My Own True Love and I are celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this week! The first out-of-town guests have already arrived. Over the next week there will be food, music, dancing, champagne toasts, laughter, and story telling. Maybe even a little romance. But there won’t be any blog posts. I’ll see you back here at the Margins on September 10 with some good stuff.
One of the recurring themes in accounts of the home front in war—any war—is the formation of a home guard, official or unofficially. It is usually described as being made up of the men and boys who were left behind because they were too old, too damaged or too young to join the army. That description leaves out the fact that women, too, were often part of the home guard, especially if the home guard was an improvised affair.(1)
Case in point: Mrs. Wright’s Guard
Prudence Cummings Wright and her husband, David Wright, lived in Pepperell Massachusetts, which appears to have been a hotbed of anti-British sentiment in the years leading up to the American revolution. Prudence and David were both supporters of the revolutionary cause. (Two of her brothers supported the Crown. A point you should remember.) (2)
When news reached Pepperell of the skirmish at Lexington on April 19, 1775, David and the other male Patriots of the town marched off to join other Patriot forces in the fight. (3) After they left, the women of Pepperell learned that Loyalists planned to pass information to the British on the road that ran through town. Determined to stop the Loyalists, some thirty to forty townswomen formed themselves into a female militia, electing Prudence as their captain. Calling themselves the “Prudence Wright guard” they dressed themselves in male clothing, armed themselves as best they could with farm implements and whatever muskets their men had left behind,(4) and marched(5) to Jewett’s Bridge, on the Nashua River between the towns of Pepperell and Grotton, where they intended to stop any messengers who might try to pass.
It was late before two horsemen approached the bridge, heading toward Boston. Prudence blinded them with her lantern and demanded to know their names and their business. When the horsemen tried to flee, the women surrounded them. One of the horsemen, a known Loyalist named Captain Leonard Whiting, prepared to fight his way through, sure the women couldn’t stop him. The other, Prudence’s brother Samuel, had recognized his sister’s voice. He warned Whiting, “She would wade through blood for the rebel cause.”
Members of Mrs. Whiting’s Guard searched the two men, and confiscated dispatches aimed for the British command in Boston. They guarded their prisoners in a local house overnight. The next morning, they delivered the men and the dispatches to Groton. The men were set free on the condition that they would leave the colony. Prudence never saw her brother Samuel again.
Prudence died in 1823. The epitaph on her tombstone does not read “loving wife and mother,” though presumably she was both. (6) Instead it reads “In Memory of the Captain of the Bridge Guard.”
(1) And possibly the most able and active part, since women in the home guard were not too old, too damaged, or too young to join the regular army. They were just too female.
(2) We will hereafter refer to Patriots and Loyalists—both titles that beg a number of questions beyond the scope of this blog post.
(3) Or at least they are described as marching off. My guess is that early in the war American militiamen walked briskly in what only the charitable would call a formation. The British, now, they MARCHED.
(4) The improvised nature of the weaponry is a recurring theme of stories about women who form improvised home guards.. Do not underestimate the power of a pitchfork.
(5) See previous caveat and multiply it many times. Local militias had some experience of drilling, often trained by British officers. The minutewomen of Pepperell had none.
(6) She had eleven children, nine of whom made it to adulthood.
In Meredith Wilson’s 1957 hit musical The Music Man, con man Professor Harold Hill sings out about “ragtime, shameless music” as one of the pending disasters that threaten Riverside if the parents of the town don’t get their collective act together.
It’s intended to be funny. In 1957, parents were facing new musical threats that could grab their sons and daughters “in the arms of a jungle animal instinct.”* By comparison, ragtime was delightful, old-timey music. Nothing transgressive about it.
In fact, as musicologist Dale Cockerell makes clear in Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917, an earlier generation believed ragtime was indeed “shameless music” that threatened the social as well as the musical status quo.
Cockerell traces the connection between popular music and and the disorderly world of New York City’s brothels, bars, dance halls, concert saloons and “Raines Law hotels”** in the period between the first blackface minstrel shows and the rise of jazz. Writing about a time when “dives” were literally located in below-sidewalk cellars, Cockerell demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between rowdy dancing inspired by equally rowdy music and the flourishing business of prostitution.
Because his subjects often lived below what Cockerell calls “the horizon of record,” many of his sources are middle-class observers who wrote about the music and its audience with disdain. (Some of the most explicit accounts come from undercover investigators hired by various reform societies to provide evidence of immoral activities.) These accounts refer to the “alleged music” produced by musicians and singers with no formal training. They describe erotically charged “tough dancing,” from the imported cancan to “animal dances” like the turkey trot and the bunny hug. They detail sexual solicitation in graphic detail, as well as undercover agents’ sting operations.
Never letting the reader forget the inherent bias of his middle-class, largely white, sources, Cockerell evokes a kaleidoscope of colorful characters and institutions without ever losing track of the poverty on which his subject rests. He raises complicated issues of class, gender and race, issues that would shape the development of American popular music in the coming decades.
Long before sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, sex, alcohol and ragtime ruled.
*Yep, that is just as racist as it sounds.
**The Raines Law, passed in 1896 by the New York State legislature, was intended to regulate alcohol consumption, particularly alcohol consumption by working class men. The law made it illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays except in a hotel. In order to get around the regulation, saloons opened furnished rooms upstairs and began to serve sandwiches with drinks. The rooms were loosely defined–sometimes demised with no more than a thin fabric curtain–and scantily furnished. They soon became a convenient place for prostitutes to retire with their customers. Can you say “unintended consequences”?
Much of this post previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.