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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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

“A grand funeral” for Christopher Seider

Young Christopher Seider was shot and killed on Thursday, 22 Feb 1770. His funeral was held the following Monday, 26 February—250 years ago today.

Monday was also when the Whig newspapers published, so they ran their detailed, almost incendiary accounts of the killing over announcements of the funeral. The Boston Evening-Post and other papers told the public:
The general Sympathy and Concern for the Murder of the Lad by the base and infamous Richardson on the 22d Instant, will be a sufficient Reason for your Notifying the Publick that he was be buried from his Father’s House in Frogg-Lane, opposite Liberty-Tree, on Monday next, when all the Friends of Liberty may have an Opportunity of paying their last Respects to the Remains of this little Hero and first Martyr to the noble Cause.
The Boston Gazette offered further advance spin on the event:
It is said that the Funeral of the young Victim THIS AFTERNOON at Four o’Clock, will be attended by as numerous a Train as ever was known here.—It is hoped that none will be in the Procession but the Friends of Liberty, and then undoubtedly all will be hearty Mourners.
Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson thought the Whigs’ preparations were a little much. In the continuation of his history of Massachusetts, never published in his lifetime, he wrote: “The boy that was killed was the son of a poor German. A grand funeral was, however, judged very proper for him.”

There was a ceremony in King’s Chapel, the Anglican church where Christopher’s younger sister had been baptized and his employer owned a good pew. Ironically, that was also where the boy’s killer, Ebenezer Richardson, had married his second wife in 1754.

Then came the procession. The Boston Gazette stated, “The little Corpse was set down under the Tree of Liberty, whence the Procession began.” The Whigs published detailed descriptions of some aspects of the event and nothing about others, probably because readers were already familiar with standard funerals.

Some of the following description is therefore based on general British and New England customs of the time rather than specific statements. Furthermore, some of the customs for well documented upper-class funerals in London might not have been followed in Boston, even when the local gentry were trying to provide a “grand funeral.”

Four to six young men hired to be “under-bearers” probably lifted the small coffin onto their shoulders. It was draped in a black velvet pall that mostly hid those men from view. Some British pictures of funeral processions don’t show the under-bearers at all while a French picture of a British funeral (above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg) shows two of them peeking out from holes in the front of the pall.

All the honor of escorting the corpse went to the pall-bearers, who grasped the sides of the pall cloth but didn’t do the heavy lifting. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his dictionary, underbearers were, “In funerals, those that sustain the weight of the body, distinct from those who are bearers of ceremony, and only hold up the pall.”

For the funeral of Christopher Seider, the Boston Gazette said:
The Pall was supported by six Youths, chosen by the Parents of the Deceased. Upon the Foot of the Coffin was an Inscription in silver’d Letters, Latet Anguis in Herba! Intimating that in the gayest Season of Life amidst the most flattering Scenes, and without the least Apprehension of an evil Hour, we are continually expos’d to the unseen Arrows of Death: The Serpent is lurking in the Grass, ready to infuse his deadly Poison!—

Upon each Side Haeret Lateri lethalis arundo! In English, the fatal Dart is fix’d in the Side!

And on the Head was another Inscription, Innocentia nusquam tuta! The original Sentiment revers’d; and denoting that we are fallen into the most unhappy Times, when even Innocence itself is no where safe!
The first two phrases came from one of Virgil’s Eclogues and from his Aeneid. The last phrase was a variation on another phrase Virgil used in the Aeneid, Nusquam tuta fides, “confidence is nowhere safe.”

The Sons of Liberty who guarded Liberty Tree had fixed a board to its trunk with more quotations:
  • “Thou shall take no Satisfaction for the Life of a MURDERER;—He shall surely be put to Death.” (Numbers 35)
  • “Though Hand join in Hand, the Wicked shall not pass unpunish’d.” (Proverbs 16)
  • “The Memory of the Just is Blessed.” (Proverbs 10)
More New Englanders could recognize those words since they came from the English Bible.

At about three o’clock in the afternoon, the procession moved out from Liberty Tree.

TOMORROW: The turnout.

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