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, March 13, 2009

Benjamin Andrews’s “Death by Misfortune”

Last week I mentioned Benjamin Andrews, who helped investigate the Boston Massacre. I can’t resist that opening to share one of Revolutionary Boston’s juiciest bits of gossip, the circumstances of Andrews’s sudden death on 9 Jan 1779, at the age of thirty-eight.

This anecdote comes to us from his sister’s son, Samuel Breck:

Benjamin Andrews, Esq.,...was well educated, active, useful, beloved; in short, a very distinguished citizen. Mr. Benjamin Hichborn, his friend, and a lawyer subsequently of eminence, was with my uncle assisting him to prepare for a journey that was to commence the next day.

While Mr. Andrews was writing, Hichborn was trying a pair of pistols and putting them in order for the journey. He had snapped them against the chimney-back, he said, and, supposing them to be unloaded, was in the act of handing one of them to my uncle when it went off, hit him with the wad in the temple and killed him on the spot.
The Boston Gazette account of Andrews’s death was:
Sitting in his Parlour with Mrs. Andrews and aFriend—He had been comparing an elegant Pair of Pistols which he had bought the preceding Day with a Pair which he had had some Time before, and which were supposed to be unloaded—upon one of these Mr. Andrews observed some Rust in a Place left for the Engraver to mark the Owner’s Name upon—his friend undertook to rub it off—having accomplished it he was returning the Pistol to Mr. Andrews, who was sitting in a Chair at the Table by the Fireside—

Unhappily as he took it from his Friend he (Mr. Andrews) grasp’d it in such a Manner as brought his Thumb upon the Trigger, (which happened to have no Guard) and it instantly discharged its Contents into his Head near his Temple, and he expired in less than Half an Hour—

It is remarkable that, a few Minutes before, he had taken the Screw Pins from both these Pistols, and one of them almost to Pieces, and had handled them without any Caution, and in every Direction against his own Body, and those who were in the Room with him.
This report ended with the detail that a “Jury of Inquest” had already met and determined that Andrews “came to his Death by Misfortune.” Hichborn was already a prominent lawyer—he’d delivered the town’s Massacre oration in 1777—and the Gazette kept his name out of the news.

But locals must have started gossiping about Hichborn’s actions again in March 1780. Here’s Samuel Breck with the rest of the story:
My aunt was a fine-looking, well-bred woman, fond of dress and fashionable dissipation. She had five or six children and an indulgent husband. Suddenly she saw herself a widow overwhelmed with consternation and dismay.

This affair has always appeared mysterious, and made a great noise at the time; and, very strange as it may seem, Hichborn proposed as a remedy and atonement the only measure that could be adduced as a motive for the commission of murder. “I have been guilty,” said he, “of this unintentional manslaughter; Mr. Andrews was my friend; by my instrumentality his children are left fatherless. I will be a parent and protector to them; the best amends I can make is to marry the widow.”

He did marry her, and during a long life he was to her and her children a kind and generous friend, father and husband.
The marriage took place on 2 Mar 1780. Hichborn killed Andrews, married Andrews’s widow, and was admired for it. That would indeed make “a great noise.”

(The picture above shows the Pierce-Hichborn House, now part of the Paul Revere House operation. At the time of this story, it was the home of Benjamin Hichborn’s brother Nathaniel. They were both cousins of Revere on his mother’s side.)

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

According to this contemporaneous but not eyewitness account, Hichborn shot Andrews while Mrs. Andrews was in the room.