At the President's inauguration, 1861

An eyewitness account from the brink of the Civil War

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The public mind was distracted with the wildest apprehensions about the safety of the Capitol and even of the life of the President Elect…

This week’s presidential inauguration of Joe Biden isn’t the first to have the Capitol in a tense state. Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration, on 4 March 1861, saw him accompanied by heavily armed infantry and cavalry, with the nation on the brink of civil war after the secession of seven southern slave states between his election and this occasion. There were already believed to be threats to his life. Little over a month later, America was indeed at war with itself.

Lincoln travelled by train from Springfield, Illinois via New York and Philadelphia to Washington D.C. A first-hand account of the inauguration has survived. It was written in the 1890s or thereabouts by William W. Averell (1832–1900), who was an army officer on sick leave at the time; he became a cavalry general in the Civil War that followed. Later in life he was a diplomat and the inventor of a type of asphalt.

Averell took himself to Washington “to show myself ready, in case of necessity, for any service that might be required”. Here is his account:

The public mind was distracted with the wildest apprehensions about the safety of the Capitol and even of the life of the President Elect who had arrived in Washington on the morning of the 23rd, after running an alleged gauntlet of conspiring assassins on the way. Washington was crowded with people very few of whom seemed wholly sane. Everyone was feverishly asking or imparting the latest news. Securing rooms on New York Avenue I visited some of the principle hotels which were thronged with excited men from every state North and South collected in groups discussing the crisis. There were no loud voices nor outcries. Intense brooding apprehension possessed all thinking men. Washington had a little [of] the aspect of Herculaneum listening for the throes of Vesuvius. Very soon I met several Army men one after another and confirming the proverb of misery’s love of company we gathered together and exchanged hopes and fears. The chiefest and last lingering hope among us was that no gun would be fired and that some miraculous thing would come out of the Peace Congress or the Crittenden proposition or from some source by which the terrible strain of the situation might be relieved. The next day several of us went as by a common despairing impulsive effort for comfort, to visit the tomb of Washington… The inauguration was at hand and the air was charged with alarming rumors of intended efforts to prevent it and to assassinate Mr. Lincoln. On the 1st of March I called on General Scott. Never was I so impressed with the personal grandeur of any man as I was with that of the old hero on that occasion… He received me graciously and after making particular inquiries about my health and strength he asked me many questions about the temper and sentiments of the Northern people as well as of the feelings and purposes of the Army officers whom I had recently seen. Regarding the inauguration he said “Mr. Lincoln will be inaugurated without any disturbance, every point is covered.” … One of my visits of obligation as well as of pleasure was to pay my respects to the wife of the President Elect at her hotel…

[The full transcription of Averell’s account of army life in the South-west of America can be found online thanks to the Newberry Library in Chicago.]

Pioneers of dieting, 1863

What are 'human beans'?

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I have tried sea air and bathing in various localities, with much walking exercise; taken gallons of physic…; riding on horseback; the waters and climate of Leamington many times, as well as those of Cheltenham and Harrogate frequently; have lived upon sixpence a-day…; and have spared no trouble nor expense in consultations with the best authorities in the land, giving each and all a fair time for experiment, without any permanent remedy

January is of course the time of year when many people start a new diet or some other plan for self-improvement. Dieting as we know it is not a new phenomenon, as Jayne Shrimpton reveals in her history of this activity in this month’s edition of Discover Your Ancestors. A pioneer, whose personal weight-loss success led to what we might think of as the first dieting fad (which is not to undermine his success), was William Banting (1797–1878), an undertaker to the nobility who was plagued by weight problems.

He tried many things to no avail, until he happened to consult an ear surgeon named William Harvey in Soho Square, London over his hearing problems. Harvey had an insight that corpulence and diet were closely related (and in Banting’s case that his deafness came from a build-up of fat). In Harvey’s own words:

When in Paris, in the year 1856, I took the opportunity of attending a discussion on the views of M. Bernard [the French physiologist Claude Bernard, who made the connection between glucose and fat in the liver] … [It] occurred to me that excessive obesity might be allied to diabetes as to its cause, although widely diverse in its development: and that if a purely animal diet were useful in the latter disease, a combination of animal food with such vegetable matters as contained neither sugar nor starch, might serve to arrest the undue formation of fat.

Inspired by Harvey’s advice, Banting found great success in losing weight, and was moved to write ‘A Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public’ in 1863, detailing the approach he took. This is, of course, essentially a low-carb diet and Harvey should perhaps be given the ultimate credit for the modern versions such as the Atkins diet.

Banting’s letter explaining this method became so successful that it went through multiple editions, selling 50,000 copies, and he became a household name, such that ‘to bant’ meant ‘to diet’. Here’s a snippet from a popular song of the time:

If you don’t follow Banting, 
You won’t much longer get about, 
If you continue thus so stout, 
You’ll fall a victim to the gout, 
You really must try Banting.

