History in a Broom Closet
By William F. Hanna
In the year 1856, July thirteenth was a Sunday, and a now-anonymous writer felt compelled to record the date in pencil on the plaster wall of a broom closet just inside the front door of the First Parish Church in Taunton. Built in 1830, the church still stands, and it appears that for several years someone — and probably more than one person — used the walls of the closet to commemorate events of the Civil War period.
What made that second Sunday in July important enough to memorialize was perhaps nothing more than boredom, or somebody’s birthday, or just a ready pencil and the hope that an inscription would remain long after the writer was gone. A search of the newspapers yields nothing of local significance during that week, but if we look beyond the serenity of the church closet we see a nation well along the path to disunion. The shocking violence in Kansas — known to history as “Bleeding Kansas” — was very much in the news as our anonymous writer put pencil to plaster. Two months earlier, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had been brutally beaten on the Senate floor after delivering an incendiary anti-slavery speech, and just two days after that the radical abolitionist John Brown murdered five pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek. Additionally, the nation was in the midst of a presidential campaign, pitting Democratic stalwart James Buchanan against the candidate of the newly formed Republican Party, John C. Fremont. Americans had every reason to believe that the future of their country was at stake.
Whether the 1856 date was the first bit of writing inside the church closet is unknown, but a lot was added later. Among the most interesting is an entire panel that relates to the Civil War. A dark and well-executed drawing of an 1860 Lincoln-Hamlin campaign badge is placed below the words: “MY COUNTRY TIS OF THEE.”
Below the badge is a surname-only list of Union army generals that begins with [WINFIELD] SCOTT and likely continues with [EDWIN V.] SUMNER (misspelled SUMMER by our scribe), then probably [BENJAMIN F.] BUTLER, followed by [GEORGE B.] MCCLELLAN, [JOSEPH] HOOKER, and [GEORGE G.] MEADE. It’s interesting that there is no mention of General Ulysses S. Grant, who assumed overall command of the Union army in March 1864, because just to the right of the generals’ names is the victorious cry proclaiming: “RICHMOND IS OURS,” and nearby is the inscription: “OLD ABE Forever.”
On the opposite wall of the closet are a couple of partial illustrations and one finished drawing of horses. What’s notable about the latter is the beautifully rendered pencil sketch of a frame, complete with an intricate rope cord. The name “GARIBALDI” is scratched into the plaster within the frame and above the completed horse. That was the name of a couple of famous nineteenth-century thoroughbreds, but just which champion this drawing was meant to celebrate is unknown.
Not far from the equine sketches, written in cursive like a signature, is the name of L.B. Dean. This is possibly Lysander B. Dean, a local paperhanger and painter. Born about 1800, Dean appears in a Taunton city directory published in 1860, and his name is also found in every subsequent volume through the mid-1870s. The archivist at the First Parish Church is looking for evidence of whether he was a parishioner there, and this may yet lead us to an obituary or more information about him. It’s unlikely to tell us, however, what Mr. Dean intended by writing his name on the closet wall.
There are several other notations and sketches inside the closet, but two deserve a final mention. Not far from the Dean signature are the words “FREE LOVE,” possibly a reference to the mid-nineteenth social campaign aimed at keeping churches and the government out of matters of personal sexuality and marriage. Free love advocates argued that issues such as homosexuality, birth control, and adultery were the private concerns of individuals and should not be regulated by political or religious institutions. Closely allied with feminism and abolition in those years, this was perceived as one of the more radical social movements of the period.
Above the “FREE LOVE” inscription is the most mysterious of all the wall drawings. What it represents is anybody’s guess but it could be interpreted as a cross between a skeleton and a space alien, perhaps a nineteenth-century rendition of an extraterrestrial. Although not as popular as in our own time, science fiction had its fans in the nineteenth century, too; but what is certain is that we might sit in the closet all day and still come away mystified over what the artist intended to draw. Maybe readers of this blog will have their own ideas; if so, please share them.
Sometimes the most fascinating history is found in the least likely places. This is certainly true of the old church broom closet, transformed by unknown hands into a miniature museum of the nineteenth century.