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William H. Prescott, Salem historian (Part 2): A tragic accident & the lure of Spain

Posted by Amanda Stonely  September 14, 2011 10:00 AM

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Source: Library of Congress

William H. Prescott


Boston, Aug. 28, [1811]. Dear Father,

I now write you a few lines to inform you of my fate. Yesterday at eight o'clock I was ordered to the President's, and there, together with a Carolinian, Middleton, was examined for Sophomore. When we were first ushered into their presence, they looked like so many judges of the Inquisition. We were ordered down into the parlor, almost frightened out of our wits, to be examined by each separately; but we soon found them quite a pleasant sort of chaps. The President sent us down a good dish of pears, and treated us very much like gentlemen.  It was not ended in the morning; but we returned in the afternoon, when Professor Ware examined us…. I happened to ask him a question in theology, which made him laugh so that he was obliged to cover his face with his hands. At half past three our fate was decided, and we were declared 'Sophomores of Harvard University.'

After the family's move to Boston from Salem young William H. Prescott was educated at the school run by Rev. John Sylvester John Gardiner (1765-1830) rector of Trinity Church. Here he met George Ticknor (1791-1871) who became his lifelong friend and eventual biographer. Prescott entered Harvard intending to follow the law–his father's profession.

By all accounts, Prescott was extremely social ("fond of a merry laugh") and loved the pleasures of table (especially wine). Having been an indulged and favored son in a prominent family, college life presented many strong temptations towards a superficial existence.

Ticknor related, "It was difficult for him … to make the efforts and the sacrifices indispensable to give him the position of a real scholar…. Still, he had already a strong will concealed under a gay and light-hearted exterior." This force of will resulted in a constant stream of well-meant and freely announced resolutions to strictly regulate his activities and his studies. Yet, inevitably, and with amusing regularity, his resolutions would need reformulation.

Prescott might have continued on this track through college and then through life, but fate intervened.

"It occurred in the Commons Hall, one day after dinner, in his Junior year. On this occasion there was some rude frolicking among the undergraduates…. when he was passing out of the door of the Hall, his attention was attracted by the disturbance going on behind him. He turned his head quickly to see what it was, and at the same instant received a blow from a large, hard piece of bread, thrown undoubtedly at random, and in mere thoughtlessness and gayety. It struck the open eye….  The missile, which must have been thrown with great force, struck the very disk of the eye itself. It was the left eye. He fell,—and was immediately brought to his father's house in town, where ... he was in the hands of Dr. James Jackson….

The first effects of the blow were remarkable. They were, in fact, such as commonly attend a concussion of the brain.

The strength of the patient was instantly and completely prostrated. Sickness at the stomach followed. His pulse was feeble. His face became pale and shrunken, and the whole tone of his system was reduced so low, that he could not sit up in bed."

This injury was irreversible and he never recovered the sight in that eye.

He returned to his studies, and he would graduate from Harvard, but a fresh challenge arose, when, shortly after, he began to suffer from an inflammation in his right eye. The illness was eventually diagnosed as "rheumatism."

In the fall of 1815, Prescott traveled to visit his grandfather Thomas Hickling in the Azores. Hoping to recover his health, for much of his time on the island of St. Michael he remained in a darkened room. A trip to consult specialists in London followed, with a disappointing and discouraging prognosis. His eye ailments were incurable, and for the rest of his life he would need to take extraordinary measures to avoid total blindness.

After visiting Italy and France he returned to Boston. The practice of law was no longer an option; luckily for him, his family's wealth meant he was under no immediate financial pressure. Anxiety over his future, however, was evident to, and shared by, friends and family.

"As to the future, it is too evident I shall never be able to pursue a profession. God knows how poorly I am qualified, and how little inclined, to be a merchant. Indeed, I am sadly puzzled to think how I shall succeed even in this without eyes, and am afraid I shall never be able to draw upon my mind to any large amount."

Yet, Prescott's triumph over this adversity was already begun. Romance, a regular Tuesday evening get-together, and an unexpected fascination with Spanish history sparked by a dear friend, were about to bring light to his path and focus to his future.

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have recorded two new albums of 19th-century music for 2011. Reach her at For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to
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(1912) Forty of Boston's Historic Houses, House 27, Massachusetts, United States: State Street Trust Company. Retrieved on 2010-03-28. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Prescott House, 55 Beacon Street, Boston

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