Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bring Me the Head of Stephen Burroughs!

[An exploration in Google Book Search]

Illustration from The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany.

Some years back I published a little piece in The Historian about the life of Stephen Burroughs, infamous early national counterfeiter and con man and author of one of the great picaresque accounts of American Letters, Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs. As I described Burroughs in the article:

Outraged Pelhamite
Burroughs Memoirs lead the reader in a delightful romp through early America. Burroughs is expelled from Dartmouth for pranks, enlists as a sailor on a privateer in the Revolution, dabbles in counterfeiting, is imprisoned at and escapes from Castle Island prison in Boston Harbor, impersonates a minister, seduces school girls, and gets involved in an early censorship dispute on Long Island, and takes part in the Yazoo land fraud in Georgia. HisMemoirs were an early national best-seller, going through something like 30 editions before the Civil War.

The article was great fun to write and I have maintained an interest in the charming rogue ever since. So tonight Burroughs popped into my head and I suddenly thought--"Google Book Search!" When I wrote my article in 2002 Google Book Search did not exist. What could I find about Burroughs in Google Book Search?

As it turns out, a wealth of information that I had not uncovered for my article. There were of course multiple versions of the memoir. I also found mentions of Burroughs by other 19th century writers, most of them using Burrough's infamy to make a larger point. "I doubt if the best informed of those who have devoted their lives to Public Libraries have ever heard of Stephen Burroughs as being one of their founders,"wrote Charles Francis Adams in 1879, introducing a story about how Burroughs helped to start a library on Long Island. To Frederic Palmer Wells, author of a 1902 history of Newbury, Vermont, Burroughs' story "is the history of a woefully ill-spent life. But he was a man of talents, and his narrative possesses considerable historical value."

"We do not regard Stephen Burroughs as very high authority, in ethics; nevertheless, it is true that even Satan himself may be compelled to testify to the truth," writes a reforming busybody in The Moral Reformer and Teacher on the Human Constitution. The truth that Burroughs testifies, according to the unsigned author, is the deleterious effects of "novel reading" on the character of the young. He quotes Burroughs: "Reading and dwelling so much on those romantic scenes, at that early period of life when judgment was weak, was attended with very pernicious consequences, in the operations of my after conduct."

And there is so much more! Burroughs was often written up in the obscure 19th century histories of the little New England villages where he played his pranks and committed his thefts. He was regularly denounced by moral reformers as an example ofwhatever bad habit they are railing against. and by 1873 Burroughs merits a biographical entry in The American Cyclopaedia, which politely describes him as "an American adventurer." In all, a Google Book Search for "Stephen Burroughs" limited to books in full view produces 458 results, more than half of which are our Burroughs.

My favorite and least-expected discovery is this article from the 1841 volume of The American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany"PHRENOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND CHARACTER OF STEPHEN BURROUGHS." Capitalizing on renewed public interest in Burroughs (who had died a year earlier), thePhrenological Journal works from a recent bust of Burroughs (pictured at the top of this post) to take measurements of his skull and analyze the man:

"The middle lobes of the brain, giving width between and above the ears, are very full, indicating great strength of the selfish propensities, which must have a marked influence . . . The crown of his head is very high, giving independence and determination of mind, joined with smaller Approbativeness and Conscientiousness, almost a total disregard for public opinion . . . His moral sentiments are mostly weak . . . "

Ya think? Below is Burrough's phrenological chart:

The topic of Stephen Burroughs reveals some of the power of Google Book Search. The bust of Burroughs used as in illustration in thePhrenological Journal to my knowledge no longer exists and the illustration here has not been seen by modern Burroughs scholars. The obscure town histories mostly draw their Burroughs information from the Memoirs, but many contain additional details about the man, and towns he moved through. And the frequent references to Burroughs in 19th century proscriptive literature merit an essay of their own. Google Book Search enables new kinds of scholarship.


Iknokold said...

Hi Larry,
I have lived for 40 years on the farm in Hanover Ctr where Stephen Burroughs was raised. Hanover is where he began his pranks and where he had an aborted attempt to attend dartmouth College. As a part of our 250th birthday celebration, I will present a talk on "The Notorious Stephen Burroughs of Hanover Center" I have been gathering a lot of material from the web and the Dartmouth libraries. The Dartmouth reference library has a lot of material not published, which has led me on interesting tracks. I have found that his life in Canada after he wrote his memoirs was equal to his earlier life, so the question that he made up his story in his memoirs can be laid to rest.

It is interesting that a younger sister, Irene, inherited the farm. Stephen was left nothing. She raised 9 children in this old farmhouse, 7 graduated from Dartmouth College, 6 became ministers, and 2 lost their lives in the Civil war. Irene's life was quite in contrast from her brother's.

