Monday, 29 June 2015

The Salon's Second Birthday!

Today I celebrate two years since the salon threw open its doors, and what a two years it has been!

In that time I have welcomed more than half a million visitors to the site, been fortunate to make some wonderful friends and meet so many lovely readers and fans of all things 18th century. Not only that, but I've also been honoured to announce two forthcoming books from Pen and Sword Books, Life in the Georgian Court and Tales from the 18th Century Old Bailey.

The Grand Theatre and fireworks erected on the water near Court at the Hague, on occasion of the general peace concluded at Aix la Chapelle on 18 October 1784. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Grand Theatre and fireworks erected on the water near Court at the Hague, on occasion of the general peace concluded at Aix la Chapelle on 18 October 1784. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

To celebrate, I thought I would revisit the salon's most popular posts; I had anticipated much Marie Antoinette but I was surprised to find that wasn't the case at all!

The Marriage of Napoleon and Marie Louise
A second try for the French emperor...

The Scandalous Matter of La Reine en Gaulle
A portrait of Marie Antoinette sets tongues wagging...

Jenner, Phipps and the Smallpox Vaccination
The tale of a medical innovation...

A Twist of Fate for Dick Turpin
How a trip to the post office proved fatal for a legendary highwayman...

Floating to Jamaica: Matthew "Monk" Lewis is (Not Quite) Buried at Sea
What became of the corpse of a Gothic icon?

The salon will open again on 1st July... see you then!

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Raunchy World of Edmund Curll

I am thrilled to welcome Brian Watson to the salon, with the tale of one of my favourite Georgians, Edmund Curll, publisher of saucy literature!


First I wanted to thank our lovely host, Madame Gilflurt, for inviting me to write up a post on my favorite Georgian of all time: Edmund Curll. Although Gilflurt's guide has touched upon this 'saucy publisher' in the past, I'm going to expand on him a little bit more so we can all get a clearer picture of him, because he is very important to both the Georgian era and to our modern lives.

I hear you ask--how could a little-known eighteenth century publisher of stolen letters and somewhat raunchy books be so important? Well, for one, he plays a central role in the history of pornography/obscenity and, indeed, on the history of how sex 'became bad,' which is the topic of my academic research and my blog at the Annals of Pornographie (some entries NSFW). When Curll was dragged in irons before the Court of the King's Bench in 1725, the result of his trial (after nearly three years of agony) was the creation of the legal term 'obscene libel,' which is legalese for a sort of dirty book that could deprave and corrupt the morals of the English public. This was the first time in history the state had come down on suggestive or erotic material in such a public way, and it would ripple down through the centuries, causing the category of works that we know today as 'pornography'.

Curlls-Labratory: This is likely the only surviving image of Edmund Curll. In the center panel, to the right, he is represented as the two-faced man. (Grub Street Journal)
Curlls-Labratory: This is likely the only surviving image of Edmund Curll. In the center panel, to the right, he is represented as the two-faced man. (Grub Street Journal)
But we get ahead of ourselves. First, a few biographical details!

Edmund Curll was likely born on the 14th of July 1683, somewhere outside of London. Not much is known about his childhood or adolescence because, as it turns out, the names Edmund and Curll were sort of the 'John' and 'Smith' of eighteenth century England. Nevertheless, the record shows that he was definitely apprenticed at the age of 14 in 1679, and by 1706 had opened his very own shop.

While it might make the most sense to call Curll a bookseller--as he had a shop where he sold books--the book market of the 1700's was a very different world than today. Today, when an author writes a book, they then get an agent, who sells a book to a publisher and then the publisher pays someone to print, advertise, and distribute copies to bookstores. In the 1500s and 1600s, these things were often combined--one building could house a shop of books in the front, a printing press in the back, and hired authors on staff! By the time Curll came on to the scene, the printers and the booksellers had become separate, but Curll still combined the modern roles of bookseller, publisher, and advertiser in one. And what an advertiser he was!

Curll was perhaps the first blatant and unrepentant capitalist and in many cases he pioneered advertising strategies that modern corporations still use today. He would publish literally anything with the faintest whiff or hint of scandal surrounding it. Indeed, the first book he published, in 1707 was The Works of the Right Honourable the late Earl of Rochester--a British Earl who was famous in the 1600's for his sexual escapades and his sexual poetry. Nor was he afraid to steal from others or republish things as his own. Indeed, until April of 1710, it was perfectly legal for him to do so--there was no such thing as copyright law, nor any sort of law addressing what was appropriate and legal to publish.

And he certainly got into a lot of trouble doing so. To quote from his biographer:
There was never a man that was called by so many names. There was never a man who succeeded in irritating almost beyond endurance so many of his betters. And nothing could make him see the 'error' of his ways: he just continued to irritate. If, for instance, objection was raised to some book of his of the bawdier kind, it would likely as not be followed by another even more scandalously improper. If a furious author declared that a book of his, published by Curll, was wholly unauthorized, he would probably find that a 'Second Volume' of his work was being advertised as 'Corrected by the Author Himself.
Sometimes, of course, Curll went too far, and he would run into an absurd series of misadventures:
He was given an 'emetick' on a celebrated occasion by [Alexander] Pope he was beaten by Westminster schoolboys, he was several times imprisoned, and once he stood in the pillory. Actions were brought against him in the Courts, he was almost annually lampooned, and word was even coined from his name to describe the regrettable methods of business. Pachydermatously, Curll continued to exist.
You read that right--the famous and supposedly pure Alexander Pope, of all people, actually resorted to poisoning Curll's beer at the bar, all over the fact that Curll supposedly published a poem by Pope that he didn't want public.

