Memoir of Col. Joseph May, 1760-1841, by Samuel May of Leicester [Massachusetts], Reprinted from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register for April, 1873; [printed in] Boston, David Clapp & Son, 334 Washington Street, 1873.
Booklet, approximately 9-1/4" by 6" and consisting of 12 numbered pages and an engraving of Colonel May.
Handwriting at the top of the front cover indicates that this particular copy was given to S. H. Russell, Esq., or T. H. Russell, Esq. with J. J. May's respects. If T. H. Russell, perhaps the recipient was Thomas Hastings Russell (1820-1911), Nestor of the Boston Bar.
Engraving of Col. May:
"Joseph May, of Boston, elder son of Samuel and Abigail (Williams) May, was of the sixth generation from the first immigrant of the name, who was John May, of Mayfield, Sussex, England. The line followed thus: --
"John (2d), born in England 1628 (or, according to Savage, Genealogical Dictionary, 1631), came with his father to Plymouth, 1640; died Sept. 11, 1671.
"John (3d), born in Roxbury, May 19, 1663; died Feb. 24, 1730.
Ebenezer, born Oct. 19, 1692; died May 2, 1752
Samuel, born in Roxbury, Feb. 17, 1723; died in Boston, Aug. 9, 1794.
The first John, above named, who according to Savage must have been just 50 years of age on coming to America, was admitted freeman, in Roxbury, June 2, 1641; died April 28, 1670, aged 80 (see also Farmer's Genealogical Register). The name, sometimes spelt Maies, and Mays, occurs frequently in the early Roxbury town and church records. The death of the first John's wife, June 18, 1651, is thus recorded by Eliot, the 'apostolic' pastor, - "Sister Mayes died, a very gracious and savoury christian".
The second John was admitted freeman 1660; he was blind for several of the last months of his life.
The third John, admitted freeman 1690, was a deacon of the Roxbury church.
Samuel, grandson of the third John, was the father of Joseph, of whose life we attempt a short sketch. He (Samuel) married Nov. 3, 1748, Catherine Mears, and their only daughter who survived infancy, Mehetabel, was married in 1768 to Col. William Dawes, of Boston. The wife (C. Mears) died March 20, 1752; and on Oct. 4, 1753, he (S.M.) married Abigail, daughter of Joseph Williams, farmer, of Roxbury. They had thirteen children, nine of whom lived to mature age, and married. The family lived at "the south end", in a square, plain wooden house, on what is now the northerly corner of Washington (then Orange) and Davis streets." In an old account, it is called "Squire May's great house." He was a carpenter, and his older children remembered when he would take his tools on his shoulder and walk to Roxbury, even to the Plain, for his day's work. He was a good architect for his day, and is said to have been the principal builder of the Episcopal church in old Cambridge, still standing on the westerly side of the old burial ground. He also became a considerable lumber-dealer. In the rear of his house were no streets, as now; but the tide, flowing into the South Cove, brought lumber-vessels to his wharf, which extended across what is now Harrison avenue, at the point where Davis street enters. His name, and those of his brothers, Ephraim, Moses, and Aaron, occur in the first Boston Directory, 1789, a thin 18mo. of 57 pages. Moses May was the father of the late Perrin May, merchant of Boston.
A brief record follows of the nine children of Samuel and Abigail May:
Abigail, b. 1754; m. a distant cousin of Col. John May, of whom a biographical sketch appeared in the January number of the "Register." She died 1824
Catherine, b. 1757; . Lemuel Cravath; d. 1788
Joseph, the subject of this sketch.
Martha, b. 1763; m. Judge John Frothingham, of Portland; d. 1834
Lucretia, b. 1765; m. Azor G. Archbald; d. 1811
Mary, b. 1769; m. Isaac Davenport; d. 1853
Sarah, b. 1772; m. Captain John Holland; d. 1849
Louisa, b. 1773; m. Benjamin Goddard; d. 1832
Samuel, b. 1776; m. Mary Goddard; d. in Boston, Feb. 23, 1870
The widow of the last named still lives in this city, and is the only survivor of that family group.
