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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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rocks on My Mind and Hopestill Capen

Yesterday the Boston Globe ran a story about what happens to the items confiscated at security checkpoints in Logan Airport. Eighty percent of those things are lighters—"as many as 10,000 a week." Other objects we're not allowed to take into airplane cabins now include gassed-up chainsaws (though, to be fair, have you ever seen a sign saying those aren't allowed?), "Little Red Sox baseball bats," and, of course, toothpaste.

The lighters are incinerated. Knives and other tools are shipped to the White Farm in Concord, New Hampshire, and sold through the state's surplus property sales office.

What does any of that have to do with Revolutionary-era Boston? This passage in the article caught my eye:

The most recent jaw-dropper: a 15-pound cobblestone a tourist from Iowa tried to carry on his flight home.

"I asked him," [TSA manager Patrick] O'Connor said, "where the heck it came from, and he said he found it on one of the streets over behind the Union Oyster House, and he wanted to take it back home because it looked so historic. I said, 'For crying out loud, if every visitor did that, we'd have no more history!'"

And so the cobblestone joined the next load bound for the White Farm.
So how exactly does shipping a cobblestone to New Hampshire preserve Boston's material history?

For a more portable artifact of the Union Oyster House building, on 22 September heritageauctions.com starts accepting bids for a broadside printed for Revolutionary-era owner Hopestill Capen. He was a small merchant and shopkeeper who converted to the Sandemanian sect and thus became a Loyalist—but he didn't leave Boston in 1776. As a result, suspicious authorities put Capen in jail for nearly a year after independence; he commissioned this broadside to make his case to the public that, even though he refused to renounce his loyalty to the king, he was no threat to the state. On the back of his personal copy, Capen wrote notes about his imprisonments and religious tenets.

Not enough gossip for today? Capen was landlord for printer Isaiah Thomas and the Massachusetts Spy newspaper in the early 1770s. For a brief and unfruitful time in 1769 he employed Benjamin Thompson of Woburn, later Count Rumford, as a shopboy. And in 1775, Thompson had an affair with Thomas's wife.

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