Tuesday, February 12, 2013

February 14: Jack Benny, Sunday Nights At Seven

He was an American comedian who began in Vaudeville, then moved to radio, movies, and television, making America laugh throughout the Great Depression, WW II, the Fifties, and the Sixties by making fun of himself.  He portrayed himself as being a cheap, vain, insecure, untalented braggart who would never willingly be more than 39 years of age.

Meyer and Emma Sachs Kubelsky became the proud parents of Benjamin Kubelsky on February
14, 1894, at Mercy Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. Even though they lived in Waukegan where Meyer ran a haberdashery shop, his mother had insisted that the baby be born in Chicago, because – in her view – it was an honor to be born in a big city.  Both parents were immigrants – Meyer from Poland, Sachs from Lithuania, who settled in America to achieve a better economic life.  They would have one other child – Florence – born in 1900.  Little Benjamin Kubelsky would later change his name to Jack Benny – the name that he will be referred to in this article.

Young Benny did not do well in school.  He was often described as a ‘dreamer’, didn’t do his work, and was ultimately expelled from Central High School.   He also studied violin – he was given a half-size violin for his sixth birthday - and loved playing the instrument.  However, he hated to practice, and his mother’s hope of her son becoming a concert violinist were not to be realized.  Later in life the violin would become one of his comedic trademarks.

He did, however, find a use for his music.  By the time he was fourteen he was playing in local dance bands.  By the time he was sixteen he had a job playing in the orchestra pit of Waukegan’s Barrison Theater. 

In 1911 The Marx Brothers would offer the young violin player his first real travel opportunity.  Minnie Palmer was the mother and business manager of that vaudeville group.  She had a sharp sense of show business values, and wanted Benny to join their small orchestra.  She had enjoyed Benny’s violin playing – and offered him a job and would have paid him $15/week, plus transportation, and room and board.  However, his parents declined the offer, as they didn’t really see much opportunity in making a successful career in show business.

However, Benny persevered, convinced that he could make a career out of show business – plus being attracted the adventure of it all.  In 1912 he joined up with a 45-year-old widow, pianist Cora Salisbury, who needed a partner for her act. They formed the vaudeville duo of “Salisbury and Kubelsky: From Grand Opera to Ragtime”.  However, because of possible confusion with another performer, Benjamin Kubelsky created his first name change and became Ben K. Benny. 

Why did his parents let him go with a 45-year old widow and not the Marx Brothers?  Benny wrote:
“It was obvious from the way Cora looked, dressed, and spoke that she was a decent respectable lady.  She promised Mama that she would take care of me, see that I lived in respectable boarding housed, ate kosher meals, and got plenty of sleep.  She promised to guard me from the ‘loose’ actresses who, my parents were convinced, were lounging around in hundreds of theaters, waiting for the chance to seduce their son.  Mrs. Salisbury coaxed Mama around to the idea that a son with such basic integrity couldn’t be corrupted.  Then Mama got to work on Papa and coaxed him into giving his consent to a trial period of three months.”

After Salisbury retired from the act in 1913, Benny teamed up with Lyman Woods – forming the Vaudeville duo, "Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime."  They had some success over the next four years – even performing in the famous Palace Theater in New York – although they didn’t do as well there as they had hoped.

By 1917 the US had entered World War I – and Benny joined the Navy.  He had quit the act earlier in the year to return to Waukegan to help take care of his ailing mother – who passed away in November of 1917.

While in the Navy he often entertained his fellow sailors with his violin playing – and one evening in 1918 a legend would be born.  His violin performance was booed by the audience – he was playing “The Rosary”, a classical piece, to a rather unappreciative audience. Benny was advised to start talking by future star PatO’Brien, and he although he had never really ‘talked’ on-stage before, Benny ad-libbed his way out of the potentially tense situation, leaving the audience laughing with such jokes as: 
“I’ve heard you sailors complain about the food. (they groaned in agreement)  Well, I want to tell you that the enlisted men get the same food as Captain Moffett gets. (pause) Only his is cooked!”

After this, he began receiving more comedic spots, earning himself a reputation as both a musician… and a comedian. After the Armistice he went back to Vaudeville, and by 1921 had built a show up around his comedic talking, not his classical violin playing.