Here is an extract from Banting’s charming and heartfelt ‘Letter’:

Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can I imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity, and, having just emerged from a very long probation in this affliction, I am desirous of circulating my humble knowledge and experience for the benefit of my fellow man, with an earnest hope it may lead to the same comfort and happiness I now feel under the extraordinary change,—which might almost be termed miraculous had it not been accomplished by the most simple common-sense means…

I am now nearly 66 years of age, about 5 feet 5 inches in stature, and, in August last (1862), weighed 202 lbs., which I think it right to name… I now weigh 167 lbs., showing a diminution of something like 1 lb. per week since August, and having now very nearly attained the happy medium, I have perfect confidence that a few more weeks will fully accomplish the object for which I have laboured for the last thirty years, in vain, until it pleased Almighty Providence to direct me into the right and proper channel—the “tramway,” so to speak—of happy, comfortable existence.

Few men have led a more active life—bodily or mentally—from a constitutional anxiety for regularity, precision, and order, during fifty years’ business career, from which I have now retired, so that my corpulence and subsequent obesity was not through neglect of necessary bodily activity, nor from excessive eating, drinking, or self-indulgence of any kind, except that I partook of the simple aliments of bread, milk, butter, beer, sugar, and potatoes more freely than my aged nature required, and hence, as I believe, the generation of the parasite, detrimental to comfort if not really to health.

… I consulted high orthodox authorities (never any inferior adviser), but all in vain. I have tried sea air and bathing in various localities, with much walking exercise; taken gallons of physic and liquor potassæ, advisedly and abundantly; riding on horseback; the waters and climate of Leamington many times, as well as those of Cheltenham and Harrogate frequently; have lived upon sixpence a-day, so to speak, and earned it, if bodily labour may be so construed; and have spared no trouble nor expense in consultations with the best authorities in the land, giving each and all a fair time for experiment, without any permanent remedy… the evil still increased, and, like the parasite of barnacles on a ship, if it did not destroy the structure, it obstructed its fair, comfortable progress in the path of life.

I have been in dock, perhaps twenty times in as many years, for the reduction of this disease, and with little good effect—none lasting. Any one so afflicted is often subject to public remark, and though in conscience he may care little about it, I am confident no man labouring under obesity can be quite insensible to the sneers and remarks of the cruel and injudicious in public assemblies, public vehicles, or the ordinary street traffic; … therefore he naturally keeps away as much as possible from places where he is likely to be made the object of the taunts and remarks of others.

Although no very great size or weight, still I could not stoop to tie my shoe, so to speak, nor attend to the little offices humanity requires without considerable pain and difficulty, which only the corpulent can understand…

At this juncture (about three years back) Turkish baths became the fashion, and I was advised to adopt them as a remedy. With the first few I found immense benefit in power and elasticity for walking exercise; so, believing I had found the “philosopher’s stone,” pursued them three times a-week till I had taken fifty, then less frequently (as I began to fancy, with some reason, that so many weakened my constitution) till I had taken ninety, but never succeeded in losing more than 6 lbs. weight during the whole course, and I gave up the plan as worthless; though I have full belief in their cleansing properties, and their value in colds, rheumatism, and many other ailments.

[Banting then explains how he met Harvey and the advice he was given.]

… happily, I found the right man, who unhesitatingly said he believed my ailments were caused principally by corpulence, and prescribed a certain diet,—no medicine, beyond a morning cordial as a corrective,—with immense effect and advantage both to my hearing and the decrease of my corpulency.

For the sake of argument and illustration I will presume that certain articles of ordinary diet, however beneficial in youth, are prejudicial in advanced life, like beans to a horse, whose common ordinary food is hay and corn. It may be useful food occasionally, under peculiar circumstances, but detrimental as a constancy. I will, therefore, adopt the analogy, and call such food human beans. The items from which I was advised to abstain as much as possible were:—Bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had been the main (and, I thought, innocent) elements of my existence, or at all events they had for many years been adopted freely.

These, said my excellent adviser, contain starch and saccharine matter, tending to create fat, and should be avoided altogether. At the first blush it seemed to me that I had little left to live upon, but my kind friend soon showed me there was ample, and I was only too happy to give the plan a fair trial, and, within a very few days, found immense benefit from it. It may better elucidate the dietary plan if I describe generally what I have sanction to take, and that man must be an extraordinary person who would desire a better table:—

For breakfast, I take four or five ounces of beef, mutton, kidneys, broiled fish, bacon, or cold meat of any kind except pork; a large cup of tea (without milk or sugar), a little biscuit, or one ounce of dry toast.

For dinner, Five or six ounces of any fish except salmon, any meat except pork, any vegetable except potato, one ounce of dry toast, fruit out of a pudding, any kind of poultry or game, and two or three glasses of good claret, sherry, or Madeira — Champagne, Port and Beer forbidden.