JOSEPH MAY was born in Boston, March 25, 1760. With quite inconsiderable exceptions, his life of 81 years was spent in Boston. "He was a merry, active, helpful boy. The only son in the large family until nearly seventeen years old, his almost only associates both at home and school, for years, were his sisters. He learned easily, but the school-mistress complained to his mother that she could not 'keep him from talking'. Sewing being tried, proved a failure; and the next resource was to commit psalms to memory; which was more successful, and he learned very many of them, even the 119th, with its 176 verses, the whole of which he repeated without an error. His unusual aptness herein drew the attention of the neighbors, who would sometimes stand him up on a window shutter, which folded down and made a broad shelf in the street, at a shop near his home, and call for one psalm after another, which he would recite, the 119th being the closing achievement". At nine years old, he entered the Latin School, under Master Lovell; and was probably there until nearly the outbreak of the war of the revolution.
His father's family were members of the Hollis Street Society, of which the Rev. Mather Byles was minister (ordained 1732). Dr. Byles, as is well known, was a steady opponent of the "patriotic" movement, of which Boston was head-quarters, and in all ways strove to ridicule it and its principal supporters. As he gave very free expression to his feelings, his opponents of course were not backward in their censures of him. Soon after the "Boston Massacre", Mr. May and family withdrew from Dr. Byles' ministrations - Mrs. May being especially displeased - and united themselves with the Old South congregation, which more than any other in the town was identified with the popular love of liberty. In that church Joseph Warren had just uttered his denunciations of the perpetrators of the massacre, and of the government by whose soldiery it had been committed; and there the principal meetings of the townspeople continued to be held, until it was seized during the war for use of the British troops. While at the Old South, the boy Joseph, who had developed an early love for psalmody, sung as well as spoken, sat in the "singers' seats", and sang with them when but twelve years old. It is related of his mother, a strong and resolute woman, that one day when a British soldier reached his hand into her open window to take something from the table, she quickly shut the window down upon his arm and held it as in a vise, until a messenger to the guard-house brought an officer, who caused the offender to be arrested. Such being the condition of things in the town, we are not surprised that the father felt unwilling to have his wife and children remain there. He removed them to Pomfret, Conn., where connections, Mays and Williamses, were living, and they remained there until after the evacuation of Boston by the British troops in March, 1776. When the Old South society, in the autumn of 1777, obtained the use of King's Chapel for their own meetings, the family, or some of them, were again found there.
At about the time of the family's return to Boston from Pomfret, Joseph was apprenticed to Mr. Stephen Salisbury, of Worcester, who kept a store there. With him, and Mr. Samuel Salisbury, of Boston, he continued from 1776 to about 1780, at which time he was approaching his majority.
He formed, probably in 1781, a business partnership with Thomas Patten, a distant relative, who was engaged in the flour and produce trade in Baltimore and Alexandria, and Mr. May conducted the business in Boston, having the store No. 3, Long Wharf. The business was prosperous; and on the 28th December, 1784, he was married to Dorothy Sewall [footnote 1 - Dorothy Sewall, born Dec. 23, 1758, d. in Boston, Oct.. 31, 1825. The Rev. Dr. Sewall of the Old South, and Chief Justice Sewall, were her ancestors], daughter of Deacon Samuel Sewall of the Old South Church. Their first home was in a house in Union street; but he soon removed to a more commodious one in Milk street, on the west corner of Atkinson (since Congress) street. But the firm of Patten, May & Co. failed, about 1798, owing, as alleged, to speculations in Georgia lands, in which Mr. Patten embarked. Mr. May gave up every thing he possessed, even offering the gold ring on his finger. A very serious and protracted illness followed, in which his mental suffering was great, but fruitful of an unusual experience for the remainder of his life. He left the Milk-street house in the spring of 1801, and moved to a plain but comfortable house, No. 1, Federal court, leading from Federal street. It was a sunny and cheerful spot, and had been purchased, and a life-right in it given to him, by several friends, and secured to his wife and children at his decease. In this house he lived until 1835. The family-life there during those thirty-five years, was perhaps as happy as mortals often know. It was of necessity simple and without show; but it lacked no comforts, and was full of hospitable and kindly feeling and deed, - "the spare-room was seldom without an occupant." His children were respectful, intelligent, well-educated, and their young friends were always made welcome to the society of the house; one of the daughters had great musical gifts and a voice of memorable sweetness; the father himself was most attractive in conversation, with an excellent memory and ready wit, giving hours of every day to reading and retaining the fruits of it for the advantage and and entertainment of others, ready to participate in the occupations and amusements of those about him, and joining in their music; the mother, keenly alive to all the joys and trails of her children and of their young friends, sharing fully with her husband in the hospitable spirit of the house, and going beyond it, as he also did habitually, to relieve the needy and the sick, and minister to the dying - accomplishing thus with very moderate means a large amount of benefit; a deep interest in religious thought and inquiry, and an habitual attention to religious observance and worship, supporting, animating, giving cheerfulness and strength to the whole. "I have never seen", says his only surviving daughter, "more contentment and happiness than we enjoyed. We had music, health, love, and good will."
