J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

“My Eyes never beheld such a funeral”

Yesterday I described how the Boston Whigs prepared for young Christopher Seider’s funeral procession on Monday, 26 Feb 1770.

The first newspaper published after that date was the 1 March Boston News-Letter, and it reported on the event this way:
a great Multitude of People assembled in the Houses and Streets to see the Funeral Procession;—it began about 3 o’clock from Liberty-Tree, (the Dwelling-House of the Parents of the deceased being but at a little distance from thence) the Boys from the several Schools, supposed to be between 4 and 500, preceded the Corps in Couples;—after the sorrowful Relatives and particular Friends of the Youth, followed many of the principal Gentlemen and a great Number of other respectable Inhabitants of this Town, by Computation exceeding 1300; about 30 Chariots, Chaises, &c. closed the Procession:

Throughout the Whole there appeared the greatest Solemnity and good Order, and by as numerous a Train as was ever known here.
Richard Draper at the News-Letter had evidently received complaints about his first report on the shooting, composed as the event unfolded, not condemning Ebenezer Richardson as much as people wanted. So this issue had more criticism of Richardson and mourning for his victim.

The Whigs supplied a longer, even more slanted report on the funeral to two Monday newspapers, the Boston Gazette and Boston Evening-Post. (The Boston Post-Boy printers, Green and Russell, had already stated, “We are extremely cautious of publishing any thing which may raise a Prejudice in the Minds of People” while a trial was in the offing.)

The Boston Whigs insisted that “About Five Hundred School boys” led the procession of, “in the Estimation of good Judges, at least Two Thousand of all Ranks, amidst a Crowd of Spectators.” Merchant John Rowe agreed with the latter number, which would be the equivalent of one of every eight people in Boston.

John Adams, having ridden to Boston from legal business in Weymouth, wrote in his diary:
When I came into Town, I saw a vast Collection of People, near Liberty Tree—enquired and found the funeral of the Child, lately kill’d by Richardson was to be attended. Went into Mr. Rowes, and warmed me, and then went out with him to the Funeral, a vast Number of Boys walked before the Coffin, a vast Number of Women and Men after it, and a Number of Carriages. My Eyes never beheld such a funeral. The Procession extended further than can be well imagined.

This Shewes, there are many more Lives to spend if wanted in the Service of their Country. It Shews, too that the Faction is not yet expiring—that the Ardor of the People is not to be quelled by the Slaughter of one Child and the Wounding of another.
The Rev. William Gordon later wrote that the procession was a quarter-mile long. It ended at what is now called the Granary Burying-Ground, and the small coffin was placed in a tomb owned by the town of Boston.

In the newspapers, the Whigs declared of Christopher Seider:
His tragical Death and the peculiar Circumstances attending had touched the Breasts of all with the tenderest Sympathy, a few only excepted, who have long shown themselves void of the Feelings of Humanity.
Tributes continued. Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem, “On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder’d by Richardson.” The Boston Gazette assured the public that
a Monument will be erected over the Grave of young Snider, with an Inscription, to perpetuate his Memory; A Number of patriotic Gentlemen having generously subscrib’d for that Purpose…the Overplus Money, if any, will be given to the Parents.
No such monument was built. Over a year later, in the 21 Mar 1771 Massachusetts Spy, a writer asked what happened to “the Money so collected.” That letter said the man who had collected the cash was “a Gentleman who had a considerable share in the popular transactions of the year past”—which sounds like William Molineux. By then he was developing money troubles.

The Whigs’ report on the Seider funeral appeared in the Boston Gazette and Boston Evening-Post on Monday, the 5th of March. The passionate description no doubt shaped the public mood that day and evening, which culminated in the Boston Massacre. Those deaths overshadowed Christopher Seider’s, and soon there were five more bodies in the tomb where his coffin lay.

[Photo from the Granary Burying Ground in winter courtesy of Boston Ghosts tours.]

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

“A grand funeral” for Christopher Seider

Young Christopher Seider was shot and killed on Thursday, 22 Feb 1770. His funeral was held the following Monday, 26 February—250 years ago today.

Monday was also when the Whig newspapers published, so they ran their detailed, almost incendiary accounts of the killing over announcements of the funeral. The Boston Evening-Post and other papers told the public:
The general Sympathy and Concern for the Murder of the Lad by the base and infamous Richardson on the 22d Instant, will be a sufficient Reason for your Notifying the Publick that he was be buried from his Father’s House in Frogg-Lane, opposite Liberty-Tree, on Monday next, when all the Friends of Liberty may have an Opportunity of paying their last Respects to the Remains of this little Hero and first Martyr to the noble Cause.
The Boston Gazette offered further advance spin on the event:
It is said that the Funeral of the young Victim THIS AFTERNOON at Four o’Clock, will be attended by as numerous a Train as ever was known here.—It is hoped that none will be in the Procession but the Friends of Liberty, and then undoubtedly all will be hearty Mourners.
Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson thought the Whigs’ preparations were a little much. In the continuation of his history of Massachusetts, never published in his lifetime, he wrote: “The boy that was killed was the son of a poor German. A grand funeral was, however, judged very proper for him.”