For tea, Two or three ounces of fruit, a rusk or two, and a cup of tea without milk or sugar.

For supper, Three or four ounces of meat or fish, similar to dinner, with a glass or two of claret.

For nightcap, if required, A tumbler of grog—(gin, whisky, or brandy, without sugar)—or a glass or two of claret or sherry.

This plan leads to an excellent night’s rest, with from six to eight hours’ sound sleep. The dry toast or rusk may have a table spoonful of spirit to soften it, which will prove acceptable. Perhaps I did not wholly escape starchy or saccharine matter, but scrupulously avoided those beans, such as milk, sugar, beer, butter, &c., which were known to contain them.

On rising in the morning I take a table spoonful of a special corrective cordial, which may be called the Balm of life, in a wine-glass of water, a most grateful draught, as it seems to carry away all the dregs left in the stomach after digestion, but is not aperient; then I take about 5 or 6 ounces solid and 8 of liquid for breakfast; 8 ounces of solid and 8 of liquid for dinner; 3 ounces of solid and 8 of liquid for tea; 4 ounces of solid and 6 of liquid for supper, and the grog afterwards, if I please. I am not, however, strictly limited to any quantity at either meal, so that the nature of the food is rigidly adhered to.

Experience has taught me to believe that these human beans are the most insidious enemies man, with a tendency to corpulence in advanced life, can possess, though eminently friendly to youth. He may very prudently mount guard against such an enemy if he is not a fool to himself, and I fervently hope this truthful unvarnished tale may lead him to make a trial of my plan, which I sincerely recommend to public notice,—not with any ambitious motive, but in sincere good faith to help my fellow-creatures to obtain the marvellous blessings I have found within the short period of a few months. [It should be added that Banting gave the profits from his pamphlet to charity!]

I do not recommend every corpulent man to rush headlong into such a change of diet, (certainly not), but to act advisedly and after full consultation with a physician.

… [T]he result of my experience is briefly as follows:—

  • I have not felt so well as now for the last twenty years.

  • Have suffered no inconvenience whatever in the probational remedy.

  • Am reduced many inches in bulk, and 35 lbs. in weight in thirty-eight weeks.

  • Come down stairs forward naturally, with perfect ease.

  • Go up stairs and take ordinary exercise freely, without the slightest inconvenience.

  • Can perform every necessary office for myself.

  • The umbilical rupture is greatly ameliorated, and gives me no anxiety.

  • My sight is restored—my hearing improved.

  • My other bodily ailments are ameliorated; indeed, almost past into matter of history.

I have placed a thank-offering of £50 in the hands of my kind medical adviser for distribution amongst his favourite hospitals, after gladly paying his usual fees, and still remain under overwhelming obligations for his care and attention, which I can never hope to repay. Most thankful to Almighty Providence for mercies received, and determined to press the case into public notice as a token of gratitude…

Late of No. 27, St. James’s Street, Piccadilly, 
Now of No. 4, The Terrace, Kensington.

May, 1863. 

Extra: The British burn Washington, 1814

The last time the Capitol was attacked, before this week

(This is a short extra newsletter today.)


I need scarcely observe, that the consternation of the inhabitants was complete, and that to them this was a night of terror.

I’ve just been listening on BBC radio to a short extract from a first-hand account of the British assault on the Capitol (and other buildings) at Washington in 1814 – that was the last time this happened before this week. The account was by one George Gleig, a Scottish soldier, prolific writer and, from 1820, a priest – he wrote it in his 1821 work A narrative of the campaigns of the British army at Washington and New Orleans. As this newsletter is specifically about first-hand accounts of life and events in history, I’ve tracked down his full account of the events (which of course only represents one side)…

Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent forward with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard; for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, when it was fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied it, killed. The indignation excited by this act throughout all ranks and classes of men in the army, was such as the nature of the case could not fail to occasion. Every thought of accommodation was instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded without a moment’s delay to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with Government. In this general devastation were included the Senate-house, the President’s palace, an extensive dock-yard and arsenal, barracks for two or three thousand men, several large storehouses filled with naval and military stores, some hundreds of cannon of different descriptions, and nearly twenty thousand stand of small-arms. There were also two or three public ropewalks which shared the same fate, a fine frigate pierced for sixty guns, and just ready to be launched, several gun brigs and armed schooners, with a variety of gun-boats and small craft. The powder-magazines were set on fire, and exploded with a tremendous crash, throwing down many houses in their vicinity, partly by pieces of the walls striking them, and partly by the concussion of the air; whilst quantities of shot, shell, and hand-grenades, which could not otherwise be rendered useless, were cast into the river. In destroying the cannon a method was adopted which I had never before witnessed, and which, as it was both effectual and expeditious, I cannot avoid relating. One gun of rather a small calibre was pitched upon as the executioner of the rest, and being loaded with ball and turned to the muzzles of the others, it was fired, and thus beat out their breechings. Many, however, not being mounted, could not be thus dealt with; these were spiked, and having their trunnions knocked off, were afterwards cast into the bed of the river.