Soon, however, Benny has to change his name again… to the now famous “Jack Benny”.  There was another performer and violinist named Ben Bernie who felt Ben K. Benny was too close to his and might confuse the audiences.  How did Benny get the name Jack?  That, too, is from his Great Lakes Naval Station days in the Navy.  To the sailors of the era, “Jack” was a generic term like “fella” or “dude”.  Benny was having dinner with Benny Rubin while he was considering a new name.  A couple of former Great Lakes sailors approached and greeted him as “Jack”.  Rubin then suggested that he use “Jack” as his new first name.  He would now bill himself as "Jack Benny:  Aristocrat of Humor".

In 1926 Benny met and gradually wooed Sadie Marks, a distant cousin of the Marx Brothers.  He had met her twice before, but had ignored her.  But something clicked with Benny on the third meeting, and he avidly pursued her, even showing up at the May Company where she worked as a clerk in the hosiery department – buying more stockings than he could ever use.  His persistence paid off.

They would be married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony at the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan, Illinois on Friday, January 14, 1927.  The original plan had been to marry on Sunday the 16th, but as Benny wrote:
“We were supposed to get married the next Sunday because there were no Sunday performances, but I was afraid if we waited until Sunday, Sadie might change her mind.  We got married on Friday, January 14, 1927.  We used my mother’s ring because there was no time to buy one.”

In 1934 they would adopt a baby girl – Joan – who would be their only child.

Benny continued to hone his theatrical skills – the pauses, the poses, the timing – and in 1932 decided that he didn’t want to go on the road any more as a part of a theater group.  Instead, he decided to try a new medium: radio.  A friend of his, Ed Sullivan, provided the first opportunity for Benny to test this new medium.  Benny was asked to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in early 1932.  According to Benny’s autobiography concerning this experience:
“My very first radio spiel began: ‘This is Jack Benny talking.  There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares!’…’.  My five minutes didn’t rise much above that level.”

But someone apparently did care, for on May 2, 1932, Benny played the role of Master of Ceremonies on NBC for the Canada Dry Program.  Later that year the show switched to CBS.  In 1933, Benny was hosting the Chevrolet Program on NBC, and a year later hosted the Jack Benny Program – sponsored by JELL-O.  His innovative commercials for the product would so thrill the company that they guaranteed him his Sunday night at Seven programing slot, which he would have for much of his radio and television career.  Later Benny would gain other sponsors – the longest running was Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Benny’s radio programs were developed around a carefully nurtured character that was actually the opposite of Benny’s true persona:  the character was a miserly, self-centered, bossy tightwad who developed a characteristic and recognizable “Well” when having things not go his way.  His character couldn’t play the violin, and he was eternally 39. 

In reality, his key to success was his self-depreciating humor, and it made his the top radio show of the era.

The shows evolved from general comedy routines and a number of musical tunes to less music and a planned, central skit that would permeate the show time slot.  Benny also attracted – and kept – characters that could be developed over a long period of time:  announcer Don Wilson; tenor DennisDay; the abused but often triumphant servant Rochester; the man of a thousand voices, Mel Blanc; and Benny’s wife who played the role of wisecracking Mary Livingston.  The latter became so identified with her character name that she officially changed her name from Sadie Marks to Mary Livingston.  Band leaders changed – but even they stayed for a number of years.  Phil Harris, Bob Crosby, and Meredith Willson were among the longest staying band leaders, each having a speaking role as well as leading the orchestra.

His radio shows were immensely popular, and the shows continued until 1955, transitioning Benny and his cast into the new media of television.  His popular Jack Benny Program ran from 1950 to 1964.  Benny also had a number of movie roles during the thirties and forties, appearing in 22 motion pictures.

His style, mannerisms, and timing left a legacy that affected the way sitcom actors portrayed their characters through the present time.

Benny passed away due to cancer on December 26, 1974, in Los Angeles, California.  He arranged to have a single red rose delivered to his wife daily until her death nine years later.   Perhaps Benny can be best described through the words of an eulogy given by Bob Hope:
“For a man who was the undisputed master of comedy timing, you would have to say that this was the only time Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong.  He left us too soon.  He only gave us eight years.  God keep him, enjoy him.  We did for eighty years.”

Many of his radio shows and televisions shows are commercially available today, and would provide a great listening and viewing experience for comedy aficionados. 


Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, by Jack Benny and his daughter, Joan.



Jack Benny: Young Actor        

Jack and Mary     


Saturday, February 9, 2013

January 29: William McKinley, Doomed President

He was a devoted husband, a respected politician, and the third President of the United States to be assassinated. 

William McKinley Jr. was the seventh of eight children sired by William and Nancy Allison McKinley Sr., and was born on January 29, 1843 in the small town of Niles, Ohio.  His father – in practicing the family trade - opened and operated a small iron foundry, and his mother was a devoutly religious Methodist who was a leader in the small town.

The roots of William Jr.’s family tree shows that his forefathers had been early settlers in Pennsylvania, establishing their homes there in the mid-18th Century.  Both of his grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution – on the side of the Colonial patriots.  But the ‘west’ of the day beckoned these early pioneers, and the family moved west to the territory of Ohio, settling in Lisbon – where his father met, wooed, and married Nancy Allison in 1829, eventually moving to and settling in Niles.

As a child William Jr. did what most of the youngsters of the day did… fishing, hunting, ice skating, horseback riding, and swimming, and helping his father in the foundry when he could, as well as the regular family ‘chores’ assigned to him.

However, the type of educational foundation that the McKinley’s wanted for their children was lacking in Niles, so they made a difficult decision. In 1853 William Sr. stayed in Niles to operate the family business, while his wife and children moved to nearby Poland, Ohio, so the children could attend Poland Seminary, a private Methodist school.  Because of this move, and the work-related long-term absences of his father, young William McKinley would be deeply influenced by his mother and his sisters. 

In Poland, he would give up most of the various sports and hobbies that he did, except playing ball, swimming and skating.  As much as he enjoyed the cool water of the stream, McKinley was not a good swimmer.  It was during one of his swimming expeditions that he got in water too deep for him, and had to be saved from drowning by a passerby. 

He also was a constant reader, and was fond of such poets as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Lord Byron.

William Jr. would graduate from school, and in 1860 enrolled at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  However, he became ill, had to return home, and by the time his health recovered, the family finances had declined to the point that he could not afford to attend school, so he earned money working as a postal clerk, and later as a teacher in a nearby school.

When the American Civil War started, McKinley joined the Twenty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  He started as a private, eventually rising to the rank of brevet major.  As a Second Lieutenant he served on the staff of a future US President and fellow Ohioian, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, with whom McKinley would form a close bond that would continue throughout his political career.

In 1862, at the Battle of Antietam, McKinley was a Commissary Sergeant in Col. Ewing’s Brigade.  During the battle, he served every soldier in his regiment coffee and food – often placing himself under enemy fire to do so.  His future mentor, Rutherford B. Hayes, stated:

"Early in the afternoon, naturally enough, with the exertion required of the men, they were famished and thirsty, and to some extent broken in spirit. The commissary department of that brigade was under Sergeant McKinley’s administration and personal supervision. From his hands every man in the regiment was served with hot coffee and warm meats.... He passed under fire and delivered, with his own hands, these things, so essential for the men for whom he was laboring."

McKinley served for the entire war.  When the war ended and he was discharged McKinley returned to Ohio, studying law at Albany Law School where he passed the bar exam in 1867.  He began his legal practice at Canton, Ohio.  It was at a Canton picnic in 1869 that two great events occurred in his life:  he met and began courting his future wife, Ida Saxon (marrying on January 25, 1871), and he entered politics, running for county prosecutor on the Republican ticket.

His home life in the early 1870s was rocked by the loss of his two young daughters – Katharine, who died in 1875 at the age of 3; and Ida, who died in 1873 at the age of 4 months.  His wife, suffering from the loss of her two daughters and her mother within a short span of time, suffered depression and developed epilepsy, becoming an invalid who was totally dependent on her husband for her medical and emotional needs - and on pain-killing drugs.  McKinley was compassionate, giving patient devotion and loving attention to his wife.  After he was elected President, McKinley broke tradition, having Ida sit next to him at state dinners instead of opposite of him at the far end of the table, so he could assist her when needed.  McKinley’s friend and supporter Mark Hanna would comment concerning the President’s devotion to his wife: 

"President McKinley has made it pretty hard for the rest of us husbands here in Washington."

