Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A corner cabinet made for Henry Vassall and now at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, 159 Brattle St., West Cambridge. (Photo: Caleigh Lyons)

Tucked in the corner of the east parlor of the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House (built circa 1685) is a tall corner cupboard donated to the Cambridge Historical Society in 1992 by the LeMessurier family. It has served to display objects for the public to see, but what of the cupboard itself? What has this polished and painted wooden piece seen since its beginnings in the years leading to the American Revolution?

The French-style cupboard was built around 1746 by unknown hands at 94 Brattle St. for Henry Vassall, a merchant and owner of a sugar plantation in Jamaica whose lavish lifestyle was sustained by enslaved labor. The two cherubs painted on the corner cupboard – as well as his final resting place under Christ Church Cambridge – give the impression that Vassall was a pious man, yet Darby Vassall, the son of two of the people he enslaved, reveals the opposite: “Col. Henry Vassall was a very wicked man. It was a common remark that he was ‘the Devil’ … He was a severe and tart master to his people; and when he was dying and asked his servants to pray for him, they answered that he might pray for himself.”

Though the cupboard was made for Henry Vassall, his enslaved servants would have tended to it. Corner cupboards were usually built to display fine ceramics, and one might imagine enslaved people polishing that valuable property too. Their numbers would have included Tony Vassall, enslaved in Jamaica by Henry Vassall as a coachman and brought to 94 Brattle St. around 1746; and Cuba Vassall, enslaved in Antigua by Isaac Royall Sr. and brought to Medford in 1737. After Royall died in 1739, he gave Cuba and seven other enslaved people to his 15-year-old daughter, Penelope. In 1742, when Penelope Royall married Henry Vassall and moved to 94 Brattle St., Cuba met and married Tony.

Tony and Cuba Vassall and the corner cupboard remained during the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War while Henry Vassall and his family fled Cambridge with other Loyalists in 1774, abandoning a house swiftly seized by the Massachusetts General Court for use as the Continental Army’s medical headquarters. During that occupation, the corner cupboard may have displayed medical tools and texts instead of fine ceramics. After the Continental Army left, the house was rented to Nathan Adams, a veteran of the French and Indian War turned carpenter and innkeeper. Adams oversaw some of British General John Burgoyne’s surrendered officers while they spent 1777-1778 in Cambridge as prisoners of war. After the war, wealthy people such as Nathaniel Tracy and Andrew Craigie owned 94 Brattle St. but rented it out to others because they preferred living across the street at 105 Brattle St., known today as The Longfellow House.

A detail of the Henry Vassall cabinet. (Photo: Caleigh Lyons)

During the Revolution, Tony and Cuba Vassall were evicted from 105 Brattle St. In 1781 Tony Vassall petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to remain, and the court allowed him and his family another year. In his petition, Tony Vassall told the court plainly that, “though dwelling in a land of freedom, both himself and his wife have spent almost 60 years of their lives in slavery.” Although the flight of their enslavers resulted in de facto freedom for Tony and Cuba Vassall and their children, the family had to battle to stay and get compensation for work they performed during the war.

In 1841, Samuel Batchelder Jr. bought 94 Brattle St. His grandson, Samuel F. Batchelder, spent the first eight years of his life in the house with the corner cupboard. The younger Batchelder was interested in the history of his childhood home, and most of the surviving information about Henry Vassall was gathered by him. Batchelder served as clerk of Christ Church in Cambridge, where he also played the organ and managed the choir. This was probably how he learned about the Vassall tomb beneath Christ Church. Two informative works by Batchelder on this history are “Christ Church, Cambridge: Some Account of Its History” (1893) and “Notes on Colonel Henry Vassall (1721-1769), his wife Penelope Royall, his house at Cambridge, and his slaves Tony & Darby” (1915). His passion for local history made him well-suited to be secretary of the Cambridge Historical Society, a position he held from 1916 to his death in 1927. It should be noted, however, that the version of Cambridge history that Batchelder and his contemporaries sought to preserve was one that privileged the stories of wealthy white families in West Cambridge; in Batchelder’s accounts, enslaved and free Black Cantabrigians appear only in their roles as servants to these white families, and their experiences of living and working in Cambridge remain largely unrecorded – a legacy History Cambridge is working to change.

Tony and Cuba Vassall’s son Darby was born in 1769, when Tony was still enslaved by Henry Vassall and Cuba was enslaved at 105 Brattle St. by John Vassall. While very young, Darby was given as a gift to George Reed of South Woburn. Reed (accompanied by Darby) fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, and died from his injuries shortly afterward. Darby then made his way back to his parents in Cambridge. (Learn more about Darby’s long and distinguished life through this online exhibit by the Museum of African American History and Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.) Henry Vassall’s granddaughter, Catharine Graves Russell, left a paper for Darby Vassall, giving him permission to be buried in her family tomb underneath Christ Church. Darby Vassall died in 1861 at the age of 92. In the 160 years since, his interment in the Vassall tomb had been largely unknown until Nicole Piepenbrink made a short film, “Here Lies Darby Vassall,” in 2022. Pipenbrink learned of his existence while reading Batchelder’s “Christ Church, Cambridge: Some Account of Its History.”

A 1923 article in The Cambridge Tribune, “The History of Vassall House from 1736-1923,” indicates that Maude Batchelder Vosburgh was the occupant of 94 Brattle St. at that time. Vosburgh served on the council of the Cambridge Historical Society from January 1936 until her death March 6, 1949. For several years the society’s governing council held its meetings in her parlor, perhaps near the corner cupboard.

In 1973, William and Dorothy LeMessurier bought 94 Brattle St. William LeMessurier was the president of a structural engineering firm and a professor at Harvard and MIT. A strong supporter of school desegregation, Dorothy LeMessurier published her own monthly newsletter, Conservation News and Action, and was involved in many local organizations, including the Cambridge Historical Society. After dividing 94 Brattle St. into two residences, the LeMessuriers donated the corner cupboard to the Cambridge Historical Society in 1992. 

The corner cupboard has remained part of the object collection at the Cambridge Historical Society (now History Cambridge) for the past 30 years, always associated with its original owner, Henry Vassall. But its presence in the stately homes of Brattle Street over the past 275 years has made it a witness to many people and events in Cambridge’s history. It is our hope that, by highlighting this and other items in our object collection, we can uncover the experiences of the many residents, servants and guests who passed through Brattle Street, especially those whose stories have not yet been told.

 

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Caleigh Lyons is a volunteer for History Cambridge.