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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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Charles Bourgate: questionable witness

Charles Bourgate (whose name was also rendered as Charles Bourgat, Charles Bourgatte, and even Charlotte Bourgatte) was yet another youth caught up in the Boston Massacre. In March 1770, he was indentured to Edward Manwaring, a Customs officer who normally worked in Douglastown on the Gaspé peninsula in Canada. They had spent that winter in Boston, living with a family named Hudson on Back Street. According to various sources, Charles had been born in Bordeaux, was fourteen years old, and could not sign his own name.

There are two conflicting versions of what Charles Bourgate did on the night of the Massacre. He said that he left the Hudsons’ when church bells rang to see what the alarm was. When he got to the Customs House, one of the family who lived in that building, Hammond Green, yanked him inside, and several men forced him upstairs. A tall man with a sword-cane loaded three guns and forced Charles to fire two of them out the window. The boy insisted that he had shot “up the street and in the air.” He then left the room as his master Manwaring fired the third gun. The tall man offered him money to keep quiet, but Charles nobly declared he would tell a magistrate what had happened if asked. He then ran back to the Hudsons.

And indeed, a few days after the shooting Charles did tell Justice Richard Dana this story. In response, Manwaring produced a friend, John Munroe, who swore that the two had been together at the Hudsons’ house all evening. After thinking hard in jail overnight, Charles told Dana that he remembered a man named Munroe had been at the Customs House, too. That made Munroe into a potential defendant, so he couldn’t be an exculpatory witness. Both men, Green, and another Customs employee were indicted for murder, though only Charles was put in jail. This was a form of protective custody, I suspect, as well as a way to make sure he didn’t disappear.

In a 16 Mar 1770 letter to the Boston Gazette, Manwaring described Charles as “a boy under age, without principle, sense, or education, and indeed unacquainted with our language.” But many Whigs thought the story of “the French boy” had exposed the dreadful conspiracy within the Customs office that they had long suspected. Boston’s official narrative report on the “horrid Massacre,” written mainly by James Bowdoin, placed great weight on his testimony. Henry Pelham drew a gun firing from an upper window of the Customs House in his engraving of the Massacre, which Paul Revere copied.

By the time the Customs officials’ trial started on 12 December, however, people seemed much more dubious. Capt. Thomas Preston and most of the British soldiers had been acquitted, with two convicted of manslaughter. Charles told his story again. Defense attorneys quickly put up witnesses who said they had seen no shots from the Customs House. Two women who lived in the Customs House said they had watched the confrontation from the very room that Charles described, and there had been no men with guns.

Elizabeth Hudson then offered the other story about what Charles had done back on 5 March. She testified that Manwaring and Munroe had been at her house all night. And as for Charles, she said, his master had “kept him there the whole evening, until after the bells had all ceased ringing, and until after ten o’clock.”

The court brought Charles back to the stand and asked what he had to say about Hudson’s testimony. He insisted he had told the truth. The judges summoned four men known for speaking French well and asked them to question the boy. He passed up the opportunity to claim that this was all a linguistic misunderstanding and stuck to his story.

The defense attorney then called James Penny, a debtor who had been living in the jail. He testified that Charles had admitted:

That what he testified to the Grand Jury and before the Justices…was in every particular false, and that he did swear in that manner by the persuasion of William Molineux, who told him he would take him from his master and provide for him, and that Mr. Molineux frightened him by telling him if he refused to swear against his master and Mr. Munro the mob in Boston would kill him: and farther that Mrs. Waldron, the wife of Mr. Waldron a taylor in Back-street, who sells ginger bread and drams, gave him the said Charles gingerbread and cheese, and desired him to swear against his master.
Charles denied that his testimony could be bought for gingerbread and cheese, but he had no credibility left. The jury acquitted all the Customs men without getting up from their seats to confer. The judges sent Charles back to jail to face perjury charges. Molineux soon placed angry notices in the newspapers declaring he had never told Charles to say anything but the truth. And I think he may very well have told the boy that, but in a way that made clear exactly what he wanted to hear.

In the spring, Charles was convicted of perjury and sentenced to stand for an hour at the whipping-post on King Street and suffer twenty-five lashes. On 28 March, the merchant John Rowe wrote in his journal:
This Day The French Boy & a Charcoal Follow stood in the Pillory. The French Boy was to have been whipt but the Populous hindered the Sheriff doing his duty.
Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf oversaw the end of the job two days later.

And then Charles Bourgate disappears from the historical record. Did he have to go back to Manwaring, or had that official gladly tossed him aside? Did Molineux or the other local Whigs look after him? Did he wish to return to French-speaking Canada, or to Bordeaux? Alas, he’s a lost youth.

TOMORROW: Or is he?

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