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, May 29, 2007

Captain Conner: Tea Party thief, scapegoat

You remember the moment in Johnny Tremain when the men of the Boston Tea Party discover Dove, Johnny’s lazy former bedmate, trying to steal some of the tea for himself? Esther Forbes based that incident on a real incident in the 16 Dec 1773 destruction of the tea.

As I quoted back here, merchant John Andrews identified the tea thief as “Captain Conner, a letter of horses in this place.” Shoemaker George R. T. Hewes remembered him as “Captain O’Connor,” and took credit for detecting his pilferage. (Hewes said that “a tall aged man, who wore a large cocked hat and white wig,” stole tea as well.)

I think that man was Charles Conner, an Irishman who owned an inn and stable in Boston. He had testified for the town about the Boston Massacre, having accompanied victim Patrick Carr to that event. I wrote more about his professional and political activity in Boston back in March. But in late 1773 and 1774 he was probably very unpopular in Boston for endangering the nobly disinterested image of the Tea Party.

I’ve come across Conner’s name in one more interesting place. On 30 July 1774, Adm. John Montagu was sailing home to England on the Royal Navy ship Captain (which name sounds like the start of an Abbot & Costello routine, but I digress). He took down a deposition from a sailor named Samuel Dyer, who incriminated three of Boston’s top leaders and “Captain Conner” in enticing British soldiers to desert:

And this Deponant further maketh Oath that Mr: Samuel Adams did promise him, at the House of Doctor [Thomas] Young in June last. that he this Deponant should, (if he could by any means prevail with any of the Soldiers to Desert.) Receive Four pounds sterling for every Soldier so deserting. and that every Soldier should receive the like sum of Four pounds, or three Hundred acres of Land, and a Quantity of Provision, so soon as they arrived at a certain part of the Country. provided they would cultivate the said Land.

and as a further encouragement he this Deponant was authorised by said Adams. to assure each Soldier he could Prevail upon to desert. that Cloaths to disguise them should be Lodged at proper places.

and this Deponant had Authority likewise to call upon Captain Conner Inn Holder near the Mill Bridge in Boston for what Horses he might have occasion for to carry the Soldiers off. and that a Boat should always be ready at Hancocks Wharf if that method of conveying them off. should be Judged the most Eligible, likewise that a Room, or Store belonging to said Conner was provided to conceal them in, until a proper opportunity offered for their leaving the Town, The Key of which this Deponant had in his possession.
Dyer signed this deposition with a mark.

However, there are reasons to find this document suspicious. First of all, putting an army deserter on horseback at Capt. Conner’s inn, near the center of Boston, would be a terrible way to sneak him out of town.

Furthermore, Dyer could sign his name when he wanted to. The day after this deposition, he signed a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State, asking for protection and support since, he said, people from Boston were asking about what he’d told the admiral.

Finally, when he didn’t get what he wanted from the imperial government, Dyer began to complain loudly that he’d been kidnapped, shipped to England under cover of impressment, and harshly interrogated by high officials. He received support from the Lord Mayor of London (who opposed the party then in power), returned to America, and was warmly welcomed by the Whigs at Newport. Then over the next two years Dyer behaved so erratically that I have doubts about his sanity.

So what does this mean about Charles Conner? I think that Dyer told Adm. Montagu what he wanted to hear about Adams, Young, and Hancock. And I think he pointed the finger at Conner because he knew the Irishman was then an unpopular scapegoat back in Boston. But it’s really hard to guess what was in Samuel Dyer’s mind.

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