Professor Publishes History of London Family

by Public Relations | May 09, 2018

May 9, 2018

Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers

A book about an 18th-century London family, authored by Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers, professor of history at Saint Vincent College, has been published by Oxford University Press.

The book is a biographic microhistory of Ebenezer Sibly (1750-99), his brother, Manoah, and their families.

“Born into a family of nonconformist shoemakers, Ebenezer Sibly became a leading freemason, involved in the development of the Royal Ark Mariner and Knights Templar degrees,” Sommers explained.  “He was also a quack purveyor of Dr. Sibly’s Re-Animating Solar Tincture, a medicine that would supposedly bring the newly-dead back to life.  He also turns out to have been a serial bigamist, political agent, collector of alchemical manuscripts, author of books on astrology and magic and a bookseller with a side interest in forged lottery tickets.  His brother Manoah was a politically radical shorthand taker for the courts, who eventually found his calling working for the Bank of England and pastoring London’s most theologically orthodox Swedenborgian congregation.”

“Both men make frequent appearances in recent histories of 18th-century medicine, astrology, magic, freemasonry, alleged Jacobinism and Swedenborgianism,” she continued.  “This is the first work to gather up the fragmentary accounts of their lives and careers, correct the manifest errors that have crept into the record, especially with regard to Ebenezer, and produce a coherent history of this fascinating London family, which was working-class and yet aspirational.”

“Organized around family members’ varied relationships to books -- as booksellers, authors, shorthand takers, collectors and plagiarists, my narrative also sheds light on the many fringe groups of late 18th-century London the brothers inhabit and help shape,” she concluded.          

Sommers earned bachelor and master of arts degrees in history at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and an A.M. and Ph.D. in history at Washington University in St. Louis.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and is currently chair of the board of directors of the Westmoreland County Historical Society.

Her main teaching and research interests are in British and intellectual history, especially of the 18th-century. Her publications include Parliamentary Politics of a County and Its Town: General Elections in Suffolk and Ipswich in the Eighteenth Century (Greenwood, 2002), and Thomas Dunckerley and English Freemasonry, (Pickering & Chatto, 2012).

Sommers recently delivered the first international annual lecture of the Philotecton Society with the support of the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Greece and its lodges overseas in Athens. She also spoke at the UCLA International Conference on Secular Enlightenment: Balancing Faith and Masonic Virtues, at the Masonic Symposium in Istanbul and at the Quatuor Coronati Lodge in London where she participated in a head-to-head debate and open discussion about the formal commencement of Grand Lodge Freemasonry in 1721.

The book is available from Oxford University Press online here.

Sommers joined the history department faculty in the school of humanities and fine arts at Saint Vincent in 1993.

Sommers and her husband, Dallas, live in New Stanton. They have a son, Alexander, who is a graduate of Saint Vincent, and a daughter, Sophia, who will be a junior at Saint Vincent this fall.

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Photo: Dr. Susan Mitchell Sommers

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