February Meeting, 1936

    A STATED Meeting of the Society was held, at the invitation of Mr. Stephen W. Phillips, at the Club of Odd Volumes, 50 Mount Vernon Street, Boston, on Thursday, February 20, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the President, Samuel Eliot Morison, in the chair.

    The records of the last Stated Meeting were read and approved.

    The Corresponding Secretary announced the death of James Harvey Robinson, a Corresponding Member, on February 16, 1936.

    The Corresponding Secretary reported the receipt of letters from Dr. Albert Warren Stearns, accepting Resident Membership; from Mr. Reginald Coupland, accepting Corresponding Membership; and from Mr. Eldon Revare James, accepting Associate Membership in the Society.

    Mr. Robert William Glenroie Vail, of Worcester, was elected a Resident Member of the Society.

    Mr. Stewart Mitchell read the following note:

    Two Winthrops and a Mouse


    THIS paper ought to be prefaced with two confessions. In the first place, there is no good reason for believing that only one mouse played a part in the curious episode to be discussed. The title of this paper might just as well have read “The Winthrops and Two Mice, 1640.” The second confession is most embarrassing for the editor of that learned Society which might properly be called the older brother, or even the great-uncle, of the one whose members are gathered here this afternoon. This second confession simmers down to the alarming fact that the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, as finally printed, cannot always be relied on for a complete record of what actually takes place at any given meeting.

    For proof positive of this rather grave acknowledgment, you must go back with me to the stated monthly meeting of the oldest historical society in the United States which was held at seven o’clock in the evening at the home of the Hon. Charles Francis Adams, at 57 Mount Vernon Street, with President Robert Charles Winthrop in the chair.1086 The precise date was February 12—not yet known as Lincoln’s birthday, however, for the year was only 1857, and James Buchanan, still working over his inaugural address, was successfully pumping advance information as to the fatal Dred Scott Decision out of the supposedly superhuman members of the Supreme Court. At the conclusion of the routine business of the meeting, Mr. James Savage spoke on the character and the career of the Reverend John Allen, Harvard College 1643, son of the Reverend John Allen of Dedham, in the Bay Colony. Having completed his discourse on Allen, Mr. Savage circulated an original letter from Cotton Mather; whereupon various exhibits were produced—among others, the epaulets of George Washington—after which Charles Deane communicated his essay on “Thomas Hutchinson’s Historical Publications,” a learned treatise which occupies sixteen of the twenty pages given over to the printed report of this meeting. There the record ends, and there historians who stop at the sources would have to pause. So pausing, they would come short of the truth.

    First we must look back almost three hundred years to 1640, when John Winthrop wrote the following paragraph in his Journal:

    About this time there fell out a thing worthy of observation. Mr. Winthrop the younger, one of the magistrates, having many books in a chamber where there was corn of divers sorts, had among them one wherein the Greek testament, the psalms and the common prayer were bound together. He found the common prayer eaten with mice, every leaf of it, and not any of the two other touched, nor any other of his books, though there were above a thousand.1087

    This interesting bit of information has aroused two kinds of comment: in the first place, it has provided a source of ridicule for those readers who find the sectarian discrimination of New England mice absurd. In the second place, it has called attention to the significant fact that only ten years after the Arbella landed and four years after Harvard College was founded, John Winthrop, Jr., had a library of “above a thousand” books at Boston. Poking fun at the Puritans is a much more ancient and honorable occupation than those who will resent it will allow. James Savage himself was not above indulging in this sport. When he came to the paragraph just now quoted, he let loose his heavy humor from its leash. Savage, of course, was working from the original manuscript, those three valuable volumes which the first John Winthrop left behind him when he died about the time the first Charles Stuart lost his head. Finding that the Porter-Webster edition of the Journal, published at Hartford in 1790, had omitted part of the text immediately following the miraculous story of the mice, Savage inserted a missing sentence as follows: “Quere, of the child at Cambridge killed by a cat.” Then he set this footnote to the paragraph which has been quoted:

    Such an anecdote looks too much like superstitious belief in the relater. It is apparently introduced as a pointing from heaven against the service of the Episcopal church, but is susceptible of an harmless explanation: the mice, not liking psalmody, and not understanding Greek, took their food from another part of the volume. Our age will believe that the book, which alone was injured among a thousand, was fortuitously attacked by these humble mischief-makers. The succeeding paragraph, omitted by the former editor, is surely of equal value, whether true or not. If the cat had been in Winthrop’s library, she might have prevented the stigma on the common prayer.

    James Savage, it will be remembered, completed the first of his two editions of Winthrop’s Journal in 1826. While he was making the transcription to which all those who have to wrestle with John Winthrop’s handwriting pay full deference and devotion, he carried the second volume of the manuscript out of the building of the Society and into the office of his bank, where he could work alone. There it was burned up, by accident, on November 10, 1825. Thus Savage must always remain the last and best authority for what Winthrop actually wrote during the years for which the original manuscript is irrevocably lost. The year 1640 was one of these. We shall, therefore, never be able to know whether or not, by some strange chance, even the noble Savage nodded over his expert art of deciphering the deceptive handwriting of the first, if by no means the greatest, governor of Massachusetts. There the story must stand in print as long as men care to read it—and laugh or wonder at it.

