Unknown - portrait of John Shubael Bell

Some interesting American history has emerged while researching this miniature portrait.

It was acquired via an absentee bid at a live auction in Massachusetts. The auction photos are showing below, with a piece of paper glued across the reverse, which thus largely concealed the hair decoration.

The auction description was; "MINIATURE PORTRAIT ON IVORY OF A GENTLEMAN - 2nd Quarter of the 19th Century. Unsigned. Braided hair back. Marked on reverse "John Sheubel Bell", 2" x 10 3/4".

The cost including buyer's commission and shipping was $350, so it was an inexpensive miniature, for the history now found to be associated with it.

Since the purchase, several people in Boston have been very kind and helpful in responding to emailed questions about the sitter and supplying information, for which I am grateful.

Fortunately, in researching the miniature before it arrived, the name Shuebel was a great help, although it has to be said that even for such an unusual name the historical records show a great variety of spellings.

Due to transcription errors and non-standard spelling in the 18C and early 19C, there is sometimes, more than one spelling of a name.

However, Shubael was a challenge to transcribers, as evidenced by the following wide range of spellings, each different to the spelling on the stuck-on note.

- Marriage Notices for the Whole United States, 1785 - 1794>
Bell, Shubael, last Sunday evening, Mr. S.B. To Miss Betsy Robinson. (Wedding, March 19, 1788.)

- Massachusetts Marriages 1762 - 1809
Bell, Shubeal & Joanna Smith Masters, July 26, 1789 by Rev. Samuel Parker
Bell, Shurbeal & Ann Hewes, Oct. 16, 1808 by Rev. Asa Eaton Boston
Bell, Shurbael & Ann Hewes Oct 16, 1808

- 1790 Federal Census, Boston, MA
Bell, Shubal - one male and four free females

- 1800 City Directory for Boston, Massachusetts
Bell, Shubael ~ deputy sheriff, office, Court Street

- 1805 The Boston Directory
Bell Shubael - deputy sheriff, office and house, Court Street

Thus there were sufficient references to identify him as Shubael Bell (1766-10 May 1819) originally trained as a housewright and carpenter, but at his death, Deputy Sheriff of Boston.

Also found on the Internet, was another portrait of Shubael Bell. This was an important find as, being obviously of the same person, although at a different age, it confirms his identity. [Much later, see a colour version now added further below.]

Unfortunately, so far a better image has not been located, so a poor version of the portrait appears here. The image is of an oil portrait of Shubael Bell and it appears to be a reproduction of a photograph from a book in a lodge history. The oil is by John Johnston and is recorded in the SIRIS inventory. It is described as; 28" x 22", natural brown hair, white stock and tie, blue coat and waistcoat, brass buttons. There is also an oil copy of the Johnston portrait by Daniel J Strain. However, at present the locations of the oils are unknown.

The photographic image of the Johnston oil can be seen at the website of St. John's Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, Boston, see;
where Shubael Bell was recorded as having held several important positions in the Lodge in 1802-1805, and 1809, including; Past Senior Grand Warden, Past Junior Grand Warden, and Past District Deputy Grand Master.
After the miniature arrived, it was possible to carefully open and clean the case, and remove the stuck-on label, (which was then put inside the miniature). The rear label was hard to read, but appears to be; "John Sheubel Bell - gt. gt. uncle of K(?) P(?) Spaulding". The front and rear glasses were very dirty. The "exploded" view can be seen here.

Discovered loose inside, as they were not apparent before it was opened, were the gold initials "JSB". These initials, taken with the wording of the stuck-on label, proves that his full name was in fact; John Shubael Bell, even though historical records give his name as just Shubael Bell.

Later research indicates that he most likely decided to use his second name Shubael, to distinguish himself from his father, John Bell, and also from his brother, who was named John Briggs Bell. His parents, John Bell and Rachel Briggs were married on 20 Sep 1753 in Boston. There were nine children, but the names of only five are known; Elizabeth Bell born 22 Sep 1754, John Briggs Bell born 1756, Rachel Bell born 18 Jul 1758, and twins, Mary Bell and John Shubael Bell born in 1766. [Later, now all nine children are known, see below] See Eulogy below and Family

After cleaning the glass and reassembling the miniature, it looks much more presentable.

