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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Monday, February 26, 2007

The Funeral of Christopher Seider

Today is the 237th anniversary of the funeral of Christopher Seider, a young servant killed by a Customs official during a riot in February 1770. Boston’s Whigs made as much of the boy’s death as they could, portraying him as a martyr for liberty and a victim of tyranny. Several newspapers ran this notice:

he will be buried from his father’s house in Frog Lane [now Boylston Street], opposite to Liberty Tree, this afternoon; 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, whose manly spirit (after the accident happened) appeared in his discreet answers to his Doctor, his thanks to the clergyman who prayed with him, and 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. . . .
The 1 March 1770 Boston News-Letter described the funeral procession this way:
It began about three o’clock from Liberty Tree, (the dwelling-house of the parents of the deceased being but a little distance from thence), the boys from several schools, supposed to be between four and five hundred, preceded the corpse 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 thirteen hundred: about thirty chariots, chaises, etc., closed the procession. Throughout the whole there appeared the greater solemnity and good order, and by as numerous a train as was ever known here.
The velvet pall that covered the small coffin had a Latin inscription:
Latet Anguis in Herba.
Hoeret Lateris lethalis Armada.
Innocentia nusquam in tuta.

(The serpent lurks in the grass. [A quote from Virgil’s Third Eclogue]
The fatal dart is thrown.
Innocence is nowhere safe.)
As the procession passed Liberty Tree, people could read these Biblical comments on boards nailed to the elm:
Thou shalt take no satisfaction of the life of a murderer. He shall surely be put to death.
Though hand join hand, the wicked shall not pass unpunished.
The first line is from Numbers 35, the second Proverbs 16. (Congregationalist Boston did not rely on the Anglican church’s King James translation.)

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 [Ebenezer] 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 [i.e., the royal appointees that Adams and his fellow Whigs thought were angling for power] 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.
Merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary, “I am very sure two thousand people attended his funerall.” The Rev. William Gordon later reported that the procession was a quarter-mile long.

Showing less sympathy, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson would write in his History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay:
The boy that was killed was the son of a poor German. A grand funeral was, however, judged very proper for him.


slskenyon said...

Those are some very interesting primary sources associated with this individual, whose name would probably be lost to history if he had not become a "victim." Was he a victim of the Boston Massacre, or was this a different riot in question?

J. L. Bell said...

The killing of Christopher Seider on 22 Feb 1770 led up to the Boston Massacre on 5 March, eleven days later. I think it set the town on edge, and made Bostonians especially sensitive to reports of attacks on young boys, both of which contributed to the Massacre.

Henry said...

You interpret John Quincy's use of the word "Faction" as a reference to royal appointees (as opposed to other groups, such as the Sons of Liberty). Why?

J. L. Bell said...

Both sides tended to use the word "faction” about the other side only, to imply that it was a small group. The word had negative connotations, and John Adams was no exception to that usage. Check out how he uses the word “faction” in his diary, memoir, and letters to Abigail.