A few years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, its General Court authorized towns to appoint public criers to announce the loss of property or the sale of goods. Making official government announcements and spreading the news were not listed among the public criers’ duties.
In 1642, the legislature further clarified the duty of a town crier when it came to lost things:
Ordered that hee who is to cry things lost shal keepe a booke, wherein hee shall write downe faithfully all such things, wth. the markes, the p’ties names & the dayes of crying it, for w’ch he shall have 2d. Hee is to crye at 3 severall times: & this order is to be observed in every towne.When Boston’s selectmen appointed John Crosse the town crier in 1666, they also set his prices: “2d. for what he cryeth att the meeting house. And what he Crye upp & downe from street to street is to be allowed 6d.”
By designating one man to handle this job in each town, the Puritan society’s leaders accomplished two things. First, they made it easier for everyone to know how to handle lost things. Second, authorizing one man to yell about goods for sale at a set price made it possible to stop other people from doing so, and thus kept the peace.
Boston’s first town crier was William Corser, chosen by the town meeting in 1640 alongside other elected officials for a one-year term. Newport, Rhode Island, appears to have continued to use that system through the Revolutionary period.
But in Boston, the size of the town and its commercial activity apparently forced the system to evolve. In the 1690s the town meetings were designating two criers. Then those men seem to have faced unofficial competition. In June 1724 a Boston town meeting adopted this resolution to regulate the system further:
For Preventing the many Irregularities & Inconveniences that may happen through the Mutiplicity of Comon Cryers, every one that pleases takes upon him to Cry Lost and Stolen Goods &c.TOMORROW: Glimpses of Boston’s town criers through the years.
It is therfore ordered
That no person whatsoever presume to be a Common Cryer, or Cry any Sort of Goods wares or Merchandize Lost or Found or Stolen goods, Strays, Publick Sales &c, within any of the Streets Lands, Alleys, or Market place or places of this Town, on Penalty of ten Shillings for every offence, Except only Such Person or Persons as Shall be Licenced by the Selectmen,
And every Person so Licenced Shall keep a true and perfect List of all matters and things by him so Cryed, and give into the Town Clerk once every month a true and perfect copy therof with the things by him Cryed, and the names of the Person that ordered him to Cry the Same,
And if the Cryer or Cryers Shall Cry any vain foolish prophain or Obscene matter, He Shal forfeit and pay Ten Shillings fine, and be Discharged from his Place or Office, And the Person that ordered the Crying thereof, Shall pay a fine of Twenty Shillings: