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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Friday, March 03, 2017

Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse’s Story about Capt. Goldfinch

Yesterday I described how Jane Crothers, an eyewitness to the Boston Massacre, married Pvt. Joseph Whitehouse of the 14th Regiment later in March 1770.

Whitehouse also went to Christ Church (Old North) that month for the baptism of a child of another 14th Regiment soldier, George Simpson, on 14 March. Christ Church was one of Boston’s three Anglican churches, preferred by the soldiers from Britain and Ireland.

By the end of that month, the 14th Regiment had moved to Castle Island in Boston harbor, thus no longer inside the town of Boston and in daily contact with its civilians. They were still there in August, and Pvt. Whitehouse was one of the soldiers who lined up to give testimony to justice of the peace James Murray (shown here) about how badly the locals had treated them.

On 25 August, Whitehouse stated:
That about the latter end of February 1769, he was assaulted in the Streets of Boston by a mob of the townsmen, throwing pieces of Ice and snow-balls at him, calling him Scoundrel, Lobster, bloody back’d dog and much more abusive language, to all which he made no reply.

And further deposeth, that on the 5th. March last in the Evening as he was going to the barracks, he saw a number of the inhabitants striking Capt. Goldfinch who was lying on the ground, his sword taken away, and his face very much bruised, on his attempting to assist him, the mob immediately fell on him, and beat him in such a manner, that it was with much difficulty he reached the barracks.
Capt.-Lt. John Goldfinch of the 14th also played a major role in the events that led up to the Massacre. According to George R. T. Hewes, an apprentice at John Piemont’s shop dressed the officer’s hair in December, and the barber promised that apprentice that he could have the payment for that job. But then Goldfinch didn’t pay immediately, nor, it seems, as soon as the bill came due in three months.

So as Capt. Goldfinch passed by the Customs house on King Street on the evening of 5 March, apprentice Edward Garrick heckled him about the bill. He “owed my fellow Prentice,” Edward called. In fact, by that evening Goldfinch had paid the bill—so recently he still had the receipt in his pocket. But he disdained haggling on the street with an apprentice, leaving Pvt. Hugh White to put an end to the topic by clonking Edward on the head.

Goldfinch was one of the many people who testified about what happened that night. He gave a deposition for A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston, published in London. He testified at the soldiers’ trial. He had every reason to describe the Boston crowd as violent.

Yet Goldfinch never described being personally assaulted, knocked to the ground, “his face very much bruised.” He never described his sword being taken away. Instead, his story was about finding a brawl going on outside the barracks rented from Justice Murray, reestablishing order there, and then hearing the shots from King Street.

Was Pvt. Whitehouse mistaken about which British officer he saw “lying on the ground” and tried to help? That seems unlikely. And if that were so, we would expect to see Goldfinch or another officer complain about that assault on a colleague. The whole point of the Fair Account pamphlet and the depositions collected at Castle William was to paint the townspeople as violent. But there’s no complaint about such an incident on 5 March.

I suspect Pvt. Whitehouse correctly suspected what his superiors wanted to hear about the locals, and knew that Goldfinch was somehow involved in the King Street incident. So he came up with this story of the captain under attack. Whitehouse’s tale is one reason I’m as skeptical about the soldiers’ depositions as I am about the Bostonians’ testimony to their own friendly magistrates.

COMING UP: Don Hagist traces Pvt. Whitehouse’s military career.

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