We can see Colonel May, in arm-chair by the fire-side, his head forward and inclined sidewise, the snuff-box (to tell the whole truth) in one hand and gently tapped with the other, and the coming mirth already visible in his eyes. No social pleasure of our childhood and youth was greater than to hear his conversation, and occasionally his song. Among other songs he sand "The Vicar of Bray", with much effect; and took pains to teach it to a young nephew, and gave him, in his beautiful hand-writing, a copy of the words. Stories of the revolutionary times there would be, and of the marked characters in Boston of all professions and occupations. Particularly do we remember his account of the scene in Hollis street meeting-house, when the brethren were assembled in council (August, 1776), having notified their minister, Dr. Byles, that charges would be preferred against him, to which he might reply, if he thought proper. The doctor, on the appointed day, came into the house, slowly ascended the pulpit, and from that place of accustomed authority made audible comments on the business as it proceeded, and upon the different speakers, in a way anything but complimentary; when, having sufficiently signified his lofty indifference to them and their doings, he moved out of the house, not to enter it again. The entire scene with its several actors was given with dramatic effect.
Mr. May was a member of the Independent Corps of Cadets as early as 1786, probably earlier, but, owing to the loss of the company-records of previous years, it is not certain. He was clerk of the corps in that year, and so continued until October, 1794; was elector major, May 14, 1795; and lieut.-colonel, May 6, 1797. He held the office of commander for two years, and resigned it April 18, 1799.
This was the time of his business-failure. He was "about thirty-eight years of age", says Rev. Dr. Greenwood, when it occurred. Dr. G. adds, "The sufferings which this disaster caused revealed to him that he had become more eager for property, than was creditable to his understanding or good for his heart. After some days of deep depression, he formed the resolution never to be a rich man; but to withstand all temptations to engage again in the pursuit of wealth. He adhered to this determination. He resolutely refused several very advantageous offers of partnership in lucrative concerns, and sought rather the situation he held, for more than forty years, in an insurance office, where he would receive a competence only for his family." [1 - footnote - Sermon on the death of Joseph May, Esq., 1841]. And another friend records this emphatic remark of Mr. Jay - "Life was not given to be all used up in the pursuit of what we must leave behind us when we die."
He was the first and only secretary of the Boston Marine Insurance Company, which was chartered Feb. 13, 1799. The salary never exceeded fifteen hundred dollars, and at times was less; but the position and income alike comported with the new resolutions he had formed, and with his now fixed ideas concerning the uses of life; and he held the office, busily and contentedly, until January, 1838, at which time age compelled him to leave it, and the company was dissolved. Among the presidents of the company were Samuel Cabot, George Cabot, and Daniel Sargent; with all of whom his personal as well as official relations were of the firmest friendship and mutual respect. Also, with Moses Michael Hays, a Jewish gentleman of Boston, a long and affectionate friendship existed.