Venus: Frontispiece for Curll’s 1725 Venus in the Cloister. (British Library)
Venus: Frontispiece for Curll’s 1725 Venus in the Cloister. (British Library)
Anyhow, his biggest misadventure was in the year 1725, when he published two works, A Treatise on Flogging in Veneral Affairs (a work about using whips in the bedroom, that might make even the most leathered Fifty Shades of Gray fan blush), and a work called Venus in the Cloister.

This latter work, Venus in the Cloister, is essentially a discussion between two different nuns, in which an older nun, Sister Angelica, slowly seduces a younger one, Sister Agnes, be convincing her that it was a-OK to fool around with her. Religion, she says, is comprised of “two Bodies, one of which is purely celestial and supernatural, the other terrestrial and corruptible, which is only the invention of Men.” In order to "truly commune" with God, Agnes should “dispense with the Laws, Customs, and Manners to which [she] submitted herself at her Entrance into the Monastery,”and explore her sexuality (and, one assumes, explore Angelica).  Venus in the Cloister is not all sex--it is also filled with some funny stories--such as one particularly hilarious scene where a an unfortunate nun uses a chamber pot that a lobster had crept into, much to the dismay of the lobster and her genitals. (If you want to know more, I discuss in greater detail here and here --NSFW.)

Regardless, certain groups (like the Society for the Reformation of Manners) took great offense to this sort of work and had Curll arrested in 1725 by the government for being a “the Printer and Publisher of several obscene Books and Pamphlets, tending to encourage Vice and Immorality.” The trial would take three agonizing years to be resolved, mainly because the judges disagreed about whether they had the right to punish Curll for such an offense. When they finally decided there was a need for it, they announced that “This [judgement] is for printing bawdy stuff. . .stuff not fit to be mentioned publicly,” and sentenced Curll to pay a fine of £100 and spend a day in the pillory.

Curll-Humiliated: Curll Humiliated by Westminister Schoolboys (University of Liverpool)
Curll-Humiliated: Curll Humiliated by Westminister Schoolboys (University of Liverpool)
In the end, however, our wily Curll managed to even escape what could have been a very bad day in the pillory–people were known to have been stoned to death in a couple hours. He cleverly managed to avoid being pelted to death by printing and distributing to audience members a pamphlet that said the man before them was there not for obscene libel, but for defending the memory of the deceased Queen Anne, who was well loved by the English population.

I’ll let Curll’s biographer Ralph Strauss close us out:
The crowd came to look and to jeer, and possibly throw a few eggs. One man exercised his privilege and threw an egg. He was nearly lynched. The others smiled and grumbled at Governmental stupidity… In any case, ‘he was treated with great Civility by the Populace,’ and when he was released he seems to have been lifted on to the shoulders of an admiring crowd and taken away to a tavern and [had] as many drinks as even he wanted.”

About the Author

Brian Watson is a historian of pornography and obscenity, and also studies the history of privacy, marriage, and sexuality. He obtained his B.A. in English and History from Keene State College, and his M.A. in History & Culture at Drew University, and is currently expanding his master's thesis into a book on the history of obscenity You can follow him on twitter @HistoryOfPorn

This post copyright © Brian Watson, 2015.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

An Apparition at Cambridge

I am thrilled to welcome Chris Woodyard to the salon again today for the second of three spooky Georgian tales!


This story of a companionable ghost at Cambridge was originally found in The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1778.

Apparition at Cambridge.
Letter.—Rev. Mr. Hughes to the Rev. Mr. Bonwicke.
Jesus College, Jan. 9, 1706-7.

Dear Sir,

[After relating college news, the letter proceeds] These are all the scraps that I could pick up to entertain you withal; and, indeed, I should have been obliged to have ended with half a letter, had not an unusual story come seasonably into my relief.

One Mr. Shaw, formerly Fellow of St. John's College, and late Minister of a college living, within twelve miles of Oxford, as he was sitting one night by himself, smoaking a pipe, and reading, observed somebody to open the door: he turned back, and saw one Mr. Nailor [or Naylor], a fellow-collegian, an intimate friend, and who had been dead five years, come into the room. The gentleman came in exactly in the same dress and manner that he used at college. Mr. Shaw was something surprised at first; but in a little time recollecting himself, he desired him to sit down: upon which Mr. N. drew a chair, and sat by him; they had a conference of about an hour and a half. The chief of the particulars were these: he told him, "that he was sent to give him warning of his death, which would be in a very short time;" and, if I mistake not, he added, that his death would be sudden. He mentioned, likewise, several others of St. John's, particularly the famous Auchard, who is since dead.

Mr. S. asked if he could not give him another visit: he answered no, alleging, "that his time allotted was but three days, and that he had others to see, who were at a great distance." Mr. Shaw had a great desire to enquire about his present condition, but was afraid to mention it, not knowing how it would be taken. At last he expressed himself in this manner: "Mr. N., how is it with you in the other world?" He answered, with a brisk and chearful countenance, "Very well." Mr. Sh. proceeded, and asked, "Is there any of our old friends with you?" He replied, "Not one." After their discourse was over, he took his leave, and went out. Mr. Shaw offered to go with [him] out of the room; but he beckoned with his hand that he should stay where he was. Mr. Nailor seemed to turn into the next room, and so went off. This Mr. Shaw the next day made his will, the conference had so far affected him; and not long after, being taken with an apoplectic fit while he was reading the divine service, he fell out of the desk, and died immediately after. He was ever looked upon to be a pious man, and a good scholar; only some object, that he was inclinable to melancholy. He told this story himself to Mr. Groves, a Fellow of St. John's, and a particular friend of his, and who lay at his house last summer.