There was a ceremony in King’s Chapel, the Anglican church where Christopher’s younger sister had been baptized and his employer owned a good pew. Ironically, that was also where the boy’s killer, Ebenezer Richardson, had married his second wife in 1754.

Then came the procession. The Boston Gazette stated, “The little Corpse was set down under the Tree of Liberty, whence the Procession began.” The Whigs published detailed descriptions of some aspects of the event and nothing about others, probably because readers were already familiar with standard funerals.

Some of the following description is therefore based on general British and New England customs of the time rather than specific statements. Furthermore, some of the customs for well documented upper-class funerals in London might not have been followed in Boston, even when the local gentry were trying to provide a “grand funeral.”

Four to six young men hired to be “under-bearers” probably lifted the small coffin onto their shoulders. It was draped in a black velvet pall that mostly hid those men from view. Some British pictures of funeral processions don’t show the under-bearers at all while a French picture of a British funeral (above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg) shows two of them peeking out from holes in the front of the pall.

All the honor of escorting the corpse went to the pall-bearers, who grasped the sides of the pall cloth but didn’t do the heavy lifting. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his dictionary, underbearers were, “In funerals, those that sustain the weight of the body, distinct from those who are bearers of ceremony, and only hold up the pall.”

For the funeral of Christopher Seider, the Boston Gazette said:
The Pall was supported by six Youths, chosen by the Parents of the Deceased. Upon the Foot of the Coffin was an Inscription in silver’d Letters, Latet Anguis in Herba! Intimating that in the gayest Season of Life amidst the most flattering Scenes, and without the least Apprehension of an evil Hour, we are continually expos’d to the unseen Arrows of Death: The Serpent is lurking in the Grass, ready to infuse his deadly Poison!—

Upon each Side Haeret Lateri lethalis arundo! In English, the fatal Dart is fix’d in the Side!

And on the Head was another Inscription, Innocentia nusquam tuta! The original Sentiment revers’d; and denoting that we are fallen into the most unhappy Times, when even Innocence itself is no where safe!
The first two phrases came from one of Virgil’s Eclogues and from his Aeneid. The last phrase was a variation on another phrase Virgil used in the Aeneid, Nusquam tuta fides, “confidence is nowhere safe.”

The Sons of Liberty who guarded Liberty Tree had fixed a board to its trunk with more quotations:
  • “Thou shall take no Satisfaction for the Life of a MURDERER;—He shall surely be put to Death.” (Numbers 35)
  • “Though Hand join in Hand, the Wicked shall not pass unpunish’d.” (Proverbs 16)
  • “The Memory of the Just is Blessed.” (Proverbs 10)
More New Englanders could recognize those words since they came from the English Bible.

At about three o’clock in the afternoon, the procession moved out from Liberty Tree.

TOMORROW: The turnout.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

“A youth, son to Captain John Gore”

The older boy wounded by Ebenezer Richardson’s shot on 22 Feb 1770 was nineteen-year-old Samuel Gore.

He appears here in his early-1750s portrait by John Singleton Copley, a detail from a painting now at Winterthur. Of course, this when Sammy was still a toddler and Copley was still developing his technique.

In contrast to Christopher Seider, a servant born to poor German immigrant parents, Sammy Gore came from an old New England Puritan family that was rising swiftly in society. The portrait of the kids was one sign of that social ambition, even if the young artist might have done it for practice or in barter for paints.

Sammy’s father John Gore had started as a decorative painter. Specializing in heraldic designs, he developed an upper-class clientele and began to move into that class himself—as a paint merchant, a militia officer, and eventually an Overseer of the Poor, one of the most respected town offices. By 1770 he was considered a gentleman.

Capt. John Gore’s oldest child, Frances, married Thomas Crafts, Jr., another decorative painter. (I suspect he was one of Gore’s early apprentices, but I can’t confirm that.) Crafts became an active member of the “Loyall Nine” who organized the first anti-Stamp Act protests and looked after Liberty Tree. He, too, was rising through militia service and town offices.

Capt. Gore’s first son, also named John, became a dry goods merchant. He married the niece of the Rev. Henry Caner, minister of King’s Chapel. Both John, Jr., and Samuel had tried schooling at the South Latin School, which would have prepared them for Harvard, but decided to drop out for more practical education. Their little brother Christopher (Kit), however, was sailing through the Latin School curriculum.

In August 1769, Capt. Gore, his son John, and his son-in-law Crafts all dined with the Sons of Liberty at Lemuel Robinson’s tavern in Dorchester, as described here. At the time John, Jr., advertised that he was sticking to the non-importation agreement in the cloth he sold from his shop.

Of course, it was hard for a paint merchant to take that stance and stay in business—the Townshend Act put a tariff on painter’s colors. Sammy, training under his father in decorative painting, had a close-up look at that situation. In late January 1770, the Boston Chronicle published Customs house documents revealing that Capt. Gore had paid duties on “4 barrels Painters colours” that had arrived on the Abigail and more goods that had later come on the Thomas.

