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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Friday, August 23, 2019

Captain Peck’s “Intelligence”

On 23 Aug 1770, the Rev. Ezra Stiles of Newport wrote in his diary about a conversation with a sea captain named William Augustus Peck.

Born about 1723 and based in Newport, Peck had commanded a privateer in the last war, advertising for sailors in the 28 June 1762 Boston Post-Boy. His wife Mehitabel had died in September 1766, and he’d married Mary Hammond the following June. In 1769 he’d endured a difficult voyage to Amsterdam, as reported in the 18 September Boston Chronicle.

On this day Peck was back from Britain with surprising news:
Capt. Wm. Augustus Peck this day visited me. He brought my Books from London: he tells me there is a secret Intelligence office in London in [blank] street where the Jews live. It has subsisted about four years & has thirty clerks: it is supported by the Ministry: & has settled a correspondence in all parts of America—has four Correspond’ts in Boston, & two in Newport, one of which is Mr. Geo. Rome Mercht. to each of whom the Ministry exhibit Stipends.
George Rome had arrived in Rhode Island in 1761 as an agent of the London mercantile firm of Champion and Hayley. (George Hayley’s wife Mary was a sister of John Wilkes, a hero to American Whigs—but they still resented depending on credit from his firm.) Rome collected what money he could, invested in whaling and other ventures, and within a short time was one of the richest men in Newport. By the late 1760s he was spending most of his time at his rich country estate.

With his family in Britain, business interests, and Anglicanism, Rome was a natural friend of the royal government. In 1767 he wrote a letter criticizing Rhode Island’s form of government and rule of law. Seven years later, that letter was included in the packet leaked from London by Benjamin Franklin, which got him into deep trouble with the local Whigs. In 1775, Rome was one of the people Mary Butler thought could deliver a ciphered letter from her lover, Dr. Benjamin Church, into Boston.

There is, however, no evidence that Rome received a stipend from the British government—much less for the enterprise Stiles described:
As it appears in London, it is intirely a Jew Affair—a Jew Compting House, & is unknown in London. Capt. Peck sailed to London in a Vessel of the Jews & by this fell into the hands of the Jews there, dined with sundrey [?], and not being strong for American rights, they used to open before him; in compa[ny]. he heard one Mr Clark I think speak of their secret Intelligence office—& upon Peck’s questioning, &c., he colored up and diverted the Discourse. Capt. Peck says, that this office boasted of having Intelligence of every Occurrence of any consequence in America.
Stiles was, as I’ve previously written, a sucker for stories that fit his political outlook—in this case, the belief that there was a conspiracy in London to restrict North American colonists’ rights. Stiles knew the leaders of the Jewish community in Newport, but he wasn’t close to them, and was willing to view them as agents of that conspiracy.

Peck’s rumor is an obvious falsehood, an early example of the myth of an international Jewish cabal. It’s a measure of Stiles’s gullibility that he wrote that all down. Even more dismaying, of course, is that this sort of lie is being circulated in the U.S. of A. today.

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