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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Friday, July 20, 2007

Carpenter Sentenced to Hang—or Maybe Not

Tonight I break off from testimony about the Boston Massacre to a more mysterious story from 237 years ago.

Ezekiel Price (c. 1728-1802) was a familiar face in Boston business circles: he was variously Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, Registrar of Deeds, notary public, and an insurance broker. However, in the summer of 1775 Price had gotten out of Boston and behind the provincial lines. He kept a diary that noted other people’s departures from town and the news they brought with them. On 19 July 1775, Price recorded this tidbit:

One Carpenter, who last evening swam from Boston to Dorchester, says that it was very sickly in Boston; and that provisions were very scarce in Boston, and the people in great distress.
This was a man named Carpenter, not a carpenter, but I haven’t been able to identify his first name. [ADDENDUM FROM MARCH 2011: His name was Richard Carpenter.] All I can say for sure is that he didn’t stick around in Dorchester.

Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the next chapter in Carpenter’s story:
20th [July]. Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole—upon examination he had swum over to Dorchester and back again, was tried here that day and sentence passed on him to be executed the next day,—his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [i.e., noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution. Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.
(“Goal” was a common eighteenth-century spelling for “jail.”)

Back to Ezekiel Price. On Friday, 28 July, he wrote down this rumor:
Hear that Carpenter, the barber who swam from Boston to Dorchester about ten days ago, returned again into Boston, was taken up by General [Thomas] Gage, and hanged on Copps Hill last Saturday.
That hanging would have been on 22 July. Newell’s account implies that Carpenter was prepared for execution on the 21st. He was writing from the perspective of “a few days after,” so he might have had the date wrong but the outcome right. So was Carpenter hanged or not?

The man also pops up in the jailhouse diary of Peter Edes, a teenager left behind by his father, printer Benjamin Edes, and then arrested on charges of “concealing firearms.” On the 18th and 19th Peter and his cellmates had been taken to the Concert Hall for a military inquiry, which went nowhere. On the 20th, he wrote:
My four room companions and myself were escorted as before, with one Carpenter a barber, who swam from Boston to Cambridge [sic], and back again. The said Carpenter and Mr. [John] Hunt were examined.

We were all sent to prison again, under a strong guard. This is the third day we were carried out to trial, (four hours each time, and nothing asked but what was mentioned before,) and no examination, under all the disgrace and contempt they could contrive.
The next day, young Edes wrote, “No court of inquiry held, so that we are still held in suspense. We had been in prison 29 days, when we found out by chance from the serjeant’s return, what our crimes were, and yet we were ordered to prepare for trial, and not accused of any thing.” (Imagine how bitter Peter Edes would have been if he’d been locked up that way for four or five years, like some young men his age today.)

Edes never mentioned Carpenter again. Either a fake execution and pardon or a real hanging would have caught his attention if he’d heard about them. So Carpenter’s fate was apparently not widely reported back in the jail. Yet Price heard that he was hanged, and Newell that he’d been pardoned.

I wish I knew the full story here. Was Carpenter a smuggler? Was he gathering information or carrying messages—and if so, for which side? Did the military authorities decide he was harmless, or did he save himself by offering to cooperate with them? Were the preparations for hanging meant to scare him, or to scare or impress others?

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