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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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

“By what Means this Riot was introduced”

While the king’s army held a public court of enquiry into the violence on the night of 20 Jan 1775, the Massachusetts civil authorities did the same.

Town watchmen swore out a legal complaint against certain army officers. According to John Eliot, witnesses “were examined in the Court House before Justice [Edmund] Quincey,” shown here. Or, as the 30 January Boston Gazette reported:
On Tuesday and Wednesday last there was a full and impartial Examination of Witnesses before the Worshipful Edmund Quincy and John Hill, Esquires, two of his Majesty’s Justices of the Quorum for this County.—
Back in 1768-70, the first time the army patrolled the streets of Boston, Justice Quincy became known for his hostility to any soldiers brought before him. Justice Hill had been one of magistrates most involved in collecting testimony for the town report on the Boston Massacre. So, despite the Boston Gazette’s assurances, friends of the royal government must have been dubious those men were conducting a “full and impartial Examination.”

The army board sat that whole week in “the New Court House,” according to John Andrews, so what “Court House” did these two justices of the peace use? The Town House had served as a courthouse for many years, so perhaps that’s what Eliot meant. It’s hard to imagine the two inquiries taking place side by side.

Edes and Gill published the outcome of the magistrates’ inquiry this way:
By the Evidence it appeared, that previous to the Riot the following Circumstances took place: A little after Ten o’Clock two young Men passing down Milk-Street, near the Entrance into Long Lane, they were accosted by an Officer, not in the English, but as they supposed in another Language, which they did not understand; they asked him what he meant; he said he meant to tell them to go about their Business.
That detail about the officer not speaking in English might have been a dig at Scotsmen in the army. Or he might just have been speaking in another language, or incoherently.
They said they were going, and passed along into Long-Lane. They had not gone far before the Officer called them to stop—they stopped till he came up to them, and angry Words ensued. The young Men, however, parted from him the second Time and went on their Way towards their Homes.

The Officer followed and overtook them near the Head of the Lane, and stopped them again, telling them he supposed they were stiff Americans; to which one of them said, he gloried in the Character.—Here again Words ensued, and the Officer drew his Sword, flourished it and struck one of the young Men on the Arm, who immediately seized him.—

At this Juncture, three or four of the Town Watch, who were upon the Patrole, came up and separated them, advising them to go Home. The two young Men did so, but the Officer refused, saying, he was the Prisoner of the Watch and would go with them; they told him he was not their Prisoner, but might go where he plea’d, and if he desired it, they would see him safe Home; but he insisted upon it, that he was their Prisoner ——

The Watchmen went down the Lane towards their Head Quarters in King-Street, where they had been going before, and the Officer accompanied them. In the Way they met with several Persons, whom they took to be Servants of Officers, who supposing this Officer to be in the Custody of the Watch, attempted to rescue him, but he insisted upon being a Prisoner, and said the Watchmen were his Friends, and he would go with them.

They then went forward, and in Quaker-Lane, which leads into King-Street, they were met and assaulted by more than twenty Officers of the Army, who took several of their Watch-Poles from them and wounded some of them.

We thought it necessary thus far to give a Detail of the Affair, that our Readers might know by what Means this Riot was introduced.——

The Particulars that happened afterwards are too many to be enumerated in a News-Papers. It is sufficient to say, that upon the Evidence the Justices thought proper to bind eight of the Officers, and a Sadler, named Sharwin, who had lived a few Years in Town, to answer for their Conduct at the Superior Court, and in the mean Time to be on good Behavior…
The newspaper clearly painted Sharwin the saddler as a troublemaking outsider. I just hunted for information about him and ended up tracking Richard Sharwin’s career over two decades, followed by his widow’s involvement in the sale of an enslaved woman that linked the Long Island spy Robert Townsend to the Massacre witness Richard Palmes. Someday I may tell that story.

As for the story of what happened on the night of 20 Jan 1775, Eliot supplied this understanding:
Betwixt ten & eleven in the evening an officer in liquor desired the watch to go home with him. A young gentleman of the town, seeing him with two men & thinking him abus'd, went to the British Coffee House, & acquainted the officers collected there that one of their companions was involuntarily led away & made prisoner by the watch. They rushed out, attacked the watchmen with drawn swords, & held the battle till orders were received from the Governor [Thomas Gage] to disperse.
Plus, at some point the main guard turned out under Capt. John Gore, though he was allegedly as drunk as any of the officers from the coffee-house or the first officer who kept cheerfully insisting he was a prisoner of his friends, the watchmen.

TOMORROW: The results of the two investigations.

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