Ever wondered what it would be like to talk to one of your favorite figures from history? What would they sound like, how would they dress? Patricia Bridgman, scholar of American Colonial history and veteran living history interpreter, has taken it one step further by actually transforming herself into past personages that have piqued her interest. She stumbled upon historical interpreting totally by accident while researching a not-yet completed novel about her own ancestors who were involved with the Salem Witch Trials. Her research brought her to the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers where she “signed up for what I thought was a group that works to preserve the property. Then I found out this group was made up of Revolutionary War re-enactors. When in Rome…”
She joined the group as a camp follower for their re-enacted battles. These performances lead her to adopt other historical personas, but above all her favorite figure to impersonate is Abigail Adams, wife of Founding Father John Adams and mother of the sixth president John Quincy Adams.
“Abigail was pure serendipity. A restaurant in Brookline was looking for a couple to read John and Abigail’s love letters on Valentine’s Day. A colleague and I looked at each other and said, ‘we can do that!’ I knew very little about the Adams’ at the time. I’ve been studying them ever since. They preserved some 1,100 of their letters, so there’s plenty to work with,” Bridgman says.
This Valentine’s Day performance has evolved into Abigail Adams: Life, Love and Letters, a 45-minute performance that details John and Abigail’s courtship, the tumultuous years of the American Revolution, and ends at the year 1778, when John and their son John Quincy are preparing to sail for France, leaving Mrs. Adams, their daughter Nabby, and their sons Charles and Thomas at home on their farm in Braintree.
When asked what she thought the most important thing audience members could learn from Abigail, Bridgman responded, “What I do is called ‘living history.’ I do a first-person impression, so when I talk about the death of my [Abigail’s] baby or the rattling of the windows during a battle, I hope people can feel my pain, my fear, my resignation. Abigail Adams was at home with four little children, a husband in Philadelphia, and a war zone eleven miles away. I ask people to put themselves in her shoes, to ‘live’ history through me.”
And part of creating this “living history” is by wearing authentic clothing. Bridgman works with Hallie Larkin of “The Sign of the Golden Scissors,” a tailor that specializes in making historically accurate clothing like the gowns, petticoats, fichus, caps, bum rolls and stays Patricia dons before every performance to get into character. Hallie Larkin hand stitches every piece of clothing using 18th century patterns that are reverse-engineered from existing garments and fabrics that are appropriate for the time period Patricia is attempting to recreate. Bridgman also owns four pairs of replica shoes. “I like to say I’m a clothes horse in two centuries,” she jokes.
“It used to take me a long time to suit up. The stays (corset) were the tricky bit. They need to be positioned just so and laced up tight. When you start turning blue, you know they’re tight enough. Having done this for over a decade, I’ve developed a system and I’m much faster at it. Of course, the stays restrict one’s range of motion. I once lay down on the ground for a nap at an encampment and found that I couldn’t get up again. I was like a turtle on its back, hollering for help.”
Bridgman says the one main thing she wants people to take away from her performances is that “the United States exists thanks to the bravery, sacrifice, and sense of duty of ordinary people—like you and I—facing extraordinary circumstances. That, plus some helpful weather when Washington needed it. And the French. Merci!”
Bridgman will be performing for free on August 22 at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord and can be contacted to do smaller performances for a private group or organization.