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, June 11, 2018

“I distinctly heard the Noise of the Tackles”

On 9 June 1768, a low-level Customs employee named Thomas Kirk told his bosses that, contrary to his declaration a month earlier, he had evidence of John Hancock’s ship Liberty being used to evade tariffs.

The next day, Kirk testified as follows before justice of the peace Samuel Pemberton:
I, Thomas Kirk of Boston, do declare and say, that being appointed one of the Tidesmen on board the Sloop Liberty, Nathaniel Barnard, Master, from Madeira, I went on board the said Vessel the 9th Day of May last, in the Afternoon, and about 9 o’Clock in the Evening Capt. Marshall came on board the said Vessel, and made several Proposals to me to persuade me to consent to the hoisting out several Casks of Wine that Night before the Vessel was entered, to all which I, I peremptorily refused;

upon which Capt. Marshall took hold of me, and with the Assistance of five or six other Persons unknown to this Declarent, they forcibly hove me down the Companion into the Cabin, and nailed the Cover down; I then broke thro’ a Door into the Steerage, and was endeavouring to get upon Deck that Way; but was forcibly pushed back again into the Steerage, and the Companion Doors of the Steerage also fastened, and was there confined about three Hours, and during that Time I heard a Noise as of many People upon Deck at Work a hoisting out of Goods, as I distinctly heard the Noise of the Tackles;

when that Noise ceased, Capt. Marshall came down to me in the Cabin and threatened, that if I made any Discovery of what had passed there that Night, my Life would be in Danger and my Property destroyed. The said Capt. Marshall then went away and let me at Liberty; and I was so much intimidated by the aforesaid Threatenings, that I was deterred from making an immediate Discovery of the aforesaid transactions:
Kirk’s story of being shoved around by a group of men working for Hancock echoed Owen Richards’s experience earlier in the spring. In Kirk’s case, however, he was pushed into the steerage deck of the ship rather than out of it.

What about the other tidesman assigned to work alongside Kirk? According to the Customs office in Boston:
The other Officer, who was also examined sayd he was asleep at the time of the above Transaction, but Kirk declared that he was drunk and gone home to Bed.—
Despite all the legal wrangling in this case, I haven’t been able to find the name of this tidesman, who would have been a significant witness one way or the other. Tidesmen were allowed to sleep on board the ships they were watching, apparently because people expected the noise of unloading to wake them up. But had this one really gone home to sleep off his drink?

What about Capt. John Marshall—how did he respond to Kirk’s accusation? Conveniently or not, Marshall had died on 10 May, immediately after this allegedly busy night. Indeed, some folks suggested that the exertion of unloading all those casks of wine had hastened his death at the age of only thirty-one.

The Customs office also stated that Hancock had “been heard to declare before her [the Liberty’s] Arrival, that he wo’d run her Cargo of Wines on Shore,” but it didn’t name anyone who had heard him say that.

Despite the questions about Kirk’s testimony, it was enough for higher-level Customs officers to move against John Hancock on 10 June 1768.

TOMORROW: Seizing a sloop.

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