Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mourning the Hancock Children, Lydia & Johnny

The larger family story surrounding John Hancock is one worthy of examination as we untangle the biography of this complex and somewhat elusive American Revolution patriot. Two thorough biographies of the man add considerably to our understanding: William Fowler’s The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock and Harlow G. Unger’s John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. The bulk of biographical material on Dorothy Hancock comes from a fairly glorified “saintly” narrative style of late 19th and early 20th century biographers.

Conducting research at several Boston-based collections has prompted me to integrate into the family narrative several surviving objects related to the Hancock’s children and to flesh out the very real experience --one many of us can relate to -- of  family grief and loss.
Lydia Henchman Hancock (1776- 1777) was named in honor of John’s beloved aunt, Lydia Henchman Hancock (1714-1776) who essentially acted as a surrogate mother for both John and Dorothy. Baby Lydia died before she reached her first birthday.  She was born in Philadelphia and died in Boston. In one letter, John notes that he is anxious to have the child inoculated once the baby and Dorothy arrived in Philadelphia. In a letter dated 10 March 1777, John writes to Dolly: “I have sent everywhere to get a gold or silver rattle for the child with a coral to send but cannot get one. I will have one if possible on yr. [your] coming.” 1 Unsuccessful, in his quest, he sends along “a sash for her”. John Hancock was busy attending to political matters and so Dorothy was on her own when the child died. John learned of the loss via letter. One can only imagine the sad aspect Boston must have held for her in that late summer of 1777: Aunt Lydia had died in 1776, Boston was deserted and John was away. Coming from such a large family, one suspects she had brothers and sisters to provide comfort, as well as members of the household staff, such as the stalwart and dedicated Mrs. Brackett.
This surviving photographic copy of Lydia dates from the 1940s and was part of a locket (sold; whereabouts unknown; collection of A posthumous rendering by a currently unknown artist, it is charming despite its melancholy subject. The child has an infant’s over scaled head, fused atop a diminutive form, holding a single rose. She is clad in a baby cap, common to the time. Behind her, the oft used symbols of death and mourning, an urn and willow. Her face is lovely and sweet and highly delineated for a child of under a year. One can image the care with which her mother donned the locket holding the image.

John George Washington Hancock (1778-1787), known as “Johnny” was nine years old when he died from a mortal head wound as a result of ice skating in Milton Massachusetts. By all accounts a sweet and talented boy, all of Boston greieved with John and Dolly. The funeral procession was noted by several contemporaries. Johnny was already being groomed by his father to take an active and important role in the young nation. A standard survives at the Massachusetts Historical Society noting that it was given by John and Johnny to an African-American regiment, recognizing their service during the American Revolution. (More on that in a future post.)  As Samuel Adams Dorr wrote in the weeks following Johnny’s death:

"This amiable child gave every indication of future eminence; and while his sweetness of temper, his strength of memory, and brilliancy of genius, led his parents to hope, that he would be not only the staff of their age, but eminently useful in the world!—Their hopes are suddenly blasted, and they feel the deepest affliction: Why falls the budding flower? Why dies the youth? Presumptuous reason crys. 'Tis not for us To search the ends of fate nor fault its means; Religion answers and our breasts are calmed."
-       Published in the American Herald, January, 1787. 

The miniature of Johnny is simple yet compelling. He is appropriately attired in the clothing of a youth of the day and his hair, unfettered.

In addition to the two locket reproduction miniatures, the Massachusetts Historical Society holds in its collection two mourning bracelets, comprised of gold beads and hair. They most likely date from c. 1793, the year of John Hancock’s death. 2

I was fortunate to view these fragile and delicate jewelry items at the MHS. It was an incredibly moving experience to gaze upon the bracelets and ponder what they meant in the lives of the parents who outlived their children. Clearly they were treasured. Suddenly it strikes you – you are looking at actual strands of John Hancock’s hair (over 220 years old), in combination with the hair of his children (blonde for Lydia and light brown for Johnny) crafted into a momento mori.  In a CSI world of DNA anyalsis and so on, this form of mourning is an exceedlingly powerful talisman.

Below find the catalog descriptions of the pieces from the MHS collections.

Hancock, Lydia H. 1776-1777
Mourning bracelet made of hair of Lydia Henchman Hancock (Aug. 1776- Nov. 1777), only daughter of Gov. John and Dorothy Quincy Hancock. Maker unidentified, [Boston?, circa 1793]
Hair, gold beads, gold, crystal, gold foil; 1cm H (at clasp) x 14 cm W (open) x
Bracelet made of 2 strands of braided dark hair [of John Hancock?, d. 1793] looped together by a series of hollow gold beads.  Elongated octagonal gold clasp has oval crystal front, under which are some strands of blond baby hair and gold cipher initials "LH".  Engraved in script on back of clasp: "L Hancock/ Obt Augt 1 1771/ aet. 9. mo"

Hancock, John G.W. 1772-1781
Mourning bracelet made of hair of John George Washington Hancock (1778-1787), only son of Governor John and Dorothy Quincy Hancock.  Maker unidentified, [Boston?, circa 1793]
Hair, gold beads, gold, crystal, gold foil; 1.1 cm H (at clasp) x 11.2 cm W (open)

Bracelet made of 2 strands of braided dark hair [of John Hancock?, d. 1793] looped together by a series of hollow gold beads.  Elongated octagonal gold clasp has oval crystal front, under which are strands of lighter brown hair [J.G.W. Hancock's], and gold cipher initials "JH".  Engraved on back of clasp: " JGW Hancock/ Obt Jany 27, 1781/ aet 9. years"

1. “John Hancock Letter to Dorothy Hancock, 10 March 1777”

2. For additional information on the mourning jewelry, see the excellent book “In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry” by Sarah Nehama, 2012.

My thanks and appreciation to Anne Bentley, Curator of Art, Massachusetts Historical Society.

All illustrations are courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.


  1. I'll be interested your thoughts on the Bucks of America flag with Johnny's initials on it. I hypothesize it dates from the mid-1780s, like the group itself.

    1. Agreed - as JGWH died in 1787, one assumes it was prior to the date. I hope to view the standard later this fall & would appreciate an opportunity to share notes.


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