Mr. G., upon his return to Cambridge, met with one of his college who told him that Mr. Auchard was dead, who was particularly mentioned by Mr. Shaw. He kept the business secret, till, hearing of Mr. Shaw's own death, he told the whole story. He is a person far enough from inventing such a story; and he tells it in all companies without any manner of variation. We are mightily divided about it at Cambridge, some heartily embracing it, and others rejecting it as a ridiculous story, and the effect of spleen and melancholy. For my own part, I must acknowledge myself one of those who believe it, having not met with anything yet sufficient to invalidate it. As to the little sceptical objections that are generally used upon this occasion, they seem to be very weak in themselves, and will prove of dangerous consequences, if applied to matters of a more important nature. 

I am, dear sir, yours, most sincerely,

J. Hughes.  

Cambridge Library
Cambridge Library
The printing of this letter roused a flurry of correspondence from other Cambridge associates such as the Rev. Richard Chambre, who left a manuscript recounting virtually the identical story, told by Mr Grove, the public register of Cambridge, albeit filtered through a lengthy chain of Right Revs. and Fellows. Several other correspondents corroborated Mr Shaw’s story or produced memoranda of the apparition, written at the time. It seemed as though a great many people had either heard the story first- or second-hand or had made note of it. 

The entire Gentleman’s Magazine correspondence is too lengthy to recount here, but there are wonderful little miniatures of life at Cambridge: Mr Shaw sitting up late, smoking over his book; the ghost wearing his usual robe and cassock, with his hands clasped before him, Mr Auchard dying in his chair when his bedmaker went from him to fetch his commons for supper, Mr Nailor’s answer to Mr Shaw that there was not one of their old acquaintances with him, “struck him to the heart.” One letter notes, “It is remarkable that Mr. Shaw was a noted enemy to the belief of apparitions, and used always in company to dispute against them.”

The “cosy” and parochial atmosphere of life at University comes through vividly in the letters, reminding us of another sceptical teller of ghost stories from Cambridge, M.R. James who used the same minutiae of University life to set the stage for those dreadful things that happen when one isn’t careful. One is fairly certain that James would have known and enjoyed this classic Cambridge ghost story and we can readily imagine that if the ghost of a late friend had walked into his study, he would have offered it a chair and some tobacco, and asked it how it did, just as the unflappable Mr Shaw did so many years before. 

About the Author

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

Visit Chris online:

This post copyright © Chris Woodyard, 2015.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

What's Love Got to Do With It: Marriage with an Agenda

It is my pleasure to welcome Jacki Delecki to the salon today to discuss the use of marriage as a plot element. 

Jacki has offered a free audiobook download of A Code of Love for readers; thank you to everyone who entered, the winner is Carol Cork!


What's Love Got to Do With It: Marriage with an Agenda

 While some cultures still practice arranged marriages, most contemporary societies believe the foundation for marriage should be love. This is a fairly recent shift in perspective. For many centuries, marriage was a strategic decision made for political alliances, financial gain, expanding land holdings or advancing social status.

"What marriage had in common was that it really was not about the relationship between the man and the woman," said Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin Books, 2006) in the article History of Marriage: 13 Surprising Facts. "It was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force."

For historical authors who incorporate suspense and intrigue into their plots, the "strategic marriage" concept opens up the potential for all sorts of emotional conflict and plot twists. My series, the Code Breakers, is set in Regency England, and I've had great fun with this angle. During this time period, British and French aristocrats were all connected by marriages and alliances, and the division of classes also meant they socialized together. This makes a great area for creative license to develop spies who are conflicted over family loyalties vs. country loyalties.

 And it also makes for excellent double agents which I did in A Code of Love, Book 1 in the Code Breakers Series. In A Christmas Code, the romance is derived from the familiarity within the closed aristocratic society. Gwyneth is in love with her brother's best friend. She has grown up with him and now is in constant contact in the small social circle of the Ton. To prove her merit, maturity and strength to Ash, who is a spy, Gwyneth becomes entangled in espionage, which pushes Ash’s internal conflict as he struggles between duty and passion. In A Code of the Heart, Miss Amelia Bonnington assumes she will marry her best friend’s older brother, the Earl of Kendal, the man she grew up with and who brought solace after her mother died. That is until she accompanies Gwyneth to a house Christmas Party and meets the Lord Derrick Brinsley, an outcast in society. One of the conflicts standing between Amelia and Derrick is the strict Ton standards for behavior and etiquette. Ultimately Derrick must find a way to redeem himself in order to avoid having Amelia also shunned from society.

What are your thoughts on how historical authors use social norms as part of their story plots?

About the Author
 Jacki Delecki is a Best-Selling, Romantic Suspense writer. Delecki’s Grayce Walters Series, which chronicles the adventures of a Seattle animal acupuncturist, was an editor’s selection by USA Today. Delecki’s Romantic Regency The Code Breaker Series hit number one on Amazon. Both acclaimed series are available for purchase at
To learn more about Jacki and her books and to be the first to hear about giveaways join her newsletter found on her website. Follow her on FB or Twitter.

