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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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Mr. Hewes and Pvt. Kilroy

Yesterday I quoted a story from George R. T. Hewes that was published in Traits of the Tea Party in 1835.

It described how he saw a British soldier he called “Kelroy” mug a woman on Queen Street in Boston and steal some clothing from her. Hewes said he followed the soldier, got the clothes back by threatening to expose his crime, and then returned those goods to the woman.

I tried various ways to test Hewes’s story:

  • Was the action he described reasonable? Hewes said he followed the soldier from Queen Street (now Court Street) to the Common, south along Tremont, then east across town to Wheeler’s Point near Fort Hill. That’s a plausible route, especially for someone who wanted to avoid crowds on the main streets.
  • Was there a “barracks on Wheeler’s Point,” also known as Windmill Point? The 29th Regiment was housed in several buildings around Boston in 1768-70, including some in the South End. But I haven’t found a specific reference to a barracks in that neighborhood.
  • Was there “a notice of the assault in the papers,” as Hewes recalled? I couldn’t find one, though I may not have searched for the right terms. The Boston Whigs described army misbehavior through late 1769 in a series of dispatches to newspapers in other towns called “The Journal of the Times.” Boston newspapers published those reports weeks after the events they described, and that timing doesn’t fit Hewes’s story.
  • Did a “Capt. Cobb” live in West Boston? I’ve found references to a sea captain named Cobb going in and out of Boston harbor, but I haven’t found him as a homeowner. It’s not clear from the story whether the woman was a relative, boarder, or house servant; either way, her presence was probably not recorded.
In sum, I couldn’t find any little confirmation of Hewes’s tale. However, the woman’s lack of gratitude is a curious detail which doesn’t fit into a neat story that the little shoemaker might have made up about his heroism. (Had he gotten in the middle of a lovers’ quarrel or breakup? Another possible wrinkle: Mount Whoredom was in West Boston.)

Hewes’s story gains a clear moral only in its second act. On the evening of 5 Mar 1770, he was in the crowd around sentry Pvt. Hugh White at the Customs house. Cpl. William Wemys led out a squad of grenadiers as reinforcements. According to Hewes:
His old acquaintance, Kelroy,…was one of the guard. “Get out of the way!— get out of the way!”—he cried, as he pushed roughly by, and dealt his old friend Hewes a pretty severe recognition with his gun, in the shoulder, as he left him.
The violence escalated until the soldiers shot into the crowd, the event dubbed the Boston Massacre. Hewes and other witnesses claimed to see Pvt. Mathew Kilroy “running his bayonet into the brains of one of the dead or wounded”—most likely ropemaker Samuel Gray. In the morning, people saw dried blood on Kilroy’s bayonet. Other witnesses said that both Kilroy and Gray had both been part of the ropewalk brawl three days before.

That accumulation of evidence led jurors to conclude that Kilroy was more guilty than most of his fellow soldiers. He was one of the two men convicted of manslaughter, potentially a capital crime. And the lesson of the story Hewes told in 1835, if we can believe it, is that Kilroy had been a bad ’un all along.

TOMORROW: Seeking Mathew Kilroy’s voice.


Daud said...

I've always found this story hard to believe.

Even if Kilroy was the mustache twirling villain everyone said he was, would he need to be THAT violent?

Even if his goal is to rob lone women in the street, couldn't he easily intimidate them into surrendering their bonnets without slugging them?

J. L. Bell said...

Quite true. Another oddity is how Kilroy expected to profit from such a robbery since the town was small enough that if he tried to sell the clothing he might well have been caught.

But what if Kilroy wasn't just trying to rob the woman? What if they had been a couple, and he had given her the clothing, but then she broke it off, and he was angrily taking back those gifts? That might explain both his behavior and her reticence when Hewes showed up with the garments expecting thanks.

In addition, Hewes could have exaggerated or misinterpreted what he saw, making a simple snatch-and-run into a violent mugging. Clearly he thought the worst of Kilroy, as did most of his Boston neighbors.

If Hewes simply made up this tale, then I'd expect he would have made up a more grateful victim. As it is, I'm sure we don't have the full story, but I suspect there might have been details Hewes wasn't privy to.

Waldo4me said...

Sorry I'm late with my comment. I'm still catching up on my internet reading.

What chance is there that this would be a form of sexual assault ? Not all sexual assaults are rapes and it may have been another sort of frottage. That may also explain taking clothing articles as trophies as well as the victims demeanor when they were returned. She may have felt embarrassment which was interpreted as lack of gratitude.

But, my theory may have trouble explaining the return of the items by Kilroy, unless he thought he had nothing to fear.

An interesting story and another good story line. I enjoy your work very much.

J. L. Bell said...

There might indeed have been a sexual dimension to this event. My general impression is that eighteenth-century British-Americans were a little more straightforward (on their terms) about sexual assault than the Victorians of the mid-1800s, so it’s conceivable that Hewes or Thatcher “cleaned up” the story in some way for publication in 1835.