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Call No.: HUG 1103.5
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Title: Father Abbey's Will Collection, ca. 1739-1961
Quantity: .19 cubic feet (1 flat box and 1 folder)
Abstract: Father Abbey's Will, later attributed to Reverend Jonathan Seccombe (Harvard AB 1728), was a humorous poem first published anonymously in Boston in January 1732. The verses appeared after the death of the Harvard College Sweeper and Bed-maker Matthew Abdy in the early 1730s, and listed an inventory of Abdy's estate. A second poem purported to be a letter to Abdy's widow followed a month later. The poems were popular in both the colonies and England, and were reprinted as broadsides into the 19th century. This collection contains broadside, manuscript, and sheet music manifestations of the poem.
In the Harvard University Archives
- Papers of John Leverett 1652-1724.
- Poems copied by James Diman, ca. 1730-1733 (HUM 65).
Father Abbey's Will, later attributed to Reverend Jonathan Seccombe (Harvard AB 1728), was a humorous poem first published anonymously in Boston in January 1732. The verses appeared after the death of the Harvard College Sweeper and Bed-maker Matthew Abdy in the early 1730s, and listed an inventory of Abdy's estate. A second poem purported to be a letter to Abdy's widow followed a month later. The poems were popular in both the colonies and England, and were reprinted as broadsides into the 19th century.Father Abbey's Will first appeared in the January 3, 1732 issue of a Boston literary newspaper, the Weekly Rehearsal, under the note: "On Saturday Night last, The LION King of Beasts, died at the Tan-yard in Water Street, Boston, where his Body may be viewed." The poem included the preface: "Cambridge, Decemb. 1731. Some time since died here Mr. Matth. A---y, in a very advanc'd Age, he had for a great Number of Years served the College here, in Quality of Bed maker and Sweeper…" The verses began, "To my dear Wife, / My Joy and Life." The work listed each item of the Sweeper's estate before ending "My days are done, / And so I think to leave it." Five weeks later, a second poem to the widow "Mistress A---y" appeared in the February 7, 1732 issue with the preface: "New Haven, January 24. To the Author of the Rehearsal. SIR, Our Sweeper having lately buryed his Spouse, and accidentally hearing the Death and Will of his deceas'd Cambridge Brother, has conceiv'd a violent passion for the Relict."The unattributed Cambridge verse was printed two months later in the May 1732 issue of the London periodical Gentleman's Magazine, and was followed by the New Haven verse in the June 1732 issue. The poems soon took on the title Father Abbey's Will and were published in magazines and as broadsides without attribution until November 1794, when the poems were reprinted in Massachusetts Magazine. The poem began with a preface, likely written by William Biglow (Harvard AB 1794), "I do not remember to have seen Father Abbey's Will published in any late periodical work.---It was composed by Mr. [John] Seccombe, formerly minister of Harvard…" A letter to the editor, published in April 1795 by "F." rejected the claim, and said instead that the author was Joseph Seccombe (Harvard AB 1731). The magazine confirmed Rev. John Seccombe (1708-1792), a 1728 Harvard graduate, as the author in an August 1795 editorial titled "Certificate respecting the Rev. John Seccombe." The editorial relied on information provided by Seccombe's "only surviving classmate," and private secretary to Governor John Belcher (Harvard AB 1699) in 1732, Thaddeus Mason (Harvard AB 1728). The article explained that Governor Belcher had forwarded Seccombe's poems to London with a February 23, 1732 letter to his son Jonathan Belcher (Harvard AB 1728). In the letter, Belcher wrote, "I send the two Rehearsals for the sake of the Sweeper's Will &c, wrote (they say) by your classmate Seccombe, & perhaps may bear reading in a London Coffee House." In 1897, Nathaniel Paine attributed the New Haven verses to Colonel John Hubbard, a Connecticut physician, but in 1961 George T. Goodspeed concluded: "I have found no contemporary suggestion that Seccomb was not the author; on the contrary, his contemporaries Mason and Belcher believed that he was."Father Abbey's Will and the New Haven reply were printed in broadside form into the 19th century. The poems underwent various word changes, and in 1850 the Cambridge verse was published as music by Oliver Ditson. At an undisclosed point, a four-line epitaph beginning "Thus Father Abbey left his spouse…" was added to the poem.
