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, September 02, 2015

The Mystery of John Webber

As quoted earlier, the 3 Sept 1765 Newport Mercury blamed “An Irish young Fellow, who had been but a few Days in the Town,” for fomenting more unrest just when town leaders thought their protest against the Stamp Act had reached a satisfying end.

The Rhode Island newspaper thus absolved the town of full blame for the ongoing violence and class conflict. (Similarly, Whigs in Boston liked to blame riots on sailors, blacks, boys, and occasionally “teagues”—anyone but the white men of the community.)

The Newport paper didn’t report the name of that “young Fellow.” Other records indicate that he was named John Webber. On 4 Nov 1765, the Mercury reported:
During last Week two threatning Letters were dropped at the Door of Joseph G. Wanton, Esq; High Sheriff of this County, imparting, that unless he released one John Webber, committed about 2 Months since, being charged by the King’s Attorney [Augustus Johnston] for his Crimes and Misdemeanors, they would effect his Release by Violence; and likewise threatened Mr. Wanton’s House with Destruction.

To prevent the intended Mischief, a Number of Persons patroled the Streets last Friday Night, and discovered nothing of the expected Outrage: But the Night following the Gaol was surrounded by between 20 and 30 Men; an Alarm was given, and they immediately dispersed, but not without losing two of their Company, said to be the Ringleaders, who were seized; and instead of releasing their Associate in Prison, were forced to take up their Residence in the same Place.—

That Mr. Wanton’s Property should be threatened with Injury, by those abandoned Villains, is very extraordinary; as no Person is more zealous in defending the Rights of his Country than he, and consequently detests and abhors Stamp-Act Projectors and Abbettors, of all Kinds. It is therefore presumed, that the Inhabitants of this Town will manifest a due Resentment in his Behalf.

John Webber, mentioned above, endeavored to hang himself last Friday [1 November], but was prevented by a Person’s entering his Apartment just as he was perpetrating the Act.

The Authority have appointed a Military Watch, in order to suppress any Riots which may happen in Town.
As of February 1766, Rhode Island assembly records show, Webber was still in the Newport County jail. He was then deemed too poor to support himself, so the colony reimbursed the jailer for buying him food.

In 1999 the Newport Historical Society published a paper titled “Who Was John Webber?” by Ruth Kennedy Myers and Bradford A. Becken. I haven’t been able to access it, but the abstract says those authors regretted not being able to ferret out much more information about Webber. The paper probably cites the following items.

The Newport Mercury for 8 May 1784 reported the death of a man with the same name and approximate age of the crowd leader nineteen years before, but said he was from southwestern England instead of Ireland:
On Tuesday Morning last died of a Dropsy in this Town, in the 42d Year of his Age, Mr. JOHN WEBBER, late of Stratton, in the County of Somerset, Great-Britain, and on Wednesday his Remains were decently interr’d in Trinity Church-Yard.
This John Webber’s gravestone is still in that cemetery, as shown above (via Find a Grave), giving the same information about his origin. He must have been prominent enough in Newport for his death to warrant a full paragraph in the newspaper, yet the newspaper saw no reason to explain why he was prominent.

The carved stones (head and foot) suggest that Webber had notable property when he died, as did an advertisement that appeared in the 5 June Mercury inviting people to an auction of his effects to be held “near the Rev. Dr. [Ezra] Stiles’s Meeting-House.” Those effects included:
Had John Webber prospered in the two decades since the Stamp Act riots (including years that were very hard for Newport)? What had he done during the war, when Newport was occupied by the British military? All those things remain obscure.

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