That revelation might have motivated the family to demonstrate their commitment to non-importation. In the third week of February, the Gores—more probably, Frances Gore and her daughters and perhaps daughters-in-law—hosted a spinning bee at their house on Queen Street. This was a social occasion, but it also showed the women’s support for local manufacturing.

Most spinning bees took place in rural towns, usually in ministers’ houses, with the host accepting the gift of the spun yarn to benefit the poor. Of ten spinning bees that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich counted in and around Boston in 1766-70, the Gores’ was one of only two not in a minister’s home.

Early in its local news roundup, the 26 Feb 1770 Boston Gazette put a strong political spin on the Gores’ event:
One Day last Week a Number of Patriot Ladies met at the House of John Gore, Esq; of this Town, when their Industry at the Spinning Wheel was at least equal to any Instance recorded in our Paper.

It is principally owing to the indefatigable Pains of Mr. William Mollineux; and it will be said to his lasting Honor, that the laudable Practice of Spinning is almost universally in Vogue among the Female Children of this Town; whereby they are not only useful to the Community, but the poorer Sort are able in some Measure to assist their Parents in getting a Livelihood—

The Use of the Spinning-Wheel is now encouraged, and the pernicious Practice of Tea-drinking equally discountenanced, by all the Ladies of this Town, excepting those whose Husbands are Tories and Friends to the American Revenue-Acts; and a few Ladies who are Tories themselves.
By the time that item was published, Sammy Gore had made his own political statement about non-importation by showing up outside Ebenezer Richardson’s house on 22 February. We don’t know if he was among the boys who organized the demonstrations at Theophilus Lillie’s shop or if he threw garbage and rocks at Richardson’s house. But we do know Sammy Gore was close enough to the front of the crowd to be struck by pellets from Richardson’s gun.

The Boston Gazette stated, “A youth, son to Captain John Gore, was also wounded in one of his hands and in both his thighs.” The Boston Evening-Post reported:
Dr. [Joseph] Warren likewise cut two slugs out of young Mr. Gore’s thighs, but pronounced him in no danger of death, though in all probability he will lose the use of the right forefinger, by the wound received there, much important to a youth of his dexterity in drawing and painting.
As it turned out, Samuel Gore would enjoy a long and healthy career as a painter and manufacturer. In the 1830s a Boston barber recalled that he would show young people his scarred fingers and describe how he’d been wounded in the Revolution “with some relish.”

(For more about Samuel Gore’s Revolutionary activities and reminiscences, see The Road to Concord.)

TOMORROW: A grand funeral.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Life and Death of Christopher Seider

The younger boy hit by “Swan shot” from Ebenezer Richardson’s musket on 22 Feb 1770 was named Christopher Seider (although that last name also showed up as Snider and in other forms).

Christopher’s story starts with an effort to settle Maine. Around 1740, Massachusetts land speculators recruited German-speaking immigrants to live in the area around Broad Bay now called Waldoboro. At first this community was very small, but immigrant-laden ships arrived in Boston harbor beginning in November 1751.

The 25 Sept 1752 Boston Evening-Post reported:
a ship arrived from Holland with about 300 Germans, men, women and children, some of whom are going to settle at Germantown [in Braintree] and the others in the Eastern parts of the Province [i.e., Maine]. . . . a number of very likely Men and Women, Boys and Girls, from Twelve to twenty-five years old, will be disposed of for some Years according to their Ages and the different Sums they owe for their Passage.
In other words, some of the younger immigrants were to be indentured servants.

On that ship, the St. Andrew, came Heinrich Seiter, a farmer from Langensteinbach, and his family. Their home country was ruled by Charles Frederick, Margrave of Baden-Durlach. He was among the more enlightened of Europe’s noble despots, but Seiter was “very poor” and sought better opportunities. In that family, it appears, was a young man named Georg Frederich Seiter, born in 1727.

Around the same time, a woman named Christine Salome Hartwick, born about 1723, arrived with several of her relatives. That family’s name showed up in New England records as Hardwick, Hartig, and other forms.

Heinrich Seiter settled in the Waldoboro area. George Seiter may have lived with him for a while or gone directly to Braintree, where locals were trying to develop a little manufacturing center. Some of the new Germans were said to be glassmakers, and Joseph Palmer and Richard Cranch were building a glass factory.

We know that Georg Frederich Seiter married Christine Salome (soon Sarah) Hartwick on 20 Mar 1753 at Germantown. They had three children in Braintree:
  • Christina Elizabeth, born 26 Dec 1754.
  • Sophia, born 29 June 1756.
  • Christopher, baptized 18 Mar 1759.
By then the family name was written as “Sider.” If Christopher was baptized a week or two after birth, like his sisters, then he was born in early March 1759.

In 1755, the glass factory was struck by lightning and burned. Palmer and Cranch tried to keep the venture going, but in 1760 they gave up and mortgaged the land to Thomas Flucker. Some of the German workers went to Maine, some to a new town soon called Ashburnham—and George and Sarah Seider moved their family to Boston, where their daughter Mary was baptized at King’s Chapel on 10 June 1761.

The Seiders lived in a little house at the bottom of Boston Common on Frog Lane, later gentrified to Boylston Street. On the other side of the street was the giant elm that in 1765 the Sons of Liberty dubbed “Liberty Tree.”

As the 1760s came to a close, Christopher was no longer living with his family, however. He was in the household of the very wealthy widow Grizzell Apthorp, working as a servant. Apthorp was a pillar of the King’s Chapel congregation, which was probably how she came to know the Seiders.

There’s evidence that Christopher also attended a school of some sort. In the 1840s a woman named “Mrs. Preston” told a writer that she had gone to school with him, probably a reading school when they were younger. The Boston News-Letter reported that Christopher “was going from School” on 22 Feb 1770.

It’s quite clear that Christopher Seider was a reader. The Boston Evening-Post reported that he carried “several heroic pieces” or broadsides “in his pocket, particularly Wolfe’s Summit of human glory.” A broadside titled Major-General James Wolfe, who reach’d the summit of human glory, September 13th, 1759 is now on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The 17" by 24" sheet describes the taking of Québec in 1759, illustrated with a large colored woodcut of the general.

On the morning of 22 February, Christopher was among the boys outside Ebenezer Richardson’s house. It’s not clear how much he participated in the young mob’s attack on that house. Prosecutor Robert Treat Paine took notes that a witness named Jonathan Kenny said, “Syder threw nothing stood looking,” and “I was by Syder 5. minutes. Saw him throw nothing.” But Charles Atkins testified, “Syder was stooping to take up a Stone as I thought.”

Christopher must have been toward the front of the crowd when Richardson pulled his trigger because his torso was hit by eleven lead pellets. In addition, said the Boston Evening-Post, “The right hand of the boy was cruelly torn, whence it seems to have been across his breast.” Christopher fell and was carried into a nearby house.

The Evening-Post reported, “all the surgeons, within call, were assembled and speedily determined the wounds mortal.” Among the doctors we know examined the boy were the radical Dr. Thomas Young, the apothecary Dr. John Loring, and Dr. Joseph Warren, who afterward conducted an autopsy.

In addition, there were “clergyman who prayed with” Christopher. The newspaper praised “the firmness of mind he showed when he first saw his parents, and while he underwent the great distress of bodily pain, and with which he met the king of terrors.”

Christopher Seider died “about nine o’clock that evening.” Some reckonings say he was the first person killed in the American Revolution. He was probably just a few days short of his eleventh birthday.

TOMORROW: The older boy.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

“The first thought was to hang him up at once”

When Ebenezer Richardson fired his musket out of window of his house on 22 Feb 1770, as recounted yesterday, that gun was loaded with “Swan shot.” Those were lead pellets ”about the bigness of large peas”—larger than “Goose shot” and “duck shot” and similar to a typical pistol bullet of the time.

Several slugs of swan shot were enough to knock down one of the young boys mobbing his house. The Boston Evening-Post reported, “The child fell, but was taken up and carried into a neighboring house, where all the surgeons, within call, were assembled.” Another boy, nineteen years old, was wounded in the hand and thigh.

The men gathered on that North End street had largely been standing back, watching the boys attack Richardson’s house. Now they took action. Again from the Evening-Post:
The people, on hearing the report of the gun, seeing one wounded and another as they thought killed, got into the new brick meeting house and rang the bell; on which they soon had company enough to beset the house front and rear…
According to an anonymous letter sympathetic to Richardson, the “vast Concourse of people…broke down the side of his house & when they had made a breach wide enough several entered.”

Two witnesses testified that when the crowd yelled at Richardson that he had killed a boy, he answered, “I don’t care what I’ve done.” Edward Procter said, “He had a Cutlass drawn, and resisted. He said he would resign himself to proper Officer.” But there was no magistrate on the scene, and no police officer in Boston. People expected to band together to capture criminals, just as they all fought fires or trained for war. They pressed in.

Some men “wrenched a gun” from George Wilmot, the Customs service sailor who had come to help Richardson. They found it “heavily charged with powder, and crammed with 149 goose and buck shot.” Wilmot protested that “he could not have fired for the Screw pin was gone.”

Soon the crowd dragged Richardson out to the street. According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, “The first thought was to hang him up at once and a halter was brought and a sign post picked upon,” even though both of the wounded boys were still alive.

But by then William Molineux had arrived on the scene. He was normally the most aggressive of the Whig leaders, but at this moment he saved Richardson from lynching. Even Hutchinson acknowledged, “one who is supposed to have stirred up the tumultuous proceedings took great pains and prevented it.”

Molineux convinced the crowd to carry the two men to John Ruddock, justice of the peace and boss of the North End. The Evening-Post stated that Ruddock
was pleased to send them to Faneuil Hall, under a sufficient guard, where three other magistrates, Richard Dana, Edmund Quincy and Samuel Pemberton, Esquires with Mr. Ruddock, took their examination before at least a thousand people and and committed them.
All those magistrates were solid Whigs, of course.