    Even the sober-sided James Kendall Hosmer, who edited the Journal for the Original Narratives Series, spared a footnote for this comment on the story of the sectarian mice: “The mice, like the men, in New England, Winthrop thinks were characterized by most aggressive dissent”; and then went on to quote the scornful remarks which Savage had put into his editions of 1826 and 1853. Not twenty years after Hosmer, that irritating outlander, James Truslow Adams, ventured an oblique gibe at men who could believe that the mischief of mice had the meaning ascribed to it by a founder of New England:

    While Boyle, Newton, and other founders of the new scientific age in England, were tracing the reign of law, the intellectual leaders of New England were engaged in gathering together collections of “remarkable providences,” ranging in interest from the sudden death of a Sabbath-breaker to the evident marking for destruction, out of a whole library, of a copy of the book of Common Prayer, by a mouse evidently brought up in the “New England way.”1088

    In the meantime, however, the Massachusetts Historical Society had held at 57 Mount Vernon Street, on February 12, 1857, the stated monthly meeting which has already been described. We know that Speaker Winthrop presided at that meeting, and by great good luck we know a little more. Robert Charles Winthrop, it will be remembered, was the first cousin of William Henry Winthrop, of New London, who died in 1860. This Winthrop of New London was probably a hypochondriac and certainly a crank and a recluse, quite too conscious of the men from whom he came. He had gathered into his jealous hands the bulk of what is now the great collection of Winthrop Papers in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. So far as these papers were concerned, the New London Winthrop had the interest of an owner of them; while the Boston Winthrop looked at them with the envious light of learning in his eyes. Speaker Winthrop was already planning his copious biography of their great ancestor in common, and the moment his feeble first cousin died, he managed to buy in the whole collection of the family papers and bring them back to Boston.1089

    The best reason for believing that the relations between these two first cousins were cordial is the surprising circumstance that when President Winthrop arrived at the home of Mr. Adams on the winter evening of the twelfth of February, he carried with him a small book. Exactly one week later he wrote the following words on a little piece of note-paper and pasted it into a volume which presumably did not become his property until three years later:

    By the kindness of William H. Winthrop Esq. of New London, to whom this volume belongs,1090 it was exhibited by me, on the evening of February 12th, 1857, at the residence of Honorable Charles F. Adams, to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the foregoing extracts from Governor Winthrop’s History and Mr. Savage’s notes, relating to the volume, were read by me to my associate members. Mr. Savage himself was present, and the re-production of the old book, in connection with the amusing superstition to which it had given occasion, excited not a little interest.

    Robert C. Winthrop,

    President: Massachusetts Historical Society.

    Boston, Massachusetts.

    February 19, 1857.

    Above this statement stands the notorious quotation from the first governor’s Journal, clipped from the printed page and pasted into the volume, together with the jeering comment of nineteenth-century James Savage. The book which Speaker Winthrop brought to Boston in 1857 was the very volume at which a mouse (or mice) had gnawed two hundred and sixteen years before.1091 For over sixty years this book remained the private property of two generations of his descendants. Then finally, on December 12, 1924, Miss Clara B. Winthrop presented this precious relic to the Massachusetts Historical Society. By virtue of her generosity and the acquisitive piety of her grandfather, the facts of this local and sectarian sign from heaven can be examined in the cold and irreligious light of day this afternoon.

    As soon as we begin to examine the evidence we find that it does not imply all that John Winthrop, Sr., seems to have wished to believe it did. It would be difficult to suppose that the governor was not serious: what humor there is in the Journal is unintentional on the part of its author. Bound together with vellum in this little volume are three publications, each issued separately: first, The Booke of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church of England (London, 1625); second, a New Testament in Greek (Geneva, 1610);1092 and third, The Whole Book of Psalmes: Collected into English Meeter by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others, conferred with the Hebrew, with apt notes to sing them withall (London, 1626). These three publications, it will be noticed, could not have been put into one cover earlier than the date of the latest—1626. In the Journal, it will also be noticed, John Winthrop, Sr., did not list the three parts of this book in the correct order in which they are met with: the Booke of Common Prayer comes first, not last, and the “Greek testament” lies between the service-book of the Church of England and the metrical version of the Psalms. So far as can be gathered, John Winthrop, Jr., had his library in Boston at the time of the entry in the Journal; his father refers to him as “one of the magistrates,” and, though the younger man temporarily returned to England in 1641 he did not settle in New London until 1646. Perhaps the governor had not seen the book to which he referred at the time he wrote his description of the incident which attracted his credulous attention. There is no means of knowing, but the responsibility for the miraculous report must rest on the reputation of one man or the other. The thousand and more books of John Winthrop, Jr., may have been at Ipswich; if such was the case, the entry in the governor’s Journal was probably based on hearsay.

