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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Saturday, April 16, 2011

John Ballard and John Ballard, Jr.

Yesterday I quoted three successive versions from the 1870s of an anecdote about a “stable boy” or “hostler” named (according to two versions) John Ballard, who helped bring Paul Revere word of the British march planned for 18-19 Apr 1775. Was John Ballard real?

In fact, there are (at least) two John Ballards, father and son, and sorting out the references to them isn’t easy. The father appears to have been born to Benjamin Ballard and the former Anne Hudson in 1715. He married a woman named Anna Young in 1738, and had four children baptized at the New North Meetinghouse from 1740 to 1745. According to a Copp’s Hill epitaph, Anna Ballard died 15 Feb 1751, aged thirty-two. The third of her children was John, Jr., born in January 1744.

Legal records suggest that the elder John Ballard started out as a ship joiner or carpenter, then bought a wharf and was thus listed as “wharfinger.” In 1739, the selectmen licensed him to sell liquor, and fifteen years later a bunch of his friends petitioned that board to let him open a tavern, which became the British Coffee-House. The St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons sometimes met there; Ballard was a member. In 1765 the Boston bar association had its first organizational meetings at Ballard’s tavern.

Ballard was a major figure in a mob attack on Patrick McMaster in 1770, as described back here. Records of the North End Caucus show Ballard participated in its political meetings in the early 1770s.

In 1742 John Ballard had been admitted to the firefighting company that kept “the Engine which is kept in a House Adjoining to the Old North Meeting House.” He became captain of Fire Engine Company #1 on 28 Dec 1767, and his son John, Jr., joined the following year. However, on 13 Apr 1774 Boston’s selectmen learned he was stepping down:

Mr. John Ballard Master of Engine No. 1. having as the Selectmen are informed by Mr. [Joshua] Bently declined serving as he purposes to reside wholly at the Eastward, where he now is…
“Eastward” usually meant Maine, though perhaps in this case it meant Cape Ann. With the Boston Port Bill about to go into effect, Ballard may have been seeking better prospects.

But it appears he didn’t leave Boston permanently because “Capt. John Ballard” was elected a fireward in 1777 alongside other prewar activists: Paul Revere, John Pulling, Thomas Crafts, Ebenezer Hancock, Edward Procter, John Scollay, &c. In 1785 he was made one of Boston’s first Inspectors of Police. (Presumably he also commanded a militia company at some point to get the title “Captain.”)

By that time John Ballard, Jr., had entered business for himself in the South End. Legally identified as a housewright, he married Mary Coats in 1777, and started to serve in town offices like constable and then clerk of the market—a post he kept for years. In the 1780s he’s listed as a trader, and in the late 1790s as a gentleman.

In Boston’s 1780 “Takings” book, or tax roll, there are two John Ballards, one keeping a tavern and the other keeping horses. Presumably the father ran the inn, and the son the stable and related businesses. An ad in the 26 Sept 1782 New England Chronicle refers to “Mr. John Ballard’s livery stable.” Later ads announce “An elegant Coach and a handsome pair of Horses” for hire, stationed near the center of town; this was, Thomas Handysyd Perkins remembered, the first hackney stand in Boston.

The 4 Mar 1794 Massachusetts Mercury reported the death of “Mr. John Ballard, 78”, in Boston. That should make it easier to sort out the men of that name, except that at some point after the war yet another John Ballard moved into Boston from Saugus. And in 1803 the cycle starts up again, with a “John Ballard, jun.” advertising that he’s selling dry goods from the same address where his father was still handling legal business; this is probably the stable owner’s son, baptized in 1782.

So what does all that say about the anecdote of John Ballard hearing that a British officer said, “There will be hell to pay to-morrow,” and passing that news on? The Ballards were just the sort of men who would be involved in the Patriot intelligence-gathering network: they were networkers, connected to others like themselves; social strivers, trying to rise above their middling origins; and politically active. Their descendants remained in Boston, able to retell the story (though, of course, also able to exaggerate it, or totally make it up).

I suspect that the younger John Ballard was the man who picked up that news from a groom attached to Gen. Thomas Gage’s headquarters. At age thirty-one, he wasn’t a “stable boy,” and might even have been a manager.

But I also suspect a lot of the other specifics in the tale got added later: that the Province House groom overheard Gen. Gage himself, that Ballard’s hands trembled at the news. Ballard might have sent word to Revere, or Revere might just have been the most famous possible recipient of that news after 1861.

One quality of this tale that makes me think its core is authentic is that it doesn’t claim too much. Whenever he passed on this story, Ballard didn’t claim to have daringly listened in on a British strategy meeting; he just kept his ears open. He didn’t claim to have learned Gage’s whole plan, only what day the army would move. He didn’t even claim to be first with the information: he said he was the third person to reach whomever he reported to. In sum, Ballard presented himself as one part of a network of citizens gathering intelligence, a part that happened to live long enough to pass on his story. And that seems credible.

TOMORROW: A contrasting version of this tale.

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