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, March 03, 2007

Benjamin Burdick, Jr., Constable of the Town House Watch

Benjamin Burdick, Jr., was born on 23 May 1742, son of a shoemaker. He trained as a barber, advertised his services as a “peruke-maker and hair-cutter” in the Boston News-Letter in June 1765, and under the legal conventions of the time was legally identified with that profession.

But the month he turned twenty-one, Burdick took a different job: he became one of Boston’s town watchmen. After a few years, he became the head of his four-man squad, with the title “Constable of the Watch” for the center of town. He stayed in that job at least until the outbreak of the war in April 1775.

Here are the duties of a Constable of the Watch, as spelled out by Boston’s town clerk in 1767:

1st:— That you with the Watchmen under you attend at said Watch house at the hours of 9 oClock every Night from the 20th: of September to the 20th: of March and continue till clear daylight & at the hour of ten oClock from the 20th: of March to the 20th: of September & that you & each of your [men] continue upon duty untill Sun rise, and if any of your division should misbehave you must inform the Selectmen of it.

2d:— That you keep a fair journal of your doing every Night how you find the State of the Town, and who of the Watchmen are on duty and Report to the Selectmen every Wednesday.

3d:— That two at least of your Division taking their Staves with them walk the Rounds within your Ward to the Westward of your Watch house twice every Night, and oftner if necessary & that other two of your Division walk the rounds in the same manner to ye Eastward of the Watch house...

4th:— In going the rounds care must be taken that the Watchmen are not noisy but behave themselves with strict decorum, that they frequently give the Time of the Night & what the Wheather is with a distinct but moderate Voice; excepting at Times when it is necessary to pass in Silence in order to detect & secure Persons that are out on unlawful Actions.

5 You & your division must endeavour to suppress all Routs Riots & other disorders that may be committed in the Night and secure such Persons as may be guilty; that proper Step’s may be taken the next Morning for a Prosecution as the Law directs we absolutely forbid your taking private satisfaction or any bribe that may be offered you to let such go free or to conceale their Offence from the Selectmen.

6:— You are to take up all Negroes Indian & Molattoe Slaves that may be absent from their Masters houses after 9 oClock at Night & passing the Streets unless they are carrying Lanthorns with light Candles and can give a good & satisfactory Account of their Business that such Offenders may be proceeded with according to Law.
Watchmen carried staffs and lanterns as they patrolled, and also had long bill-hooks in their watch-houses for more difficult jobs, but the town didn’t supply them with swords, guns, or rattles to summon help.

In April 1763 Benjamin Burdick married Jane MacNeal at the town’s Presbyterian meeting-house. Vital records show they had four children in Boston between 1764 and 1774, and the records of a family doctor add a fifth child: Robert, who needed a tooth extracted in 1768.

In 1771, Burdick found another source of income: he took over the bar at the Green Dragon Tavern, home of the St. Andrew’s Lodge of Freemasons, shown above. [As Capt. Ellerby tells Sgt. Dignam in The Depahted, “Hey, world needs plenty of bartenders.”] And the Burdick family also took in boarders.

The arrival of the army regiments in 1768 created problems for Boston’s watchmen: almost immediately, there was a conflict of authority. On 14 November, Burdick and two of his men reported to the Selectmen about a confrontation on the night of the 12th:
Two Persons who were passing were challenged by one of us, when they come to the Watch House & demanded what authority we had for challenging the Kings Soldier. . . . we took [them] to be Officers with their Swords under their Arms; they then forbid us to give the time of Night saying if we did they would put us all in Irons for we had not orders so to do only what the Selectmen gave us which they had no power to do, and also forbid our giving the time of Night any more or keeping any more in the Watch House—they called us damned Scoundrels, threatning that they would bring four Regiments & blow us all to Hell; and likewise threatned to give us a drubbing; they also said they were Kings Soldiers & Gentlemen, that they had Orders from his Majesty, and they were above the Selectmen.
Well-born officers no doubt objected to having to answer to working-class men like Burdick. In return, Whig newspapers complained about army sentinels demanding that locals identify themselves.
The town watch is appointed for our security in the night; to them and not to the military are the inhabitants legally obliged to give an answer, when properly hailed.
It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of conflict between the authority of the London government and the authority of the local government.

In early March 1770, Burdick got swept into the periphery of the fights between ropemakers and soldiers. One of his boarders was a young man who worked at Gray’s ropewalks, perhaps John Wilson. That boarder told Burdick that he felt soldiers were stalking him. The Constable of the Watch later testified:
I had seen two soldiers about my house, I saw one of them hearkening at the window, I saw him again near the house, and asked him what he was after;

he said he was pumping ship: [An allusion to William Green’s insult to Pvt. Patrick Walker?]

Was it not you, says I, that was hearkening at my window last night?

what if it was, he said,

I told him to march off, and he damned me, and I beat him till he had enough of it, and he then went off.

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