While many contemporary Americans look to movie theaters for entertainment and relief from the summer heat, early Americans looked forward to “itinerant entertainers,” or artists who were passing through “for a short time only.” Please read about one strolling artist-the first American puppeteer-in this excerpt from Peter Benes’s new book, For a Short Time Only: Itinerants and the Resurgence of Popular Culture in Early America.
The First American Puppeteer
The beginning of professional American puppetry may have occurred in New England in the 1730s. According to two entries in the diary of Reverend Ebenezer Parkman, a man showed up at Ensign John Maynard’s tavern in Westborough, Massachusetts, who attracted considerable attention. On Tuesday, 14 August 1739, Parkman had spent much of that day supervising the plowing and mowing of his fields. That evening he attended a “Puppett show at Ensign Maynards.” No doubt Parkman, his neighbors, and the entire Westborough parish were delighted by this unusual turn of events. Probably the first puppets ever seen in this rural Massachusetts town, they may have been the only ones circulating in North America during the 1730s. Before the puppeteer left the town on Friday morning, he stopped at Parkman’s home: “Mr. Edward Burley Son came to my House in his Cabbin with his Puppetts, etc. there in. N.B. I had my Self Seen them in some measure my self Yesterday just at Evening.”
Parkman’s second entry confirms that the puppeteer was none other than Edward Burlesson, Jr., an animal handler who previously had taken “the Lyon, the black and whight bare, and the Lanechtskipt” to Boston. This was the same individual who had been warned out of that city by its selectmen, and his appearance in Westborough once again indicates that strolling cultural carriers—figures entirely out of keeping with what is commonly believed about New England or early America—were wandering the region in the early eighteenth century. He was an old-world character thriving in a provincial setting.
The facts concerning Edward Burlesson, Jr., are sparse but suggestive. One of five children of Edward Burlesson (or Burleson), Sr., of Suffield, Connecticut, the son grew up with an unknown handicap. Whatever his physical disability, Burlesson seems to have overcome it. Two surviving letters signed by him, now in the Kent Memorial Library in Suffield, reveal not only that his writing was legible but that his spelling was excellent—indications he had an above-average education. In 1725, he was composing, illustrating, and selling broadsides and was the author of a verse mourning fifty victims of a fatal epidemic in Hartford.
Despite his uncertain past, Edward Burlesson occupies a critical place in American entertainment history. He marks a turning point not only as the earliest puppeteer in North America—one of about forty-three active between 1730 and 1825—but also as the first American-born showman this country produced.
Peter Benes is director of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife in affiliation with Hist
oric Deerfield, Inc., in Deerfield, Massachusetts. His books include
Meetinghouses of Early New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), winner of the 2014 Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize of the Vernacular Architecture Forum.