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, May 28, 2019

Two Robert Newmans in the North End

Map of Boston's North End, bristling with wharves, in 1769
On 13 Mar 1806, the Independent Chronicle of Boston ran this death notice:
Mr. Robert Newman, aged 51. His funeral will be from his late dwelling-house, head of Battery-Wharf, north-end, this afternoon, at 4 o’clock; which the relations and friends are requested to attend.
This was not the same Robert Newman as the man who hung the lanterns in the Old North Church on 19 Apr 1775. That Newman’s death notice had appeared in the Independent Chronicle two years earlier on 28 May 1804:
On Saturday last, Mr. Robert Newman, aged 52—for many years sexton of the North Church. He put a period to his existence with a pistol.
Those two death notices show that there were two men named Robert Newman living in Boston’s North End at the same time. I don’t know if they were related, but they weren’t part of the same household.

Those two Robert Newmans have been thoroughly confused and conflated in local history. So I’m going to try to sort them out.

The Robert Newman who died in 1806 was born in or around 1755. He enlisted in Col. Moses Little’s regiment out of Ipswich in May 1775, as shown in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. He served a few months that year. He may have also served short stints in 1778 and 1779 and then on the brigantine Pallas during the Penobscot expedition. This Newman married Esther Treadwell in Ipswich on 22 May 1778.

In September 1779 a group of men petitioned the Massachusetts Council to commission this Robert Newman as commander of a privateer ship: the Adventure out of Beverly. The 16 Mar 1780 Independent Chronicle ran a legal notice referring to “Robert Newman, commander of the armed schooner Adventure.” He turned twenty-five that year.

Robert Newman “at the North End” of Boston was appointed to administer a shipwright’s estate in 1785, according to the 26 September Boston Gazette. This was probably the mariner. He appears to have made a home in Boston while maintaining his family up on the North Shore.

In July 1790 a child of Robert Newman died in Ipswich of “fits.” On 13 Aug 1797, a four-month-old child of Robert and Esther Newman died in Newbury. One week later, four children of Robert Newman were baptized in that town at once: Robert, Sally, Thomas, and William.

The 25 Mar 1800 Newburyport Herald reported that “Mrs. Newman, consort, of Capt. Robert Newman,” had died. Newbury vital records confirm her name was Esther, and she was forty-three years old. Six years later the captain himself died in Boston.

Meanwhile, the other Robert Newman was working as the sexton of Christ Church, better known now as Old North. In addition to hanging the lanterns in April 1775, he has also appeared on Boston 1775 charging visitors to see the bodies of British officers killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

In May 1786 the selectmen of Boston designated twelve men as “Undertakers” and set the prices for burial, tolling a bell, alerting mourners, and “Extraordinary cases, such as putting the bodies into tar’d sheets.” Most if not all those men were sextons, and among them was Robert Newman.

On 14 June 1794 the Centinel reported that the next day Mrs. Abigail Sumner’s funeral would take place “from the house of Mr. Robert Newman, Salem Street.” That looks like part of his work as an undertaker since I can’t find any family connection.

The sexton had married Rebecca Knox in 1772, but divorced her for having an affair with “one John Skinner.” On 5 Feb 1791 the Columbian Centinel reported the death of “Mrs. Rebecca Newman, formerly the wife of Mr. Robert Newman, aged 41.” The sexton had already married again, to Mary Hammond, who would bear more of his children and settle his estate. This Robert Newman took his own life in 1804.

TOMORROW: The Freemasonry connection.

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