In 1876 McKinley ran successfully for the US Congress, serving from 1876-1882, then again from 1884 to 1891.  It was as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 1889 that he drafted a strong protective tariff in 1890 – the McKinley Tariff – that was passed by the house, with unexpected results:  Because consumer prices skyrocketed under this Tariff, the angry voters rejected McKinley (and many other Republicans) in the 1890 elections. 

Returning home to Ohio, McKinley – though stunned by his defeat in his race for reelection to the House, ran for Governor of Ohio in 1891.  He won by a narrow margin, a tribute to the people’s respect for his morality and honesty.  He would go on to be reelected in 1894, despite the economic depression of 1893 – and partially because he, too, had been hard hit by the depression.  He had co-signed with a businessman who went bankrupt, and was responsible for the unpaid debt.  Basically, it took all of the McKinley money to pay off his friend’s debt, leaving the McKinley family in the same financial straits as many of their constituents.

As governor, he often supported labor rights during an era when many politicians refused to acknowledge that labor had any rights.  But, he also would use force when labor crossed the line and grew violent during a strike.

By 1896 McKinley was being seriously considered as the Republican candidate for the Presidency.  He had been a successful congressman, was governor of a crucial ‘swing’ state in elections, and was very popular with the voters.  He friend and advisor, businessman Mark Hanna, began a process of advocating McKinley with the Republican leadership so effectively that when the Republican convention was held in St. Louis, McKinley won the nomination on the first ballot.  His opponent: Democrat William Jennings Bryan. 

McKinley would run a ‘front-porch’ campaign.  Realizing that Bryan was an excellent orator that he could not hope to beat in a debate, McKinley decided to stay at home tending to the needs of his wife, and speaking from his porch to various groups that would visit him at his home in Canton, Ohio.  While Bryan went to see the people, the people came to see McKinley.

The 1896 election saw McKinley win by a clear majority.  The same story would be repeated in the 1900 election.

McKinley would follow conservative, protectionist policies at home during his administration, and benefited from the nation’s recovery from the Panic of 1893.  However, he is remembered more for his foreign involvement than for his domestic programs – despite the fact that during his 1897 inaugural address he said:
"We want no wars of conquest. We must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression."

However, a war of conquest did occur – with the SpanishAmerican War of 1898.  In defeating Spain, the Americans became an imperialistic power, gaining naval bases in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.  The Americans soon became embroiled in an intense Imperialism/Anti-Imperialism debate that would continue into the next century.  With the Spanish American War, the United States was no longer just a continental power – the country had far-flung interests and a developing world-wide trade network for the products produced by its burgeoning industry.

Under McKinley the US promoted the Open Door policy for opening up trade ports and opportunities in China for the US, and sent US troops to assist an international force in putting down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.  He also sought to begin a canal across Central America linking the Caribbean with the Pacific.

At home, McKinley dealt with the major economic issues of the day: establishing tariff rates to protect American industry; and ending bimetallism by signing the Gold Standard Act of 1900 – making gold the only standard for redeeming paper money became the dominant domestic focus.

In September 1901 McKinley was visiting the Pan-AmericanExposition in Buffalo, New York, promoting American innovation and industry – and what he had hoped would be the cornerstone of his second administration – trade reciprocity between America’s trading markets around the world. 

On September 6th McKinley was shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers when anarchist Leon Czolgosz took his turn in line and, when he was next to the President, pulled the trigger of a gun he had hidden in his hand with a large bandage.  McKinley was wounded, and it was hopeful that he would recover. However, he suffered a relapse and, on September 14, 1901, he passed away.  Czolgosz was later tried and executed.

The nation mourned McKinley’s death, and he was eventually interred in a massive mausoleum honoring him in Canton, Ohio.  His wife, Ida, who survived him by 6 years, was also interred there, as are the remains of his two infant daughters.

And so a new century was heralded with violence… and would become the century of violence.  McKinley was honored by the people of the day, although he is often forgotten – and underrated - in today’s world.   



19-Year Old Sgt. William McKinley, Giles County HistoricalSociety 

McKinley Monument at Antietam Battlefield, National ParkService  

Mrs. William Mckinley, Vassar Project

1896 Presidential portrait of William McKinley, Wikipedia

1900 McKinley Campaign Poster, Atlantic Monthly

Assassination of McKinley, Culture Magazine

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 15: Philip Livingston: Landed Gentry, Revolutionary

He was a member of the landed gentry of New York, a wealthy businessman, a philanthropist, and a political conservative who was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a man who risked his fortune and security to support the American Revolution.