A Cantata of Love - Book 4 in The Code Breakers Series

Two weeks earlier in Paris

Michael Harcourt, the Earl of Kendal, attempted to stand with the arrival of his unexpected guests. He was quite adroit at avoiding any pressure or pain from the gunshot wound in his arse by this nimble maneuver. Using his arms to push himself off the settee, he planted one leg at a time, twisting forward, preventing any backside contact.

Hurrying to greet the guests and to secure his dressing gown from revealing any part of him, he twisted a bit too quickly and fell backward on his wound. The sharp pain on impact was excruciating. 
“Son of a bitch.” He knocked over his brandy in the fall, spilling the liquid into his boots. “Double son of a bitch.”

Denby, his valet, rushed to greet the two nuns encased in black robes and white wimples, who stood at the entrance to the drawing room. The older nun held a young boy’s hand; a round, jolly nun carried a large portmanteau. Denby turned back at the commotion caused by the fall. He signaled impatiently with his hand for Michael to get off the floor.

Without any help from his valet, he was left to get off the floor. Hampered by his cumbersome, dressing gown, he struggled on all fours to obtain an upright position.

The boy giggled behind his hand at Michael’s gymnastics. The minx whispered to the older nun whose severe lines softened when she leaned down to answer.

Her penetrating gaze at Michael left him feeling fully exposed for every one of his transgressions.

Now upright, he pulled himself up and walked forward with decorum of his rank, his hands holding his dressing gown together. He glanced at Denby, whose face was red. Could a stalwart of the cavalry be embarrassed by the censure of a nun?

“Sister Marie Therese and Sister Genevieve, may I present Lord Michael Harcourt, the Earl of Kendal,” Denby said.

Michael bowed with the correct amount of aristocratic poise for greeting the sisters, who had just witnessed his disgraceful fall. He ignored the piercing pain that shot down his arse. “A pleasure, I’m sure. May I ring for tea?”

The round Sister Genevieve smiled. It was obvious that she had an amiable personality, unlike her tight-lipped and tight…superior.

“There is no time. Only a snack for Pierre for the journey.” Sister Marie Therese commanded.

Avoiding further pain, Michael nodded instead of bowing to the youth. “How do you do, Pierre?”
With his eyes focused down, the boy whispered almost inaudibly, “Monsieur.” A hat covered his hair, little wisps of blond hair framed his pale face.

“We should make the switch quickly. The men watching your home will be suspicious of your entertainment of the Sisters of the Visitation.” Sister Marie Therese’s speech was clipped, her manner fixed. “Lord Kendal, remove your dressing gown.”

Michael stiffened in shock. He had been imbibing generous amounts of brandy for the pain, but he had consumed nowhere near-enough to have imagined that a nun had just instructed him to get naked.

He turned to Denby for help, but the seasoned soldier’s gaze was on the ground, his face as bright a crimson as a chaste debutante.

Michael replied through gritted teeth, “Over my dead body.”

“Lord Kendal, it will be your dead body if we don’t make haste.”

Sister Marie Therese stepped closer. Her eyes flashed with authority, the same look he assumed she gave to Pierre and other wayward children. “You and Mr. Denby will escape Paris and deliver Pierre to the safety of England. You will leave France disguised as Sisters of Visitation.”
In the seaside town of Berck, France

Mademoiselle Gabrielle De Valmont pushed back Lord Harcourt’s blond curls and applied the wet cloth to his burning brow. His long golden eyelashes brushed against his bright red cheekbones. In their days of hard travel from Paris, the Earl’s gunshot wound had festered into a nasty infection.

At this moment, he rested, but, in the past days when the fever peaked, he thrashed, calling out about a book to woman named Henrietta. Desperate to soothe him, Gabrielle discovered he’d calm with the French songs of her childhood.

They couldn’t stay in the little village much longer without Napoleon’s or Fouche’s henchmen discovering them. Gabrielle had brought them to her former nanny’s tiny village of Berck, south of Calais, when it became obvious the Earl couldn’t travel. They waited until the middle of the night to make their entrance into the village to avoid alerting the citizens.

For seven long days and nights, she had cared for the ill Earl. Their presence in the tiny town couldn’t be kept secret much longer. They had to leave Berck and France.

But how would they cross the channel with the French soldiers on alert, watching all the boats crossing the English Channel?

Monsieur Denby, Lord Harcourt’s valet, had assured her that he had a plan to divert their attention away.

Helpless and despondent from the exhaustion, she beseeched the Blessed Virgin for their safe escape and the Earl’s recovery.

She also prayed that Lord Harcourt would forgive her and Mother Therese for their deception. When he understood what Fouche and Napoleon had planned for her, she knew the amiable gentleman wouldn’t abandon her to her terrible fate.

Look for more heart-pounding adventure, international intrigue, and sizzling romance with the release of Book Four in The Code Breaker Series, A Cantata of Love in the Fall of 2015.

Copyright © Jacki Delecki, 2015.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

For the Glory of the Marines: The Life and Legacy of Major John Pitcairn

My guest today is Avellina Balestri, who is here to share the fascinating tale of John Pitcairn.


