The classic young adult book Johnny Tremain is still popular 80 years after Esther Forbes first wrote it (despite Walt Disney’s treatment). National Park Service guides say tourists tell them the book was the reason they came to Boston.
As devotees of the book know, Johnny Tremain was training to be a silversmith but burned his hand badly and had to leave his apprenticeship. He got a job working for the Boston Observer, a Whig newspaper, and his encounters with patriots led him to embrace the cause of liberty. Part of the novel’s appeal is Forbes’ rich evocation of Boston in the years before the American Revolution. Forbes delved deeply into the American Antiquarian Society’s archives for the details to bring 18th-century Boston to life.
Another historian who digs into archives has written about Forbes’ inspiration for her main character. J.L. Bell, who publishes the marvelous Boston 1775 blog, concluded Forbes got the idea for Johnny Tremain’s injury from John Tileston, a North End writing teacher with an injured hand. Forbes wrote about Tileston in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.
Tileston, Bell tells us, lived from 1735 to 1826 and taught at Boston’s public writing school in the North End for 65 years. It was one of the town’s three writing schools, which taught more boys than the two better-known Latin Schools. The curriculum was, well, narrow: boys were taught penmanship so they could produce dignified-looking documents. It was an important skill for business people, but a limited education.
In his book John Tileston’s School Boston 1778-1789 ; 1761-1766, D.C. Colesworthy writes that Tileston fell into the fire as an infant and burned his hand badly. He was shut out of jobs requiring manual dexterity, but he could still hold a pen. His parents sent him to school, and at 14 he became an apprentice at the North Writing School. During that time, Tileston became friends with John Adams, who “through a long and busy life tenderly remembered his early friend.”
J.L. Bell also discovered a remembrance of John Tileston by the great orator Edward Everett. Tileston confiscated toys, and his desk was a repository of 40 years’ worth of balls, tops, penknives and marbles. His disabled hand was strong enough to thwock students upside the head with a force “that would have done credit to the bill of an albatross,” Everett said.
Spoiler alert: Johnny Tremain was luckier than John Tileston: at the end of the book, a doctor mends his hand.