The Boston News-Letter and Boston Chronicle both published issues that Thursday. Their printersRichard Draper and John Fleeming, respectively—scrambled to add the latest news to the bottom of the local round-ups. The 22 February News-Letter stated:
This Instant we hear that one Richardson having attempted to destroy some Effigies in the North End, the Lads beat him off into his House, and broke his Windows, upon which he fired among them, mortally wounded one Boy, & slightly wounded two or three others. Richardson is now under Examination.
The Boston Chronicle leaned more to the Crown:
This forenoon, a boy of about 14 years of age, was mortally wounded, and two others slightly wounded by a shot from a musket, fired out of a house at the north end.—Two persons, who were in the house from whence the gun was fired, are now under examination at Faneuil Hall.
The Chronicle was printed at 2:00 P.M., meaning the magistrates’ proceeding extended well into the afternoon. Already people expected one of the boys to die.

Eventually those justices determined there was enough evidence to charge Richardson and Wilmot with a crime—whether assault or murder depended on whether that badly wounded boy lived or died. The next step was to convey the prisoners from Faneuil Hall to the jail on Court Street.

According to an anonymous Crown report, “when the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] was carrying them to Goal, several attempts were made to gett a Rope round Richardsons neck.” The Evening-Post report obliquely admitted the same: “The numberless affronts and abuses both these persons had heaped on the inhabitants, exasperated them to such a pitch that, had not gentlemen of influence interposed, they would never have reached the prison.”

At the end of the afternoon, Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot were finally in the Boston jail. People turned their attention back to the house where doctors had come to treat the young boy.

TOMORROW: “The king of terrors.”

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Riot at the Richardson House

By 22 Feb 1770, 250 years ago today, the anonymous informant reporting events in Boston to Customs Collector Joseph Harrison judged that the Sons of Liberty had “seemed greatly to gain ground” over the previous week.

One piece of evidence was that “a subscription was sett on foot amongst the females in town to discontinue to Drinking of Tea.” The newspapers also featured a spinning meeting in the North End. (I’ll get back to that.) On the night of 21 February, another anonymous letter said, someone “besmeared…the Importers windows with feathers & tar & feathers.”

In another sign of Whig strength, on 22 February the boys doubled their picket lines enforcing non-importation. According to the letter to Harrison: “The Exhibition at [William] Jacksons [was] the same as Last week—there was likewise an Exhibition at Theopiluis Lillie.” Jackson’s Brazen Head hardware store was in the center of town, but Lillie’s dry-goods shop was up in the North End on Middle Street (now Hanover Street).

Another person living in that neighborhood, “about fifty or sixty paces away,” was Ebenezer Richardson, a Customs service land-waiter. Richardson was a notorious outcast. While living in Woburn in the 1750s, he’d gotten his wife’s sister pregnant, then kept quiet for over a year as people blamed one of the town’s ministers. Once the truth came out, Richardson, now widowed, and his sister-in-law had to move to Boston, where they married at King’s Chapel.

In Boston, Richardson began to supply confidential information to the province’s attorney general, Edmund Trowbridge, and then to Customs official Charles Paxton. That work stopped being confidential after some documents leaked from London in the early 1760s. The Customs office then hired Richardson officially, but Bostonians continued to refer to him as “the Informer.”

During the anti-Stamp Act riots of 24 Aug 1765, a crowd attacked the Richardsons’ house, and a few days later the Overseers of the Poor paid to have the family removed back to Woburn, perhaps for their own safety. By 1766 Richardson was back in Boston. After Capt. Daniel Malcom defied Customs officials, boys went over to Richardson’s house to taunt him for not gaining a reward—and it’s not even clear he was involved in that case.

Not that Richardson was quietly minding his own business in the political disputes of the period. According to William Gray, “Some mention of Effigies” had come up on 21 February, and Richardson said “he hoped if these was before Importers Doors there be a Dust beat up, wish’d the 14. Regiment there. They would Cut up the d——d Yankees.” (Richardson came from an old Puritan family himself, so here “Yankees” was a political epithet.)

According to the next week’s Boston Evening-Post:

Soon after it [the non-importation pageantry] was set up, Ebenezer Richardson, the famous Informer, came by and endeavored to persuade a countryman to overturn it with his wagon; which he refusing, he applied to a charcoal man to drive his cart against it; but he said he had no business with it, and would not concern himself about it.

Richardson (as the boys say) pressed him to it, saying he was a magistrate in the town and would bear him out in it. The man still denying to meddle therewith, Richardson laid hold on the horses and endeavored to shove them upon the pole which supported the pageantry; the cart, however, passed without disturbing it.
Frustrated, Richardson started to stomp off. But by this point some Whig men had arrived “to see Pagentry before Lilly’s Door,” as one of them, Edward Procter, later testified. Richardson saw them, perhaps laughing at him, and shouted, “Perjury! Perjury!”

Nobody’s sure what Richardson meant by that. Was he saying that calling Lillie an enemy of the country was perjury? Was he accusing those men of having perjured themselves in the past? Was he denying what they might have shouted at him (and, as shown above, Bostonians had a lot of stories to tell)? The men challenged Richardson to explain, and he replied that he was directing his comment not at Procter but at another man, Thomas Knox—which doesn’t help.

A neighbor named Deborah Warner said Richardson “Went into his house, and then…he came out in a great Rage, doubling his Fists and challenged the Gentlemen to the Door. Said it should be hot enough before night.” Sarah Richardson, one of the land-waiter’s daughters, testified that Knox and Capt. John Matchet responded, “come out you damn Son of Bitch, I’ll have your Heart out your Liver out.”

