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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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Boston’s Town Criers and Lost Boys

One of the most important functions of the town crier, I was surprised to learn when I investigated the office, was to act as a municipal Lost & Found Department. People who had found things would bring them to the crier, who would file them safely until anyone came to claim them. People who had lost things would pay the crier to make announcements about that property. And when a child was lost, the public crier sprang into action—though he apparently expected a suitable fee.

Several times I’ve quoted from John Greenwood (1760-1819), who grew up in Boston’s North End, became a Continental Army fifer at age fifteen, and eventually became George Washington’s dentist. The preface to the published edition of his memoir, written by a descendant, says:

The earliest incident connected with John Greenwood’s life is what, when quite young, he was taken out one day for a walk, escorted by a negro boy belonging to the family; when, attracted by the music and brilliant show of some passing soldiers, they followed along until the tired child was told to wait awhile and rest in a neighboring shop. Oblivious as to where he had laid his charge, the negro finally returned home empty-handed, and Johnny had to be recovered by the aid of the town-crier.
That descendant suggests, “This incident evidently refers to the landing, on Saturday, October 1, 1768, of some regular troops.” However, Johnny would have been eight years old then, and might have been able to get home himself. I wonder if this happened a few years earlier when troops passed through Boston as part of the French and Indian War.

Lost children were still a major part of the town crier’s business when tavern-keeper James Wilson held the office in the early 1800s, according to this account from Rambles in Old Boston, published in 1887:
Never was a man better fitted for a town-crier. Nature had endowed him with ready wit, a good flow of language, an imposing presence, and a voice which could touch the tenderest feelings of the heart by its pathetic tones, or, if occasion required, could alarm a whole neighborhood like the roar of a bull. His custom was to appear on the street, and ring three times to attract attention. Then, putting his bell under his arm, he would produce a paper, and announce with great solemnity that somebody’s cow had strayed away, or that certain articles of value were missing.

Occasionally his cry would be like this: “Child lost! There’s a child lost! A boy, between the ages of five and six years, left his home on Salem Street about seven o’clock last night, and has not since been heard from. When last seen, he had on a black cloth cap and a short red coat. He had light hair and blue eyes. Whoever can give information of such a boy, either to his anxious parents at No. — Salem Street, or at the crier’s office, will be suitably rewarded.”

Wilson would then ring his bell again three times, and move on to repeat the process in other parts of the town.
Not every parent thought Wilson’s work was as valuable as he thought himself, as shown by this item in the Boston selectmen’s minutes on 24 Mar 1819:
The Chairman informed that Mr. Galen Holmes had complained to him, that the town crier had charged an exorbitant fee for crying two children that were lost some time since;—that he (the Chairman[)] had sent for Mr. Wilson and made enquiry on the subject;—that he had advised Mr. Wilson to return Mr. Holmes one half the sum which he had received, which he consented to do.—That Mr. Holmes had since received from Mr. Wilson two notes couched in very reprehensible language—and requested the Board would take the subject under consideration and afford him such redress as the nature of the offence demanded.
The board ordered Holmes and Wilson to appear before them the following Wednesday, but—alas!—there’s no record of what happened then.

TOMORROW: A kidnapped child?

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