However, the initials were not the only discovery about John Shubael Bell. As shown in this old postcard from about 1930, Shubael Bell generously gifted a marble bust of George Washington to Christ Church in Boston.

[As an aside, the discovery as above, of the initials JSB inside the miniature, seems to suggest that a number of history books and references, such as the following, will need to be rewritten to give John Shubael Bell his full name!]

The inscription on the postcard reads; "The Bust of Washington - Presented to Christ Church By Shubael Bell Esq. Senior Warden 1815 - Standing in a niche made by the window through which sexton Robert Newman escaped after hanging the lanterns as directed by Paul Revere - This monument is called the first memorial to Washington erected in a public place and was probably modelled from a plaster bust known to have been made by Christian Gulliger of Boston in 1790."

The meaning of two lanterns has been memorized by countless American schoolchildren for generations. "One if by land, and two if by sea," is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "Paul Revere's Ride". One lantern was to notify Charlestown that the British Army would march over Boston Neck and the Great Bridge, and two were to notify them that the troops were taking boats across the Charles to land near Phips farm.

However, those same generations of countless American schoolchildren, may not have looked upon Shubael Bell with fondness, if they had realised that in 1815, Shubael Bell and Rev. Asa Eaton started the first Sunday School for children in America, near Christ Church, at the old Academy next north of the Church.

Christ Church was built in 1723 and is now referred to as Old North Church. The Church has kindly confirmed that the bust is still there; "The bust of Washington is still on display in the sanctuary, as is the painting of "Christ at the Last Supper" by Boston artist John Ritto Penniman (1782-1841) that Bell also donated to the church. In addition, Bell is buried in the crypt below the church and is one of the few who has his name engraved on the door to his tomb."

However, it appears from this more recent photo, that perhaps the window niche has been remodelled. For more about the history of the church, see The Old North Church

In 1823, an appreciation to Shubael Bell was conveyed as follows; "The altar piece, with the decalogue and appropriate texts of scripture, and also the bust of Washington, were presented to the church by the late Shubael Bell, Esq., of this city, whose zeal and liberality in promoting its prosperity justly entitle him to be numbered among its principal benefactors."

The Old North Church is the oldest active church building in Boston and is a National Historic Landmark. As Christ Church, it was built in 1723, and was inspired by the works of Christopher Wren, the British architect who was responsible for rebuilding many churches in London after the Great Fire of 1666. At 53 metres high, it was the tallest building in Boston until 1810. In commenting on the bust of George Washington in the church, the Marquis de Lafayette reportedly remarked it was the best likeness of him he had ever seen.

Shubael Bell was also associated with building of The Church of the Holy Cross (from 1808 called the Cathedral of the Holy Cross). Located in Boston, and was completed in 1803, it was designed by Charles Bulfinch and was the first church built for the city's Roman Catholics.

The city's Protestants also helped fund the building of the Holy Cross Church. About $17,000 was collected, more than one-fifth donated by Boston Protestants who, it was reported, generally seemed in agreement with Shubael Bell, senior warden of Christ Church, that “no circumstance has contributed more to the peace and good order of the town, than the establishment of a Catholic Church.”

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, as showing here, was demolished in 1859.

So far, the artist who painted this miniature has not been identified, although it was obviously painted by a very skilled artist. The close up, shows how the artist finely painted the lace of his neck-wear.

It is hoped to be able make an attribution with a little more research, as there were few competent miniature artists painting in Boston, between 1795 and 1805, the estimated date of the miniature.

A written eulogy to Shubael Bell records he was married twice and had no children. However, as mentioned above, there are references to three weddings for him.
1 Betsy Robinson, March 19, 1788.
2 Joanna Smith Masters, July 26, 1789.
3 Ann Hewes, October 16, 1808.