The yelling outside of Richardson’s door caught the attention of the boys. They left the signs and shoppers in front of Lillie’s shop and ran over to Richardson’s to “call him Informer,” in the Evening-Post’s words. Richardson and his wife Kezia—the woman who had once been his sister-in-law—tried to shoo the boys away, “flourishing their arms and advancing out into the street, with high threatenings.” That didn’t work. As the newspaper reported, “the children would retreat and on their return, advance, with the squealing and noise they usually make on such occasions.”

Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson later wrote that he “gave express directions to the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] to go and suppress this unlawful assembly…but he did not think it safe to attempt it nor is there a J[ustice]. of P[eace]. in the town who will appear upon such an occasion.”

Outside the Richardsons’ house, the young mob started throwing “light rubbish.” Ebenezer came out “with a stick” and ordered the boys to go away. Invoking traditional British liberty, the children “said they would not, Kings high Way”—i.e., they had the right to be in the street. They threw more garbage. Kezia Richardson threw some back and was in return struck by an egg.

At some point a sailor who worked for the Customs service named George Wilmot came to the Richardsons’ house and offered to help his colleague. According to Sarah Richardson, “Wilmot said he would stand by him as Long as he had breath. Wilmot asked if he had any Gun. R[ichardson]. said he must get his Gun.”

Becoming desperate, “Richardson opened the door and snapped a gun” at the crowd—showing that he had a working musket but not firing anything. He reportedly threatened, “if you dont go away I’ll blow a hole thro you enough to Drive a Cart and Oxen” or “as sure as there was a G— in heaven, he’d blow a Lane thro ’em.” After a moment of fright, the young mob just started flinging things more ferociously.

Multiple witnesses said that someone threw a stick or brickbat out of the house and hit a passing soldier. He threw it back, smashing a window. That got the boys even more excited. Witness Andrew Tewksbury stated, “They threw Limon Peels then Stones. Some Men looked on Boys and they threw faster. Men shew’d no signs of Approbation but laughing.” Ebenezer, Kezia, and Sarah Richardson were all hit by stones.

Soon most of the windows in the house were broken. Sarah Richardson testified, “I staid till no Lead, no Frame, and then went away.” Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot retreated to an upper story. The active Whig tailor David Bradlee testified, “I saw one or two Men in the Room with Guns in their hands. R[ichardson] put a Gun on edge of Window.”

Finally, Richardson fired his musket. This time it was loaded.

TOMORROW: Rough justice.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Peale’s Portrait of an Elderly Black Man

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, people believed this painting by Charles Willson Peale was a portrait of William Lee, enslaved at Mount Vernon for the last thirty years of George Washington’s life.

Peale and Lee did cross paths. Peale first visited Mount Vernon in the early 1770s, when Lee was a teenaged house servant. Peale returned thirty years later, as his biographer Charles Coleman Sellers wrote in 1947:
The travellers made a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon [in 1804], Peale full of reminiscences of his visits there in the General's lifetime. All that remained now of the family was one slave, old Billy Lee, Washington's body servant through the war, whom Peale found in an outbuilding, a cripple now, cobbling shoes. The two sat down alone together and talked of past days and of the important subject of good health.
Lee became free on Washington’s death, but he was disabled by bad knees and remained on the estate for the rest of his life.

Peale kept a diary in 1804, so I presume that was the basis of this vignette. It would be nice to know exactly what Peale himself wrote of his conversation with Lee.

C. W. Peale died in 1827 at the age of eighty-five. The museum he‘d assembled on the upper floor of what is now Independence Hall was broken up in 1854. In the ensuing sale a man named Charles S. Ogden bought a Peale painting of the young George Washington and what he thought was “a portrait in oil, by the same artist, of Bill Lee, familiarly known as ‘Billy,’ Washington’s favorite military servant during the war for Independence.”

That identification reflects how Washington’s celebrity made Americans fascinated in his former slaves—or supposed former slaves. In 1835 an elderly enslaved woman named Joice Heth played the role of Washington’s former nursemaid, over 160 years old, for paying audiences in New York. Until recently, a painting in a Spanish museum was widely but not wisely identified as showing Washington’s cook, Hercules Posey.

Sometimes those stories were more accurate. In 1845, a New Hampshire journalist interviewed Oney Judge, who had escaped from the President’s Philadelphia mansion in 1796.

In that atmosphere, people appear to have decided that the elderly black man Peale painted must have had some connection to Washington. Or maybe the exhibitors realized that making that claim made their painting and the museum more valuable. William Lee, by then mentioned in memoirs and popular histories as “Billy Lee,” was the most famous elderly black man from Mount Vernon, so people attached his name to the picture.

In 1892, Ogden donated the two paintings to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. At some point, and I’m not sure when, scholars realized that the painting that Ogden believed showed William Lee was actually Peale’s 1819 portrait of a man named Yarrow Mamout. Peale described the sitting in detail in his diary.

