis; beloved son of James J. and Mary (Granville) Gibbons of Hyde Park; brother of Joan Gibbons of Quincy, Mrs. Barbara Crawford of East Bridgewater, and Mrs. Maureen Devin of Somerville. Funeral from the John J. O’Connor Funeral Home, 740 Adams St. (near Gallivan Boulevard), DORCHESTER, Saturday morning at 11:15. Funeral Mass in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church at 12:30. Relatives and friends respectfully invited. Visiting hours Thursday evening 7-9, Friday 2-4 and 7-9. Member Local 718, Society of St. Florian, B.F.D. Drill Team. Interment St. Joseph’s Cemetery. In lieu of flowers donations may be made in his memory to the Jimmy Fund.

Mass in Quincy on Saturday

A Mass for Pvt. James Gibbons, 31, of Quincy, a member of Engine Co. 37 of the Boston Fire Department, will be celebrated at 12:30 Saturday in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Quincy. Gibbons was killed Tuesday while fighting an eight-alarm fire at Arlington and Newbury Streets, Back Bay. He was appointed to Boston Fire Department in July, 1974, and was assigned to Ladder 22 in Brighton. In September, 1975, he was transferred to Ladder 6, Morton Street, Dorchester, and on December 1, 1976, he was assigned to Engine Co. 37, Huntington Avenue and Ruggles Street, Roxbury, from where he responded to the fire. He was a member of Local 718 of the International Association of Firefighters, Society of St. Florian and the Fire Department’s Drill Team. He leaves his wife, Marie E. (Foley); two sons, Sean and Dennis, and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. James J. Gibbons of Hyde Park. His father is a printer in the composing room of the Herald American. He also leaves three sisters, Joan Gibbons of Quincy, Mrs. Barbara Crawford of East Bridgewater and Mrs. Maureen Devin of Somerville. Interment will be in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, West Roxbury. Arrangements are by the John J. O’Connor and Son Funeral Home, Dorchester.


Years later I attended grad school on Huntington Avenue and often walked by Engine No. 37, where a memorial plaque is placed in honor of their fallen firefighters. My mother, brother and I later visited the firehouse specifically to read the plaque and chat with some of the firefighters to thank them and remember. At the time I was working on Newbury Street just a block away from 0 Newbury St., which has since been completely rebuilt and today houses a Burberry retail shop. A quieter place for reflection is at the beautiful Vendome Fire Memorial on Commonwealth Ave. and Dartmouth St.

Memorials at the Engine 37 Firehouse at 560 Huntington Ave., including a Lentini-Gibbons plaque. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

Memorials at the Engine 37 Firehouse at 560 Huntington Ave., including a Lentini-Gibbons plaque. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

In addition to the memorial plaques at Engine 37, they also had Boston University students paint a mural on the station wall memorializing their fallen firefighters as well as celebrating their unit. There is also a Lentini-Gibbons Memorial Baseball Diamond at East Second & N Streets in South Boston and a Fire Fighter Memorial at Florian Hall which commemorates all Boston Local 718 members who died in the line of duty, including James M. Gibbons. All these years later, we still remember, celebrate, and are so very thankful the bravery of all our firefighters.

The Fire Lt. Paul M. Lentini & Fire Fighter James M. Gibbons Memorial Baseball Diamond at East Second & N Streets, South Boston. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

The Fire Lt. Paul M. Lentini & Fire Fighter James M. Gibbons
Memorial Baseball Diamond at East Second & N Streets, South Boston. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

Fire Fighter Memorial at Florian Hall, IAFF Local 718 Headquarters, Hallet St., Dorchester, Mass. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

Fire Fighter Memorial at Florian Hall, IAFF Local 718 Headquarters, Hallet St., Dorchester, Mass. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

Right Tablet at the Florian Hall Firefighters Memorial, including James M. Gibbons. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.

Right Tablet at the Florian Hall Firefighters Memorial, including James M. Gibbons. Courtesy of the Boston Fire Historical Society.