It therefore seems likely that Betty Robinson had died shortly after they were married, and Shubael then married Joanna. But Betsy had been completely forgotten, by the time of his death in 1819, when the eulogy was written.

He was a Captain in the Honorable Artillery Company, which seems to trace its history back to 7 October, 1636. Their history notes that he joined the Company in 1791 and the official history lists him as: "Capt. Shubael Bell, Boston, housewright. Deputy Sheriff and Jailer. A man of great generosity and humanity, a zealous Episcopalian, and many years a Warden of Christ's Church, supporting his favorite worship during the long period of feebleness in that society after the death of Dr Walter. He was the principal founder of St. Matthew's Chapel, at South Boston. He was very industrious, but negligent of his charges and died poor. In early life he married, but his wife soon dying, he lived a widower until far advanced in years when he married again, but never had children. He was distinguished as a Free Mason, one of the first Knights of Malta and Knight Templars in New England. He died at Boston, much lamented in 1819."

A eulogy to Shubael Bell was read on 8 June 1819 by Samuel Lorenzo Knapp (1783-1838) Eulogy delivered in Christ-Church, Boston, at the request of Saint ...

The following poem was written by an unknown poet to mark the death of Shubael Bell.

"Lines on the death of Mr. Shubael Bell, who died May 10, 1819."

What talents now are clos'd by death,A worthy man has lost his breath,No art could save, in slumbers rest,
Had many friends and them he blest.

Intrinsic worth, in him was found.
By many social ties were bound,
A kind Companion, sooth'd his care.
And friendship bound the happy pair.

In every circle where he mov'd.
He gain'd respect and was belov'd,
The county prison was his care,
The Prisoners lov'd and blest him there.

Humanity dwelt in his heart,
He of his substance did impart,
He took delight to help the poor.
And sent none hungry from his door.

Always in duty, calm, serene,
In faithful trust has always been,
A generous heart and humble mind,
That's not in every man we find.

The Courts, the Bench, and Bar, look round,
That pleasant Bell has lost its sound,
His good deeds speak, they give him praise,
For good attendance all his days.

Farewell dear friend, the Angels wait,
To escort thee through the Heavenly gate,
The Seraphs shout and sing and say.
One that's belov'd is here to day.

The 1904 proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts contain the following report on his life, mostly transcribed from the Eulogy. As it is not a readily available document, the full reference to Shubael Bell has been included here.

The Recording Grand Secretary called the attention of the Brethren to a time-worn and somewhat dilapidated oil painting intended to represent the features of Captain Shubael Bell who was Senior Grand Warden of this Grand Lodge in 1808. The portrait had for many years been in the possession of Brother Bell's grandniece, (Mrs Mary E Young, widow of Rev Joshua Young, who was one of our Grand Chaplains from 1871 to 1881. The lady has loaned it to the Grand Lodge on the condition that, if any of her descendants make request for its return their wish shall be complied with.

Shubael Bell was born in Boston in 1766. He was a carpenter by trade, but at the age of thirty he was appointed Deputy Sheriff for Suffolk County by the Sheriff Jeremiah Allen and served until his death. In 1810 he was also made the jailer. Imprisonment for debt was then in full force and common practice.

In the eulogy pronounced at his funeral it is related that the office of Deputy Sheriff had "in most parts of New England been filled by coarse, boisterous and iron-hearted men. Violence and insensibility seemed to be considered at that time by most people to be indispensable in the character of such an officer.

The conduct of Mr Bell produced a general revolution in public sentiment upon this subject. He stood like the spirit of justice in the form of the angel of mercy between debtor and creditor, softening the severity of the latter and rousing the hopes and encouraging the exertions of the former. From the weight of his character, and the just reputation gained by the delicate and happy discharge of his duty, the office became respectable, and when vacancies occurred, men of worth were eager to "obtain an appointment.""