Mamout had been born in Guinea, brought to Maryland as a slave, and freed around age sixty. He became a well known businessman and property owner in Washington, D.C. in the early republic. He maintained his Islamic faith, making this the first portrait of an individual Muslim American. In his eighties, Mamout claimed to be even older—140 years old, which was probably why Peale painted him.

In concentrating its holdings on documents, the H.S.P. transferred the Mamout painting to the Philadelphia History Museum and then recently assented to its sale to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which owns other Peale portraits. But none of William Lee.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

“He was Billy, and the old servant of General Washington”?

In 1777 a London printer issued a pamphlet titled Letters from General Washington, to Several of His Friends in the Year 1776.

James Rivington, New York’s leading Loyalist printer (shown here, courtesy of the New-York Historical Society), soon reprinted those letters in his Royal Gazette newspaper. He issued a pamphlet of his own, adding a couple of genuine American letters to fill out the pages. Other Loyalist printers issued a particularly embarrassing private letter on handbills.

The preface to the pamphlet offered this explanation of how the person publishing the documents had come by them:
Among the prisoners at Fort-Lee, I espied a mulatto fellow, whom I thought I recollected, and who confirmed my conjectures by gazing very earnestly at me. I asked him, if he knew me. At first, he was unwilling to own it; but when he was about to be carried off, thinking, I suppose, that I might perhaps be of some service to him, he came and told me, that he was Billy, and the old servant of General Washington. He had been left there on account of an indisposition which prevented his attending his master.

I asked him a great many questions, as you may suppose; but found very little satisfaction in his answers. At last, however, he told me that he had a small portmanteau of his master’s of which, when he found that he must be put into confinement, he entreated my care. It contained only a few stockings and shirts; and I could see nothing worth my care, except an almanack, in which he had kept a sort of a journal, or diary of his proceedings since his first coming to New-York:

there were also two letters from his lady, one from Mr. Custis, and some pretty long ones from a Mr. Lund Washington. And in the same bundle with them. the first draughts, or foul copies, of answers to them. I read these with avidity; and being highly entertained with them, have shown them to several of my friends, who all agree with me, that he is a very different character from what they had supposed him.
The letters were addressed to Martha Washington, her son Jack Custis, and Lund Washington, the cousin managing Mount Vernon at the time. They portrayed Washington as disillusioned with the Continental Congress and hoping for a negotiated peace. They were entirely fake.

Whoever wrote those letters was familiar enough with life at Mount Vernon to have been in the Washingtons’ circle in Virginia. The general suspected John Randolph, the Loyalist father of his former and future aide, Edmund Randolph. Scholars have theorized that the Rev. John Vardill guided this and other propaganda efforts.

Describing the letters as having been captured with an enslaved servant also reminded readers that Washington and many of his biggest American supporters were slaveholders. That was a big talking-point in British political writing at the time, not out of any abolitionist sentiment but to undercut the Continental claim to be fighting for “liberty.”

In 1795, as domestic political disputes heated up, American printers opposed to President Washington’s policies pulled out this pamphlet and reprinted its contents, not necessarily claiming the letters were authentic but just stirring the pot.

Eventually Washington wrote to several of his associates in the war reminding them that these “spurious letters, [were] known at the time of their first publication…to be forgeries,” as he told Benjamin Walker. He asked them to remind other people, too.

The President added:
But of all the mistakes which have been committed in this business, none is more palpable, or susceptible of detection than the manner in which it is said they were obtained, by the capture of my Mulatto Billy, with a Portmanteau. All the Army, under my immediate command, could contradict this; and I believe most of them know, that no Attendant of mine, or a particle of my baggage ever fell into the hands of the enemy during the whole course of the War.
To that we can add that in 1776 William Lee was not an “old servant” of the general but only in his early twenties.

Those letters from the 1790s are the only time that Washington referred to his former body servant William Lee as “Billy” after 1771. And he wasn’t really referring to Will—he was referring to the fictional version of his servant described by a British propagandist using that name.

Washington hoped that Rivington, who appears to have become an American intelligence source by the end of the war, would be able to reveal the author of the letters. That didn’t happen. Rivington probably knew as little about their origin as anyone else in America.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

“Calling himself William Lee”

In October 1767, George Washington bought two “Mulatto” boys named Will and Frank and two “Negro” boys named Adam and Jack from Mary Lee, widow of Col. John Lee of Westmoreland County.

John Lee (1724-1767) had married the young widow Mary (Smith) Ball in 1749. They had no children together before he died. Given how the enslaved mulatto boys were Col. Lee’s property and later took his surname, he’s the man most likely to have been their father. In any event, his widow sent them off with another master soon after the colonel’s death.

Mary went on to wed John Smith in August 1768, and Washington dined with that couple the day after their marriage. There were so many Smiths, Lees, and Balls in Virginia that I can’t tell if John or Mary Lee was related to Washington’s mother’s Ball family or the Lee family his descendants married into, but they were in the same social circle.

Washington paid £61.15s for Will and Frank, more than three times the £19 he paid for the other two youths. All four slaves were probably teenaged males with many productive years before them, but the brothers’ lighter skin made them particularly valuable as domestic servants.

