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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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cloth Robbery in the South End

On 20 March 1769, the Boston Gazette ran an advertisement from a dry-goods merchant. It listed many different items—types of cloth, ribbons, shoes, stockings, sewing supplies—but the merchant wasn't advertising those for sale. Rather, he was reporting

ON Thursday Night the 16th Instant, the Shop of me the Subscriber was broke open, and robbed of the following Articles, viz.—2 Bundles of Mens Worsted Stockings—1 Bundle of fine Cotton ditto—1 Bundle of Womens Worsted ditto—Several Remnants of Irish Linnens, some of them containing from 12 to 20 Yards—About 20 Pair of Mens Shoes and Pumps—A Number of crooked Combs—Several Pieces of Padusoy, Sattin and other Ribbons—Crown Soap—Bundles of Penknives and Jack-knives—Part of two Pieces of coloured Silk Handkerchiefs—Dark and other coloured Threads—Womens Shoes—A Book of Needles of different Sorts—A Receipt Book—And about Forty Shillings Lawful Money in Cash.

Whoever shall apprehend or detect the Thief or Thieves so that he or they may be brought to Justice, shall have the Sum of TEN DOLLARS Reward, and all necessary Charges, by me
Boston, March 18, 1769.
The same ad appeared in the 3 April issue.

On 23 March, the Boston News-Letter reported that in addition to "the Shop of Mr. Carnes at the South Part of the Town,...Several other Shops and Stores in Town have lately been broke open and Goods stollen.”

Since the previous December, Boston's Whigs had been complaining about a crime wave. After describing a mugging, one newspaper essayist added:
This is not the only instance of a street robbery, since the arrival of the troops, which before was a crime unknown in this town, and serves more and more to convince us, how much beholden we are to some persons among us, not only for the introduction of such a set of men into the province, but for influencing to their being quartered in the midst of us, which gives them a still greater opportunity to injure and distress the inhabitants.

"Street robbery" is one thing, but by today's standards it seems very odd for thieves to break into a shop to steal a large quantity of cloth. Before mechanical spinning wheels and looms, however, making cloth required so much skilled labor that it was an expensive product—and top-quality cloth even more so.

When the authorities filed charges in the Carnes robbery, they estimated that "25 yards of holland" linen alone was worth £6. That was enough to rent a small house in Boston for a whole year, according to the town's 1771 tax evaluations. A 1775 pamphlet about the British army complained that privates received only 8 pence a day after all their expenses had been deducted, so "25 yards of holland" was worth half a year's pay to a soldier.

Not to mention all the other cloth, the cash, the shoes and stockings, and the "Book of Needles of different Sorts."

TOMORROW: The rascal revealed.

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