Philip Livingston, Jr. was born into a family of wealth a prestige on January 15, 1716, at his father’s townhouse in Albany, New York colony. 

His grandfather, Robert Livingston, had immigrated to the newly conquered colony of New York in 1673 from his native Scotland and settled in Albany.  He spoke both English and Dutch fluently, and so successfully integrated with the original Dutch settlers as well as their English conquerors that he became very a very successful merchant in the fur trade, married well into the former Dutch aristocracy, held a number of political appointments, and – in 1687 – was granted  ownership of the “Lordship and Manor of Livingston” (160,000 acres on the east side of the Hudson River) by the English Royal Governor, Thomas Dongan.  With this, he became a “Lord”.

Robert had three sons – Robert, Gilbert, and Philip – and it was Philip (the 2nd Lord of the Manor) and his wife, Catharine Van Brugh, who became the parents of Philip Livingston Jr. in 1716.  Catharine was the daughter of the mayor of Albany. 

This was an era before public education, and it was the responsibility of the fathers to educate their children.  The wealthier fathers, such as the 2nd Lord of the Manor, Lord Livingston, would do some of the education process himself, but usually hired tutors to instruct their children – especially the male children – in a variety of topics, including such studies as the rudiments of math, geography Latin, reading, and writing.

Because of – and thanks to – his social position, Philip “the Signer” Livingston was provided with a liberal education.  There were no colleges in New York colony (until 1754), so those gentlemen who wished to attend college were either sent to New England, or abroad.  Education was important to the Livingston’s, and as a result Philip attended Yale College, graduating in 1737 at the age of 21.

New York beckoned, and Livingston settled there after leaving college in 1737, engaging in a mercantile life by establishing an import business.  He became a prosperous and well respected merchant.

He married Christina Ten Broeck on April 14, 1740.  The union provided the Livingston’s with nine children – five boys and four girls.  After his marriage, Livingston moved into a townhouse on Duke Street in Manhattan, and worked on raising a family – and a fortune from his business dealings.  Especially valuable was his experiences as a trader-privateer during the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763.  It was after this period of his life, in 1764, that he acquired a 40-acre estate on Brooklyn Heights, overlooking the East River and New York Harbor.

Livingston prospered as a merchant, and was one of those who ‘gave back’ to the community.  He either helped to start, financially aided, or helped to administer several public institutions, including King’s College (which later became Columbia University); the New York Society Library (1754); St. Andrew’s Society; the New York Chamber of Commerce (1770); and the New York Hospital (elected as one of the governors in 1761).  He also established a Professorship of Divinity at Yale (1746); built the first meeting house for a Methodist society in America;

He also served as a New York City alderman from 1754 to 1763, and served for a decade in the colonial legislature, from 1759 to 1769.  As tensions between the British and the colonists began to increase after the French and Indian War, Livingston was like many other early patriots:  he did not initially desire to make a complete break from England, but he would increasingly align himself with the rising opposition to the various arbitrary British measures and legislation that were being imposed by the British Crown on the colonists. In the colonial legislature, he increasingly backed the Whigs in their quarrels with the Royal Governor of New York, and was a delegate to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress.
Livingston's Brooklyn Manor
He also assisted in preparing an address as a response to a speech by Lieutenant-Governor Colden in which Livingston illustrated his concerns – concerns which eventually led to his standing in open rebellion to the Crown, and affixing his signature on the Declaration of Independence:
"But nothing can add to the pleasure we receive from the information your honor gives us, that his majesty, our most gracious sovereign, distinguishes and approves our conduct. When his service requires it, we shall ever be ready to exert ourselves with loyalty, fidelity, and zeal; and as we have always complied, in the most dutiful manner, with every requisition made by his directions, we, with all humility, hope that his majesty, who, and whose ancestors, have long been the guardians of British liberty, will so protect us in our rights, as to prevent our falling into the abject state of being forever hereafter incapable of doing what can merit either his distinction or approbation. Such must be the deplorable state of that wretched people, who (being taxed by a power subordinate to none, and in a great degree unacquainted with their circumstances) can call nothing their own. This we speak with the greatest deference to the wisdom and justice of the British parliament, in which we confide. Depressed with this prospect of inevitable ruin, by the alarming information we have from home, neither we nor, our constituents can attend to improvements, conducive either to the interests of our mother country, or of this colony. We shall, however, renew the act for granting a bounty on hemp, still hoping that a stop may be put to those measures, which, if carried into execution, will oblige us to think that nothing but extreme poverty can preserve us from the most insupportable bondage. We hope your honor will join with us in an endeavor to secure that great badge of English liberty, of being taxed only with our own consent; which we conceive all his majesty's subjects at home and abroad equally entitled to."

