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Historic Houses

Kearny Cottage
Perth Amboy
Where "Madam Scribblerus" taught Captain James Lawrence of "Don't give up The ship" fame the love of poetry

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

ALMOST under the shade of the great Franklin Palace is quaint little Kearny Cottage, nestling like a sparrow under the wing of an eagle. It was erected about 1780 by Michael Kearny, and is still occupied by a member of his family, --a thing not unusual in this old township a decade or two ago. Up to the time of the Civil War, life there was closely run on the lines of an old English village, --the woollen-draper's daughter never thinking of speaking first to the lawyer's wife, --and the equality among the classes which now reigns was then a thing unknown.

The Kearnys belonged to the Irish gentry, and soon after their arrival at the ancient capital became one of the important families of the place. Members of one of the younger branches left there some time previous to Governor Franklin's rule and established themselves on a narrow jetty of land farther down the coast. They called it Kearny-Port, now corrupted to Keyport. These Kearnys, of Kearny Castle, Kearny-Port, of which one-time elegant residence only a small portion remains, were socially prominent in New York as well as in the Jerseys. At the former place one of the younger sons, Major James Kearny, wedded the beautiful mother of Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution. It is to this Mrs. Kearny, nee Freneau, who carefully preserved her letters and papers, that we are indebted for a few pleasing glimpses of the first mistress of the Kearny Cottage, --Mrs. Michael Kearny (Elizabeth Lawrence), better known to Perth Amboy and the literary world of her day as "Madam Scribblerus." She sometimes signed herself "Pinderina," in the romantic fashion of the period, when writing to the press or to her intimate friends, who included the most prominent people of culture in the young republic.
Agnes Watson, a Jersey beauty, married Pierre Freneau, of New York, in 1748, and became the mother of Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution, four years later. The Freneau mansion, on Frankfort Street, was one of the fashionable resorts of the early French society of New York City. As early as 1716 the family is recorded as prominent in the city, and it is several times mentioned in the interesting journal of John Fontaine, a kinsman of the celebrated Commodore Maury.

This interesting figure, whose little rush-light of renown long ago flickered out, was a daughter of Judge Lawrence, of Burlington, and a half-sister of Captain James Lawrence of "Don't give up the ship" fame, for whom she seems to have entertained an ardent affection, notwithstanding about fifteen years' disparity in their ages. There in the rooms of her cottage, which look so small from the outside, but seem to widen mysteriously when one enters, she tells us in one of her faded scribbles that she taught this future hero the love of poetry. It is inferior to many of her verses, yet from its interest should be preserved. It reads:
My brave, brave Jim's a sailor Jack
Upon the treacherous sea, --
A sailor who loves poetry
All taught to him by me.
The house where Elizabeth Lawrence (Madam Scribblerus) lived as a girl is still standing in Burlington, at the corner of Main and Library Streets, and is now the residence of Mr. James Birch. Captain James Lawrence was born there, and in later years it became the residence of Governor Bloomfield. An old legend is still repeated in Burlington in reference to its occupancy by the Lawrence family. At one period of the Revolution, when some British ships were on their way to Philadelphia, they fired on Burlington, and a cannon-ball struck the building, which was taken as a sign that one of the family would die at the hands of the British. In the tragic death of Captain James Lawrence the omen or foreshadowing proved true.

It is to be hoped that young Lawrence was pleased with this poetic teaching when visiting his sister, of whom one of her intimates wrote: "She occupies the highest seat on Parnassus." Others in her Perth Amboy world did not take their occasional doses of the muse at all patiently. Betsey Parker, who lived once over at the Parker Castle, wrote to her sister, "Oh, why won't Madam Scribblerus stop her scribbling?" And her own household of growing boys is said to have openly scoffed at her effusions.

But Madam Scribblerus still wrote on, despite the jeers of her friends and family; and she must have ridden her galloping muse at a rapid pace, if the one unpublished volume of her works, still in existence, entitled the seventh, is anything like its forerunners. In that, amid a chaotic mass of dolorous elegies and the chapters of a novel entitled ` Altamont and Lothario," written in a good imitation of the style of the once famous Madam D'Arblay, who set the London world agog when she was " Little Burney," there are many references to the current events of the time and the country's famous citizens.