Undoubtedly one reason for his seeking this office was that it would usually give him the afternoon of the day for those other objects in which he was interested, and which came to absorb more and more of his attention. He aided to establish the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Asylum for the Insane, and was one of the trustees from 1813 to 1826. But he gave more time to cases of private need, to families overtaken by misfortune or suffering from improvidence. Dr. Greenwood says: - "His private charities are not to be numbered. I believe that without much trouble he might be traced through every quarter of the city by the foot-prints of his benefactions. Pensioners came to the door of his house as they do in some countries to the gate of a convent. The worthy poor found in him a friend, and the unworthy he endeavored to reform. His aid to those in distress and need was in many cases not merely temporary, and limited to single applications, but as extensive and permanent as the life and future course of its object. I think I may be allowed to mention, as one instance of this effectual species of charity, that one whole family of fatherless and motherless and destitute children, bound to him by no tie but that of human brotherhood, found a father in him, and owe to him, under Heaven, the respectability and comfort of their earthly condition." And as, in this instance, he "cast his bread upon the waters", so did it "return to him after many days;" yes, and with increase, and thenceforth was never wanting to him, until he ceased to need any human ministration.
Among the "important trusts" which he discharged, was that of a commissioner of insolvent estates. As early as 1807, he was appointed, by the judge of probate for the county of Suffolk, a commissioner to receive and examine claims against the estate of persons deceased insolvent; and he continued to serve in that capacity, from time to time, with such men as Benjamin Rand, William Minot, John Heard, Jr., etc., until hear the time of his death. Some probate records as late as December, 1840, show him to be engaged in this work, which was less than three months prior to his death. This added a few hundred dollars to his annual income; and gave him opportunity to know the needs of many families, to save what he might of their means, and to give them courage and hope for their future. For more than thirty years he was seldom without a case of this kind upon his hands.
When the Old South society returned to their own house in 1783, Joseph May, who had become much attached to the mode of worship at King's Chapel, and to the instructions of the Rev. James Freeman, the rector, which he considered much in advance of those of other pulpits, decided to remain there. He was then but little over twenty-three years old. "In 1785," says Dr. Greenwood, "he was one of the twenty who voted to make those alterations in the liturgy, which cut us off from the trinitarian communion, and caused us to be repudiated by the Episcopal Church; and in 1787 he was one of the small but resolved congregation who ordained the late Dr. Freeman by their own authority, [1 - footnote - Discourse, page 17. See, also, Greenwood's History of King's Chapel.] This course, in a young man who had his future all before him, and knowing, as he did, the opprobrium it would bring upon him, yet taken without hesitation, appears indicative of a strong and manly character.
An intimate personal friendship grew up between the Rev. Mr. Freeman and himself, and it never was lessened or impaired. Good authority states that the hymn-book, which was published in 1799 for the use of the Chapel, was the joint work of the two friends. Their intercourse continued until Dr. F's death, which occurred in 1835, at Newton, where he had lived retired, but not secluded from friends, since 1826. A like friendship existed between him and the Rev. Samuel Cary, and afterwards with the Rev. Dr. Greenwood, who were successively colleague-pastors with Dr. Freeman. In the preface to his History of King's Chapel, Dr. Greenwood speaks of the aid he had received in it from his friend, Col. Joseph May, with his thanks.
Mr. May was junior warden of the Chapel, 1793 to 1795; was again chosen, 1798, and continued in office uninterruptedly until 1826. "It was mainly through his persevering applications that the ancient records and registers of the Chapel were obtained from the heirs of Dr. Caner, in England, in 1805; and his high estimation of the value of such documents, and particular attention to their preservation and regular continuance, are abundantly justified by the fact, that since the recovery of these records and registers, property to a large amount has been secured, through their means and evidence, to the rightful possessors." (Greenwood's Discourse.)
A quite faithful portrait of Col. May, by Gilbert Stuart, is now in possession of a grandson, John Edward May, of Cambridge.
His children, who survived infancy, were as follows: Catherine, b. 1786; m. to Dr. Charles W. Windship, of Roxbury, 1808; d. 1815. The late Dr. Charles May Windship was their only child. -- Charles, b. 1788; m. Caroline M. Gove, of Lynn, 1845; d. 1856. -- Louisa, b. 1792; m. Samuel Greele, of Boston (a deacon of Dr. Channing's Church), 1823; d. 1828. -- Edward, born 1795; d. 1802. An interesting story of the manner and circumstances of this lad's death is related in the Memoir of Rev. Samuel J. May, just issued from the press of Roberts Brothers, of this city. -- Samuel Joseph, born 1797; m. Lucretia F. Coffin, of Boston, 1825; d. 1871. (See Memoir, just named.) -- Elizabeth Sewall, b. 1798; m. Benjamin Willis, of Portland, 1817; d. 1822. -- Abigail, b. 1800; m. Amos Bronson Alcott, 1830. Mrs. Alcott is the only survivor of his children.
