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, October 21, 2014

“Otis is in Confusion yet.”

On 6 May 1772, a Boston town meeting elected four men to represent the town in the Massachusetts General Court, or provincial legislature: Thomas Cushing, the House’s longtime Speaker; Samuel Adams, its Clerk; John Hancock; and William Phillips.

There were a couple of notable details about that election. One was how many votes Adams received relative to the other three men; I’ll deal with that later, around Election Day.

But the first thing to note is that James Otis, Jr. (shown here), was not on that slate of representatives. As a Boston representative, he had led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard through most of the 1760s.

Then in October 1769 Otis got into a coffee-house brawl with Customs Commissioner John Robinson and suffered a head injury. On 16 Jan 1770, John Adams wrote in his diary: “Otis is in Confusion yet. He looses himself. He rambles and wanders like a Ship without an Helm.”

Otis sat out the General Court election in March 1770. On the slate he was replaced by James Bowdoin, whom Gov. Bernard had pushed out of his usual seat on the Council. When the new governor, Thomas Hutchinson, let Bowdoin join the Council again, Boston had a special election and chose John Adams as its fourth representative.

Meanwhile, Otis’s behavior turned wild. On the 16th, merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary: “Mr. Otis got into a mad freak to-night, and broke a great many windows in the Town House.” On 22 April, the day after Ebenezer Richardson was convicted of murder for shooting out his window and killing a boy, Rowe wrote: “This afternoon Mr. Otis behaved very madly, firing guns out of his window, that caused a large number of people to assemble about him.” Acquaintances like John Adams had complained about Otis’s florid behavior on some private occasions, but these actions were public. Otis’s family sequestered him for more treatment.

By March 1771, Otis had recovered enough to stand for office again. (Meanwhile, John Adams was suffering health problems and souring on politics; he gave up the legislature and moved back to Braintree.) That year’s Boston representatives were once again Cushing, Adams, Hancock, and Otis.

But right away people wondered if Otis was going to be reliable.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s 1771.


EJWitek said...

With what modern medicine now knows about concussions and their different types and complexities, one wonders if James Otis suffered one when hit by James Robinson's cane and then suffered from "post concussion syndrome" until his death by lightning. What we know of his symptoms just might justify such a diagnosis.

J. L. Bell said...

There are episodes in Otis family lore and John Adams's diary that indicate Otis may have had manic periods before his injury, but he had never been this irrational. There was definitely a break in his behavior in spring 1770. He tried to make a comeback, as I'll discuss tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Though he may very well have been bipolar, such a drastic change in behavior might point more to a moderate or severe traumatic brain injury. It's hard to speculate 200+ years after the fact, but the symptoms fit.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think the injury exacerbated Otis's condition, which he had managed successfully before. Drinking was another factor, some sources hint, but it's hard to say whether that was just a ready explanation for something they couldn't understand.

Anonymous said...

Well the rum *was* safer than the water, after all! :)