All this was as it should be, and had the arm of vengeance been extended no further, there would not have been room given for so much as a whisper of disapprobation. But unfortunately it did not stop here; a noble library, several printing-offices, and all the national archives were likewise committed to the flames, which, though no doubt the property of Government, might better have been spared. It is not, however, my intention to join the outcry which was raised at the time against what the Americans and their admirers were pleased to term a line of conduct at once barbarous and unprofitable. On the contrary, I conceive that too much praise cannot be given to the forbearance and humanity of the British troops, who, irritated as they had every right to be, spared, as far as possible, all private property, neither plundering nor destroying a single house in the place, except that from which the General’s horse had been killed.

Whilst the third brigade was thus employed, the rest of the army, having recalled its stragglers, and removed the wounded into Bladensburg, began its march towards Washington. Though the battle came to a close by four o’clock, the sun had set before the different regiments were in a condition to move, consequently this short journey was performed in the dark. The work of destruction had also begun in the city before they quitted their ground; and the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs, informed them, as they proceeded, of what was going forward. It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself as they approached the town. The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face. Except the burning of St. Sebastian’s, I do not recollect to have witnessed at any period of my life a scene more striking or more sublime.

Having advanced as far as the plain, where the reserve had previously paused, the first and second brigades halted; and forming into close column, passed the night in bivouac. At first this was agreeable enough, because the air was mild, and weariness made up for what was wanting in comfort. But towards morning a violent storm of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, came on, which disturbed the rest of all who were exposed to it. Yet in spite of the inconvenience arising from the shower, I cannot say that I felt disposed to grumble at the interruption, for it appeared that what I had before considered as superlatively sublime, still wanted this to render it complete. The flashes of lightning vied in brilliancy with the flames which burst from the roofs of burning houses, whilst the thunder drowned for a time the noise of crumbling walls, and was only interrupted by the occasional roar of cannon, and of large depots of gunpowder, as they one by one exploded.

I need scarcely observe, that the consternation of the inhabitants was complete, and that to them this was a night of terror. So confident had they been of the success of their troops, that few of them had dreamt of quitting their houses or abandoning the city; nor was it till the fugitives from the battle began to rush in, filling every place as they came with dismay, that the President himself thought of providing for his safety. That gentleman, as I was credibly informed, had gone forth in the morning with the army, and had continued among his troops till the British forces began to make their appearance. Whether the sight of his enemies cooled his courage or not I cannot say, but according to my informant, no sooner was the glittering of our arms discernible, than he began to discover that his presence was more wanted in the senate than in the field; and having ridden through the ranks, and exhorted every man to do his duty, he hurried back to his own house, that he might prepare a feast for the entertainment of his officers, when they should return victorious. For the truth of these details I will not be answerable; but this much I know, that the feast was actually prepared, though, instead of being devoured by American officers, it went to satisfy the less delicate appetites of a party of English soldiers. When the detachment sent out to destroy Mr. Maddison’s house, entered his dining parlour, they found a dinner-table spread, and covers laid for forty guests. Several kinds of wine in handsome cut-glass decanters were cooling on the sideboard; plate-holders stood by the fire-place, filled with dishes and plates; knives, forks, and spoons, were arranged for immediate use; everything in short was ready for the entertainment of a ceremonious party. Such were the arrangements in the dining-room, whilst in the kitchen were others answerable to them in every respect. Spits loaded with joints of various sorts turned before the fire; pots, saucepans, and other culinary utensils stood upon the grate; and all the other requisites for an elegant and substantial repast were in the exact state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned.

The reader will easily believe that these preparations were beheld, by a party of hungry soldiers, with no indifferent eye. An elegant dinner, even though considerably over-dressed, was a luxury to which few of them, at least for some time back, had been accustomed; and which, after the dangers and fatigues of the day, appeared peculiarly inviting. They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the most orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast; and having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.

I have said that to the inhabitants of Washington this was a night of terror and dismay. From whatever cause the confidence arose, certain it is that they expected anything rather than the arrival among them of a British army; and their consternation was proportionate to their previous feeling of security, when an event, so little anticipated, actually came to pass. The first impulse naturally prompted them to fly, and the streets were speedily crowded with soldiers and senators, men, women, and children, horses, carriages, and carts loaded with household furniture, all hastening towards a wooden bridge which crosses the Potomac. The confusion thus occasioned was terrible, and the crowd upon the bridge was such as to endanger its giving way. But Mr. Maddison, as is affirmed, having escaped among the first, was no sooner safe on the opposite bank of the river, than he gave orders that the bridge should be broken down; which being obeyed, the rest were obliged to return, and to trust to the clemency of the victors.

