Thursday, January 29, 2015

… Read how a family history fib spread in 1889, and is still spreading today!

The Munroe Tavern, Lexington, Massachusetts

Genealogy fibs spread on the internet, but this is nothing new… Read how a family history fib spread in 1889, and is still spreading today!

Several years ago I wrote a blog post about a fake letter written in 1889.  This “letter” was written by James Phinney Munroe, a recent MIT graduate and the new president of the Lexington Historical Society.  The Munroe family had a long history in Lexington, including being involved in the Battle of Lexington and their family tavern being used on the day of the battle as a field hospital by the British Troops.  When George Washington decided to visit all the states (all 13 of them) in 1789 one of his stops was in Lexington, where he had dinner at the Munroe Tavern.

The visit to the Munroe’s was fact.  You can visit the tavern in Lexington today and see the china dishes used by Washington for his dinner.  The dinner was served by Sarah Munroe and her sister, the daughters of the innkeeper, William Munroe.  The dishes were carefully preserved by the Munroe family, and donated to the Historical Society along with the entire tavern.  And so, when James Phinney Munroe, a descendant of this family, was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Washington’s famous dinner at the Munroe tavern he decided to have a bit of fun and produced a delightful letter written by “Sarah Munroe”, along with a story about finding it in the attic.  This was published in the Proceedings of the Lexington Historical Society 1889.

Ha Ha!  The joke was on him.  The “letter” was reproduced all over New England, and all over America, but not with the accompanying explanation of how it was a joke for the anniversary celebration.  J. P. Munroe spent years writing to magazines and newspapers explaining the provenance of the “letter” but to no avail.  The story kept cropping up all over, even after his death in 1929.  And it spreads today, faster than wildfire because of the internet.

Just last week, J. L. Bell of the blog Boston 1775, questioned the fake letter by Sarah Munroe.  Of course it was fake!  A reader left him a comment, and she turned out to be a staff member of a Lexington museum.  He was set straight, and produced a second blog post for Boston 1775, see below for all the links.

I have seen the fake “letter” produced in genealogies online, even though the same James Phinney Munroe wrote the definitive genealogy on the Munroe family A Sketch of the Munro Clan: Also of William Munro who Deported from Scotland, Settled in Lexington, Massachusetts and some of his Posterity in 1900 and explained the provenance of the letter.  But I guess people would rather copy what they see online instead of checking with the Historical Society or books. 

Excerpts from “the letter” (How much would you like to bet that someone will copy this part of my blog post and ignore the above explanation?):

My ever deare Mary:-
I crave your patience in this Episle, as I must finish it to go by the Sunday Coach, and therefore indight it by a bad candle, dip’d I warrant, by Brother Jonas, who is ever slack in all except his play.  We have had great doings here.  Our Loved President has journied here to Lex. & has took dinner at our very House. I suppose you, in the great city of New York can have little interest in the small haps of a Country Town, but remember it is the birth-place of you, and of American Freedom!...
…Betimes Mr. Washington appered, bestriding a most handsome White horse.  He wore a military Habit, much like that of my Worthy Father, only gayer and with fine things, I mind not what they call ‘em, on the showlders.  His Hat he wore under his arm, and he bent himself to one side and the other as he Passed.  I promise you we huzzared stoutly, but he bowed not, only leaned, as one shd say, towards us… Then followed some Speech which I heard not, daring to venture no nearer than I was, being that I had an old Frock, and compeled to hold back Lucindy.  Soon the whole Troupe betook themselves to the Spot where the Blood was spilled…
…When we come to the house there stood my Father and step-mother at the tap-room Door, Anna and the naybors skulking in the parlour.  My Father looked grandly in his rejimentels and proud indeed I was of him as he led the way to the Dinner-room prepar’d for Mr. Washington in the upper room, looking toward your house.  ‘Twas arrang’d that my Step-mother dish the vittles in the kitch’n, yours should bring them to the stares the short way, thou knows’t, thro’ the shop & the Tap-room) and then my Father shod serve them to the gests.  ‘Twas permited me to stand in the corner betwixt the windos, to give what help was needed.  We had right fine feast, I can tell you…
…not just then arose a great cracking and howling.  We rushed to the Window and there in the butt’nwood Tree was Jonas, clinging to the frill of Lucindy’s skirt, and she dangeling in mid-air.  Before we could get out of the room one of the Black-men had climed the tree and caught Lucindy by the Neck like a Cat, and carried her down. The silly child had led Jonas into climing the Tree with her to look in at the dinner-room Window, and a limb having snapped she wod, but for Jonas, have broke her neck…
… I have burned 3 Dips, which is sinfull, & have set up long beyond Bell-ringing to send you this, so now I must stop.
Your ever affectionate

The genealogy of the Munroe family members in this story:

Generation 1:  William Munroe (1625 – 1718) m. Martha George (my 7th great grandparents)

Generation 2:  William Munroe (1669 – 1759) m. Mary Cutler

Generation 3:  William Munroe (1703 – 1747) m. Sarah Mason

Generation 4:  William Munroe (1742 – 1827) m. 1. Anna Smith,  m.2.  Polly Rogers
Children: William, Anna, Sarah, Lucinda, Jonas, Edward

Generation 5: Jonas Munroe (1778 – 1860) m. Abigail C. Smith

Generation 6: James Smith Munroe (1824 – 1910) m. Alice Bridge Phinney  (“bequeathed to the Lexington Historical Society, on behalf of his brother William and himself, that part of the real estate known as “Munroe Tavern” and a parcel of land surrounding it, to be kept forever as a token of Colonial and Revolutionary Lexington”  from page 217 of The Genealogy of the Lexington Munroes, compiled by Richard S. Munroe, Florence, Massachusetts, 1986)

Generation 7: James Phinney Munroe, born 3 June 1862, the author of “the letter” to the Lexington Historical Society, supposedly written by his great aunt, Sarah Munroe, sister of his grandfather, Jonas (the one who didn’t make very good candles).


My blog post from Monday, November 5, 2012 “5 November 1789, George Washington Dined Here!”, where I mention James Phinney Munroe’s fake letter  

J. L. Bell’s Boston 1775 blog post “President Washington in Sickness and in Lexington”, Friday, January 16, 2015 (where the author suspects the Sarah Munroe letter is fake)

J.L. Bell’s blog post “The Real Story of the Fake Sarah Munroe Letter”, Wednesday, 21 January 2015 (more details about James Phinney Munroe’s fake letter by his dead great aunt, Sarah Munroe)

The Proceedings of the Lexington Historical Society (online version)  and James Phinney Munroe’s entry with "the letter", pages xxxvi - xxxvii

The URL for this post is
Copyright © 2015, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Heather,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Heather, I can understand how apocryphal material like this becomes so popular! It presents a story people would love to hear--never mind that it wasn't true!

    I've run across the same thing in my own family research (although admittedly regarding a historic figure nowhere near as noteworthy as George Washington). My family includes the Booth(e) surname--and wouldn't you know it, there is a family history "fib" entwined in that line as well: that the infamous John Wilkes Booth escaped alive and fled to the family property in Texas. I remember my grandfather telling me that, as straight faced as possible. I was so surprised, after the advent of computers and the Internet, to find very distant cousins who reported hearing that same story from their own relatives. Whoever started that rumor certainly struck a chord with a whole bunch of people who wanted to believe it!