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, March 01, 2020

A New Month in Boston, the Same Old Arguments

What did the Customs service’s anonymous informer report about Thursday, 1 Mar 1770, 250 years ago today?

He (or she) wrote: “the weekley Exhibition at Jacksons as usual.” Boys were once again picketing William Jackson’s hardware shop, the Sign of the Brazen Head, with signs and effigies. Even after the previous week’s protest led to one boy’s death at the hands of Ebenezer Richardson.

There were two important developments at that shop since 1760, when I left off the Saga of the Brazen Head. First, ten years later, the business was no longer operating under the name of “Mary Jackson & Son.” The widow Jackson had retired.

Second, back in 1760 the Brazen Head sign hung “a few Doors from the Town House,” as the Jacksons’ advertising said. By 1770, after the big fire, William Jackson was in business right across King Street from northwest corner of that government building. Mary Jackson was living a distance away. When William testified about the events of 5 March, he said, “I went to my mothers.”

At her home, Mary Jackson had rented space to at least one British army officer. That man no doubt got to hear his landlady’s side of the non-importation debate—how radical Whigs were condemning her son, picketing and vandalizing his shop. That officer was Capt. Thomas Preston.

Down King Street from the Brazen Head was the Customs office. On 2 March, Customs board secretary Richard Reeve wrote to Boston Gazette printers Edes and Gill with a statement from his bosses, the Commissioners:
that Ebenezer Richardson has never been employed as an Officer or Under Officer, or in any Capacity in the Customs.—That [George] Wilmot was not sent with any Message by the Commissioners, or by any Crown Officer or other Person with the Knowledge or Privity of the Commissioners or any of them.—That he has never been employed in the Service of the Commissioners, unless as a Seaman shipped by the Commander of the Sloop Liberty…
With Richardson and Wilmot in jail for murder, the Commissioners were trying to disavow all connection with them—however ridiculous that claim. Even Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote privately that Richardson was a land-waiter for the Customs service.

Some politicians today deny connections to people as soon as they become embarrassing or even criminal liabilities. In our information-soaked world, that rarely works. Likewise, back in 1770 the Boston Gazette printers followed the message from the Commissioners with their own commentary:
It is well known that this same Richardson not many years past, solemnly swore before a Grand Jury that he acted in a certain riotous affair by a commission or warrant from Charles Paxton, which Paxton was then an officer in the Customs, and is now a Commissioner.

Paxton indeed upon oath denied it, and said that Richardson was a d——d villain: The Grand Jury at that Time chose rather to think that Richardson was the perjur’d person, & thereupon complain’d of him to a Magistrate; and it was currently reported that Paxton was his bondsman. If this is not true, Mr. Paxton is at liberty to set the matter right in the Boston Gazette.

Richardson has for many years been known by the name of THE INFORMER——————And we dare appeal to Mr. Paxton, Whether he has not been known to be an Informer, to the officers of the customs—And whether he himself has not frequently encourag’d him and paid him as an Informer—And if so! How could Mr. Paxton with any face desire us to publish, that “Richardson has never been employ’d in ANY Capacity in the Customs.”
That court case offers another possible reason for Richardson shouting, “Perjury! Perjury!” back on 22 February, as described here.

Thus, as March began, the Whigs were back to enforcing non-importation and blaming the Customs service for everything bad, the town was still full of soldiers, and Ebenezer Richardson was feeling abandoned in the town jail.

TOMORROW: Many ways of looking at a brawl.

(The picture above is William Jackson’s trade card, engraved for him by Paul Revere, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. It is now on display at the Worcester Art Museum as part of the “Beyond Midnight” exhibit.)

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