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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Friday, June 30, 2006

Caesar: "noted in Town by having no Legs"

On the 28th of August, 1768, the Boston Post-Boy published a curious advertisement:

Caesar a Negro Fellow noted in Town by having no Legs, is supposed to be strolling about the Country: If he can be brought to the Printer for One Dollar, besides necessary Expences, it shall be paid.

The first time I read that text, it was quoted (approximately) in Traits of the Tea Party, the second of the two books about George Robert Twelves Hewes. I thought it might be a joke—especially given the juxtaposition of "having no Legs" and "strolling about the Country."

But when I tracked down the actual text through the New England Historic Genealogical Society's access to the Early American Newspapers database, I found that the same ad appeared in the Post-Boy multiple times in Sept 1768. And a good joker knows that material doesn't improve when it's repeated word for word to the same audience.

So this ad seems to be genuine: evidence that a Boston man given the name Caesar had freed himself from servitude, at least for a while—despite not having any legs. In the 1700s, "strolling about the Country" didn't mean recreational walking; rather, it meant being a vagabond not attached to any particular household or town. In Caesar's case, it most likely meant working and surviving however he could, free of his master. If you get tired during a historic walking tour, just think of Caesar.

Despite the newspaper's statement about Caesar being "noted in Town," I haven't found another mention of him. (Unless he appears under a different name, such as Caesar Merriam.) I'd love to know more.

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