 Major John Pitcairn of the British Marines is an historical personage that many of my friends have been acquainted with through my novel-in-the-making The Third Charge of Crimson,which features him as a main character. Even before reading my scribblings, many of them probably already read his name in American History texts covering the American Revolution and that fateful day at Lexington Green when "the shot heard round the world" was fired. My fascination with the man has been long in gestation, as there has always been something so colorful and daring about, so inescapably paradoxical and yet also unflinchingly heroic, and also slightly tragic as he became an early casualty of a war that would tear apart two peoples and change history forever…   
 John Pitcairn was born in 1722 in the bustling port town of Dysart, Fife in the Lowlands of Scotland. His parents, Rev. David Pitcairn and Katherine Hamilton, were both members of the gentry, and through them, he could claim blood relations with Robert de Bruce of Scotland, Edward III of England, Viscount Stair, "The Father of Scottish Law", and various other prestigious personages. His father had served as a military chaplain for the Scottish Cameronian Regiment under Colonels Lord Stair and Ferguson during the War of Spanish Succession. 

The regiment had a prestigious history and distinctly religious origin, dating back to when Presbyterians were finally readmitted into the military under King William III after an era of persecution against anyone who refused to acknowledge the reigning sovereign as the Head of the Church, in the Episcopal tradition . Proud of the 17th century Scottish Covenanters who signed a “Covenant” in defiance of King Charles I at Greyfriars when he attempted to meddle in affairs of the Kirk, the regiment continued to hand out Bibles to its members as a matter of time-honored tradition. 

After his term of service expired, Rev. Pitcairn had settled down in Dysart where he raised his large family and served as Presbyterian minister of St. Serf's Church for some fifty years. John was the youngest surviving member of the family. The Pitcairns lived in the manse (minister's house) near the old harbor on the Firth of Forth. Not far from that were the historic caves where St. Serf himself was said to have spent time in prayer and meditation, and at one point wrestled the devil himself! 

The medieval church building and adjoining tower were historic monuments, and the latter had often been used to ward of English pirates making their way up the Firth of Forth. But living in the old manse was not easy for Rev. Pitcairn, who often complained of its dilapidated condition which did little to keep out the bitter seaside weather. But the old veteran was of sturdy stock, and held his post with firm resolve. 

The combination of Rev. Pitcairn’s past military service and being reared on the doorstep of the sea seemed to have had an effect on his youngest son, and in his early 20's John Pitcairn joined 7th Marines of Cornwall. This was a rather unusual move, as he had breeding and money to purchase a commission in any one of the most affluent army regiments. But the young man seems to have been repelled by the idea of a desk job and determined to be in the heat of the action, even if that meant slow promotions and the possibility of being disbanded as the Marines often were. Pitcairn became an enthusiastic advocate of making the Marines a permanent feature of the British military, saying that he had “a great desire to convince everybody of the utility of keeping a large body of Marines, who are capable of acting either by sea or land as the public service requires.” 

In 1746, the British Marines were called to action by the government to confront the threat of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobites who had marched through Scotland and into England the previous year, winning unexpected victories as they went. For John Pitcairn, as a staunch supporter of the Hanoverian government, it must have been rather unnerving to know that the rebels had managed to capture Edinburgh – not a far cry from his home-town and family by any means. But the scare was ended when the Jacobites met with brutal defeat at the hands of government troops on Culloden Moor outside of Inverness. While the Highland rebels dealt with bloody reprisals by the Duke of Cumberland and his troops, the marines were disbanded to save the Admiralty "unnecessary" expense. We can easily surmise Pitcairn was not thrilled. 

But life moved on, and he soon married Elizabeth Dalrymple, a well-to-do relative of Lord Stair, his father's old superior. It was a good match, certainly in light of upper-class breeding and financial security. And it seems likely that the marriage was not loveless either, as John and "Betty" went on to have a total of ten children together, six sons (David, Thomas, William, Robert, Clerke, and Alexander) and four daughters (Annie, Katherine, Joanna and Janet). The eldest son, David, eventually became a physician for the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV. Thomas joined the Royal Artillery. William followed his father into the Marines. Robert joined the Navy and was the first to site Pitcairn Island in the Pacific before he and his ship were lost at sea. Clerk died in childhood, and Alexander went on to become a barrister in London. All the girls married into high-born military families.

When the Marines were finally reestablished permanently in 1755, Pitcairn had his rank of lieutenant reconfirmed. A year later, he was promoted to a captain. During the Seven Years' War, Pitcairn served in the New World theatre on board the warship H.M.S. Lancaster which took part in the capture of the French fortress of Louisburg in 1758. Back in Britain, the Pitcairn Family moved about quite a bit -- Dysart, Edinburgh, and Kent were all home bases at different points, and it seems as though Mrs. Pitcairn returned to Dysart to give birth to several of her children. Due to the slow-moving process of promotion in the Marines, it took until 1771 for Pitcairn to be made a major. Ironically, the date of his promotion was April 19, a date which would be forever connected with him for another event yet to take place. 

In 1773, the unrest in Boston over the direct taxes levied on the American Colonies by British Parliament resulted in the destructive demonstration known to history as the Boston Tea Party. The British government responded by closing Boston Harbor until the citizens paid for the ruined tea. To ensure the submission of the Bostonians, British troops were sent to the port city, including 600 Marines under the command of Major John Pitcairn. He initially found himself caught in a standoff between General Thomas Gage of the British Army and Admiral Graves of the Royal Navy with regards to who held rank over the Marines. This caused multiple delays in scheduling, and prevented the Marines from landing until Pitcairn’s insistence persuaded the commanders to disembark them in small groups and quarter them in private residences via the hated Quartering Act.