In this manner was the night passed by both parties; and at daybreak next morning the light brigade moved into the city, whilst the reserve fell back to a height about half a mile in the rear. Little, however, now remained to be done, because everything marked out for destruction was already consumed. Of the Senate-house, the President’s palace, the barracks, the dockyard, &c., nothing could be seen, except heaps of smoking ruins; and even the bridge, a noble structure upwards of a mile in length, was almost entirely demolished. There was, therefore, no further occasion to scatter the troops, and they were accordingly kept together as much as possible on the Capitol Hill.

Frolics on the frozen river, 1684

What cost sixpence a name?

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Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes…

This week my nine-year-old has been enjoying stomping in the frozen puddles – but entire frozen lakes and rivers, in the UK at least, seem to be a thing of the past. From medieval times until the early/mid-19th century, Britain had what’s referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age’, which is reflected in many charming paintings and accounts of wintry scenes in centuries past.

A particular feature of this era were the ‘frost fairs’ on the River Thames, and we have accounts of them from the 17th to 19th centuries – although there are possible references to social activities in the ice as far back as Saxon times, and in 1410, the Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London recorded: ‘And this yere was the grete frost and ise and the most sharpest wenter that ever man sawe, and it duryd fourteen wekes, so that men myght in dyvers places both goo and ryde over the Temse.’ Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle notes that on 21 December 1564, there ‘began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land’. The Thames then was wider and more sluggish, until London Bridge was rebuilt in the 19th century.

It wasn’t just in London, of course, that these frosts, fairs and football games happened. In 1736 the York historian Francis Drake wrote that in 1607, ‘the river Ouze was wholly frozen up, so hard that you might have passed with cart and carriage as well as upon firm ground. Many sports were practised upon the ice, as shooting at eleven score, says my ancient authority, bowling, playing at football, cudgels, &c.’ And in 1641, a religious pamphlet on ‘God’s judgements’ by Henry Burton and William Prynne, was slightly too eager to record this: ‘On January the 25th, 1634, being the Lord’s Day, in the time of the last great frost, fourteen young men, presuming to play at football on the river Trent, near Gainsborough, coming altogether in a scuffle, the ice suddenly broke, and there were eight of them drowned.’

The Thames sticks most in the popular imagination, however, and there are some wonderful contemporary illustrations of the frost fairs, in pictures and words. In 1608, John Chamberlain (whose letters we can return to another time) wrote a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton, later the Secretary of State: ‘Above Westminster the Thames is quite frozen over and the Archbishop came from Lambeth on Twelfth Day over the ice to the court. Many fantasticall experiments are dayly put in practise as certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice and made all the passengers partakers. But the best is of an honest woman (they say) that had a great longing to have her husband get her with child upon the Thames.’

There were numerous broadsides and ballads written to mark the freezes, particularly that of 1683–4. Perhaps the best account of that season’s freeze was recorded by the diarist and courtier John Evelyn (1620–1706). He had already written about the one back in 1662: ‘1st December. Having seen the strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St. James’s Park, performed before their Majesties by divers gentlemen and others with skates, after the manner of the Hollanders, with what swiftness they pass, how suddenly they stop in full career upon the ice; I went home by water, but not without exceeding difficulty, the Thames being frozen, great flakes of ice encompassing our boat.’ And here is his full account from 1684:

9th January

I went across the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts, and horses passed over. So I went from Westminster stairs to Lambeth, and dined with the Archbishop: where I met my Lord Bruce, Sir George Wheeler, Colonel Cooke, and several divines. After dinner and discourse with his Grace till evening prayers, Sir George Wheeler and I walked over the ice from Lambeth stairs to the Horse-ferry.

16th January

The Thames was filled with people and tents selling all sorts of wares as in the city.

24th January

The frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humor took so universally, that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc. Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling, and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water, while it was a severe judgment on the land, the trees not only splitting as if the lightning struck, but men and cattle perishing in divers places, and the very seas so locked up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in. The fowls, fish, and birds, and all our exotic plants and greens, universally perishing. Many parks of deer were destroyed, and all sorts of fuel so dear, that there were great contributions to preserve the poor alive. Nor was this severe weather much less intense in most parts of Europe, even as far as Spain and the most southern tracts. London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarcely breathe. Here was no water to be had from the pipes and engines, nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen work, and every moment was full of disastrous accidents.

4th February

[Evelyn was a keen gardener, known for his expertise on fruit and trees in particular. Sayes Court was his house in Deptford, near the Thames.]

I went to Sayes Court to see how the frost had dealt with my garden, where I found many of the greens and rare plants utterly destroyed. The oranges and myrtles very sick, the rosemary and laurels dead to all appearance, but the cypress likely to endure it.

5th February

It began to thaw, but froze again. My coach crossed from Lambeth, to the Horse-ferry at Milbank, Westminster. The booths were almost all taken down; but there was first a map or landscape cut in copper representing all the manner of the camp, and the several actions, sports, and pastimes thereon, in memory of so signal a frost.

