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, March 18, 2020

“Otis got into a mad freak to-night”

With everything else going on in Boston in the wake of the Boston Massacre, I don’t want to lose track of James Otis’s mental state.

In early September 1769, Otis was speaking extravagantly, monopolizing conversation, and annoying even his fan John Adams. Then he got into a coffee-house fight with royal appointee John Robinson, suffering a severe blow on the head. The following month, Adams wrote rather favorably of the result.

But early in the new year, Otis went into another manic period. Adams wrote in his diary on 16 Jan 1770:
Last Evening at Dr. Peckers with the Clubb.—Otis is in Confusion yet. He looses himself. He rambles and wanders like a Ship without an Helm. Attempted to tell a Story which took up almost all the Evening. The Story may at any Time be told in 3 minutes with all the Graces it is capable of, but he took an Hour.

I fear he is not in his perfect Mind. The Nervous, Concise, and pithy were his Character, till lately. Now the verbose, roundabout and rambling, and long winded. He once said He hoped he should never see T[homas].H[utchinson]. in Heaven. Dan. Waldo took offence at it, and made a serious Affair of it, said Otis very often bordered upon Prophaneness, if he was not strictly profane. Otis said, if he did see H. there he hoped it would be behind the Door.—In my fathers House are many Mansions, some more and some less honourable.

In one Word, Otis will spoil the Clubb. He talkes so much and takes up so much of our Time, and fills it with Trash, Obsceneness, Profaneness, Nonsense and Distraction, that We have no [time] left for rational Amusements or Enquiries.

He mentioned his Wife—said she was a good Wife, too good for him—but she was a tory, an high Tory. She gave him such Curtain Lectures, &c.

In short, I never saw such an Object of Admiration, Reverence, Contempt and Compassion all at once as this. I fear, I tremble, I mourn for the Man, and for his Country. Many others mourne over him with Tears in their Eyes.
The turmoil in Boston after the Massacre appears to have riled Otis more. On 16 March, the merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary: “Mr. Otis got into a mad freak to-night, and broke a great many windows in the Town House.”

At the time, Otis was still officially one of Boston’s representatives to the House of Representatives that met in that building. Obviously, he was in no condition to remain in that seat.

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