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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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Kidnapping in Colonial Boston

Yesterday I described how when Boston families realized that one of their boys was lost, the public criers would go through the streets, calling out the news. (Girls, who were expected to stick closer to home, don’t seem to have gotten lost so often.)

An interesting example appeared in the Boston News-Letter on 27 Oct 1768:

Monday last in the Afternoon, a Child of about 3 Years of Age, Son of Mr. Benjamin Goodwin, at the North-End, being missing from School, a Search was made, and the Cryer employed about the Town, but no Intelligence of it was had till late in the Evening, when upon its being cry’d in the Common, a Soldier’s Wife gave Information that such a Child had been bro’t to their Tent by a Woman belonging to the Town, and the Child being weary was lain down and asleep;

upon which the Child was carried home to its Parents, and a Search was made for the Woman, who was taken up; and proves to be one who had been released from Goal the Saturday before:

she kidnapp’d the Child, taken the Buckles out of its Shoes and Buttons, and intended to have disposed of it, or something worse, as the Child said it was going to be carried into the Water.
This search came soon after British regiments had arrived in Boston and camped on the Common. If a woman associated with those troops had kidnapped a child, the Boston Whigs would have trumpeted the story as an example of the danger of turning the town into a military garrison. As it was, a soldier’s wife helped to rescue and return a child kidnapped by a “Woman belonging to the Town.”

Another intriguing detail in this story is that this three-year-old went to school. That must have been a private reading school rather than one of the five town schools, which enrolled boys starting about age seven.

The Descendants of Francis Le Baron of Plymouth, Mass. suggests that this particular three-year-old was Charles Goodwin, born 3 Aug 1765. He died at age eighteen in St. Augustine, Florida, so he did wander.

(The photo above was taken by kthypryn during a Revolutionary era reenactment on Boston Common.)


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

At three years old the child was probably attending a dame school, where he he learned his letters (sometimes from a hornbook.) Dame schools were like small kindergartens, usually held in the kitchen, and headed up by a widow or woman who's children had left the nest. The tradition continues in New England, and I attended on in Beverly, Massachusetts in the 1960s since there was no formal public kindergarten. I've seen three and four year olds in the New England census records, with "at school" next to their names, throughout the 1800's and 1900's.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the personal testimony. I avoid the term “dame school” because I’m not certain it was used in Revolutionary Boston, or projected back onto that period; the phrase “reading school” appears more often in the 1700s. But yes, Charles Goodwin must have been going to that type of school, which probably included reading instruction and what today we’d call day care. The widowed female schoolteacher(s?) I describe in the following post no doubt had the same type of establishment. I’ve also found remarks on a man running a school for boys too young for the town schools.

Ironically, for all the attention paid to Boston’s town schools as the U.S. of A.’s oldest form of public education, more Bostonians attended these private schools during their childhood. And the basic literacy they provided was arguably more important than the lessons in handwriting, business math, and classical languages of the public schools.