The Washington Papers include lists of “tithables” on his lands each June for many years. High among the “Ho[use]. Servants” on those lists from 1768 to 1771 was “Billy.” On 8 Oct 1770, Washington wrote in his diary about “my boy Billy who was taken sick.”

In September 1771, however, Washington recorded paying for a “pair of Boots for Will.” The editors of the papers wrote that there were enslaved men named Will on different farms, but those boots mostly likely went to the house servant he had bought in 1767, now close to manhood.

After that point, Washington stopped referring to the young man as “Billy,” at least in writing (except indirectly in connection with one incident I’ll discuss tomorrow). On the tithables lists “Will” appeared starting in 1772. His brother “Frank” had arrived on those list of house servants in 1771, along with “Herculas,” most likely Hercules Posey.

When Washington rode off to war in 1775, he brought Will with him as a body servant. The young man, then probably in his twenties, was at the commander’s headquarters in Cambridge, where on 22 Feb 1776 the steward recorded this expense in his: “Paid Margaret Thomas for making three shirts for William.”

Ten years later, on 18 Feb 1786, Washington made a comprehensive list of his human property. At the top was “Will Val de Chambre,” followed by waiter “Frank” and soon after cook “Herculus.” In that decade Will suffered two falls that injured his knees badly so he was no longer able to wait on Washington as had trained to do. He became a shoemaker at Mount Vernon.

In his 1799 will, Washington granted freedom and a pension to “my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee)”—the first time he referred to his wartime companion with a surname.

In a memoir first extracted in the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine in 1829, Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, referred to “his huntsman, Will Lee.” But he also wrote that that servant “was better known in Revolutionary lore as Billy.”

Indeed, while Washington himself never wrote of his body servant as “Billy” after 1771, other people referred to him by that diminutive. For example, on 27 Apr 1789 Clement Biddle wrote to the new President from Philadelphia, “I have frequently called to see Billy.” William Lee continued to live at Mount Vernon until his death around 1824, and nineteenth-century articles and memoirs about visiting there, such as the one by Elkanah Watson, called him “Billy.”

Nineteenth-century authors therefore developed a new way of referring to Washington’s body servant Will—as “Billy Lee,” a combination of names the general himself never used in writing. That’s become a standard reference. It shows up in, for instance, this month’s History Channel series about Washington, at least from some commentators.

But is that how historians should refer to the man, especially during the war years? We don’t know what Gen. Washington called him in conversation, but in writing it was always “William” or “Will.” We also know that William Lee kept the surname of his first owner (and father?) more than thirty years after coming to Mount Vernon.

“Billy” is of course a diminutive, and American slaveholders and racists used such nicknames to belittle black men. Yet we also use such names for friends; it’s possible that Washington’s valet was happy to answer to that name from people he knew well. It’s also conceivable that when Will Lee became disabled, still only in his late thirties and enslaved, he was reduced to such a state of dependency that people started to infantilize him as “Billy” again.

All those are conjectural possibilities, however. We know from Washington’s will that in middle age his former valet was “calling himself William Lee,” and that’s the name I use.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The First President’s Last Years

This is the day after Presidents’ Day, so it seems appropriate to think about life after the first Presidency.

Jonathan Horn, formerly a White House speechwriter, has just published Washington’s End, about George Washington’s retirement from the White House. Here’s an interview on the website of his alma mater, Yale:
How did Washington envision his retirement?

When Washington retired in March of 1797, he imagined himself returning to Mount Vernon and not straying far from the estate’s boundaries for the rest of his life. He imagined himself occupying his time as a farmer, renovating his house, and arranging his papers. History turned out differently.

How did the public react to his decision to leave public life?

Washington retired at a time when heads of state usually only relinquished power upon their deaths. His successor, John Adams, recalled looking around the room during his inauguration and seeing people in tears. He knew those tears weren’t for him, but that everyone was so moved by Washington surrendering power. They knew they were witnessing history.

Editors of opposition newspapers were delighted to see Washington return to Mount Vernon. They had attacked him throughout his second term, sometimes in quite personal terms. They celebrated his retirement in a way that I think would surprise people today.

Did Washington keep abreast of politics during his brief retirement?

He very much stayed informed. He read newspapers voraciously. Adams had retained Washington’s cabinet secretaries, and the former president pressed them to send him updates of what was happening behind the scenes.

Today, we’re accustomed to assuming presidents become less partisan when they leave office. The opposite happened in Washington’s case. He despondently concluded that people had to choose between the Federalists or Jeffersonian Republicans, and he was a Federalist. He favored the infamous Alien and Sedition acts, which were aimed at suppressing the political opposition, and favored excluding Republicans from high-ranking positions in the new army.

There were some Federalists who hoped to persuade him to run for a third term in 1800. Washington tried to silence these discussions, and, of course, he didn’t live to see the election.
Washington was a great one for retirements. He understood that the difference between a republican general and a military dictator, between a President and a king, lay in relinquishing power. He established the norm for almost all subsequent Presidents that was eventually written into the Constitution.

Horn also did an interview with Time magazine and published an op-ed at Politico in this auspicious window between the anniversaries of Washington’s birth.