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, November 20, 2020

The Second Mobbing of Jesse Saville

After a Gloucester crowd attacked Samuel Fellows and Jesse Saville in September 1768, both men went to work for His Majesty’s Customs Service.

The Customs Commissioners were expanding their force, to collect and to use Townshend Act revenue, and steady incomes were a way to reward or compensate people who had suffered for the Crown.

Fellows became the commander of a ship that patrolled for smugglers off Cape Ann. I suspect that ship was the Earl of Gloucester, which the Customs service had seized from his former employer, David Plumer, based on his tip. The Commissioners of Customs used John Hancock’s ship Liberty the same way (until people in Newport burned it, of course).

As for Saville, the Customs service appointed him as a tide-waiter in Providence, Rhode Island. That work probably took him away from his family. On the other hand, it got him out of reach of his enemies.

But Providence soon brought Saville more enemies. (Or people or rumors might have followed him from Gloucester.) The 10 June 1769 Providence Gazette ran this legal notice:
Custom-House, Boston, June 2, 1769.

WHEREAS on the 18th of May last, in the Evening, a great Number of People riotously assembled in the Town of Providence, in the Colony of Rhode-Island, and violently seized Jesse Saville, a Tidesman belonging to the Custom-House of the said Port, who was then attending his Duty there, and having gagged and put him into a Wheelbarrow, almost strangled, they carried him to a Wharff, where they threatened to drown him if he made the least Noise; tied a Handkerchief round his Face, cut his Clothes to Pieces, stripped him naked, covered him from Head to Foot with Turpentine and Feathers, bound him Hands and Feet, threw Dirt in his Face, and repeatedly beat him with their Fists and Sticks, then threw him down on the Pavements, cut his Face, and bruised his Body, in a most barbarous Manner; during which inhuman Treatment, which lasted an Hour and a Half, he was near expiring, and now lies dangerously ill.

For the better bringing to Justice and condign Punishment the Authors of this daring and attrocious Outrage, the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs do hereby promise a Reward of Fifty Pounds Sterling for the Discovery of any of them, to be paid upon his or their Conviction.

By Order of the Commissioners,
Richard Reeve.
This ad was reprinted in the 19 June Boston Evening-Post and the 20 June Essex Gazette, but as a news item, not a paid advertisement.

The 24 June Providence Gazette offered a different response as a letter to printer John Carter:
I Observe in one of your late Papers as Advertisement inserted by Order of the Commissioners of the Customs, offering a Reward of Fifty Pounds Sterling for discovering the Persons who ill treated one Jesse Saville, a Tidesman, on the Evening of the 18th of May, then doing Duty in the Town of Providence, &c.

How the Board came by their Information I know not, but of this I am certain, that their Informant paid little Regard to Truth, the greatest Part of the Narrative being false and groundless. He was neither struck with a Fist or Stick, nor thrown on the Pavements, as the Advertisement sets forth, neither was he on Duty as an Officer when taken. The Affair was not intended to obstruct him in his Duty, or deter other Officers in the Execution of their Trust, so long as they keep within proper Bounds.

The Truth is, he was daubed with Turpentine, and had a few Feathers strewed on him; in but every near Respect was treated with more Tenderness and Lenity than is perhaps due to an Informer.

As the above mentioned Advertisement seems evidently calculated to call an Odium on the Town, by inserting his public Testimony against it you’ll oblige
A SPECTATOR.
Now even if we assume the truth of what happened lay somewhere between these two descriptions, it’s clear that a second crowd had tried violently to make a public example of Jesse Saville.

TOMORROW: Back home in Gloucester.

[The picture above is a detail from a drop curtain in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society that shows Providence in 1808.]

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

In a study of the later Gaspee incident, Lawrence Joseph DeVaro, Jr., has suggested that Saville was indeed not “on Duty as an Officer when taken,” and that was the problem.

Tide-waiters were supposed to search ships only within certain bounds of time and space. As also happened in the events leading up to the Liberty riot in Boston, sailors may have spotted Saville snooping around unauthorized and therefore felt justified in attacking him. And since he wasn’t searching according to the definition of his job, the “SPECTATOR” might be arguing, he wasn’t “on Duty as an officer.”