 In 1774 Livingston was a member of the Committee of fifty-one.  This committee chose the New York delegates to the First Continental Congress – and Livingston was one of the five that were selected.  He was able to both serve in the Continental Congress, and to retain his seat in the New York State Provincial Assembly.  He was elected President of the Assembly in 1775. 

Livingston was not a rabble-rouser, and resented the more physical demonstrations favored by such groups as the Sons of Liberty.  He tried to stick with the more dignified methods, depending on the law and precedent to preserve the peace… or to follow the steps to separation. It was in July, 1775, that he signed what was to be a final attempt to achieve an understanding with the British Crown concerning the grievances of the colonies – the Olive Branch Petition.  However, the King ignored the Petition, declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

Livingston was one of three Livingston’s who were members of the Continental Congress… but he was the only one to sign the Declaration of Independence.  His brother, William, was called on to command the New Jersey Militia, and could not be at the debates or the signing of the Declaration.  Nor could his cousin, Robert, who had helped draw up the Declaration, but who also was a member of several important New York State committees, and probably was not present in Philadelphia when the Declaration was signed.
Philip Livingston suffered because of his signature on the Declaration.  The British used his Duke Street home as a barracks, and his Brooklyn Heights residence as a Royal Navy hospital.  Many of his business interests were confiscated by the British, and he sold some of his remaining property to support the Revolution.  He had to flee his home because of the British advance into New York.

His health failing, he continued to serve his country in the Continental Congress.  He passed away at the age of 62 on June 12, 1778 – the third signer of the Declaration to die.  He was first buried in the churchyard of the German Reformed Church on West Market Street, York, Pennsylvania. When the land was needed to build a Sunday School addition, all graves were moved to Prospect Hill Cemetery, York, Pennsylvania.

Even after death, it seems, he contributed to the needs of the community.


Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27: William Pepperrell, 1st Baronet of America

He was relatively uneducated, but brilliant; a merchant and a soldier; was a colonial leader as well as the “Hero of Louisberg”; and was the first native-born baronet in colonial America.

William Pepperrell was born on June 27, 1696 in Kittery – which is today in Maine, but during the colonial era was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His father, William Pepperrell, was an English settler who began his career in the colonies as a fisherman’s apprentice, and would advance to a shipbuilder and fishing boat owner. His father had married well, for Margery Bray was the daughter of a well-to-do Kittery merchant. Young Pepperrell was the sixth of seven children.

Young Pepperrell studied surveying and navigation, and later joined his father in the shipbuilding business where he worked in the counting house. He was seventeen when his older brother died, and he had to assume much of the responsibility of the family business. By 1730 Mssrs. Wm. Pepperrells was largely managed by young Pepperrell.

He expanded his father’s business with energy and vigor, creating one of the most prosperous mercantile houses in New England. By 1730 Pepperrell’s firm was managing 30 to 35 vessels which – for the most part – shuttled back and forth from Newfoundland to Virginia and Maryland, and as far as the sugar islands in the Caribbean. They also crossed the Atlantic to Portugal, Spain, and England.

His company ships carried products native to the region - lumber, fish - and brought back sugar, textiles, and other marketable commodities. With the profits Pepperrell purchased land in New England as well as investing in property and business interests in England.

In New England, shipping was a source of wealth but land-ownership represented gentility and status. This new status brought with it the communal responsibility of public office and military command. The Pepperrell’s were one of the nine families in Kittery that had the wealth and status deemed necessary to hold public office – and these political offices were often rotated between the families, being passed down from father to son.

