Doris B. Townshend

Samuel Feels a Sting

Gain a glimpse into 18th-century New Haven with this excerpt from Townshend Heritage, a family and city history by Doris B. Townshend.

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Jeremiah ’s household at Elm and College must have been a vibrant one, filled with the noise and commotion that healthy youth creates and stimulates: the comings and goings, the clang and clatter, the whining and crying, the laughter and shouts—all the restless young life pressing upon the days.

One can imagine the older boys racing off after chores were done to the stocks by the jail to tease and taunt some poor fettered soul who had the misfortune to be caught breaking a “blue law,” or perhaps there was a hanging to watch (if one dared to test his courage and Mother’s admonitions). But the most festive occasion to watch would be an ordination, when prominent people from all parts of the state crowded into town and when there was music, feasting and drinking in honor of the new minister.

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Those were the exciting moments, but in between were the long, dull days of school—six o’clock to eleven in the morning and one o’clock to four in the afternoon—when Jeremiah and Isaac reluctantly headed for the old town schoolhouse where as “English boyes” they were taught “to perfect their right spelling and reading and to write and to cypher in numeration and addition and no further”—a proper and practical education for future merchants.

The boys grew into manhood, the babies into children, and still more babies came until finally there were nine in the family. Jeremiah’s fathering covered a span of twenty-one years.

Just picture the family setting off for the “blue meetinghouse” or White Haven Society on a frosty Sabbath morning, the insistent peals of the great bell calling all to public worship. Father Townsend sets the pace slowly and reverently with his wife at his side decked out in her finest array and carrying baby Tim. Next come Jeremiah, Jr. , Isaac and Samuel in their knee-breeches, homespun coats and tricornered hats. Isaac carries his stepmother’s little footstove full of glowing coals. Hannah, a “little mother” at thirteen, firmly holds four-year-old Rebecca’s hand as she walks along and calls softly to the youngsters, John and Nathaniel, to stop dawdling and keep up.

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Inside the Meetinghouse, they separate. Mr. Townsend takes his place with the men to the left side in the square, uncushioned pews. Mrs. Townsend herds the youngest children to similar benches on the right side of the hall, while Hannah and the older boys climb the stairs to the galleries—young ladies to the right, young gentlemen to the left.

The three-hour service begins. The solemn, tedious minutes slip at niggardly pace through the hourglass. The congregation stands for the lengthy prayer, sings a psalm without benefit of musical accompaniment, hears the Scriptures expounded, and then settles back to listen to the Reverend Bird’s long sermon; perhaps some compose themselves for a short doze. Samuel, sitting on the gallery stairs, whiles away the time by idly tracing his finger over the whittled marks on the steps, made by some bored lad on an earlier Sabbath.

Suddenly, Samuel feels a sting on the back of his head. Turning around, he spies his cousin Eben grinning at him and getting ready to launch another deadly missile, a hard kernel of corn. The other boys begin to snicker, poking and pushing each other in the relief of diversion.

Downstairs, fidgety John, seated on a “cricket” (footstool) in the aisle by his mother, looks up at the mischief and starts to giggle, nudging Nathaniel to see it too. In spite of the loud “sh-sh-ing” from the adult members nearby, the rambunctious boys continue the disturbance and one creative knave begins to twist the spindles on the stair-rail back and forth to make a rhythmic if unmelodic tune. Amid the din, a dull but distinctive thump is heard. Then repressed silence. The stern tithingman has again brought order with his rod.

No matter, it is noon now. The wearisome service is over and the half-frozen congregation swarms out of the Meetinghouse to warm themselves in the Sabbaday houses and to eat from their lunch baskets. The Townsend family regroups again, greeting friends cordially as they wend their way back home for the midday meal. You can be sure that Samuel will get an earful from his father about his behavior on the Lord’s Day. The obedient son will promise to be more attentive during the afternoon service.

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Townshend Heritage by Doris B. Townshend
Published in 1971 by the New Haven Colony Historical Society (a.k.a. the New Haven Museum)

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