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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Saturday, March 02, 2019

“If I would go with them to commit this Robery”

As I said yesterday, the only reason we know more than perfunctory details about the trial of two men for stealing a chest from James Lovell in 1784 is because Massachusetts attorney general Robert Treat Paine took notes.

Those notes aren’t word-for-word transcriptions of the testimony, and they leave lots of mysteries. Which makes me all the more grateful for the scholars behind the Massachusetts Historical Society’s publication of Paine’s papers. I mean, just look at the handwriting in his notes from a 1780 trial.

Here’s my best recreation of how the burglary took place, based on the testimony at the February 1785 grand jury session and the 3 March trial.

Thomas Archibald and William Scott appear to have been strangers to Boston. A woman named Flora Fanueil testified that “abt. a Week before the Theft they were at our house.” This was probably Nero Faneuil’s wife, and her remark shows that the black couple had their own residence.

About seven o’clock on the evening of Monday, 22 November, James Lovell made an accounting of the Continental notes and loan certificates entrusted to him. He filed those papers in a large chest, a yard long and weighing 168 pounds. Then he “threw in money half Crowns French” and his pocket book. Mary Capen, likely a maid in the Lovell house, said, “I barr’d that window where the chest was & locked it, I went to bed abt. 11 oClock.”

Meanwhile, Archibald and Scott had returned to Nero and Flora Faneuil’s house, as confirmed by witnesses Prince Hitchborn and Jack Austin. Hitchborn had probably been enslaved by the Hichborn family. There was also a rich white family in Boston named Austin, and Jack Austin might have served them—or he might have been unrelated. About eight o’clock, Flora Fanueil said, Archibald and Scott went away.

Nero Faneuil testified:
they asked me if I would go with them to commit this Robery, they said they would come again at 11 oClock or 12. I went to bed abt. 11; got up & saw them about the house: at 12 oClock we were by Mr. Lovels & it struck 12.

Archebald opned the Window as high as he could lift, he pressed & found the bar, he pushed it in with his foot he pulled off his shoes & got in, Scot came to the Window and told Scot to come in, Scot pulld off his Shoes & got it, the Clock struck one…
A neighbor named Archibald McNeal, living about “170 yds. off,” reported that “abt. 2 oClock [he] heard a strange noise like stroks of a Maul.” Looking outside, he saw men “kept coming & going.” When “sparks of fire” threw light on the scene, he could make out one person who “had no hat on & short hair [and] chest thick.“

Archibald, Scott, and Faneuil carried the heavy chest away “to the new house,” the latter said. Then ”Archiebald got my ax [and] pryed open the chest.” Inside the men found some “hard money,” which Scott put “into his hat.” As for the papers, Archibald and Scott “said they would Separate the Bank bills & burn the rest.” According to Faneuil, his confederates
told me to take care of them [the bills] till the noise was over, they wd. go to Providence stay 2 or 3 mo. & then come back again

they tarried at my house till the Clock struck 6. they then went off.
On the morning of 23 November, Lovell stated, “abt. 7 oClock I found my Window open Shutters on the floor.” He was struck by the fact that “my plate was in the room, [but] they did not touch it.”

Outside, it appears, McNeal came across more evidence of the crime: ”next morning before sunrise I saw the Letters, Baggs marked wth. Mr. Lovells Name & the Chest marked.” But the money and, more important to Lovell, the official papers were missing.

TOMORROW: Returning to the scene of the crime.

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