There are many later accounts of the frost fairs, too, most notably those recorded in Frostiana, or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State, ‘Printed and published on the ice on the River Thames’ on 5 February 1814, and Famous Frosts and Frost Fairs by William Andrews (1887).

Next week: Dieting, Victorian-style…

Nights out in New York, 1744

How does Mr Jameson communicate with his nose?

I was tired of nothing here but their excessive drinking, for in this place you may have the best of company and conversation

One of my favo(u)rite novels of recent years has to be Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, which follows the adventures of the mysterious Mr Smith as he arrives in New York in 1746, clutching a bill for a thousand pounds and unwilling to reveal why. The tale is told in a dashing 18th-century pastiche style, and has some marvellous twists as we follow Smith’s rakish adventures in the fledgling city.

I’ve long meant to dig into the sources Spufford might have used, and it turns out that a key one was a travel diary from 1744, published as Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was born into the Scottish gentry near Edinburgh in 1712 and emigrated to Maryland in 1738, where he set up his practice as a doctor in Annapolis. Hamilton’s Itinerarium follows his travels from Annapolis to York, Maine, via Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and much of New England. He gives us unique first-hand impressions of these places, not to mention amusing anecdotes as he observes the manners and behaviour of these developing settlements, wedged in the period of British rule between colonisation and independence.

Hamilton passed through New York three times on his trip, and here are some of his encounters and observations. Note that New York (which changed its name in 1664 from New Amsterdam and was still much influenced by Dutch culture) was at this point no larger than a rural market town in Britain today. (Its population was 7,248 in 1723 and rose to 13,046 in 1756 – this had nearly doubled 20 years on from that.)

Friday June 15th

At six o’clock in the evening I landed at New York. This city makes a very fine appearance for above a mile all along the river, and here lies a great deal of shipping. I put my horses up at one Waghorn’s at the sign of the Cart and Horse. There I fell in with a company of toapers. Among the rest was an old Scotsman, by name Jameson, sheriff of the city, and two aldermen, whose names I know not. The Scotsman seemed to be dictator to the company; his talent lay in history, having a particular knack at telling a story. In his narratives he interspersed a particular kind of low wit, well known to vulgar understandings, and having a homely carbuncle kind of a countenance, with a hideous knob of a nose, he screwed it into a hundred different forms while he spoke, and gave such a strong emphasis to his words that he merely spit in one’s face at three or four feet distance, his mouth being plentifully bedewed with salival juice by the force of the liquor which he drank and the fumes of the tobacco which he smoaked. The company seemed to admire him much, but he set me a-staring. After I had sat some time with this polite company, Dr. Colchoun, surgeon to the fort, called in, to whom I delivered letters, and he carried me to the tavern, which is kept by one Todd, an old Scotsman, to sup with the Hungarian Club, of which he is a member, and which meets there every night. The company were all strangers to me, except Mr. Home, Secretary of New Jersey, of whom I had some knowledge, he having been at my house at Annapolis. They saluted me very civilly, and I, as civilly as I could, returned their compliments… Two or three toapers in the company seemed to be of opinion that a man could not have a more sociable quality or enduement than to be able to pour down seas of liquor, and remain unconquered, while others sank under the table. I heard this philosophical maxim, but silently dissented to it. I left the company at ten at night pretty well flushed with my three bumpers [alcoholic drinks – possibly whisky], and ruminating on my folly went to my lodging at Mrs. Hogg’s in Broad Street.

Saturday, June 16th

I breakfasted with my landlady’s sister, Mrs. Boswall. In the morning Dr. Colchoun called to see me, and he and I made an appointment to dine at Todd’s. In the afternoon I took a turn thro’ several of the principal streets in town, guarding against staring about me as much as possible, for fear of being remarked for a stranger, gaping and staring being the true criterion or proof of rustic strangers in all places. The following observations occurred to me:— I found the city less in extent, but by the stir and frequency upon the streets, more populous than Philadelphia. I saw more shipping in the harbour. The houses are more compact and regular, and in general higher built, most of them after the Dutch model, with their gavell ends fronting the street. There are a few built of stone; more of wood, but the greatest number of brick, and a great many covered with pantile and glazed tile with the year of God when built figured out with plates of iron, upon the fronts of several of them. The streets in general are but narrow, and not regularly disposed. The best of them run parallel to the river, for the city is built all along the water, in general. This city has more of an urban appearance than Philadelphia. Their wharfs are mostly built with logs of wood piled upon a stone foundation. In the city are several large public buildings. There is a spacious church, belonging to the English congregation, with a pretty high, but heavy, clumsy steeple, built of freestone, fronting the street called Broadway. There are two Dutch churches, several other meetings, and a pretty large Town-house at the head of Broad street. The Exchange stands near the water, and is a wooden structure going to decay. From it a pier runs into the water called the Long Bridge, about fifty paces long, covered with plank and supported with large wooden posts. The Jews have one synagogue in this city. The women of fashion here appear more in public than in Philadelphia, and dress much gayer. They come abroad generally in the cool of the evening and go to the Promenade. I returned to my lodging at four o’clock, being pretty much tired with my walk. I found with Mrs. Boswall a handsome young Dutchwoman. We drank tea, and had a deal of trifling chat; but the presence of a pretty lady, as I hinted before, makes even trifling agreeable… 