During her girlhood she had spent several winters in Philadelphia, and in the first years of her marriage she made two or three journeys there to visit old friends. Among her intimates were Peggy Chew, a noted Quaker City belle who had replaced Honora Sneyd in Major Andre's affections, the famous Shippen sisters, and "the dazzling Mrs. Bingham." The latter, a bright star in the American social world after the Revolution, was made the subject of some very witty and animated verses entitled;

Just in from the country, with nothing to wear,
At Bingham's to-night I am bidden repair.
My one silken pelisse is all in a tangle,
And I know I have lost my Parisian bangle.
Not a whit of hair-powder to light up my head--
Methinks 'twould be better to get into bed!
My slippers the parrot has quite eaten up --
Oh ! why am I bidden to come in to sup?
Now, Rebecca, do try make that child stop its wailing;
At the thought of the company courage is failing!
There's a chair going past and a coach with a clatter.
If I go as I am-pray, what does it matter?
Here give me some Rose-Bloom to ease up my face,
And a patch on my chin would give it a grace.
My new brilliant necklace, my white turkey wrapping;
Ah, now I am ready ; but who is that tapping?
A word from the Binghams-you say a postponement
An illness -- alas, 'tis a hurried atonement,
With nothing to wear, and nothing to eat!
Come blow out the candles and gaze on the street.
To Mr. and Mrs. E. Pennington of the same city she addressed this poem on their marriage:
May you like Isaac and Rebecca live,
And each receive the happiness you give,
No clouds arise to make your prospects dark,
No winds, tempestuous, adverse toss your barque,
Nor slander by the fiend-like envy led
O'er you, my friends, her sooty pinions spread,
Nor jealousy (the Lovers' Hell) e'er find
You to her baleful whisperings inclin'd --
But may you smoothly pass the stream of life,
One a fond Husband, One a loving Wife;
And when you go your great reward to claim
Your children heir your fortune and your fame.
Major Andre's lamentable death created much sadness in the larger portion of homes in the colonies. Everywhere tears were shed over his sad fate. His charming personality and romantic career ending in so gruesome a tragedy made a strong appeal to the heart and the imagination. Many Tory households decorated their front doors with mourning emblems, and laudatory odes to the departed Andre appeared in all the newspapers. Miss Anna Seward, of Litchfield, England, a foster-sister of Honora Sneyd, Major Andre's first love, startled the reading world of the day with her "Monody on the Death of Major Andre." Old Amboy society went into ecstacies over its pathos, and Madam Scribblerus, emulating her example, wrote:
Honora Sneyd was the adopted daughter of Mr. Seward, a canon of the cathedral at Litchfield. He resided with his family at the bishop's palace, and there Major Andre visited them. Miss Seward, in her Monody on the Death of Major Andre," insinuated that Honora Sneyd jilted Andre. Richard Lovell Edgeworth in his Memoirs denies this. He married the lady in July, 1773, two years after Major Andre had given up his mercantile business and obtained a commission in the army. Richard Lovell Edgeworth was the father of Maria Edgeworth.
Could I like Seward touch the plaintive string,
Like her could I of worth departed sing,
I'd join her, and a funeral-wreath prepare
To deck her much lamented Andre s Bier.
But she does not my feeble aid require, --
The muses, jointly, her thoughts inspire,
For each prevailing subject of the breast
By fullest force of language is expressed.
Who e'er unmoved her monody does hear,
And reads, yet drops no tributary-tear,
Are (if they then their passions can control)
Dead to the finest feelings of the Soul --
Strong as her friendship is , The vestal fire,
Which guides the world to Andre's hallowed Pyre,
Its sacred flame, shone warmly on her heart,
And did each power of harmony impart,
Lives by no circumscribing bounds confin'd,
But fully show'd the tumult of her mind.
Madam Scribblerus was a frequent contributor to the Time Piece, a tri-weekly literary journal conducted by Philip Freneau in New York. It was a rival of the Porcupine Gazette, edited by William Cobbet, who was praised by the , cultured people of the day for the beauty and simplicity of his style. Philip Freneau during the time he controlled the Time Piece had many female literary aspirants corresponding with him, and his office was often thronged with applicants, some fair and some grotesque, who came to seek his favor in person. It is not known whether Madam Scribblerus ever journeyed to New York to see him, but she was one of the most voluminous of his correspondents. Through the medium of his sheet she carried on a merry war with a writer who hid under the pseudonym of " Duncan Downwright." She frequently visited at Mount Pleasant Hall, Freneau's Monmouth home, and in several of the books formerly comprised in his library there her autograph is found under his own and that of his brother Peter Freneau.
Philip Freneau's London publisher, John Russell Smith, Soho Square, writing of the Time Piece and its rival the Porcupine Gazette, says, "If Cobbet discharged any of his porcupine quills at Freneau, it is most probable they were promptly returned: for he was 'always as ready to return a blow with a pen as with a sword, the former being as sharp as the latter.'"

Many of Madam Scribblerus's letters are in existence to-day. In the following one she shows offence at some of the remarks of one of the contributors to the Time Piece, and it is a good sample of her style of correspondence. It reads:


Indeed Sir I am quite done over by Caroline's smart retort to my letter, Duncan Downright's address to the duncified tribe. I was sensibly hurt to see that Caroline had so misunderstood my sentiments in regard to her. Duncan's opinion I more easily submit to, as it may have a better foundation. The sensations which I experienced when reading them, were so unpleasant as to make me determine, that from that time forward, I would disclaim all with Thalia, and as Sterne says, set up for wisdom,' and utter grave sentences for the rest of my days. " It has added to my timidity, in regard to the publication of my manuscript ; for if I shrink from so slight a public censure, how shall I stand a more general one ?

