The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“Just Mede of Praise”: George N. Briggs’ Heroic Act

In the mid-1830s, George Nixon Briggs (later Gov. Briggs) was serving in the 23rd U.S. Congress as a representative from Massachusetts. He was still a fairly junior Congressman, working alongside such notables as Edward Everett and John Quincy Adams. But one remarkable incident, documented in a new collection acquired by the MHS, sheds new light on Briggs’ character.

Here’s the story as told by Sarah (Moulton) Wool in 1862: One winter day, “Gov. Briggs was walking by the Washington Canal & chanced to hear, from a crowd collected there, that a colored boy was drowning. Instantly, without waiting to remove any of his clothes, he plunged into the canal & rescued the poor boy from a watery grave.”

The incident probably took place somewhere along the part of the canal that crossed the Capitol grounds, when Briggs was either coming or going to a session of Congress. The canal no longer exists, but at the time it ran up from the Washington Navy Yard, past the Capitol building, then west along what is now Constitution Avenue.

This new MHS collection consists of only two documents. The first, pictured above, is Wool’s two-page description of the event (written by someone else). Almost thirty years later, Wool claimed to remember it “distinctly […] but not the precise time.” She guessed it happened in the winter of 1834-1835 and referred, for corroboration, to her servant James H. Davis and to Briggs’ colleague William Baylies.

The second document in the collection is Davis’s statement confirming the story, written in his own hand, likely at around the same time.

It’s hard to say for sure, but Davis probably witnessed the rescue. Baylies may have been present, as well. As another Massachusetts representative serving in the 23rd Congress, he would have had reason to accompany Briggs to and from the Capitol.

The handwriting on the first document is unfamiliar to me, but it’s possible both statements were taken on the same visit to Troy, N.Y. and collected either by or on behalf of one of Briggs’ sons. Davis began his note with: “Please say to Mr Briggs son[…]” George N. Briggs had died a few months before, in September 1861, from an accidental gunshot wound at his home. His death may have prompted his family to look into the story. 

I tried to learn more about some of the key players in the drama, but didn’t find much. William Baylies died in 1865. Sarah Wool, wife of the famous Gen. John Ellis Wool, died at Troy in 1873. She’d had no children, but left $300 in her will to a woman named Elise, the daughter of her servant James H. Davis. Presumably Davis pre-deceased Wool. 

A search for James H. Davis turned up someone with that name as a signatory to the “Colored Conventions” at Troy in 1847 and 1855. These conventions, held throughout the United States beginning in 1830, called for equal rights for free and fugitive black Americans.

William C. Richards did not include the story of the daring canal rescue in his 1866 hagiography of George N. Briggs, Great in Goodness. However, according to Sarah Wool, “No one who was in Washington at the time, could forget an incident which did such honor to humanity, & added such lustre to the fame of a brave & good man.”


permalink | Published: Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 12:00 AM