It also interesting that Stephen Burroughs did not mention the hardships of growing up in Hanover Center. When he came to Hanover in 1772, it was a part of the frontier, with pine trees 250-ft tall and hardwoods 15-ft in diameter. The forests had to be cleared and most of the food raised locally. His father, Eden, was the first settled minister. He promoted a harsh religion, with a lot of public suffering for sins, and Stephen often got a whipping. Three younger sisters died within 6 days of each other one summer, probably of small pox. The winters were cold, and particularly blustery as Hanover Center is at 1200 feet elevation, in the winds well above the Town down by the College.

Stephen does tell of his pranks, which I can just try to invision from the lay of the neighborhod. He has been an interesting study.

Ed Chamberlain

Larry Cebula said...

Ed: Thanks for enriching this post with you comments. I would love to know more about the post-Memoir Burroughs, particularly his counterfeiting ring in Canada.

Anonymous said...

Hi Larry,

In 1836 he printed "A View of Practical Justice as Administered in Lower Canada, Displayed in a Memorial Addressed to His Excellency the Earl of Gosford."

You can also read about Burroughs in "American sinner/Canadian saint? The further adventures of the notorious Stephen Burroughs, 1799-1840" by J.I. Little

C. Burroughs

Anonymous said...

I'm greatly amused by the life Mr. Burroughs chose to lead. My 5th great-grandfather is the Lieutenant (Samuel) Treat Burroughs mentions during his confinement at Castle Island, and the same Lieutenant Treat who assisted Col. Burbeck in the epic beat-down Burroughs took after his failed attempt to take over the prison. Treat served at the Castle from 1780 to 1798.

Larry Cebula said...

Marshall, thanks for the additional information.

Looking over this old post and the comments, I do wonder about my anonymous commenter who signed a post "C. Burroughs." If you are still out there, could you tell me if you are a descendant of Stephen?

Also, I see that Burroughs' "A View of Practical Justice," is now online at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/cihm_21571

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed at what I've been able to find about Lt. Treat, whose portrait serves as my avatar. His third wife, Helena Merlino de St. Pry, was the Marquis de Lafayette's Goddaughter. I wish I could talk to him about his time at "the Castle".

Concordia said...

I found a nice tidbit (second-hand) about Burroughs in a diary that I am working on. In 1809, the diarist wrote:
I passed yesterday ^ this day at M[arble]H[ea]D. - In the forenoon heard Mr Montague
of Dedham. His manner was extremely unpleasant, so much so that
I felt no disposition to attend church in the afternoon. - His sermon
however was well written - the language pure, & the sentences
neatly constructed... The evening was passed at Judge Sewall’s, where I
met Rev[erend] Mr Montague. With this gentleman I was much
more pleased in private conversation, than in the pulpit. He was
full of anecdotes, which he delivered in a very original stile of
humor. Bursts of laughter were incessantly called forth, wh[ich]
were only quelled by the expectation of new food for mirth.
His topics were principally, the absurdities & extravagances of
ignorant & fanatic methodists. - He has travelled much, & ap-
pears to have retained firmly in his memory, whatever of curi-
ous or ludicrous, he has any where observed. - He informed
us that he was once a particular friend of the famous S[tephen] Bur-
roughs, whose class mate he was at Dartmouth college. At the request
of B[urroughs]’s mother, he remonstrated with him upon the petty mischievous
pranks, of wh[ich] B[urroughs] then began to be fond. He pointed out to him the ten-
dency of these things. But B[urroughs] constantly declared he meant no harm,
& should desist in due time. Shortly after B[urroughs] became converted - was ad-
mitted a member of the church, & professed the most rigorous Hopkentian
principles. He remained not long however in this path. His mischiev-
ous inclinations returned. He was detected & excommunicated.-
Very soon after he had received this chastisement fr[om] ecclesiastical
authority, he was expelled fr[om] college by the academical authority.
His offence was stealing money fr[om] a trunk. - Shortly after this, he
was concerned in stealing in a bee hive, & was then pursued by the
civil authority. - He went to his father’s house - stole all his notes,
with wh[ich] he filled his pockets, and fled in pursuit of fortune. - He
commenced preacher - engaged for 17 sundays & preached 16
of them, before he was detected. His hearers were enraptured. But
being at length exposed, he fled, & his flock in pursuit of him. -
He was overtaken in Vermont, where having promised to
wait quietly in a chamber of a tavern, till a warrant should be pro-
cured to arrest him, he took an opportunity to open the window-
& springing fr[om] it, seized his horse, then standing at the door, where
he had left in retreating in haste to a barn, & mounting, was
quickly out of reach. - He was soon after convicted of coun-
terfeiting money, & sent to the castle. Here Mr Montague visited
him, & obtaining leave to take him aside, he asked him, if he did
not recollect the admonitions he had formerly given him. To this
B[urroughs] replied - “How can you blame me. You know I have e-
ver been taught to regard Edward’s on the Will as a work of
highest authority. By that I am informed, that every action
& event has been from eternity predetermined. Am I then to
blame? Had Heaven willed it would not you yourself have
worn these chains instead of me?” Mr M[ontague] had no more
to say. - Mr M[ontague] informed us that in B[urroughs]’s life, written by him-
self, many circumstances, with which he was personally acquainted
were grossly misrepresented. –

Ed Chamberlain said...

