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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Friday, March 20, 2020

The Misdating of William Molineux

Among the many interesting documents on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s webpage about the Boston Massacre is a letter from William Molineux, the Boston activist, to Robert Treat Paine, a lawyer practicing in Taunton.

It says:
Boston March 9 1770


Yesterday in the Forenoon the Select Men met in Order to Consider what was Necessary to be done Relative to proper Council to be Appointed to Appear in behalf of the Relatives of the Deceased, the first was Murder’d by [Ebenezer] Richardson & Afterwards others Capt. [Thomas] Preston & his Soldiers &c. By a Vote of the Town You’l Observe they are to Pay the Expense of Prosecution, of Consequence You will be by them Amply Satisfied.

It is the Opinion of the Select Men, & also those that are Suppos’d to be better Acquainted in Law Matters, that it will not be in Character for the Town to Appear against the Criminals, but the Relatives of the Deceased, by whome & in whose Name You are the Gentleman pitched Upon in their behalf, & against the said Richardson & the Capt & Soldiers.

The Bearer Mr Edwards now goes Express to desire You will be in Town the 17th Inst: to wch: day our Court is Adjourn’d & Presume Richardson’s Case will be the first that will come on, the Capt: & Soldiers will follow

The Evidences [i.e., witnesses] will be properly Arranged and Ready against You come, but in Order for Your Government (tho’ none are allow’d to be given out but under Peculiar Circumstances) & to prepare Yourself for the Tryal have sent by the Bearer a Printed Narrative of the Massacre, wth: abt: 80 Affidavits by Reading of which You will Enter into the Spirit of the thing & be fully Posses’d of Substance and Facts,

it may not be amis here to Observe that some how their has been great Deficiency in preparing Council in Time, Our Common Enemy’s (You know who they are) have Availd themselves of our Neglect, & have Engag’d most or all the Lawyers in Town, however I’m glad it falls to Your Lott to have an Opportunity of making an Eclat in so Popular a Cause, I am for my own Part Convinced of Your Readiness at all Times to Espouse your Countrys Cause, or that of Individuals, Who have Suffered by the hands of the Execrable V[illain]s & Professed Murders.

You will Please to give me a Line by the Bearer, the day you may be Expected in Town if Agreeable.

In the Interim Remain.
Your most Hble Servt
W Molineux
Molineux thus recruited Paine to be a special prosecutor for the murders of Christopher Seider and the people killed on King Street.

There’s one thing wrong with this document: the date. Now there’s no question that “March 9” is the date written at the top of the paper. The transcription is correct. But there’s no way Molineux could have composed this letter on that date.

As noted here, the Boston town meeting decided to pay for a special prosecutor on 13 March, empowering the selectmen to find the right attorney. Only after that vote and subsequent discussions (and perhaps some Boston attorneys turning down the job) would Molineux have reached out to Paine citing that vote.

At that same town meeting, Bostonians commissioned the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre report, which Molineux enclosed for Paine. The M.H.S. offers a digital look at the copy of that report which Paine consulted and took notes in.

At the end of that book is Thomas Hutchinson’s certification that all the magistrates vouching for the testimony inside were indeed magistrates. The acting governor provided that document on 30 March, so the book must have been printed and bound after that date.

To be thorough, I considered the possibility that Molineux sent Paine early page proofs of the Short Narrative, and Paine later obtained a complete copy to replace those pages. But Molineux explicitly wrote of “abt: 80 Affidavits.” Most of the depositions in the book are dated 15-19 March, well after the date on the letter.

Then there’s the question of the court coming back into session “the 17th Inst:” or the 17th of this month. Other sources tell us that the Superior Court took up criminal cases, starting with Richardson, on 17 April, not March.

Therefore, I believe that Molineux misdated this letter, writing “March” instead of “April.” Or perhaps one of his sons did. William, Jr., and John had been star pupils of Abiah Holbrook at the South Writing School. The W, M, and L in the signature don’t match the style of those letters earlier in the document, though a signature may not be enough to make a definite judgment.

Why does the dating matter? This document (now published in the Robert Treat Paine Papers as well as the website) has already misled one scholar: In Boston’s Massacre, Eric Hinderarker describes an 8 March meeting of the selectmen based on Molineux’s letter. But such a meeting must have taken place a month later. The morning of 8 March was only two and a half days after the Massacre, and the selectmen weren’t planning for a trial that quickly.

To be fair, the selectmen’s minutes don’t mention an official meeting on either date. (They did meet on 9 April, with no business specified.) Nor is there any record of them delegating the job of contacting Paine to Molineux, who held no elected office. This letter shows how involved he was in every aspect of the Boston Whigs’ activity in 1770.


SZ said...

This is really helpful; I couldn't make sense of the dating, which is why my language is so carefully imprecise when I write about the letter! I should have asked you earlier

J. L. Bell said...

I’m glad you found this helpful!

Depending on when you might have contacted me about this letter, I could have had different things to say. When I first saw the transcript years ago, I saw how it didn’t fit with my understanding of events, but I wasn’t sure what the most likely explanation was. Was the transcription mistaken? No, when I saw the digitized document, that theory was obviously out the window. Were there secret meetings? Duplicate documents? Finally I had to let go of a fundamental historiographical data point—the date on the letter—before everything else snapped into place.

Ben Carp of Brooklyn College recently wrote on Twitter about a similar situation involving a document published in the Warren-Adams Letters. Pauline Maier had cited that letter a couple of times. Her footnotes reveal how she saw something wrong with its timing and was struggling to find the right way to reconcile all the evidence. In that case, Ben spotted that the problem wasn’t the date but the attribution.

Charles Bahne said...

How many times have any of us written checks with the wrong year? It's a problem that continues today. I've done historical research in other eras -- say the late 19th/early 20th centuries -- and discovered that a source was dated incorrectly, or that the date had been transcribed incorrectly by an earlier copyist.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I can think of letters or diary entries that are misdated, based on internal evidence. Usually it’s the number, as on checks at the beginning of the year. This is a rare example of someone spelling out the month wrong.

Or is it rare? Does this happen more often than we realize, and we just don’t have the clues to recognize the mistake?