As a staunch Scots Tory, Pitcairn’s personal attitude towards the colonists' plight was markedly unsympathetic, and he advocated taking a firm hand with the rabble-rousers. Infamously, he wrote in a letter that he believed that a decisive action and "burning two or three towns" would be the only way of putting the situation to rest. He also boasted that such an ill-organized rabble would never be able to sustain any meaningful resistance against the King’s Arms, and that would run “before I can pull my sword from the scabbard.” But in spite of being brusque in many instances, there was another side to his rather complex character. 

After being billeted in the home of Francis Shaw, a Patriot merchant in the residential area of North Square in Boston, Pitcairn managed to win them over on a personal level through his courtesy and genial charm. Later on, the Shaws would have another very important reason to like Pitcairn. When the major’s aide, Lieutenant Wragg, insulted the Patriot cause, their teenaged son, Sam, threw wine in his face and a duel almost broke out between them. Another British officer might have had the young man arrested for technically attacking the lieutenant, or otherwise just let Wragg take care of him in his own way. But Pitcairn, a father of many sons himself, intervened to defuse the situation and let the boy go with a tacit warning. 

As representative of martial law on North Square, Pitcairn helped settle disputes between soldiers and civilians, organize street-sweeping committees, assemble a fire brigade (sweet irony, considering his threats of fire and sword!), and other necessary duties that prevented a break-down of civic order during the British occupation. Through it all, he endeared himself to the people with whom he dealt because of his integrity and good-humor in spite of the often strained circumstances. One citizen of Boston called him “an amazingly gentle man”, and insisted that that “he was perhaps the only British officer in Boston who commanded the trust and liking of the inhabitants.” Even the Patriot propagandist, Rev. Ezra Stiles, said that he considered him to be “a good man in a bad cause.” The major also seems to have one over his next-door neighbor Paul Revere, who is said to have painted a portrait of him on horseback. 

Pitcairn held social gatherings at the Shaw House, where he broke tradition by inviting an assortment of military friends, family members (including his sons, William and Thomas, and son-in-law Charles Cochrane, the youngest son of the Earl of Dundonald, all of whom were in military units stationed in Boston), and opposition locals to the same event, presenting them with the opportunity to discuss their differences in a civilized manner. In essence, he turned a private salon into a rough equivalent of a modern-day block party! It seems more than likely that Pitcairn’s own sarcastic humor and wry wit thrived in this atmosphere of initial tension and unusual comradery. 

In an official capacity, Pitcairn made an impression on his marines through his hands-on leadership style. He was a strict disciplinarian and demanded excellence, but led by example and maintained the same high standards in his own comportment. Ever active, he received daily reports from his battalion commanders, personally oversaw drilling, struggled to ascertain needed supplies from the high command, accompanied the marines on long marches into the hostile countryside, and at one point even lived with his men in the barracks (a drastic step for an 18th century gentleman officer) in order to assure regularities were observed and to prevent the practice of selling their kit to buy "cheap Yankee rum", which not only made them drunk, but poisoned several of them. “Depend on it, my lord, it will kill more of us than the Yankees”, he wrote in a letter to the Earl of Sandwich. 

Pitcairn was certainly not a person to cross, although he was generally humane in his treatment of those under his command, using the punishment of flogging only as a last resort, and even then with some distaste. He was also occasionally willing to spare the life of deserters. This, of course, did not stop him from verbally disparaging them for their lack of discipline (he promptly dubbed them “the animals”!) and over the problem of their height (for some strange reason, the marines recruited really short men, earning them the mocking French nickname “le petite grenadiers”, and Pitcairn found it difficult to fit them with proper uniforms!). Nevertheless, he showed himself to be a conscientious leader who was concerned for their individual welfare and would make gestures on their behalf, such as writing a letter to the Earl of Sandwich seeking monetary assistance for the “worthy but unfortunate under my command”. They earned respect for their tough, tenacious commander and came to view him as something of a surrogate father and embodiment of their fighting spirit. In time, he did turn them into an effective fighting force.

Being the son of a preacher evidently had some lasting effects on his character, for he attended church services every Sunday out of a strong sense of moral obligation, and rented a pew for himself and the rest of the Pitcairn Family Clique at the Anglican Old North Church. Although he may have shown signs of piety on the Sabbath, he was infamous around town and in his regiment for swearing like a marine (go figure...) during the rest of the week! Needless to say, he was quite convinced that Divine Justice was on the British side of the political tension, and referring to the rebels, commented: “Poor deluded people! God open their eyes.” In a twist of history, Old North Church, would go down in history as the church that had two lanterns hung in the bell-tower to signal Paul Revere to begin his Midnight Ride. 

Pitcairn officially secured him place in the pages of history when he volunteered to go on a secret expedition as second-in-command to Colonel Francis Smith. The mission statement from General Thomas Gage was to arrest the rebel ring-leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock and then to proceed to Concord and capture or destroy a cache of ammunition the rebels were said to have hidden there. It was an odd mission for Pitcairn to go on, since there were no other marines present. However, it seems as if he was craving some action and this presented a juicy opportunity to have some. His eager-beaver attitude the day before the mission probably alerted his Patriot hosts that something was amiss from the start. Beyond that, the Patriot spy network had other sources of information, almost certainly including General Gage’s American wife, Margaret. Thanks to Paul Revere and his fellow riders of warning, by the time the British reached Lexington Green on the morning of April 19, 1775, the Patriot militia had already turned out with guns in hand to confront them.