    Nor did the mice, or the mouse, do all that either Winthrop, father or son, professed to believe. Let us look back for a moment at the precision of that statement: “He found the common prayer eaten with mice, every leaf of it, and not any of the two other touched.…” Instruments of heaven are naturally expected to do their work well. This book, however, fails to substantiate the passage from the Journal. The mice stopped nibbling at the pages of the Booke of Common Prayer at “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth,” and, leaving untouched all “The Psalmes of David, of that Translation which is commonly vsed in the Churches,” which we call the Psalter, spared also four whole pages of what are called “Godly Prayers,” at the end. It is fair to say that more than half the pages of the Booke of Common Prayer are complete: that is, twenty-six leaves (or fifty-two pages) show no harm whatever; while twenty leaves (or forty pages) can be supposed, with reason, to have been gnawed. It requires a stretching of imagination, moreover, to believe that both the services of “The Communion of the sicke” and “The order of the buriall of the dead” were not spared by the mice.

    Nor can it easily be doubted that this is the book to which the governor referred in his Journal. Speaker Winthrop, his descendant and biographer, as well, did not question the fact, and James Savage, it will be remembered, was present at the home of Mr. Adams when this book was passed round. They who know anything about the character and manners of Mr. Savage cannot believe that he would have sat silent on that occasion if he had been suspicious of the accuracy or the propriety of any part of the proceedings during that February evening. The failure to record an account of the exhibit is to be explained most easily by William H. Winthrop’s unwillingness to see either his name in print or any note of any one of his possessions.

    There is still better evidence, however, for not doubting that this is the book described in the Journal, for it must have come into possession of some member of the Winthrop family before 1630. On one of the flyleaves is to be found the signature of Forth Winthrop, third son of the governor of Massachusetts. Forth was born in 1609, attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and died unmarried at Groton, England, on November 23, 1630. According to a letter which Mrs. Winthrop sent to his brother, John Winthrop, Jr., the death-bed of this young gentleman was a scene of almost painful piety.1093 Thus, until 1630, the book probably belonged to Forth and was then brought over to New England in the baggage of his older brother. On the very last leaf of the volume, moreover, is the signature, “Martha Johanna.” Martha Johanna was the daughter of Henry Winthrop, who was drowned near Salem soon after landing in New England, and Elizabeth Fones. This girl was born in England on May 9, 1630, and was brought over to her grandfather by the latter’s wife in 1631. Although there is no time here to go into the almost modern and scandalous details of the career of her much-married mother Elizabeth (who became the wife of three men in turn and probably ought to have become the wife of a fourth), it seems likely that little Martha Johanna Winthrop was left to the care of her grandfather, the governor of Massachusetts, and her uncle, the governor of Connecticut. Eventually she married Thomas Lyon, by whom she had a daughter before she died sometime between 1651 and 1654.1094 The point is that Forth Winthrop probably owned this book as a young man, and his niece, Martha Johanna Winthrop, had the opportunity of neatly writing her name in it sometime during the late thirties or early forties of the seventeenth century.

    If this, then, be the book referred to in the Journal, were John Winthrop and his first and most distinguished son wilful falsifiers of the facts? The conclusion is not inescapable. The elder man unquestionably suffered from moments of superstitious melancholy, but John Winthrop, Jr., has been hailed as one of New England’s first men of science—if not the very first. Perhaps the satisfactory solution of the puzzle lies underneath the evidence of this little book: people who believe in the miraculous or the supernatural are always ready to arrange the facts of any unusual incident to fit their fancy. Such testimony must be examined with peculiar care. For some years the late Colonel Banks and the president of this Society delighted and amused its members with their debate, which only death could end, as to whether the Puritan forefathers of New England had suffered “persecution” or merely “prosecution” at the hands of Charles I and Laud. Professor Buffinton pointed out the answer in the memorable paper he recently read before this Society: when they were prosecuted for infractions of the law of the land, the Puritans, he concluded, were persecuted because they lived in the belief that they were persecuted and acted on that belief.1095

    So with John Winthrop and his obviously inaccurate report of the remarkable fate which befell one copy of the Book of Common Prayer in New England. Skeptics will suggest that the mice were probably interrupted at their work, possibly by some distant cousin of that cat in Cambridge. In the eyes of a Puritan, however, all printed pages which contained the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England were fit food for mice, and food for mice they marvellously became. One book out of “above a thousand” suffered damage, and of that one book only certain pages of the Common Prayer were nibbled at; the New Testament and the Psalms escaped unharmed. For us, the real miracle was that act or trick of memory by which many pages of this book became all. That one mouse, or more, should forego “corn of divers sorts” to gnaw on paper was noticeable enough, but nothing less than one of Edward Gibbon’s famous footnotes could do ample justice to the sectarian significance of this simple story.

    Mr. Matt B. Jones read a paper on “Thomas Maule, Quaker, and Freedom of the Press in Massachusetts Bay.”1096