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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Monday, October 05, 2009

“Accompanied by a drum and the common cryer”

In his 1845 history of Newbury and Newburyport, Joshua Coffin described an event he dated to 15 Nov 1774:

One Holland Shaw, having been detected in stealing a shirt, was immediately taken before a sort of ex tempore court, convened for the occasion, was sentenced as follows, namely, ‘that he parade through the principal streets of the town, accompanied by the town crier with his drum.’ The sentence was forthwith put into execution.

The town crier, William Douglass, with his brass barreled drum, and the thief with the shirt, headed the procession, which took up its line of march. The paper of that day informs us, ‘that he was compelled to proclaim his crime and produce the evidence, which was the shirt with the sleeves tied round his neck, the other part on his back,’ The proclamation, which he was compelled to utter with a loud voice, was, ‘I stole this shirt, which is tied round my neck from Mr. Joseph Coffin’s house in Salisbury, and I am very sorry for it.’

Having been thus marched through the principal streets, and satisfied the demands of this new court of justice, he was dismissed, and never, after that night, was he seen in Newburyport.
Coffin quotes from a “paper of that day,” which sent me to my favorite newspaper database to look for the original article. After several fruitless searches, I came across an item from the 16 Feb 1774 Essex Journal, published in Newburyport.

It’s a letter to the newspaper signed “Philo Publis Justicia” (Love of Public Justice). Most of the text is taken up with mild complaints about local magistrates (“very often out of town”) and more serious complaints about how the London government was paying salaries to the judges on the Massachusetts Superior Court, thus making them independent of the local people. And it closes:
it seem the public have lost confidence in the executive part of government since the Judges are pensioned by our step-mother for yesterday the posse assisted prestine justice in the arrest of a theif who had stole a shirt, and upon his trial before her bar confessed;

upon which, (similar to her sentences in other parts of the province, for justice is always the same every where) ordered the convict to parade the length [?] of this town, accompanied by a drum and the common cryer, who at the corner of each street [?] should proclaim his crime and produce the evidence, which was the shirt, with the sleeves tied round his neck, the other part on his back, making the appearance of a stripped jackcoat, which sentence was punctually performed to the satisfaction of the court.
This item doesn’t contain any of the names that Coffin listed—those of the thief, the victim, and the crier. It also suggests that the “common cryer” rather than the thief made the announcements of the crime, and that the “drum” was separate from that crier, most likely one of the militia regiment’s usual drummers.

So where did Joshua Coffin get the details he wove around into the newspaper account? The victim was his great-grandfather, so the full story might have been part of his family lore.

The photograph above shows the house, built starting in 1678, where both Joseph Coffin and Joshua Coffin lived. It’s now owned by Historic New England. The image comes courtesy of Newbury 375, which is preparing to celebrate the 375th anniversity of the founding of Newbury next year.

TOMORROW: More town criers at work.

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