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, March 15, 2011

Richard Carpenter: barber and swimmer

In honor of my talk on “Washington’s First Spy Ring” in Cambridge this Thursday, this will be Intelligence Week at Boston 1775.

“Intelligence?” longtime readers might say. “What a change of pace!”

In fact, the man I’ll profile seems to have stumbled into military intelligence and counterintelligence efforts during the summer of 1775 without actually showing much animal intelligence.

I’ve mentioned him a couple of times before, when quoting the diaries of Timothy Newell and William Cheever: a barber named Carpenter who swam across Boston harbor during the siege—twice. And that was once too many.

Thanks to a webpage at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and some database searching, I’ve now identified that man as Richard Carpenter. My earliest record of him is an advertisement in the Boston Chronicle of 20 Feb 1769:

Richard Carpenter,
Hair Dresser and Peruke-Maker
from LONDON,

INFORMS all Ladies and Gentlemen, that he has just opened SHOP in King-Street, north-side of the Town-House, next Door to Mrs. Jean Eustis’s, where all those that will be kind enough to favour him with their Custom, will be well served and the best attendance given.
That location puts Carpenter near the scene of the Boston Massacre, but his name doesn’t appear in the record of that event. (For more on Jane Eustis, see Patricia Cleary’s biography Elizabeth Murray.)

According to a page from a family record now owned by the N.E.H.G.S., Carpenter was originally from Dublin. On 6 Dec 1770 he married Elizabeth Brackett of Boston in King’s Chapel (shown above). The couple had a son in 1772, a daughter in 1773, and were expecting again when the war broke out in April 1775.

On 18 July, Carpenter decided to get out of the besieged town. The next day, Ezekiel Price, an official stuck outside Boston, recorded this tidbit in his diary:
One Carpenter, who last evening swam from Boston to Dorchester, says that it was very sickly in Boston; and that provisions were very scarce in Boston, and the people in great distress.
That doesn’t sound like a very nice place to be, but nonetheless Carpenter decided to go back. It looks like he had left his family behind, so maybe he’d left to get food for them. Or maybe he just had poor impulse control. In any event, as Price later wrote in his diary, the very next night Carpenter “returned again into Boston” the same way he came.

And was immediately caught by the British military.

TOMORROW: Trial, sentence, and execution.

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