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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Sunday, September 01, 2019

Attack on Jonathan Sewall’s House

On 1 Sept 1774, Gen. Thomas Gage sent soldiers out to Charlestown to remove the provincial militia’s supply of gunpowder from the stone tower that still stands in what is now Somerville.

Some of Gage’s troops went on into Cambridge and wheeled away two small cannon that the Middlesex County militia trained with.

Locals treated those actions as a raid on their military resources, an attempt to curtail their self-defense. By the end of the afternoon, people learned that William Brattle of Cambridge had alerted the governor about that gunpowder. Men surrounded Brattle’s house, but he had already fled into the army camp in Boston.

Some of that crowd moved out the Watertown road to the house of Jonathan Sewall, attorney general and Vice Admiralty Court judge. He was a high-profile supporter of the royal government, having represented it in court (though he sat out the Boston Massacre case) and written newspaper essays.

Sewall lived in a country mansion with his wife Esther and two young sons, a few household servants, and at least two young men studying law, Ward Chipman (1754-1824) and Thomas Aston Cotton (1754-1810). Chipman also tutored the boys in Latin.

A third young man was also in the Sewall house that night and left an anonymous description of events now preserved in the Public Archives of Canada:
On Thursday evening September 1, 1774 there was a riotous assembling of about 40 or 50 men & boys in the town of Cambridge—I passed by them several times in the course of the evening carefully observing their number strength & movements—

About half past 11 or at 12 o’clock in the night, thinking that they had dispersed in a great measure & perceiving that they had been in indifferent spirits the whole evening, I went to Judge Sewall’s & informed Mrs Sewall that I believed there was no danger of a visit from them at that time of night; but if they came, they were so little used to acts of violence that I thought we might safely venture to resist them.

About 1/2 hour after being alarmed with the noise of their coming, & having secured the Windows & Doors as well as we could, we repaired to Mrs Sewall’s Chamber; they came shouting & blowing a horn & Mrs Sewall threw up the window when they had got to the house & asked them what they would have—

they replied Mr. Sewall,—

she told them he was not at home, but had gone to Boston in the morning & had not returned since;

on which they exclaimed she was a damned liar &c that he was in the house & they would search the house for him & have him;—

on which there was a tumultuous noise, but Mrs Sewall begged to be heard, & being a little more silent, she observed to them that being a woman she expected civil treatment from them as she had & would treat them;

they exclaimed that he was an enemy to his country & have him they would—

Mrs Sewall begged them not to disturb her—that being alone she hoped they would not treat her or her children ill, & if they would go away, they should have anything she could give them out of the house.

They swore they would search the house & immediately burst open the door. Finding they had entered & hearing them below, Mr. Chipman, Mr. Coffin & myself, together with a servant [i.e., slave] of Judge Sewall’s, being all the males that were in the house ran downstairs, attacked them & by an active & vigorous application of the argumentum baculinum [argument by means of clubs] drove them out & Mr. Coffin declared he would blow the first man’s brains out, that offered to enter again.
Jonathan Sewall really had gone into Boston earlier that day. According to his father-in-law, Boston magistrate Edmund Quincy, he “came here between 12 & one yesterday, said he was advised to leave his house & come to town.” Gage might have anticipated trouble, or he might simply have wanted legal counsel.

Either way, that left Esther Sewall overseeing a besieged house of small children, servants, and three hotheaded young men.

TOMORROW: Beyond the argumentum baculinum.

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