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Parson Turell's Legacy or the President's old Arm-Chair.

A poem with this caption was written by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes many years ago. A recent reading suggested search in the Probate records for the old parson's will, and led to an interesting ‘evening with Parson Turell’ at the Historical Society, when the poem we reproduce was read.

As no such bequest appeared in the will, we were led to inquire how much was fact or how much poetic license or fictional embellishment. We appealed to the sheriff of Middlesex, who is annually on duty at commencement. He could not inform us, but gave an interesting account of his participation, and how he was reminded by the president that he should omit saying ‘Please,’ and say authoritatively, ‘This assembly will now come to order.’ Emphasizing this command with a thump of his sword he found its point had stuck into the floor quite firmly.

In the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society we found the poem and a woodcut of the ‘President's Chair.’ [p. 8]

After many fruitless inquiries at Harvard College, we at last succeeded in finding, through the medium of the inspector's office, that it is kept in a certain vault and brought out once a year for the president's use at commencement. If we could wait a half-hour till the ‘one having the combination came in he would take us to it.’ We willingly did so, and after a walk across the street and college grounds, descended stairs and through a long corridor. In response to the keeper's ‘open sesame’ the heavy door swung open and at the end of a spacious vault, under a covering draped over it, was the object of our long search, a somewhat cumbrous affair about as comfortable to sit in as a wheelbarrow,—perhaps once a year is often enough. The attendants seemed surprised at our search, and questioned us closely as to our reasons therefor. They had never heard of any peculiarity or historic interest attached to it, but when informed, courteously acceded to our request.

Not long after we were asked, ‘Have you found the Turell chair yet?’ We replied cautiously, ‘We saw the president's chair at Harvard College on September 16, 1924, but really don't know that it was Parson Turell's. It doesn't look like the woodcut we saw. Perhaps Dr. Holmes' poem is much embellishment and little history.’

M. W. M.

Parson Turell's Legacy or the President's old Arm-Chair

Facts respecting an old arm-chair,
At Cambridge. Is kept in the College there,
Seems but little the worse for wear.
That's remarkable when I say,
It was old in President Holyoke's day.
(One of his boys, perhaps you know,
Died, at one hundred, years ago),
He took lodgings for rain or shine
Under green bed-clothes in ‘69.

[p. 9] But this is neither here nor there:—
I'm talking about an old arm-chair.
You've heard, no doubt, of Parson Turell?
Over at Medford he used to dwell;
Married one of the Mather's folk;
Got with his wife a chair of oak,—
Funny old chair with seat like a wedge,
Sharp behind with broad front edge,
One of the oddest of human things,
Turned all over with knobs and rings,
But heavy, and wide, and deep, and grand,—
Fit for the worthies of the land,—
Chief Justice Sewall a cause to try in,
Or Cotton Mather to sit—and lie—in.

Parson Turell bequeathed the same
To a certain student,—Smith by name;
These were the terms, as we are told;
“Said Smith said Chaire to have and holde;
When he doth graduate, then to passe
To ye oldest Youth in ye Senior Classe,
On payment of (naming a certain sum)—
By him to whom ye Chaire shall come;
He to ye oldest Senior next;
And so forever—(thus runs the text,)
But one Crown lesse than he gave to claime,
That being his Debte for use of same.”

Smith transferred it to one of the Browns,
And took his money,—five silver crowns,
Brown delivered up to Moore,
Who paid, it is plain, not five, but four.
Moore made over the chair to Lee,
Who gave him crowns of silver three,
Lee conveyed it unto drew,
And now the payment, of course, was two.
Drew gave up the chair to Dunn,—
All he got, as you see was one.
Dunn released the chair to Hall,
And got by the bargain no crown at all.

And now it passed to a second Brown,
Who took it and likewise claimed a crown.
When Brown conveyed it unto Ware,
Having had one crown, to make it fair,
He paid him two crowns to take the chair; [p. 10]
And Ware, being honest, (as all Wares be,)
He paid one Potter, who took it, three.
Four got Robinson; five got Dix;
Johnson primus demanded six;
And so the sum kept gathering still
Till after the battle of Bunker's Hill.

When paper money became so cheap,
Folks wouldn't count it, but said ‘a heap,’
A certain Richards, the books declare,—
(A. M. in ‘90? I've looked with care
Through the Triennial,—name not there,)
This person Richards was offered then
Eight score pounds, but would have ten;
Nine, I think, was the sum he took,—
Not quite certain,—but see the book.

By and by the wars were still,
But nothing had altered the Parson's will.
The old arm-chair was solid yet,
But saddled with such a monstrous debt!
Things grew quite too bad to bear,
Paying such sums to get rid of the chair!
But dead men's fingers hold awful tight,
And there was the will in black and white,
Plain enough for a child to spell.
What should be done no man could tell,
For the chair was a kind of a nightmare curse,
And every season but made it worse.

As a last resort, to clear the doubt,
They got old Governor Hancock out,
The Governor came with his Lighthorse Troop
And all his mounted truckmen, all cock-a-loop;
Halberds glittered and colors flew,
French horns whinnied and trumpets blew,
The yellow fifes whistled between their teeth
And the bumble-bee bass drums boomed beneath;
So he rode with all his band,
Till the President met him, cap in hand.
The Governor ‘hefted’ the crowns, and said,—
‘A will is a will, and the Parson's dead.’
The Governor hefted the crowns. Said he,—
“There is your p'int, and here's my fee.
These are the terms you must fulfil,—
On such conditions I Break the will!” [p. 11]
The Governor mentioned what these should be,
(Just wait a minute and then you'll see.)
The President prayed. Then all was still,
And the Governor rose and broke the will!

‘About those conditions?’ Well now you go
And do as I tell you, and then you'll know.
Once a year on Commencement day,
If you'll only take the pains to stay,
You'll see the President in the Chair,
Likewise the Governor sitting there.
The President rises; both old and young
May hear his speech in a foreign tongue,
The meaning whereof, as lawyers swear,
Is this: Can I keep this old arm-chair?
And then His Excellency bows,
As much as to say he allows.
The Vice-Gub. next is called by name;
He bows like t'other, which means the same,
And all the officers around them bow,
As much as to say that they allow.
And a lot of parchments about the chair
Are handed to witnesses then and there,
And then the lawyers hold it clear
That the chair is safe for another year.

God bless you, gentlemen! Learn to give
Money to colleges while you live.
Don't be silly and think you'll try
To bother the colleges, when you die,
With codicil this and codicil that,
That Knowledge may starve while Law grows fat;
For there never was pitcher that wouldn't spill,
And there's always a flaw in a donkey's will!

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