Matthew Abdy (ca. 1650-ca. 1730) was born in Boston around 1650. Abdy's appointment as the College Sweeper and Bed-maker at Harvard was recorded in the February 19, 1717/18 diary entry of President John Leverett. Abdy worked for the College until his death. The exact date of Abdy's death is unknown, but likely occurred in late 1730 or early 1731. Abdy married at least three times. His widow, Ruth Abdy, died on December 10, 1762 in Boston at the age of 93.
John Seccombe (1708-1792), a minister in Harvard, Mass. and later Nova Scotia, was born on April 25 in Medford, Mass. He received an AB from Harvard in 1728 and an AM in 1731. He was ordained as the minister of the town of Harvard, Mass. on October 10, 1733, but was dismissed on September 7, 1757. Seccombe and his family moved to Nova Scotia in 1759, and he served as a minister there until his death on October 29, 1792.
- Ford, Worthington Chauncey. Broadsides, Ballads &c. printed in Massachusetts, 1639-1800. The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922.
- Goodspeed, George T. "Father Abbey's Will" in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Volume LXXIII, January-December 1961, pages 19-37.
- Shipton, Clifford K. Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College in the classes of 1726-1730. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1951.
- Sibley, John Langdon. Father Abbey's Will; to which is added a letter of courtship to his virtuous and amiable widow. With historical and biographical notes. Cambridge: privately printed, 1854.
The collection is arranged in five series:
- Series I: Manuscript copies of Father Abbey's Will, undated
- Series II: Broadside copies of Father Abbey's Will, ca. 1739-ca. 1800
- Series III: Photostat broadside copies of Father Abbey's Will, ca. 1780-1797
- Series IV: Sheet music of Father Abbey's Will dedicated to the Graduates of Harvard University, 1850
- Series V: Materials about Father Abbey's Will, 1795-1961
This collection contains broadside, manuscript, and sheet music manifestations of Father Abbey's Will, and supplementary historical information. Following the poem's 1732 publication in the Weekly Rehearsal, it was printed in various formats through the mid 19th century.The records are arranged in five series. Series I contains one handwritten copy of the poem likely made in the early 19th century, one undated photostat copy of a manuscript version of the poem, and a photostat copy of a poem titled "On the Death of Old Abdy Sweeper at Harvard College in Cambridge." Series II contains original broadsides of the poem and Series III contains photostat copies of broadsides not held by the Harvard University Archives. Series IV holds sheet music of Father Abbey's Will printed in 1850. Series V contains supplemental historical information about the poem.George T. Goodspeed's 1961 article "Father Abbey's Will" in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society provides the basis for the organization of both the original and photostat copies of the broadsides in the collection. The broadsides are often undated and are difficult to differentiate; Goodspeed's article complements the collection by providing a comprehensive list of holdings at various institutions. There are two additional broadsides in the collection that are not included in Goodspeed's list. Of Goodspeed's list of broadside printings, the collection holds originals of numbers 1 [fragment], 5, 6, 9, 11, 14, and 15 (in Series II), and photostat copies of numbers 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 13, and 18. The collection does not have any copies of broadsides 10, 16, or 17. The broadside descriptions in this finding aid include the item numbers assigned by Goodspeed, as well as those used by W. C. Ford in Broadsides, Ballads &c. Printed in Massachusetts, 1639-1800.The titles of the broadsides vary and have been listed in the finding aid as they appear on each piece. While the earliest known broadside was titled "Father Ab--y's Will," the broadsides printed after 1780 refer to "Father Abbey." The verses originally published in January 1732 are referred to in the finding aid as the "Cambridge verse," and the verses published in February as a letter to Abdy's widow are referred to as the "New Haven verse."Jonathan Seccombe's name is also spelled as Jonathan Seccomb, notably by Clifford K. Shipton in Biographical Sketches of those who attended Harvard College.
This document last updated 2015 July 13.