Silversmith's diary is window to past

Jottings: An artisan's observations of life in Annapolis at the end of the 18th century provide another angle on history.

May 03, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

From his home and tavern just off Church Circle in Annapolis, silversmith William Faris quietly observed life in the 18th-century town and dutifully jotted down notes every day.

A cloudey drissely dissagreeable day, he inked in a haphazard, spidery script fraught with misspellings. Or, Lent my Pistoles and Holsters to Jesse DuWees, who is going to Baltimore to defend him self as thare is Highway men on the road.

Over the last 12 years and eight months of his life -- from Jan. 1, 1792, to Aug. 9, 1804 -- Faris scrawled many everyday observations into a brown, muslin-bound book. The 700-page tome has gained new importance in recent years to local historians, who say it offers valuable insight into how the working class lived in 18th-century Annapolis.

Now a descendant of Faris and a historian are transcribing and publishing the diary, hoping to unveil its interesting daily snippets and town gossip to a larger audience.

"When you read about people back then, you read about ... the movers and shakers of society," said Mark Letzer, 35, a sixth-generation descendant of Faris who is working on the diary with Jean Russo, director of research for the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

"You read about people in the State House, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but here is an average person who really has something to tell. It adds another dimension."

Faris was born in London in 1728 but left for Philadelphia just six months later with his mother when his father, a Quaker, died in prison for refusing to renounce his faith. Faris apprenticed with a clockmaker in Philadelphia and moved to Annapolis in 1757.

In 1759, Faris set up a silversmith and clockmaking shop at his home and tavern on West Street, named the Sign of the Crown and Dial.

During his lifetime, Faris made and maintained clocks for Charles Carroll and Samuel Chase, who both signed the Declaration of Independence. He also was a town dentist, avid gardener who sold tulips and father of seven children who lived to adulthood and two who died in infancy.

Russo does not know why Faris kept a diary, but she speculates that his mortality began weighing on him in his twilight years and he wanted to keep a record of his life. Russo said that, while a handful of journals of working-class men in the 18th century have been found in New England, Faris' diary is the only such account she knows of from the Annapolis area.

She said Faris' diary is especially significant because the Maryland Gazette published little local news in 18th century; such information was spread throughout Annapolis by word of mouth.

The silversmith's journal records many a snippet of town gossip -- births, deaths, weddings, accidents -- and has several entries about epidemics of "yallow fever" that swept Baltimore and Annapolis, eventually claiming at least two of Faris' adult children.

Letzer first stumbled upon the fragile diary in January 1997, while researching his genealogy at the Maryland Historical Society where the book had been kept since 1974 at Faris' descendants' behest. Gingerly flipping through the yellowed pages and squinting at the often-illegible script, Letzer was taken with the world that his ancestor had inhabited.

"I remember just feeling this sense of, `Wow, there's a whole world in here. How has this not been published?'" said Letzer, a Cockeysville resident.

He found out that relatives had contemplated publishing the account in the 1920s but decided against it because they feared some scandalous tidbits the silversmith penned about town residents in the post-Revolutionary era might anger their descendents.

Faris recorded one such snippet May 9, 1792: Capt. Kilty married Kitty Quynn and the Town Talked that he should have marryed her sooner as she's with child. On Aug. 12 of the same year, he followed up with this observation: Either last night or this morning Kitte Kilty was deliverd of a daughter. I think thay have not been Idel, being only marryed the 9th of May last.

When Letzer floated the idea of publishing the diary in 1998, his family was supportive. So he approached Russo -- known for her research expertise on 18th-century Annapolis -- the next year and the project began.

Deciphering Faris' words has been daunting not only because of his penmanship but because he received no formal education and the words are spelled phonetically.

"He almost never spells a word the same way twice," Russo said. "If he could figure out a way to spell a word differently, he would."

Russo finished transcribing the book in the fall and is working with Letzer on researching the names and connections of people Faris mentions for footnotes to help readers fully understand the silversmith's world. They also plan to take out the diary's repetitive weather references -- such as "a clear coole day" -- in the book but release a complete version of the account on a CD-ROM for Annapolis history buffs.

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