Sunday, June 17th

At breakfast I found with Mrs. Boswall some gentlemen, among whom was Mr. J—ys, an officer of the customs in New York. To me he seemed a man of an agreeable conversation and spirit. He had been in Maryland some years ago, and gave me an account of some of his adventures with the planters there. He showed me a deal of civility and complaisance, carried me to church, and provided me with a pew. The minister who preached to us was a stranger. He gave us a good discourse upon the Christian virtues. There was a large congregation of above a thousand, among whom was a number of dressed ladies… There is a pretty organ at the west end of the church, consisting of a great number of pipes handsomely gilt and adorned; but I had not the satisfaction of hearing it play, they having at this time no organist; but the vocal music of the congregation was very good…

At six o’clock I went to see the fort and battery. The castle, or fort, is now in ruins, having been burnt down three or four years ago by the conspirators, but they talk of repairing it again. The Lieutenant-Governour had here a house and a chapel, and there are fine gardens and terrace walks, from which one has a very pretty view of the city. In the fort are several guns, some of them brass and cast in a handsome mould… The main battery is a great half-moon or semicircular rampart bluff upon the water, being turf upon a stone foundation, about 100 paces in length, the platform of which is laid in some places with plank, in others with flagstone. Upon it there are fifty-six great iron guns, well mounted, most of them being thirty-two pounders. Mr. J—ys told me that to walk out after dusk upon this platform was a good way for a stranger to fit himself with a courtesan; for that place was the general rendezvous of the fair sex of that profession after sunset. He told me there was a good choice of pretty lasses among them, both Dutch and English. However, I was not so abandoned as to go among them, but went and supped with the Club at Todd’s. It appeared that our landlord was drunk, both by his words and actions. When we called for anything he hastily pulled the bell-rope, and when the servants came up, Todd had by that time forgot what was called for… I went home after twelve o’clock.

Tuesday, June 19th

… We dined at Todd’s, with seven in company, upon veal, beefsteaks, green pease, and raspberries for a dessert… At night I went to a tavern fronting the Albany coffee-house along with Doctor Colchoun, where I heard a tolerable concerto of musick, performed by one violin and two German flutes. The violin was by far the best I had heard played since I came to America. 

Wednesday, June 20th

I dined this day at Todd’s, where I met with one Mr. M—ls, a minister at Shrewsbury in the Jerseys, who had formerly been for some years minister at Albany. I made an agreement to go to Albany with him the first opportunity that offered. I inquired accordingly at the coffee-house for the Albany sloops, but I found none ready to go. I got acquainted with one Mr. Weemse, a merchant of Jamaica, my countryman and fellow lodger at Mrs. Hogg’s. He had come here for his health, being afflicted with the rheumatism. He had much of the gentleman in him, was good-natured, but fickle; for he determined to go to Albany and Boston in company with me; but, sleeping upon it, changed his mind. He drank too hard, whence I imagined his rheumatism proceeded more than from the in temperature of the Jamaica air.

After dinner I played backgammon with Mr. Jeffreys, in which he beat me two games for one. 

[Next Hamilton visits Nutting Island, now Governors Island.]

Thursday, June 21st

… Having a contrary wind and an ebb tide, we dropped anchor about half a mile below New York, and went ashore upon Nutting Island, which is about half a mile in dimension every way, containing about sixty or seventy square acres. We there took in a cask of spring water. One half of this island was made into hay, and upon the other half stood a crop of good barley, much damaged by a worm which they have here, which so soon as their barley begins to ripen cuts off the heads of it… It is called Nutting Island from its bearing nuts in plenty, but what kind of nuts they are I know not, for I saw none there. I saw myrtle berries growing plentifully upon it, a good deal of juniper and some few plants of the ipecacuan. The banks of the island are stony and steep in some places. It is a good place to erect a battery upon, to prevent an enemy’s approach to the town, but there is no such thing, and I believe that an enemy might land on the back of this island out of reach of the town battery and plant cannon against the city or even throw bombs from behind the island upon it. 

We had on board this night six passengers, among whom were three women. They all could talk Dutch but myself and Dromo [the slave who accompanied Hamilton], and all but Mr. M—s seemed to prefer it to English. At eight o’clock at night, the tide serving us, we weighed anchor, and turned it up to near the mouth of North River, and dropt anchor again at ten, just opposite to the great church in New York. 