This is where history gets a bit hazy. I won't go into every "who-dunn-it" theory in the books, but basically it seems that Pitcairn, commanding the advance guard, road up to the rebel militiamen and demanded that they lay down their arms, famously shouting, "Disperse, ye rebels! Disperse! Why do ye not lay down your arms? Disperse or ye are all deadmen!" Some took the hint and started to disband, but Pitcairn had orders to capture their weapons and ordered his men to surround and disarm the militia. Then an anonymous shot (or shots) were fired, and the British soldiers opened fire without orders from their superiors. Pitcairn and his fellow officers claimed that they did all in their power to stop the firing but could only put an end to the melee when a drummer was located to beat recall and Colonel Smith arrived at the scene. Whoever fired “the shot heard ‘round the world”, the beginning of the American Revolution was underway, and Pitcairn would be branded as the first villain of American mythology.

After the skirmish at Lexington, the British moved on to Concord to hunt for the ammunition cache. In the course of the search, a townsperson slapped Pitcairn across the face, and he in turn wound up knocking down a tavern owner who refused to be cooperative in the searching process. Then the major proceeded to order breakfast and a brandy at the same tavern, and was unexpectedly conscientious about paying for everything. However, apocryphal legend insists that while stirring his brandy with his finger, he growled “I hope to stir the Yankee blood like this by night fall!” 

The epic house-by-house search came to naught because the Patriots had been forewarned and hid most of their cache in the woods. Only a few barrels of gunpowder could be found, which the British burned in a bonfire in the center of the square for dramatic effect. The blaze accidentally caught fire to the courthouse, and the British soldiers and townspeople alike temporarily joined forces to put out the blaze.  But the militia, which had snow-balled in numbered since Lexington, saw the smoke rising from the town and the British were burning it. Upon this currently incorrect although not implausible notion, they charged the bridge at Concord and another skirmish broke out.  

By now, the British were severely outnumbered and virtually surrounded. Pitcairn, realizing the trouble brewing, sent a messenger back to Boston for reinforcements. However, confusion ensued when General Gage, who seems to have been unaware that Pitcairn had volunteered for the mission, sent a message to the Shaw House ordering him to take his marines and relive Colonel Smith! It took about an hour of searching Boston before everyone realized that Pitcairn had gone to Concord, and Sir Hugh Percy was put in his place at the head of the reinforcements to rescue them. 

Meanwhile, rebel snipers were harassing Colonel Smith’s columns from behind trees, walls, and hedges as they attempted to get back to Boston. Eventually, the colonel himself was wounded, and the command devolved to Pitcairn, who rallied his wavering ranks and ordered a counter-attack on the rebels in the woods. But a volley grazed his arm and wounded his horse, which threw him to the ground and bolting into the American lines, taking with it his prized pistols in the saddle bag. They would be presented to American General Israel Putnam, who carried them for the remainder of the war. 

When Pitcairn fell, his men assumed he was dead and order completely collapsed. It was every man for himself in a pell-mell route to escape the range of the rebel marksmen, and their semi-conscious leader was left to shift for himself. Even after coming to, he had to play dead so as not to attract the attention of nearby Patriots who were quite gleeful at the idea of having killed him. When they finally left, he staggered off in search of his scattered ranks, and was relieved to discover that Sir Hugh Percy had finally showed up with reinforcements - including his “animal” Marines – and cannons. 

After the subsequent street fighting in towns along the route back to Boston (which tragically including some of the first atrocities of the war as independent bands of soldiers gunned down civilians, looted valuables, and torched homes), the British troops managed to limp back to Boston and cross back over the River Charles from whence they came. In keeping with his character, Pitcairn was the last man to get in the boats ferrying them across. But if the British thought the skirmishes could be easily forgotten, they were wrong, and they soon found themselves bottled up in the city by Patriots who took possession of the high ground overlooking Boston. For two months the opposing sides watched each other warily, knowing that a full-scale battle was inevitable. 

On June 17, 1775, the British launched three assaults on the Patriot positions on Breed's Hill (later mistaken by historians for nearby Bunker Hill). The first two were repulsed with horrendous casualties, faced down by the same General Putnam who now was armed with Pitcairn’s pistols and had given his soldiers the famous order “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes!” The third British charge saw Major John Pitcairn leading his marines up hill, brandishing his sword, and urging them on, “Hurrah, the day is ours!” Then their lines almost got entangled with another British regiment being driven back by heavy fire from the American redoubt. “Break and let the Marines through!” Pitcairn bellowed, and threatened to “bayonet the buggers” if they would not give the Marines right of way! 

The summer heat was beating down mercilessly, but when one of his captains complained of it, the major reprimanded him, saying "Soldiers should enure themselves to any hardship. They shouldn’t even recognize heat and cold." Pitcairn was wounded twice by stray shot, but still he refused to quite the field. For his whole life, he had championed the necessity of his service branch, and he knew that this was their moment to shine. He shouted over the din of battle in his distinctive Scottish burr, "Now, for the glory of the Marines!" Then four more musket bullets smashed into his chest (multiple persons were credited fired one of the shots, including Peter Salem, a freed slave fighting with the rebels, and a certain British deserter who Pitcairn had previously spared from execution). He collapsed into the arms of his horrified son, William, who carried his father off the field, as his men looked on in shock. Laying him in a boat to ferry him over to Boston, he kissed his father for the last time before returning to the battle. The Marines took the hill as Pitcairn lay bleeding to death in a house in Boston. 

