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, December 17, 2019

John Crane at the Tea Party

As shown yesterday, the Boston Whigs played down the crowd violence against Richard Clarke and other tea consignees in early November 1773.

That effort became easier when those merchants decided it was safer to be out of town, either in the countryside like Edward Winslow or at Castle William.

When the tea ships started to arrive late that month, town leaders deployed force to ensure no one could unload the tea. But that force was the most disciplined, quasi-official force possible: eventually the town’s militia companies took turns patrolling the dock at night. That system also guarded against unauthorized riots.

The destruction of the tea itself on 16 December was an authorized riot, carried off with a minimum of violence. Of course, there was always an implicit threat in numbers. The Customs officers and mariners on those ships knew the men pushing their way on board, some in disguise, could beat them up if they resisted. So no one did.

As a result, the only person actually kicked around that night was one of the tea destroyers: Charles Conner, detected stealing some of the tea for his own use. The Whig press proudly reported that the only property to be damaged besides East India Company tea was a lock on one ship’s hold, and that was promptly and anonymously replaced the next day.

However, people feared that a man died that night—at least according to a story that surfaced decades later. That man was the carpenter John Crane (1744-1805).

Now I’m skeptical about stories, especially good stories full of emotion and detail, that surface on paper only generations after the major events they describe. At best they’ve been passed from one narrator to another, risking distortion along the way. At worst they’re late bids for historic importance.

In the case of John Crane, we have good early evidence that he was involved in the Tea Party:
  • On the hastily handwritten list of the first set of men who volunteered to patrol the docks on 29 November, one name has been traditionally transcribed as “John Crowe.” I’ve copied that portion of the page above. It could just as well say “John Crane,” especially when I can’t find any other reference to a John Crowe in Revolutionary Boston.
  • Crane was a sergeant in the militia train of artillery before the war. According to Ebenezer Stevens, that company was on patrol at the dock on 16 December when the tea was destroyed.
  • Crane’s name appears on the earliest and most reliable list of men who helped to destroy the tea, published in 1835 when survivors and their children were still around. 
Now it’s true that Stevens’s memoir of the event didn’t mention Crane even though they were both housewrights, they both moved to Providence shortly afterward, and they returned to Massachusetts together as Rhode Island artillery officers in 1775.  However, Stevens had a falling-out with Crane over command during the war, so he might not have cared to remember his old companion by name.

Thus, it seems safe to say that John Crane participated in the Boston Tea Party. As to the specific story about him, we’ll assess that on its details.

TOMORROW: He gets knocked down.

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