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, March 15, 2009

More Braces of Balls

Early this month I quoted a witness in the Boston Massacre inquiry using the phrase “loaded with a brace of balls” to mean that the soldiers in Boston had two balls in their muskets.

Here are three more appearances of the phrase “a brace of balls,” which also offer tastes of life in eighteenth-century America. From the New York Mercury, 15 Dec 1755:

We hear from Baskin-ridge, in New-Jersey, that on Thursday the 4th Instant [i.e., this month], as two Boys about 8 Years of Age each, one named Leonard, and the other Ricky, were playing in the Shop of Brice Ricky of that Place, Leonard took up a Gun that he found at Hand, and after blowing into it, told his Play Mate, it was not loaded; when he cock’d her, and drawing the Trigger, the former standing right before the Muzzle, the whole Charge which was a Brace of Balls, entered his Body under his right Breast, and went out thro’ his left Shoulder Blade, of which Wound he immediately expired.
From the Boston News-Letter, 17 Jan 1765:
Last Evening, just after 7 o’clock, as a man was going over Boston Neck, he was stopped by a fellow, who presenting a Pistol to his Breast bid him deliver, swearing he would send a brace of balls thro him instantly if he refused: but the man replying, he had but 3 Pistareens about him he ordered him to go about his Business; and then ran off—doubtless apprehending a Pursuit, as there was a Number of People hastening towards them. He was a little Fellow had on a surtout Coat, wore his hat flap’d before, and had a pair of Pistols.
And finally a letter from the Rev. John Marrett (1741-1813) of the Woburn parish that split off to become Burlington, Massachusetts, to his uncle, dated 28 July 1775, during the siege of Boston:
An [British] officer afterwards came to our advanced Centry on Charleston Side & inquired of our Centry how we treated deserters. who answered they were treated as they them selves were

Thats well says the Officer and turned about to go away.

Says our Centry where are you go’ng?

back says the Offi[ce]r.

Stop says Centry I have a brace of Balls in my Gun & if you Stir another Step you are a ded man. Come back Upon that the Offi[ce]r returned and they took care of him
Marrett added a postscript: “Since heard that this story is not true”. However, he obviously found the detail of a “brace of balls” in one musket to be credible.

(That letter was published in Henry Dunster and His Descendants, by Samuel Dunster. It had a lot of abbreviations, and I decided to change the thorn y into “th” and spell out those words. Otherwise, lines would read like this: “yy were treated as yy ym selves were yts well says ye Officer.”)

The picture up top shows a brace of pistols, said to have been list by Maj. John Pitcairn during the withdrawal from Concord, and then presented to Gen. Israel Putnam. This image comes courtesy of Mount Vernon, but the pistols themselves are on display at the Hancock-Clarke House of the Lexington Historical Society.

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