This particular “Old Guide’s Tale” concerns Nathaniel (Nat) Ray Thomas, a wealthy civil servant living in Marshfield at the time of the American Revolution. Nathaniel Ray (or Nat Ray) was the descendant of William Thomas, a merchant adventurer and Mayflower financier given land in Green Harbor along with the pilgrim Edward Winslow. [6] Nathaniel Ray was perhaps most famous, or infamous, for being a member of the Mandamus Council which replaced the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature.  He also moderated a particularly controversial Marshfield town hall meeting on Jan. 31, 1774, where the town declared their loyalty to the English King against the wishes of several local patriots.[7]

Amidst this partisan conflict, Dr. Isaac Winslow’s son John was born on July 14, 1774.[8] We know he was born in Marshfield, but at what estate we know not. As the local story goes, shortly after the birth of Isaac’s first son, Nat. Ray visited the Careswell estate to offer his congratulations. While he was visiting Isaac’s wife Elizabeth an angry mob appeared to “remove the misguided tory.” [9] [10] Ostensibly, after bullying their way into the house they arrived in the bridal chamber to find only Elizabeth nursing her child, and quickly left the awkward encounter empty-handed. As the myth goes, Nathaniel Ray was safely ensconced in the secret chamber. The aforementioned 1996 publication by the Winslow House affirms this; “we know that this chamber was used at least once, by Nathanial Ray Thomas, in July of 1774.”[11]

 It is clear that the Winslow House once adopted this local mythology into the curriculum of house tours, even describing the shelves as “perfectly-sized footholds.”[12] This story was given as a highlight of the house tour by a local newspaper, the South Shore Mirror. The paper further elaborated that the Careswell estate in 1775 “was the headquarters of the Tories and it was said that at one time a number of Tories hid in a closet or the space around the chimney when being sought after by Patriots.”[13]

The story of Nathaniel Ray Thomas and the hidden chamber is based on extremely circumstantial evidence. It is true that Thomas was a hated Tory, and that he was a friend of Isaac Winslow, but how do we know he was once ensconced in a Careswell crawl-space? This story actually originates in the Thomas family itself. William H.B. Thomas, a modern descendant of Nat. Ray, writes the tale as historical fact in his work ‘Remarkable High Tories’. The only citation for this event simply states; “The story of Nathanial Ray Thomas at Dr. Winslow’s and escaping there from the patriots has been handed down in the family of the writer.” [14][i]Clearly, this is hearsay.

The documented birth of Isaac’s son, historical accounts of patriot mobs harassing Thomas and his family, and the curious, extant architecture of the “secret passage” all lead to the assumption that this story may be true. Even without hard evidentiary support, writers of history often make assumptions. However, this can be dangerous when further research proves it difficult to substantiate.

Veteran Marshfield historians Cynthia Krusell and Betty Bates find contrary evidence on a 1784 map of Marshfield. This map marks the Careswell estate in which the bridal chamber is found as belonging to “Gen. Winslow”, while another house Northeast of Careswell is marked as belonging to “Dr. Winslow.” [15] This adds to the current body of research finding that during much of the American Revolution Joshua Winslow and his family lived at Careswell. Isaac had likely built his home elsewhere.[16] We find further confirmation of this in the letters of Joshua Winslow and his family. For instance, t Sarah Winslow Deming hearing a rumor that Marshfield was on fire fears for her brother who “liv’d (sic) in Gen Winslow’s house” and prays for his safety.[17] In a letter from Joshua in exile in Quebec to his wife Anna Greene, he reminisces about spending Christmas at the “Old Mansion House” with “Friends at Marshfield.”[18] There is no link connecting the chimney hidden chamber at Careswell to Nathaniel Ray Thomas, or to any other Tories, besides local supposition.

Despite contrary evidence, the secret chamber in the Winslow House continues to be a popular part of docent tours. How then can we reconcile the popularity of “Old Guide’s Tales” with their historical inaccuracy? Seeing this as a microcosm of the larger tension between historians and the public, there are several problems apparent here. The challenge of those working at a historic house is to provide an informative, witty, and entertaining tour covering decades of history in an hour or less without sacrificing accuracy.

The Ancestral Home of the Founding Family of Marshfield