The Confessions of Jonathan Pratt is a work of fiction. Though several of the characters appearing in the story were famously (or notoriously) alive in 1848, all of their scenes are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
That said, most of the places and situations are consistent with the history of New York State in 1848. Jonathan’s story, though highly improbable, is not impossible.
The accuracy of any personal memoir, such as Jonathan Pratt’s confession, is only as good as the memory and honesty of the teller. Recollections, even recent ones, can become distorted; names, dates, places and events confused or lost altogether. And someone with as much at stake as Jonathan Pratt, on the eve of his execution, cannot be trusted to write with absolute honesty. The purpose of these chapter notes will be to compare Pratt’s statements with what is known to be true and attempt to determine to what extent we can trust Jonathan Pratt’s memory.
In 1848, Easter Sunday fell on April 23. This will be important going forward, as we follow Pratt’s travels and attempt to place events on a timeline.
Pratt’s first destination was Mr. Pembroke’s cooperage on Water Street in Salem, MA. In 1848 Salem had at least eight cooperage shops, employing more than fifty people. Their owners and locations cannot be easily verified at this point.
Itinerant preachers, traveling evangelists, were common throughout America beginning during the colonial period. Their work led directly to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s. Many were circuit riders who helped found the Methodist Episcopal Church in America; others were scoundrels and mountebanks attracted by easy money from a gullible audience. Wise is the man who can tell the difference.
The instrument that Mirabile played was a lap organ or harmonium; a portable pump organ played on the lap. They were manufactured in America beginning around 1830.
Before the Civil War the United States government issued no paper currency. All bills in circulation were notes issued by private banks and counterfeiting was rampant. Any transaction involving paper money required the merchant to assess the soundness of the bill itself, the institution it was drawn upon, and the individual attempting to pass it
Berkshire County is the easternmost county of Massachusetts; Jonathan will soon be in New York.
In 1845 there were 4,000 cargo and passenger boats on the Erie Canal employing 25,000 men women and children between Albany and Buffalo. Erie Canal packet boats were the preferred means of transportation for those seeking opportunity in the west.
Deacon M. Eaton traveled the Erie Canal for the Bethel Society in the 1840s. His 1845 book Five Years on the Erie Canal recounts numerous cases of reforming hoggees, convincing reluctant clergymen to hold services aboard packets, and bringing passengers— and even the meanest captains –to tears with God’s word. It is not unlikely that Deacon Eaton was still on the canal in 1848, but this has not been verified.
The village of Canajoharie—whose name is derived from the Iroquois word meaning “kettle washing”—is much older than the Erie Canal. It became a favorite stop for Canalers and their passengers because of the well-stocked general store operating there.
In the days when rigidly defined sexual roles extended to extremely gender specific clothing, it was not difficult for an assertive woman to pass as a man by simply dressing and acting the part. It was also the only way for a woman to actively participate in a man’s world. On an Erie Canal boat, the only job open to a woman was cook.
There are numerous documented cases of women impersonating men in eighteenth and Deborah Sampson fought in the American Revolution disguised as a man named Robert Shurtleff. The deception was not discovered until she was wounded in battle and examined by a physician. The Civil War also saw many cases on both sides of women fighting dressed as men.
Though faith healing is rooted in the Bible, modern evangelical faith healing began during the Second Great Awakening with people like Ellen White and Phineas Quimby whose work lives on in the Adventist and Christian Science movements. Of course, from pre-Biblical times to the present faith healing has also been a lucrative field for charlatans.
Contrary to Jack’s belief, their escape from the boat—if it actually happened—was not long remembered. The literature and folklore of the Erie Canal include many stories of men jumping from bridges onto canal boats, but none about leaving a canal boat by climbing upon a bridge.
The Erie Canal brought prosperity to towns throughout New York, but it also brought undesirable elements. The largest concentrations of taverns and brothels grew at the canals extremes: Buffalo in the west, and Watervliet in the East. The town of Watervliet, west of Troy, had a well-earned reputation for drinking, brawling, and debauchery.
Tales of the death-defying, acrobatic, self-destructive Watervliet entertainer, Davie, have persisted to the present day. His last name is unknown, as is his reason for limiting his hammer-and –staircase act to exactly five iterations per session. Perhaps he had more sense than his choice of occupations would indicate—it is a wise man who knows his limits.
From Halfmoon, Jonathan and Jack probably traveled northeast and stopped on McDonald’s Creek.
The man from the cave was making reference to Exodus 3:12, where, in the King James Version, God says to Moses, “I am that I am.”
In 1844, several thousand followers of the Reverend William Miller prepared for the final judgment day which they earnestly believed would occur on March 21, 1843. Miller had calculated the date by a careful study of the dates and prophesies in the Bible. He then traveled throughout New York and New England with an elaborate tent show. He was remarkably successful at selling his idea.
When the world did not end on March 21, 1843, he recalibrated his calculations and predicted the end would be on April 18, 1844. The calculations were revised again after April 18 proved uneventful, and Miller’s followers, known as the Millerites, did not lose faith until the world failed to end on October 21, 1844.
Many tales concerning the Millerites have been exaggerated. Not all of them sold their property before the big day. Nor did they all stand on hilltops wearing white ascension robes. But in each case, some did.
Also, contrary to the myth, the lunatic asylums did not fill up after the world failed to end. While some of Miller’s followers did go insane, many continued on to form the Seventh Day Adventists who refer to the events of 1844 as “The Great Disappointment.” Many others joined the Shakers, another sect that believed the end was at hand but did not put a date on judgment day. Most, though, went back to conventional religion.
In 1848, Benment’s American Hotel on State Street was the finest hotel in Albany, New York; The Temple of Fancy on Broadway was the largest department store.
Just as in Jack’s childhood home, many pioneer families traveling west carried only two books: The Bible and The Plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare had always been popular in America, among people of every class, and they especially loved to see their native son, Edwin Forest performing in Shakespeare’s plays.
In 1848 Edwin Forest was following behind his English rival William Charles Macready who was on tour in America. There is a good chance that they both played Albany that season. When Macready left a city, Forest would open there, performing the same play, inviting comparison. The tours culminated in New York City in May of 1849 when both men were performing Macbeth at the same time. The event sparked a rare alliance of the Irish and nativist gangs of New York, who rioted against the English actor. The Astor Place Riot, as the disturbance was called, left 25 people dead and 120 wounded and had to be quelled by the state militia.