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, November 26, 2018

“Went so far as to wound some officers with their Watch Crooks”

Yesterday I quoted the Boston Whigs’ side of some early confrontations between British army officers and the town watch.

There were, of course, two sides to such stories. I haven’t found officers’ accounts of such conflicts from the 1768-70 occupation, but there are reports from 1774-75.

On 15 Nov 1774, Capt. Hugh Maginis of the 38th Regiment told Gen. Thomas Gage that three nights before he and another captain had been attacked near Liberty Tree by a local named Bennet and his “whole Guard” armed with “long Poles with Spikes & Bills at the Ends of them.”

Looking back from 1782, Ens. Jeremy Lister of the 10th noted this same incident in his account of the outbreak of war. Bostonians, he wrote, “even went so far as to wound some officers with their Watch Crooks Captn. McGinny of the 28th. [sic] Regt. was one of those unfortunate gentlemen amongst many more.”

The way those officers described the altercation shows how they rejected the authority of the watchmen. Magenis mentioned “long Poles with Spikes & Bills at the Ends of them,” which were the billhooks or pikes that watchmen carried all over the British Empire. Lister even called those weapons “Watch Crooks.” But neither officer deigned to admit that those men might have had legal power to stop people.

The leader of that crowd probably even identified himself to Magenis since the captain knew his surname. Checking the Boston town records shows that man must have been John Bennet, appointed “Constable of the Watch at the South and near the sign of the Lamb” in December 1772.

Notably, back on 28 Sept 1774 Bennet had reported “a very Warm dispute between an Officer of the Fourth Regiment about the Right of Challening of One of their Cloth”—i.e., someone wearing a scarlet army uniform. That confrontation ”was Decided by an Officer of the 38 who Comanded the Grand Rounds at that Time”—the same regiment Magenis came from. Since Bennet didn’t complain about that second officer’s decision, he must have been satisfied with the outcome. Not every confrontation had to end in violence.

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