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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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Riot at the Richardson House

By 22 Feb 1770, 250 years ago today, the anonymous informant reporting events in Boston to Customs Collector Joseph Harrison judged that the Sons of Liberty had “seemed greatly to gain ground” over the previous week.

One piece of evidence was that “a subscription was sett on foot amongst the females in town to discontinue to Drinking of Tea.” The newspapers also featured a spinning meeting in the North End. (I’ll get back to that.) On the night of 21 February, another anonymous letter said, someone “besmeared…the Importers windows with feathers & tar & feathers.”

In another sign of Whig strength, on 22 February the boys doubled their picket lines enforcing non-importation. According to the letter to Harrison: “The Exhibition at [William] Jacksons [was] the same as Last week—there was likewise an Exhibition at Theopiluis Lillie.” Jackson’s Brazen Head hardware store was in the center of town, but Lillie’s dry-goods shop was up in the North End on Middle Street (now Hanover Street).

Another person living in that neighborhood, “about fifty or sixty paces away,” was Ebenezer Richardson, a Customs service land-waiter. Richardson was a notorious outcast. While living in Woburn in the 1750s, he’d gotten his wife’s sister pregnant, then kept quiet for over a year as people blamed one of the town’s ministers. Once the truth came out, Richardson, now widowed, and his sister-in-law had to move to Boston, where they married at King’s Chapel.

In Boston, Richardson began to supply confidential information to the province’s attorney general, Edmund Trowbridge, and then to Customs official Charles Paxton. That work stopped being confidential after some documents leaked from London in the early 1760s. The Customs office then hired Richardson officially, but Bostonians continued to refer to him as “the Informer.”

During the anti-Stamp Act riots of 24 Aug 1765, a crowd attacked the Richardsons’ house, and a few days later the Overseers of the Poor paid to have the family removed back to Woburn, perhaps for their own safety. By 1766 Richardson was back in Boston. After Capt. Daniel Malcom defied Customs officials, boys went over to Richardson’s house to taunt him for not gaining a reward—and it’s not even clear he was involved in that case.

Not that Richardson was quietly minding his own business in the political disputes of the period. According to William Gray, “Some mention of Effigies” had come up on 21 February, and Richardson said “he hoped if these was before Importers Doors there be a Dust beat up, wish’d the 14. Regiment there. They would Cut up the d——d Yankees.” (Richardson came from an old Puritan family himself, so here “Yankees” was a political epithet.)

According to the next week’s Boston Evening-Post:

Soon after it [the non-importation pageantry] was set up, Ebenezer Richardson, the famous Informer, came by and endeavored to persuade a countryman to overturn it with his wagon; which he refusing, he applied to a charcoal man to drive his cart against it; but he said he had no business with it, and would not concern himself about it.

Richardson (as the boys say) pressed him to it, saying he was a magistrate in the town and would bear him out in it. The man still denying to meddle therewith, Richardson laid hold on the horses and endeavored to shove them upon the pole which supported the pageantry; the cart, however, passed without disturbing it.
Frustrated, Richardson started to stomp off. But by this point some Whig men had arrived “to see Pagentry before Lilly’s Door,” as one of them, Edward Procter, later testified. Richardson saw them, perhaps laughing at him, and shouted, “Perjury! Perjury!”

Nobody’s sure what Richardson meant by that. Was he saying that calling Lillie an enemy of the country was perjury? Was he accusing those men of having perjured themselves in the past? Was he denying what they might have shouted at him (and, as shown above, Bostonians had a lot of stories to tell)? The men challenged Richardson to explain, and he replied that he was directing his comment not at Procter but at another man, Thomas Knox—which doesn’t help.

A neighbor named Deborah Warner said Richardson “Went into his house, and then…he came out in a great Rage, doubling his Fists and challenged the Gentlemen to the Door. Said it should be hot enough before night.” Sarah Richardson, one of the land-waiter’s daughters, testified that Knox and Capt. John Matchet responded, “come out you damn Son of Bitch, I’ll have your Heart out your Liver out.”

The yelling outside of Richardson’s door caught the attention of the boys. They left the signs and shoppers in front of Lillie’s shop and ran over to Richardson’s to “call him Informer,” in the Evening-Post’s words. Richardson and his wife Kezia—the woman who had once been his sister-in-law—tried to shoo the boys away, “flourishing their arms and advancing out into the street, with high threatenings.” That didn’t work. As the newspaper reported, “the children would retreat and on their return, advance, with the squealing and noise they usually make on such occasions.”

Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson later wrote that he “gave express directions to the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] to go and suppress this unlawful assembly…but he did not think it safe to attempt it nor is there a J[ustice]. of P[eace]. in the town who will appear upon such an occasion.”

Outside the Richardsons’ house, the young mob started throwing “light rubbish.” Ebenezer came out “with a stick” and ordered the boys to go away. Invoking traditional British liberty, the children “said they would not, Kings high Way”—i.e., they had the right to be in the street. They threw more garbage. Kezia Richardson threw some back and was in return struck by an egg.

At some point a sailor who worked for the Customs service named George Wilmot came to the Richardsons’ house and offered to help his colleague. According to Sarah Richardson, “Wilmot said he would stand by him as Long as he had breath. Wilmot asked if he had any Gun. R[ichardson]. said he must get his Gun.”

Becoming desperate, “Richardson opened the door and snapped a gun” at the crowd—showing that he had a working musket but not firing anything. He reportedly threatened, “if you dont go away I’ll blow a hole thro you enough to Drive a Cart and Oxen” or “as sure as there was a G— in heaven, he’d blow a Lane thro ’em.” After a moment of fright, the young mob just started flinging things more ferociously.

Multiple witnesses said that someone threw a stick or brickbat out of the house and hit a passing soldier. He threw it back, smashing a window. That got the boys even more excited. Witness Andrew Tewksbury stated, “They threw Limon Peels then Stones. Some Men looked on Boys and they threw faster. Men shew’d no signs of Approbation but laughing.” Ebenezer, Kezia, and Sarah Richardson were all hit by stones.

Soon most of the windows in the house were broken. Sarah Richardson testified, “I staid till no Lead, no Frame, and then went away.” Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot retreated to an upper story. The active Whig tailor David Bradlee testified, “I saw one or two Men in the Room with Guns in their hands. R[ichardson] put a Gun on edge of Window.”

Finally, Richardson fired his musket. This time it was loaded.

TOMORROW: Rough justice.

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