I would be interested in learning more about what in Burroughs Memoirs was grossly misrepresented. I am assuming that Burroughs embellished a lot in his story of his life, but a lot of his book can be independently verified. One part of what Concordia related is incorrect. That is when Burroughs left his Pelham, Mass. church in a hurry after his deceit as a preacher was discovered, he fled to Rutland, Mass., not Vermont as is related by Mr. Montague. Burroughs writes that place as Rutland without identifying which State it is in. I first thought Rutland, VT also, because I live just 2 hours drive away. But a map of Mass. clearly shows a Rutland, Mass., just 30 miles away (vs. Rutland, VT being 120 miles away). There he was pursued and confronted by the Pelhamites and gave his "Sermon on a Haymow." Rutland, Mass. was nearby Pelham, Mass. while Rutland, Vermont was several days ride on horseback away, so it does not make any sense that the angry throng from Pelham would pursue Burroughs all the way to Rutland, VT.

Other parts also differ, and I do not know what is correct. For instance, Burroughs says that he left Dartmouth under threat of being expelled. Concordia relates Mr. Montague as saying that Burroughs was expelled for stealing money from a trunk. One of the reasons that Burroughs gave for his problem with dartmouth in his book was that he did not dress properly. He said that his shoes were not proper, because his dress shoes were in repair and the only other shoes that he had were is every day shoes (that perhaps looked worn). He also said that he was not always prepared for his classes, and thus may have been failing one or more. Furthermore, he was playing pranks on his professors. Perhaps the money theft was the 'last straw'.

I believe that with all his excesses, the only thing that kept Burroughs in Dartmouth College was his father's influence. His father, the Rev. Eden Burroughs, was a Trustee of the college and had been a personal friend of Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of the College. While Steven Burroughs attended Dartmouth just after Wheelock’s death, his father must have still maintained influence on the governing of the college. For instance we know that Eden Burroughs was hired by the College, well after Steven left, to establish an extension of the College Church across the Connecticut River in what is now Wilder, Vermont.

I would like to sort this out. I wonder if the original diary of Mr. Montague is available to read. I have lived on the old Burroughs homestead in Hanover Ctr. for 45 years, the same place where Stephen Burroughs grew up and played his youthful pranks. Ed Chamberlain (please email to edwin_chamberlain@valley.net, not the google email address)
Ed Chamberlain

Larry Cebula said...

Ed: I am delighted to see the continued interest in this old blog post of mine. I have done no further work on Burroughs at all (my scholarship has been in other directions) and I am not sure what I can tell you that you do not already know. If you have access to a university library with online databases, you can find a copy of my article in The Historian, and also some printed sermons that are relevant. It is interesting to read Eden Burrough's sermons knowing what path his son was already taking, for example. And Burrough's arch-enemy on Long Island, the Reverend--dang I don't recall his name but you know who I mean--also published a sermon at the time he was fighting with Burroughs. It does not mention Burroughs by name but denounces lying and counterfeiting as two of the worse sins of all.

You are of course correct that it is Rutland, Mass. to which Burroughs flees. Do I remember correctly that it is now beneath the reservoir?

As to the question of what is verifiable and what is not in the Memoir, I tend to agree that those portions we can fact check mostly hold up. Of course the great bulk of it cannot be fact checked. How do we read what appears to be a truthful memoir of a man who tells us he is a great liar? Very carefully, as the old joke goes.

There is another historian who might be worth reaching out to: Daniel Cohen, author of Pillars of Salt. He also wrote an article about Burroughs and very likely knows a great deal more than I. I have never met him but heard him on a podcast just yesterday and was impressed again. He teaches at Case Western, you can google him up.

Let us know what you discover!

Concordia said...

As far as I know, the Rev Mr Montague didn't leave a diary. Or if he did, it would add a lot to the discussion. My quote was only a recollection (recorded by a generally reliable author) of a somewhat unhappy tale told by a stranger. So who knows what really happened, or what was the small detail that upset this acquaintance?

Mike said...

Lieutenant Treat, whom I mentioned above, began receiving a pension in 1799 for an injury he received while preventing the escape of three convicts. I have found no mention of what type of injury or when it occurred, but I can't help but wonder if Burroughs was one of the three escapees.