Friday, June 22nd

While we waited the tide in the morning, Mr. M—s and I went ashore to the house of one Mr. Van Dames, where we breakfasted, and went from thence to see the new Dutch church, a pretty large but heavy stone building, as most of the Dutch edifices are, quite destitute of taste or elegance. The pulpit of this church is prettily wrought, being of black walnut. There is a brass supporter for the great Bible that turns upon a swivel, and the pews are in a very regular order. The church within is kept very clean, and when one speaks or hollows there is a fine echo. We went up into the steeple, where there is one pretty large and handsome bell, cast at Amsterdam, and a publick clock. From this steeple we could have a full view of the city of New York.

Monday, July 9th

The people of New York, at the first appearance of a stranger, are seemingly civil and courteous, but this civility and complaisance soon relaxes if he be not either highly recommended or a good toaper. To drink stoutly with the Hungarian Club, who are all bumper men, is the readiest way for a stranger to recommend himself, and a set among them are very fond of making a stranger drunk. To talk bawdy and to have a knack at punning passes among some there for good sterling wit. Governour Clinton himself is a jolly toaper and gives good example, and for that one quality is esteemed among these dons…

[New York’s gentry in this era were alas supported in their comforts by many black slaves. In Hamilton’s account he refers to reading a ‘Journal of Proceedings’, which was an account of the ‘New York Conspiracy’ in 1741 alluded to in the next section – this was an alleged plot between black slaves and poor white people to overthrow the governor, and after various fires in the city, more than 100 of these supposed plotters were executed or exiled. Historians do not regard the court cases at the time as reliable.]

The staple of New York is bread flour and skins. It is a very rich place, but it is not so cheap living here as at Philadelphia. They have very bad water in the city, most of it being hard and brackish. Ever since the negro conspiracy, certain people have been appointed to sell water in the streets, which they carry on a sledge in great casks and bring it from the best springs about the city, for it was when the negroes went for tea water that they held their cabals and consultations, and therefore they have a law now that no negro shall be seen upon the streets without a lanthorn after dark.

In this city are a mayor, recorder, aldermen, and common council. The government is under the English law, but the chief places are possessed by Dutchmen, they composing the best part of the House of Assembly. The Dutch were the first settlers of this Province, which is very large and extensive, the States of Holland having purchased the country of one Hudson, who pretended first to have discovered it, but they at last exchanged it with the English for Saranam, and ever since there have been a great number of Dutch here, tho’ now their language and customs begin pretty much to wear out, and would very soon die were it not for a parcel of Dutch domines here, who, in the education of their children, endeavour to preserve the Dutch customs as much as possible. There is as much jarring here betwixt the powers of the Legislature as in any of the other American Provinces.

They have a diversion here very common, which is the barbecuing of a turtle, to which sport the chief gentry in town commonly go once or twice a week.

There are a great many handsome women in this city. They appear much more in public than at Philadelphia. It is customary here to ride thro’ the street in light chairs. When the ladies walk the streets in the daytime they commonly use umbrellas, prettily adorned with feathers and painted.

There are two coffee-houses in this city, and the northern and southern posts go and come here once a week. I was tired of nothing here but their excessive drinking, for in this place you may have the best of company and conversation as well as at Philadelphia.

Friday, August 31st

I arrived in New York about eleven o’clock, and put up my horses at Waghorn’s. After calling at Mrs. Hogg’s, I went to see my old friend Todd, expecting there to dine, but accidentally I encountered Stephen Bayard, who carried me to dine at his brother’s. There was there a great company of gentlemen… There were thirteen gentlemen at table, but not so much as one lady. We had an elegant, sumptuous dinner, with a fine dessert of sweetmeats and fruits, among which last there were some of the best white grapes I have seen in America.

… One there who set up for a dictator talked very much to the discredit of Old England, preferring New York to it in every respect whatsoever relating to good living. Most of his propositions were gratis dicta , and it seemed as if he either would not or did not know much of that fine country England. He said that the grapes there were good for nothing but to set a man’s teeth on edge; but to my knowledge I have seen grapes in gentlemen’s gardens there far preferable to any ever I saw in these northern parts of America. He asserted also that no good apple could be brought up there without a glass and artificial heat, which assertion was palpably false and glaringly ignorant, for almost every fool knows that apples grow best in northern climates betwixt the latitudes of thirty-five and fifty, and that in the southern hot climes, within the tropics, they don’t grow at all, and therefore the best apples in the world grow in England and in the north of France. He went even so far as to say that the beef in New York was preferable to that of England. When he came there I gave him up as a trifler, and giving no more attention to his discourse, he lost himself, the Lord knows how or where, in a thicket of erroneous and ignorant dogmas, which any the most exaggerating traveller would have been ashamed of. But he was a great person in the place, and therefore none in the company was imprudent enough to contradict him, tho’ some were there that knew better. 

Next time… a frosty reception!

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