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, March 16, 2011

“Carpenter was sentenced to be hanged this day”

On 18 July 1775, the Dublin-born barber Richard Carpenter swam from Boston, held by the British military, to Dorchester, under the control of provincial troops.

On the night of 19 July, he swam back.

Boston selectman Timothy Newell reported in his journal that “Mr. Carpenter was taken by the night Patrole.” Teenager Peter Edes encountered him in the Boston jail as they were both taken to a building called Concert-Hall for a military inquiry and trial:

My four room companions and myself were escorted as before, with one Carpenter a barber, who swam from Boston to Cambridge [sic], and back again. The said Carpenter and Mr. [John] Hunt were examined.
An unnamed British officer wrote to someone in London on 25 July that Carpenter had been “caught last week swimming over to the rebels, with one of their General’s passes in his pocket.” Evidence in Gen. George Washington’s papers suggests that Carpenter had no interaction with him, but during his day on the American side of the siege lines he could have met Gen. John Thomas or even Gen. Artemas Ward. Or the British officer could have been passing on bad information.

The royal authorities quickly found Carpenter guilty and sentenced him to death. According to Newell, the barber heard
sentence passed on him to be executed the next day,—his coffin bro’t into the Goal-yard, his halter [i.e., noose] brought and he dressed as criminals are before execution.

Sentence was respited and a few days after was pardoned.
Newell didn’t write his journal entries on the dates attached to them, but a few days afterward, so events got mashed up. The young merchant William Cheever puts the mock execution on 21 July:
one Carpenter was sentenced to be hanged this day for carrying Intelligence over to the Provincials by swiming; however it was thought fit to reprieve him.
Other sources add more haze to the picture, however. According to that British officer on 25 July, Carpenter was still due to “be hanged in a day or two.” On Friday, 28 July, Ezekiel Price, outside of Boston, recorded this rumor:
the barber who swam from Boston to Dorchester about ten days ago, returned again into Boston, was taken up by General [Thomas] Gage, and hanged on Copps Hill last Saturday.
As for Peter Edes in the Boston jail, his journal never mentions Carpenter again.

So what was going on? The British authorities probably wanted to scare Carpenter into confessing all that he knew about the rebels’ intelligence operations. Which may not have been much, since he appears to have been acting on his own.

It’s also possible that the royal government wanted to scare other prisoners or Bostonians into cooperating, while also showing that it could be merciful. But in that case, I would expect to read more about Carpenter in Edes’s diary.

For a while I considered the possibility that Carpenter had been a British plant, with the aborted execution a way of providing him with cover, but other sources show that the army kept him locked up through the siege and beyond.

In the end, the British military found Carpenter suspicious and dangerous, but just wasn’t ready to hang him. I think that reflects how this early in the war neither side had the stomach for such fatal measures. The executions of Thomas Hickey and Nathan Hale were still several months away.

TOMORROW: Richard Carpenter in and out of prison.

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