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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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Christopher Monk's Catstick

While attorneys at the trial of soldiers for the Boston Massacre questioned blockmaker James Brewer, as described over the past week, one lawyer for the defense, John Adams, was taking notes. He summarized some significant parts of Brewer’s testimony like this:

Kit. [Christopher] Monk was there. I turned round to speak to Kit. Monk, and they fired and K. faltered. [Pvt. Mathew] Kilroy struck me upon the Arm with his Bayonet as they came round before they were formed. The Firing began upon the Right. I thought it was the Man quite upon the right. Kilroy struck at me. Saw no blows, nothing thrown. Monk had a Catstick in his Hand. Heard no Names called, no Threats, no shouts, no Cheers, till the firing.
What’s a “catstick”? John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (published in 1849) defines that object this way:
Catstick. A bat or cudgel, used by New England boys in a game at ball. It is known by the same name in England, though used for a different play. I have never heard the word except here in Rhode Island.
A catstick was thus a small wooden bat, perhaps the size of those miniature bats sold as souvenirs. (The one pictured above, available from the Oddball Mall, features Nomar Garciaparra in a Red Sox uniform. I wonder why those haven’t sold out.)

Here’s the real mystery. The detail that “Monk had a Catstick in his Hand” does not appear in the published record of Brewer’s testimony. It first saw print when Adams’s notes were published in the third volume of Legal Papers of John Adams. What explains the discrepancy? I can imagine two scenarios.

First, the shorthand expert who privately transcribed the trial, John Hodgson, might have missed that part of Brewer’s testimony. Adams and merchant Richard Palmes both claimed Hodgson had made serious mistakes. Hodgson did not capture Robert Treat Paine’s summation for the Crown because the courtroom was so crowded and his hand so cramped. The Whigs already suspected Hodgson’s neutrality since he was a Scottish immigrant employed by a printer who supported and was supported by the Customs service.

But Brewer testified early in the trial, and Adams said Hodgson’s notes on the witnesses’ remarks were fine. (I suspect his notes on Adams’s summation were fine as well, and that speech simply wasn’t as brilliant as Adams wanted to remember.) Testimony that young Kit Monk had been carrying a stick, especially from a prosecution witness, would have helped the defense, so it seems unlikely that Hodgson would have missed it. Furthermore, that detail doesn’t fit with Brewer’s other testimony: he was busy denying that he’d seen any civilian on King Street with any stick.

My second scenario, therefore, is that Adams might have heard about Monk’s catstick from some other source. As he took notes on Brewer’s testimony, the attorney responded to the blockmaker’s denials by, perhaps indignantly, inserting a contradictory fact. But because no witness testified about the catstick, Adams and his colleagues never got to introduce that detail into the trial.

COMING UP: So what did New England boys use a catstick for? Besides possibly brawling with soldiers, of course.

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