Of his grandchildren it may not be improper to say that Hamilton Willis, Esq., of this city, is thought to resemble him very closely in personal appearance; and that the easy style of narrative, pleasant humor, and aptness at personal sketches of Miss Louisa May Alcott, the author of "Little Women", etc., are a legitimate inheritance, and to some a frequent reminder of her grandfather.
His son, the late Rev. Samuel J. May, wrote of him: "When I brought to him my last college-bill, receipted, he folded it with an emphatic pressure of his hand, saying, 'My son, I am rejoiced that you have gotten through, and that I have been able to afford you the advantages you have enjoyed. If you have been faithful, you must now be possessed of an education that will enable you to go anywhere; stand up among your fellow-men, and by serving them in one department of usefulness of another, make yourself worthy of a comfortable livelihood, if no more. If you have not improved your advantages, or should be hereafter slothful, I thank God that I have not property to leave you, that will hold you up in a place among men, where you will not deserve to stand.' "
His wife died in 1825. Of a family distinguished in our annals for private worth and public service, she stood inferior to none of them for generous qualities and a life of utter unselfishness.
In October, 1826, Col. May was married to Mrs. Mary Ann Cary, widow of the Rev. Samuel Cary, who was assistant-minister of King's Chapel, 1809-1815. More than twelve years they lived together, contributing to each other's happiness. In 1835, they removed from Federal Court to the house on Washington street, corner of Oak street, built by Otis Everett, Esq., and recently occupied by Moses Kimball, Esq. There Mrs. May died in 1839; and there, faithfully cared for by his adopted daughter (now the wife of George Wm. Bond, Esq.,) he himself died on the 27th of February, 1841.
A notice of him which appeared in the Daily Advertiser, and which was understood to be from William Minot, Esq., has the following:
"His occupations in business were laborious and incessant; yet by untiring industry, strict method, and economy of time, he made leisure for works of charity, and was enabled, in very many instances, to aid those whose ignorance or inexperience in affairs had involved them in perplexities and embarrassments, from which their own skill was insufficient to release them. He rescued many orphan children from poverty, educated and brought them into life; and very few men in our city have, according to their means, bestowed so much money in acts of beneficense and on objects of public utility. This he accomplished with a small and limited income, by a wise and judicious frugality; and, what is quite as remarkable, he was able to restrict his wants within the limits of his means, and never regretted what he could not obtain. He was an encouraging example to persons of moderate fortune, by proving that wealth and fashion are not essential to the highest respectability, and that a man who is not rich has within his reach advantages infinitely superior to riches."
His habits of method and order were exact, but he was never the slave of them, and valued them only as they enabled him to use time to greater advantage, but which might always be set aside to meet a case of need. A sister jokingly said of him that his penknife was once lost for several days because it had got into the other waistcoat pocket. "My dear," he is remembered to have said, "if you want a thing done, go to a man who has a great deal to do."