From other sources we learn that before Brother Bell became jailer, the prisoners were fed more like brutes than as human beings, the soup, which constituted their principal fare, being actually set before them in troughs. He changed all that, made a great bonfire of the troughs in the jail-yard, built a good kitchen on the premises, provided towels, bowls and spoons, dispensed clean and nutritious soups and meats, whitewashed the cells and caused the prisoners literally to shout for joy.

All this he did in spite of strong opposition. When a prisoner was discharged he would furnish him with money from his own pocket, fearing that he might be driven by hunger to commit some offence, which might cause his speedy return. It was a common occurrence for men who had been under his charge to visit him for the sole purpose of thanking him for his kindness to them.

Shubael Bell was the sixth of the nine children of John Bell and Rachel Briggs. He was a twin with his sister Mary. He married, first Joanna Smith Masters, July 26, 1789; and second, Ann Hewes, at Christ Church October 16, 1808. There were no children. His house was on Court Street, near the Court House. He was Senior Warden of Christ Church from April, 1812, until his death, in May 1819. He gave to the Church the Decalogue, which still ornaments the wall, back of the altar, in two frames, the altar piece, platform, and carpet.

In 1815 he also gave the bust of Washington, which the family have always believed to be by Houdon and to have been bought in Philadelphia, a duplicate of one now in the capitol, at Richmond, Virginia. When the funeral obsequies of Washington were held in Boston, this bust was carried in the procession, and John Briggs Bell, Shubael's brother, carried the open Bible, as Chaplain, wearing a Masonic apron which is now in the possession of Phoenix Lodge, of Hanover, Mass.

In June, 1815, Brother Bell assisted Rev. Brother Asa Eaton, the rector of Christ Church, in establishing the first Sunday school in New England. It was known as the Salem Street Sunday School and was held in the old Academy, the next building north of the Church. He was one of the founders of St Matthews Chapel, South Boston a member of the British Charitable Society, President of the Irish Association and assisted in forming the Massachusetts Fire Society.

He was initiated in St John's Lodge of Boston, in 1794, secretary in 1797 and 1798, Junior Warden in 1799 and 1800, Senior Warden in 1801, W. Master from 1802 to 1805, and again in 1809, Treasurer in 1810 and 1811, Junior Warden again in 1814 and 1815, and Senior Warden again in 1818.

He was admitted to membership in St Andrew's Chapter, January 28, 1801, and served as its Treasurer from 1805 to 1808, and as High Priest in 1808 and 1809. He was one of the earliest members of Boston Encampment of Knights Templars.

In the Columbian Sentinel, of Boston, edited and published by Benjamin Russell, Past Grand Master, there appeared in the issue of Wednesday June 2, 1819, the following, among the death notices;
"In this town, on Sunday morning, Shubael Bell, Esq. aged 53, Deputy Sheriff and Prison Keeper of Suffolk. All his duties as a public officer, as a member of the Episcopal Church, as an associate of numerous Charitable Societies, as a relative and a citizen, were zealously and faithfully performed. His mind was cultivated by study; his heart enlarged by practical benevolence; his whole life was a scene of active usefulness and his death is universally lamented. "He who has long had constantly in view the worst of mankind and is yet eminent for the humanity of his disposition, must have had it originally in a great degree and continued to cultivate it very carefully." His remains were privately entombed in Christ Church yesterday morning, at his own request."

Some time before his death he bought the tomb directly under the porch of Christ Church, where his bones rest with those of his ancestors which he had removed from the graves in Copp's Hill Burial Ground. On the 8th of June following his death a memorial service was held in Christ Church and a eulogy was delivered by Brother Samuel L. Kanpp, which was published by St John's Lodge and a copy is preserved in the Library of this Grand Lodge.

The family relate the following incident, as showing his strong sympathy with those under his charge : One of the prisoners was condemned to die and Captain Bell was in the habit of reading prayers with him at night. A strong effort was made to have him pardoned, which resulted in a reprieve being granted, but he was finally hung. Captain Bell was of opinion that it was an act of cruelty to reprieve the man, and said that he thought another such case would kill him. Not long after, another case did occur, and was believed to have keen a principal cause of the death of the kind-hearted jailer.