General Gage, not wanting to lose such a valuable officer, sent his personal physician, the loyalist Dr. Thomas Kast, to attend to him. He was still in his 20’s, around the same as Pitcairn’s own doctor son, David. Still conscious, the major told him that he appreciated the gesture but he should not to bother with him since he was bleeding internally and was beyond help. Kast asked him where he the wound was. Pitcairn put his hand to his chest. The doctor suggested the wound might not be mortal and tried to turn down the sheet, but Pitcairn kept his hand firmly over the wound. Only after expressing the personal concerns on his mind - and swearing his innocence with regards to the Lexington incident - did he allow the doctor to try and dress the wound. 

But when he removed Pitcairn's waistcoat, it tore open the wound and his blood flowed freely, staining the floorboards. Within a couple of hours, in spite of Kast's efforts, John Pitcairn was dead at age 53. His son William was seen wandering through a street after the battle, covered in blood. When someone approached to help him, he haltingly explained that it was not his blood but rather his father's. "I have lost my father," he murmured, close to tears. Some Marines nearby added, "We have all lost a father." His regiment wore black bands on their arms for six weeks after his death. One marine officer wrote: “The loss of our Major Commandant was not only a loss to his Family as one of the best Husbands and Fathers, but a great loss to the Marines and the Army in general as a brave soldier and an excellent officer.” 

General Gage said he counted Pitcairn among those officers under his command who “exerted themselves remarkably.” King George III, when informed of the story, wrote of him, “That officer’s conduct seems highly praiseworthy.” General John Burgoyne said he thought the story of Pitcairn’s death at the height of the battle would make a wonderful painting. In fact, it later did, in the form of John Trumball’s epic historical painting, The Battle of Bunker Hill, in which Pitcairn’s son David posed as his father, since was said to have the most resemblance. His brother Thomas posed as his brother William, who had since died of a fever during the war. Pitcairn’s son-in-law Charles Cochrane also would become a casualty of the war when he was beheaded by a cannonball at Yorktown. His wife Catherine, traumatized by the both the death of her father and husband, also lost two her infant children while waiting for Cochrane’s return in New York. 

Major Pitcairn’s body was interred at Old North Church, his parish in Boston, not far from where Paul Revere would later be buried, assuring that the two would be neighbors in life and death. One of the fatal bullets and his uniform buttons were sent back to his wife Betty and their two youngest children, Janet, aged 14, and Alexander, aged 7. Ironically, one of his grandsons would eventually immigrate to the newly founded United States and exert the Pitcairn charm to woo and win the hand of young lady whose own grandfather had been one of the minute men who had fought the British at Lexington and Concord! In 2002, a memorial plaque was raised in Dysart, Scotland in honor of Major Pitcairn, recognizing him as a heroic native son who fell in battle far away from home. 


Major John Pitcairn was a man of many facets and paradoxes. In my exploration of his character over the course of my novel-writing, I have come to deeply respect his courage in battle, competence in his responsibilities, and humanity towards those under his command and even those who were opposed to him. He was tough as nails and willing to use force to achieve the desired result, but he also managed to win the personal respect of friend and foe alike. He swore profanely, but also charmed proficiently. He seems to have had a close bond with his family and a sense of duty that made him both devoted his king and country and a practicing Christian. He also left a proud legacy of honor for those who served and continue to serve in the Royal Marines, now a standing force in the British military. 

In the process of hunting for information on Major Pitcairn, I have come into contact with a variety of fascinating and helpful people from both sides of the Atlantic. I am especially grateful to have befriended  Carol McNeill of the Dysart Trust, author and local historian, who, with her Scottish wit and charm that gives me a glimmer of the real Pitcairn, continues to supply me with a wealth of information on “Our John’s” native town. I am also pleased to have corresponded with the late Jim Swan, also of the DysartTrust, the late Anne Watters of the Kirkcaldy Civic Society, Les Soper, Pitcairn reenactor, Matthew Little of The Royal Marines Museum, and Dr. Marianne Gilchrist of Glasgow, a prolific Pitcairn enthusiast and creator of the online historical site, "Whistle World". I've also had the pleasure of speaking with Sheila Pitcairn, who has confirmed that one of Major Pitcairn's direct descendents, her grandson Ryan Pitcairn, is currently serving in the Royal Marines. Hence, the tradition really does live on.    

About the Author

Avellina Balestri is a blessed-to-be-Catholic homeschool graduate from Maryland, USA. She has long had a fascination with British history and culture, originating with her interest in Robin Hood and devotion to the Catholic English Martyrs. She reads and writes extensively on the subject, and has established various international contacts via email correspondence, phone calls, and snail-mail parcel swapping. She also did a stint of political activism for the Unionists during the Scottish Independence Referendum. Her other sources of enjoyment include reading musty historical tomes, listening to Celtic artists such as Loreena McKennitt, and watching classic films such as A Man for All Seasons and TV shows such as Kung Fu. She also sings, composes, and plays the penny whistle and bodhran drum. Avellina is proud to be among the founding "Three Musketeers" of the online magazine The Fellowship of the King (under the alias “Rosaria Marie”) and work as its editor-in-chief.

Written content of this post copyright © Avellina Balestri, 2015.