We are favored in being able to give the following letter:
MY DEAR FRIEND, == Jamaica Plain, January 30, 1873
The face and form of your venerable uncle, Col. Jo. May, are inseparably connected with my first reminiscences of King's Chapel. When, as a very little boy, I stood up on the cushioned seat of the minister's pew, and contemplated the congregation, no more conspicuous face than his impressed itself on my young imagination. In the pews around were such men as Mr. Stackpole (who afterwards went to Kentucky and died there), Mr. Joseph Coolidge the elder and Mr. Joseph Coolidge, Jr., Dr. Bulfinch, Mr. Storer, Daniel Davis, William Minot, Francis J. Oliver, William Sullivan, Thomas Motley, Charles P. Curtis, Samuel A. Eliot, James Dalton, and others. But very noticeable among these was Col. May, with his massive square head, and manly figure -- his breeches, his grey stockings showing the muscular limbs of which he was justly proud -- the knee-buckles and shoe-buckles of a gentleman of the old style. Every Sunday, before the service began, Col. May was seen issuing from the vestry door, and passing behind the pulpit down to his own pew -- a performance which, to my innocent mind, seemed a necessary part of the ritual. When in his pew he read the responses so audibly, that, when at last he was obliged to suspend this practice from increasing deafness, it seemed as if an essential element of the worship had been taken away. Col. May was a frequent visitor at Dr. Freeman's house, and many an evening I have sat, with my Latin grammar and its lesson for to-morrow neglected on my knees, while I listened to the memorable narrations of the eloquent Colonel. Tapping his snuff-box ere he helped himself to a pinch, or caressing his right leg as it lay on the other knee, he would tell of many a moving accident by flood and field, many an adventure on State street, or in the distant wilds of New Hampshire, to which we children did seriously incline. But, through all his conversation, whatever might be the subject, there prevailed a tone of uprightness, of courage, of love of truth, which captivated our young hearts. We always welcomed a visit from Col. May. It was very pleasant to see him and his friend, my grandfather Freeman, together. They had stood by each other in their youth, and were growing old together, in one long unbroken friendship, -- such a friendship as comes far too seldom in this world; but, when it does come, is an encouragement to faith in all the better qualities of human nature. In commemoration of this friendship I have hung Col. May's portrait and my grandfather's together, in the room where I preserve the pictures of my family.
Very truly yours,
JAMES FRANKLIN CLARKE
From a letter of George B. Emerson, Esq., we make this extract:
"I was in the habit for many years, while in college and afterwards, of going to his house in Federal court, and often spent a night there. The good man was an early riser, and usually took a walk before breakfast, and was respectfully recognized by almost every person he met. Yet he said that he knew very few of them, even by name; but every body knew him as a most kind and benevolent man.... Much of the evening would be spent in conversation; he told pleasant, often witty anecdotes, and heartily enjoyed the mirth and good feelings which his conversation always produced. He listened with patience and evident sympathy and satisfaction to what was said by others, and helped to make a poor talker more communicative than otherwise he could have been. The music of this household was almost the sweetest I ever heard. Indeed I never enjoyed music more entirely than I did then and there the rich harmony of this exquisite family-choir. It is now, like the music of carols, 'sweet and mournful to the soul.' "
And one, whose knowledge of him was intimate and daily for almost thirty years, says, "Not that he had no faults; 'faultless people are lifeless,' Miss Sedgwick says; but he had so learned to command a spirit that must once have been extremely fiery, that he had sympathy for the erring, clear words for the bewildered, and love for everybody by the false and selfish. He had a sovereign contempt for appearances as a motive of action; for every thing worth doing there was always to him a deeper reason. He was accustomed to give his thoughts, oftentimes his advice, in neat quotations from his favorite authors (Pope and Goldsmith particularly), or from the Bible .... Whatever he entered into, it was with all his heart. He never joined a society or an enterprise without taking some of the hardest work; and he persevered the longest under discouragements. His favorite work was caring for others at home and abroad ... The friends of his children were welcome to his house, sick or well, the ailing or lonely classmate, the wearied teacher, young people in search of employment, old and tiresome people, each and all were kindly received, and stayed as long as they desired. The whole family caught and inherited the same spirit from both sides of the house; nothing could be more noble than the soul of the mother, modest, refined, unselfish. The opportunity to do a good action was a privilege, not to be lost, -- and in some way, cost what it would, in labor or inconvenience, the work was done." And he possessed the faculty of moving others to charitable and benevolent action, and gladly became their almoner when it was desired.
Some benefit by the munificent gifts, by noteworthy contributions to great public needs. Colonel May could do nothing of this, but by the sunshine of his nature, by the uprightness of his life, by the vigor of his thought, by the winning tones of his musical voice, by the protecting strength of his friendship, he succored many needy and bereaved, saved many young and tempted, wiped away the tears of orphans and found or gave them a home, and diffused hope, light and cheerfulness wherever he went. "Content with life and happy at its end" (as it was written of him), he passed onward gladly and trustingly, giving to all who ever knew him a new sense of the dignity and value of a human life.