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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Monday, December 02, 2019

“For being accessory in beating Mr. Otis”

Back in September, before other Sestercentennial anniversaries came along, I started to explore the 5 Sept 1769 brawl in the British Coffee-House between James Otis, Jr., leader of the Boston Whigs, and John Robinson, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs.

As those two gentlemen were going at each other with canes and fists, other men intervened. The most energetic on Otis’s side was young John Gridley, identified here. On 6 September, Dr. Thomas Young wrote to John Wilkes that Gridley “had the ulna of his right arm fractured in the fray.”

The Whigs complained that several officers of the British army, navy, or Customs took Robinson’s side, but the one they named was William Burnet Brown, a native of Salem who had married and moved to Virginia. As I discussed here, he was probably visiting Boston to finish selling his New England property.

Interestingly, several recent authors credit Benjamin Hallowell, Jr., comptroller of the Boston Customs office, for breaking up the fight. I’ve read more anecdotes about Hallowell getting into disputes than stopping them, so this offers a novel perspective on him. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the contemporaneous source for that detail.

Robinson went into hiding after the brawl, probably moving out to Castle William, the Customs officers’ usual refuge, which was now in army hands. That kept him beyond the reach of Whig magistrates or writs. Otis’s supporters therefore focused their legal efforts on William Burnet Brown. In fact, some people accused Brown of having attacked Otis himself.

On 6 September the merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary: “this afternoon the sheriff took Mr. Brown, Esq., formerly of Salem, for being accessory in beating Mr. Otis; he was carried to Faneuil Hall.” Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf was acting on a legal complaint sworn out by John Gridley, not making an arrest on his own authority the way police do now.

The magistrates overseeing the hearing at Faneuil Hall that evening were justices of the peace Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton. Dana was a highly respected member of the Boston judiciary. Pemberton was a magistrate of long standing and a selectman. However, they were also both known for challenging Crown decrees and ignoring complaints from British officers. They were the Whig activists’ go-to magistrates, as the cases of Capt. John Willson, Ens. John Ness, and John Mein show.

In an attempt to counterbalance such magistrates, Gov. Francis Bernard had appointed James Murray (1713-1781) as a justice of the peace in the previous year. Murray was a Scottish gentleman who had settled in North Carolina in 1735, becoming a member of the governor’s council there. However, he didn’t do nearly so well financially as his little sister Elizabeth did in Boston, so in 1765 Murray moved north to join her.

In 1769 Elizabeth (Murray Campbell) Smith was widowed for a second time and decided to visit family in Britain, leaving her brother to manage her extensive property. They had already rented one large building to the British army; locals called that “Smith’s barracks” or “Murray’s barracks.” The public knew Justice James Murray supported the Crown in other ways.

On the evening of the 6th, Murray was taking a walk around the Town House when a gentleman named Perkins told him that Brown had been taken to Faneuil Hall. At the end of the month Murray wrote:
consulting my feelings for another's distress more than my own safety, [I] went directly to the Hall to attend the proceedings. Soon as the multitude perceived me among them, they attempted repeatedly to thrust me out, but were prevented by Mr. [Jonathan] Mason, one of the selectmen, calling out, “For shame, gentlemen, do not behave so rudely.”
What had started as a personal fight between two gentlemen had grown into a legal case. And now it was threatening to become a public fight that would make Boston look like a lawless place.

TOMORROW: Inside and outside Faneuil Hall.

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