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, October 13, 2019

“I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson”

On 18 Sept 1769, the Boston Gazette’s front page featured an item of local news. Usually the Boston dispatches ran on page 3 or so, after reports reprinted from newspapers in other cities, because the local news was freshest. But Edes and Gill put this piece in type early on. They knew they had to run it.

The article was a legal affidavit from John Gridley, the young merchant who had thrust himself into the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson back on 5 September.

Gridley testified that he had been passing by the door of the British Coffee-House on King Street and saw Otis and Robinson “engaged in Discourse, and by their Words and Gestures he perceived they were in great Warmth.” They were talking about “a Gentleman’s Satisfaction” and agreed to go out of the room.

Gridley went on:
Mr. Otis on saying the last Words was retiring to go out at the Door which leads into the Entry, and was hindered by Mr. Robinson’s Attempt to take him by the Nose, which Mr. Otis prevented by holding his Cane before him.

Mr. Robinson then closed in upon said Otis and struck him with a Stick, which Mr. Otis returned with his Stick, and reciprocal Blows passed, which lasted about One Minute, and neither seemed to have the Advantage:

Then they were disarmed of Sticks, and engaged with Fists, which being perceived by some of the Spectators, (most of whom were of the Army, Navy and Revenue) they endeavoured by pushing and pulling the said Otis, to prevent his beating the said Robinson.

Immediately on seeing such foul Play (the Door of the Coffee-House being open as usual) I stepped into the Room and cried out, it was dirty Usage to treat a Man in that Manner; and on saying this, I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson; but on going between them I felt some Person pull me by the right Shoulder, I instantly disengaged myself from the Person who had me by the Shoulder, and took Mr. Robinson by the Collar, and he, in twitching, and I in holding, tore his Coat, near or quite down to his Pockets:

I immediately received two Blows on my Head, with some Weapon from the right, by a Person who appeared standing on a Bench; the Blood which issued from my Wounds instantly filled my Eyes: I then lifted my right Hand to strike a Person who was pulling me, but who I could not see so as to know, by reason of the Blood which covered my Sight: As I lifted up my right Hand, I received a Blow from some Weapon just above the Joint of my Wrist Bone, which broke it.

I was then turned out out of the Coffee-Room Head and Shoulders by the said Persons, or some of them: I then went into said Room again, and was turned out by the Persons aforesaid: As I went in the last Time I took a Stick off the Floor (on which lay 5) hoping by that Means to find out at least one of those who had so basely and meanly abused me, that I might have reasonable Satisfaction:

I then went in at the Entering Door of the Coffee-House (not the Door which leads into the Coffee-Room) and met Mr. Otis, and told him he had better go into the front Room, set down and compose himself; which he did for about 2 Minutes: I also told him that I would defend him from any farther Abuse, as far as I was able; who replied “I am much obliged to you”—! A Person (unknown to me) told him he had better go and get his Wounds dressed; upon which he went off.—

He further saith, that after his receiving the Blows on his Wrist as aforesaid, he heard divers Voices hollow out, KILL-HIM! KILL-HIM! and I make no doubt they meant said Otis, as they were done beating me, and continuing to beat him when they thus cried out Kill Him! Kill Him!
That last detail of hearing people shout about killing was crucial to the Whigs’ claim that Otis’s enemies had tried to assassinate him in the coffee-house. It’s notable, however, that Gridley said nothing the attackers wielding “Cutlasses,” as stated in their first newspaper report of the brawl.

Gridley signed this affidavit on 13 September, eight days after the fight. The justices of the peace involved were Richard Dana and Dr. Belcher Noyes (c.1708-1785), both solid Whigs. In fact, Dana had overseen a hearing to arrest one of the men who had allegedly attacked Otis and Gridley. I’ll discuss that soon.

Gridley’s affidavit was in part a response to another account of the event that had already appeared in the newspapers—from the opposite side.

COMING UP: An innocent bystander?

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