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, September 10, 2018

“A strange, mad proposal, if such a one were ever made”

Yesterday I quoted Gov. Francis Bernard reporting to London about a big meeting in Boston on Friday, 9 September, where some people advocated resisting the coming army regiments by force.

There was another gathering the next evening, Bernard wrote:
the other meeting, as I am informed, was very small & private on Saturday Night, at the House of one of the Cheifs; and there it wa[s] resolved to surprise & take the Castle on the Monday night following. I dont relate these Accounts as certain facts but only as reported & beleived.
In The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, William V. Wells stated that in fact “[James] Otis, Samuel Adams, and [Dr. Joseph] Warren met at the house of Warren…to draw up resolves, arrange for the proceedings, and prepare the order of debate” for the town meeting scheduled for Monday.

Wells’s citation for that statement was “Capt. Corner’s Diary, kept aboard the war-ship Senegal in Boston Harbor, now in the London State-paper Office.” However, John Corner was the captain of H.M.S. Romney, not the Senegal. In addition, Wells wrote in the same paragraph that the Senegal had left port three days before this meeting. But perhaps the British National Archives does hold a journal from Capt. Corner recording intelligence, or at least gossip, about the meeting on the evening of 10 September. [Anyone care to check?]

It was common for Whig political leaders to draft resolutions and make plans before an official meeting. Furthermore, those men were probably eager to avoid disorder and destruction, to channel Boston’s opposition to the troops into the most productive, least unruly form of resistance.

Bernard, however, believed the worst. Back on 9 July, he had dismissed reports of a possible attack on Castle William, where the Customs Commissioners were hiding, as “idle rumours.” But now the situation seemed more dire. In his history of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson wrote:
Information was brought to governor Bernard, that at one of those meetings it had been proposed by Mr. [William] Molineux, at the head of five hundred men, to surprise the garrison at the castle; a strange, mad proposal, if such a one were ever made. This the governor mentioned in one of his letters to the ministry, but he was not at liberty to make known the evidence of the fact. He believed it to be true.
On the same evening of 10 September, another sign of trouble appeared on Beacon Hill. On that peak on the western side of the peninsula, Boston’s early English settlers had erected a tall beacon as part of their military alert system. In case the town came under attack—most likely by sea from another European power, but perhaps from Natives—the authorities would set fire to something inflammable atop that pole. Settlers in other communities would see the beacon flare up and rush to help. All very Return of the King.

Alas, in the words of local historian William W. Wheildon, “there is no evidence that it was ever used for any such purpose, or that there ever was any fire in its skillet.”

In fact, back on 18 Nov 1767 Boston’s selectmen had noted that the beacon pole had been “thrown down by the Wind,” and the wood had proven “too rotten to serve again.” They therefore chose John Hancock and William Phillips as a committee to erect a new beacon. (Gov. Bernard told London that the beacon had been “erected anew in a great hurry by the Selectmen without consulting me.”)

The town owned the top of Beacon Hill and the narrow path up to it. On one side of that path lived John Hancock. On the other side lived William Molineux.

Sometime on the night of 10 September, someone passed between those gentlemen’s houses, climbed the pole, and left a turpentine barrel at the top, ready to set aflame.

TOMORROW: A busy Sunday in Boston.

[The picture of Boston’s beacon above comes from the Assassin’s Creed videogame. The Blackstone Valley Historical Society shares a photo of a beacon recreated in Cumberland, Rhode Island.]

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Hiller B. Zobel, writing in 1970, said Capt. Corner’s diary was in the House of Lords Record Office.