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, March 14, 2020

When Mr. Molineux Visited Charles Bourgate in Jail

When we left Charles Bourgate, 250 years ago, the young French servant was locked up in the Boston jail for “profane Swearing.”

Charles had told shopkeeper Elizabeth Waldron that he and his master had shot guns out of the Customs House at the crowd on the night of 5 March, thus participating in the Boston Massacre.

But when magistrate Edmund Quincy summoned Charles to tell his story under oath, the French boy denied everything. And vehemently enough, it appears, that Justice Quincy sent him to the jail.

William Molineux, the merchant and Whig organizer, then got involved. As the 18 Mar 1771 Boston Gazette recounted the situation:
Mr. Molineux hearing of this, and like a good citizen, being anxious, if there was any truth in what the boy had related, that it might be brought to light, desired it as a favour, of Mrs. Waldron, that he might see them together; with which she readily comply’d, and they both went up to the prison-house, where they had conversation with the boy…
This conversation became a legal issue later, so Molineux asked multiple people to testify about that encounter before Justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton on 15 Mar 1771. Those sworn witnesses included:
  • Joseph Otis, “keeper of the Goal”
  • Bathsheba Hyland, who “was present ironing of clothes in the parlour of Mr. Otis”
  • Lindsey George Wallis, deputy sheriff, dropping in on business
In addition, Marcy Otis, the jailer’s wife, stated for the newspaper that she was there and offered to leave her front room along with Hyland to do their ironing elsewhere, but “Mr. Molineux desired that I would not go out.”

All those witnesses declared that Molineux had told young Charles “to declare nothing but the truth,” that “there was no offer of bribery or anything like it.” Nonetheless, it was probably easy for the imprisoned boy to discern what Molineux wanted to hear.

During that conversation, with the ironing board standing nearby, Charles Bourgate reversed himself again. Everything he had told Mrs. Waldron was true, he now said; “he had deny’d it before the justice, because his master, [Edward] Manwaring, had whip’d him severely for reporting it, and had threatened to kill him if he repeated it.”

Molineux asked Justice Quincy to come to the jail for another hearing on the “Saturday evening next after the Massacre,” or 10 March. Among the other people present was Thomas Chase, the South End distiller and member of the original Loyall Nine. Everyone told the French boy once again to be truthful. Chase stated, “the Boy then in the most full and explicit manner, declared before said Justice, that both he and his master did fire out of the Custom-House window.”

The Monday issue of Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette, dated 13 March and marked with the black bands of mourning, broke the news to readers in a supplement:
A Servant Boy of one Manwaring the Tide-waiter from Quebec is now in Goal, having deposed that himself, by the Order and Encouragement of his Superiors had discharged a Musket several Times from one of the Windows of the House in King-Street, hired by the Commissioners and Custom House Officers to do their Business in; more than one other Person swore upon Oath, that they apprehended several Discharges came from that Quarter.—

It is not improbable that we may soon be able to account for the Assassination of Mr. [James] Otis some Time past; the Message by [George] Wilmot, who came from the same House to the infamous [Ebenezer] Richardson before his firing the Gun which kill’d young [Christopher] Snider, and to open up such a Scene of Villainy acted by a dirty Banditti, as must astonish the Public.
The Boston Whigs were about to break the murderous Customs House conspiracy wide open!

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