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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Monday, March 14, 2016

Lanterns, Laws, and Legend

As I quoted back here, on 1 Nov 1769 Boston town clerk William Cooper wrote out instructions on behalf of the selectmen to Thomas Bradford, temporarily promoted to Constable of the South Watch. Among other things, the letter told Bradford:
You are to take up all Negroes Indian and Molatto Slaves that may be absent from their masters House after nine o’Clock at Night and passing the Streets unless they are carrying Lanthorns with light Candles and can give a good and satisfactory Account of their Business that such offenders may be proceeded with according to Law.
As I noted before, this amounted to license to stop every black or Native American person the watchmen met on the street at night since there was no way to tell by sight if they were slaves.

At the time, Boston was occupied by British regiments. An army captain named John Willson had reportedly asked in a tavern why the town’s enslaved population had never risen up, which locals took (sincerely or not) as instigation to revolt. The result was that discriminatory addition to the watchmen’s instructions, probably modeled on a measure in effect in New York since 1713.

Almost a century after Cooper’s letter, Edward H. Savage published a history of the Boston police force. It seems to have appeared under different titles, including A Chronological History of the Boston Watch and Police: From 1631 to 1865. Using racist language and outrageous dialect, Savage spun an amusing story off that regulation from 1769:
It was said soon after the order was given, “an old darkie was picked up prowling about in total darkness.” Next morning, when asked by the magistrate if guilty, he replied “No, sa, I has de lantern,” holding up before the astonished court, an old one, innocent of oil or candle. He was discharged, and the law amended, so as to require “a lantern with a candle.” Old Tony was soon up again on the same complaint, and again entered a plea “not guilty,” and again drawing forth the old lantern with a candle; but the wick had not been discolored by a flame. The defendant was discharged with a reprimand, and the law was made to read, “a lantern with a lighted candle.” Old Tony was not caught again, having been heard to remark, “Massa got too much light on de subjec.”
Marietta Lois Stow repeated the same anecdote about “old Caesar” and his empty lantern in Probate Chaff: Or, Beautiful Probate (1879).

I’ve seen other racist jokes like this from nineteenth-century Massachusetts, looking back on pre-Revolutionary slavery times. They usually come with a thick coating of dialect and white supremacy, but half the time the story is about a black man as clever trickster.

There’s a problem with relying on this anecdote as history, however. As the quotation above shows, the selectmen had required “Lanthorns with light Candles” all along. So it’s just a joke.

In a new book titled Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne discusses the series of New York laws requiring blacks to carry lanterns after dark through 1784 as a presage of modern surveillance of non-white communities. That book calls those “lantern laws,” seemingly a generic term. It’s true that in 1998 Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 referred to that city’s 1713 ordinance as a “new lantern law.” However, Google Books uncovers the phrase “lantern law” earlier only in turn-of-the-20th-century discussions of bicycling.

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