The portrait exhibited to the Grand Lodge was painted by an artist be the name of Johnson. To restore it to good condition would require much labor and a long time. It is quite possible that it may be decided to be inexpedient to attempt restoration, but rather to be content. with a copy which very probably may be made to furnish a better idea of the man than the time-worn original affords.

For more about Benjamin Russell, the editor of the Columbian Sentinel mentioned above, and also his younger brother John Russell, see Williams, Henry - portrait of John Russell

This collection includes this miniature portrait of John Russell (<1761-1832 also="" an="" at="" br="" by="" editor="" gazette.="" henry="" john="" of="" one="" painted="" russell="" s="" time="" was="" williams.="">
It is interesting to think of Shubael Bell and John Russell now meeting again, having not seen each other for two hundred years. One wonders what they make of the world! 1363

Later addition. A kind visitor who is a great-great-great niece of John Shubael Bell has contacted me with more information about the family; "Here are the words from my great, great Aunt, Mrs. John W. Bacon aka Amelia Amanda Jeffers, that she dictated to her nephew, Frederick Wallace Jeffers (1854-1935), in a six page document entitled "HISTORY OF THE BELL FAMILY". The original manuscript is in the New England Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

“Your [Frederick Wallace Jeffers] great, great grandfather John Bell was born on the passage from England to Pennsylvania; his parentage is lost, and date of birth. He was married October 11, 1753 to Rachel Briggs, by whom he had nine or more children (married by Rev. A. Elliot.)

1. Elizabeth Bell, born 1754, died Dec. 18, 1838. She married Thomas Warland and was grandmother to Mrs J. Young.
2. John Briggs Bell, born Sept. 1756.
3. Rachel Bell, born 1758. She ran away with a British Officer and was married in England.
4. Dorothy Bell, born Nov. 1759, died Sept 1838 aged 74. She married James Tucker and was your [Frederick Wallace Jeffers] great grandmother.
5. Ephraim Bell, lost at sea.
6. Twins, Mary and Shubel Bell, born 1766. Shubel died June 1819.
7. Twins Daniel and Rheuben Bell

Rachel Briggs Bell died the night of the Boston Massacre March 5, 1770 when the bells were rung and they called in the streets, instead of buckets carry your guns! She being very sick at that time the fright hastened her death. John Bell died January 29, 1820.

Seven months after his first wife’s death he (John Bell) married Mary or Mollie Robbins of Littleton, by whom he had eight or nine children, one pair of twins John and Sallie Bell. John was married in Washington, no heirs. Sallie married Stockbridge Josselyn. Ephraim and Daniel Bell were bachelors. Rebecca Bell married a Benton had one child a daughter. Three children died in infancy.” 

Much Later - A kind visitor has provided more information about John Shubael Bell, including this image of his grave in the crypt and a modern colour image of the oil portrait of Bell and its title, as a better image of the sepia example appearing above. He also makes following comments:

I had chance to run across your Blog entry 2009 on the S Bell piece. Nicely done. As a recent retiring member of the Vestry of Old North Church, I have spent some time on the history of the crypt.  I am associated with the Grand Lodge of Masons of Mass., and a Past Master of Columbian Lodge, instituted by MW Paul Revere, 1795. Revere and Bell would have known each other. 

It is a small city.  I am in touch regularly with my friends of St. Johns Lodge of Boston. We reside in the same Grand Lodge building. As I am understanding, Shubael Bell and William Walker procured Tomb number 9 in 1808.  A deed of land was conveyed to fund the crypt.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Just wanted to let your readers know that the bust of Washington at Old North was indeed moved. The former window mentioned in the vintage postcard was uncovered in the 1980s or 90s revealing the original window that Sexton Robert Newman supposedly jumped through on the night of April 18, 1775. As such the bust was moved to the other side of the altar into a niche built above the door leading to the vestry. So, it's still there, just in a new location. Thanks for all the info on Shubael Bell!
Elisabeth Nevins
Director of Education/Interpretation
Old North Foundation