If you think fit give the enclosed a place in the Time Piece.

I am,
Your humble serv't
Another, addressed to editors Freneau and Davis, in which she has taken greater offence at "Duncan Downright," contains some paragraphs intimating that she would have been an exponent of "women's rights" if she had lived in this century. After a volley of a superior sort of "Billingsgate," she says:
I wish that some of your male correspondents would be so obliging as to give us a short Treatise on the Rights of women, that it may be ascertained whether we may again claim the indulgence which you had obligingly granted us of sometimes publishing a few paragraphs in the Time Piece, or whether we must patiently submit to having it wrested from us, and to be called, without any palliating exception -- Dunces. This being an age in which all ranks of people are contending for their Rights, I think we may reasonably be informed how far ours are permitted to extend.

As Duncan says you shall hear no more from him on the subject, we may yet assert one of our privileges which is universally allowed to us, that of having the last word.

But this was not Madam Scribblerus's last word to the troublesome "Duncan Downright" by any means, for she later vented her spleen upon him in some very amusing verses, which begin:
How now, Mr. Duncan, with your hicking and huffing,
Do you think, Sir, we'll take all this kicking and cuffing?
Unless you draw in your horns, and your manners soon mend,
Perhaps the Tribe, Sir, will give as good as you send.
Poor Madam Scribblerus! We can picture her to ourselves working away with her goose-quill pen in her little Amboy cottage, far into the night, with only a primitive candle to light her labors. Many and many a tired reveller, leaving those famous Brighton House balls in their heyday at the old Franklin Palace long before 1812 brought gloom and war, must have stopped before the light casting its glow from her chamber window and been cheered by the thought that some one was awake as he faced the darkness of old Amboy lanes and alleys. The blue-stockinged Pinderina never looked with favor on those merry affairs where the conviviality often exceeded the bounds of the most proper decorum. Her "beloved Michael" died a few years before their advent, and she had no desire to don her rich pink brocade wedding-gown and appear again in society. The idea of constancy after death she cherished with touching faithfulness. Upon every anniversary of his departure from this life she dedicated poems of two or three hundred verses to his memory. Those were sorry occasions for Amboy! The neglectful ones who evaded her cottage did so with fear and trembling. They were pretty sure of indignant visits from her, or worse still, her far-reaching pen was capable of dealing them swift retribution.

In the last years of the eighteenth century, during our breach with France, Madam Scribblerus conceived a violent aversion for everything French. Other Perth Amboy dames might look to France for their manners and their gewgaws, but she " detested" the nation. Taking the matter to heart, she set about to improve the perverted taste of the town, and hurled several bom bastic poems at the " frog-eaters." The following one, written at the beginning of Jefferson's administration, is a good example of them

Says William to Thomas I'll hold you a bet
That the French are confoundedly frighted;
They thought they our Federal Ships had o'erset,
But they find that they staunch are, and righted.

They slighted our Pleno's and made a demand
That we a shameful Tribute should pay them,
Or else (as they plundered at Sea) on the Land
Neither Rapine nor Murder should stay them!

But those who are born in the woods can't be scared
By the croaking of Bull-frogs in ditches.
Nor will we of Frenchmen at all be afraid,
A people who're sans honor, sans breeches.

They've taken our coats from our backs, and say too
That they will have our shirts and our smocks, air;
But faith if they try it the project they'll rue,
For we'll give them some flesh-burning knocks, sir!

They've tried ev'ry art which deception could frame,
But our Congress too wise were to heed them.
They've Heaven defied, and have put aside shame,
And have gone all lengths the
would lead them.
Little of Elizabeth Kearny's work ever saw the light of the press, and it is sad to think much that would have interested posterity should have been lost when the original manuscript was destroyed. Although apart from Philip Freneau, Joel Barlow, and Timothy and Theodore Dwight, the four most noted disciples of American literature of the time, she deserves a small place in the history of our belles-lettres. In her own Perth Amboy she was a much lauded celebrity and had her large group of admirers. These were the solace of a life adversity had narrowed and blighted when in its full bloom. Their praise to her ears was the world's sweetest lullaby. When surrounded by them she forgot the whispers of carping care and smiled with Calliope.

Among the most interesting poems in her seventh volume of manuscript verses, preserved by Mrs. James Kearny, are "Lines to a Cask of Cider in Imitation of Mr. Philip Freneau on a Jug of Rum," " Lines on the Base Kosciusko," and an "Ode to Liberty." Perhaps among all her work extant nothing has more charm than those four little verses on her half-brother, Captain James Lawrence, whom she did not live to see famous and a fit subject for her prolific pen. After reading them, trivial as they are, one is inclined to give her the sprig of the bays she asks for in the lines on the fly-leaf of her book, which read:
If you think a reward is due for my Lays,
Pray give me a very small sprig of the Bays;
But writings like mine I'm afraid do not claim
One leaf from a Tree which is sacred to fame.

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