By 1720 – at the age of twenty-four – young Pepperrell represented Kittery in the provincial assembly. In 1725 he became a judge on the York County court, and within five years became the chief justice. By 1727 he was appointed to the Massachusetts Council board – the legislative body of the colony.

Another public responsibility was service in the militia. By the time he was twenty-one Pepperrell was elected as captain of the local militia, then major, lieutenant-colonel, and at the age of thirty was a colonel of the York County militia –the latter position having been held by his father, passing to young Pepperrell as part of the estate. As colonel, he was in command of the entire region from the Piscataqua River to the Canadian border.

Pepperrell married well, being wed on March 16, 1724 to Mary Hirst. Hirst was the daughter of Grove Hirst and Elizabeth Sewell of Boston, and was the granddaughter of the famous colonial judge Samuel Sewell. The couple had four children – 3 girls and a boy – but only the eldest daughter, Elizabeth, would survive the couple. Pepperrell would adopt his grandson, William Pepperrell Sparhawk, as his heir in order to pass on a hereditary title.

The frontiers were relatively peaceful until the spring of 1744. Pepperrell was warned in late 1743 that relations between France and England were close to the breaking point, and to warn and secure the frontier settlements in his jurisdiction against any sudden assault by the French Candadians. On May 12, 1744, word reached Boston of a declaration of war on England by the French, and soon after the French became active against the English New England colonies. The war became known as King George’s War, and was part of the War of Austrian Succession. Increased naval pressure and a series of attacks by the French and their Indian allies convinced the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, that the defense of New England required the reduction of the French stronghold at Louisbourg.

Pepperrell was the logical choice to command the forces. He had been among the early advocates of an attack on Louisb0urg – though these advocates envisioned it as a largely English affair, with minor colonial support. He was also familiar, thanks to his tenure as colonel, with the frontier. He also was respected by the citizenry that made up the militia, and maintained a respectable standard of discipline. He also knew many of the Royal Navy officers – men responsible for transporting and supporting his army.

Governor Shirley proposed a colonial undertaking, with limited English support – and provided a plan for the assault. Pepperrell agreed and was an influential supporter of the idea in the political environment of Massachusetts.

Pepperrell set sail on March 24, 1745, from Boston. Arriving at the British outpost of Canso, Nova Scotia, on April 4, the Massachusetts militia was joined by militias from New Hampshire and Connecticut, and by a naval squadron from the West Indies. It is estimated that Pepperrell had up to 4,300 men under his command – although the effective strength at any one time would amount to around 2,100.

By April 30, the force arrived at Louisburg. Pepperrell, realizing that Shirley’s original (based on surprise) would not work, opted to commence a formal siege. However, the New Englanders surprised the French by – instead of stopping to dig defensive trenches right away – hauling their heavy cannon during the night of their arrival through a marsh the French considered impassable, and then occupying a key French defensive position that had been abandoned. By the second morning of the landing, Pepperrell’s cannon were firing into Louisburg from this position.

The siege lasted seven weeks, but in the end the French asked for surrender terms. On June 17, 1745, the French officially capitulated.

The surrender of the French stronghold brought fame and honor to Pepperrell. King George II commissioned him as colonel in command of a regular army regiment – the 66th Regiment of Foot – and he received a baronetcy. He was now “Sir” William Pepperrell.

Pepperrell would, as many colonists, be bitter at the 1748 return of Louisburg to the French in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, but he would live to see it recaptured in another war with France in 1758 – this time by a British-led force under the command of General James Wolfe.

In 1755 Pepperrell was promoted to Major General, and in 1759 became the only native-born American to receive a commission as lieutenant-general in the British army – honoring the Lion of Louisburg. Pepperrell passed away on July 6, 1759 – recognized by his generation as the foremost military figure in the colonies.

Web Resources:

1911 Encyclopedia

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

The Great Fortress (Gutenberg Project)

The Life of Sir William Pepperrell (Googlebooks)

Massachusetts Historical Society

Nova Scotia’s Electric Scrapbook

Nova Scotian Biographies

Sir William Pepperrell by Nathanial Hawthorne


Photo Resources:

Portrait of Pepperrell by John Smibert, 1746 (Wikipedia)

1670 map of New England (Wikipedia)

Landing troops at Louisburg (Wikipedia)

¾ view portrait of William Pepperrell (black and white), 1747, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-75604, Nova Scotian Biographies