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, December 23, 2020

“Found me in the Hold of the Vessel where I had hid”

As recounted yesterday, shortly after nine o’clock on the evening of 18 May 1770, a crowd seized Customs land waiter Owen Richards as he was returning to a schooner he had seized for smuggling that afternoon.

The attackers ripped off Richards’s hat, wig, and at least most of his clothing and covered him with tar and feathers. The Customs man’s report continued:
in this barborous, Cruel & Inhuman manner they carted me thro’ all the Streets in Boston. they also fix’d a paper on my breast, with Capital Letters thereon, but cannot Recollect what it contained—

so after, so much cruel usage. and being so Long naked, it being to the best of my Knowledge, from 10 OClock in the Evening, till Two in the Morning. I gott away at last by the Help of some friends, from my merciless, and bitter Enemies, which happned before Capt. John Homers door, at Bartons point; whilst that another party of the same mob were contending what they should with John Woart; whom they had, in a Riotous manner, brought there, in order to serve him as I had been served as I had been served—

in fine [i.e., finally] I gott to my house, by the Assistance of God, and some friends, where my Wife and Children with unspeakable Grief, and astonishment, beheld me in that Horrible Condition—
Again, Richards later described this attack with more dire details. A court filing in January 1771 stated he “lost his Cloaths, Money, and Papers to the Amount of near £20 st[erling]. And in order to satiate their abandoned Brutality, they set fire to the Feathers as they stuck in the Tar, upon his naked back.”

Richards’s petition to the Loyalists Commission in 1782 said the crowd “set the Feathers on Fire on his Back, and fixed a Rope round his Neck. In this Position they Exposed him around the Town for seven Hours untill he was just expiring.” Back in the month it happened, he estimated the ordeal as four hours long.

Meanwhile, Richards’s original statement said, parts of the crowd went after his partner in the Customs service the same way. John Woart stated:
Soon after Dark Seven or Eight People with Clubs came alongside the Schooner & enquired for Mr. Richards & me, they were told by the Master & mate that Mr. Richards was dismist from that Vessel, & put on board another & that I was not on board, they went away, & about half an hour after, about a Dozen came, & made the same Enquiry, they were told as before, that Mr. Richards was dismist from that Vessel soon after Dinner, & that I was not on board

about 12 or 1 oClock, there came a great number of People & demanded me from on board, the Captain still telling them I was not there, they swore I was on board & were determined to have me, Mr. Richards (they said) having told them that I was on board & durst not leave the Vessel; they immediately got a Candle & came on board to search for me, & found me in the Hold of the Vessel where I had hid myself.

They then took me & carried me up to New Boston where there was a Cart with Mr. Richards in it. they asked Mr. Richards if I was the Man, he told that I was his Partner, & a Partner concerned, they were then going to hoist me into the Cart, but by my strugling & the Assistance of some of the Standers by I got away from them, & went to my own house & received no further Molestation
Barton’s Point, as shown in the map detail above, was a sparsely populated part of the Boston peninsula in West (or New) Boston that stuck out into the Charles River. It didn’t have the political significance as Liberty Tree or the government buildings near the center of town. That seclusion, plus the interference of passersby, suggests that this mob wasn’t exercising as much popular will as some other mobs had.

Two other Customs men were back on the confiscated schooner Martin, Josiah King and Joshua Dutton. They reported the same story to their superiors. This is Dutton’s wording:
I was ordered by Mr. [William] Sheaffe on board the Schooner Martin Silvanus Higgins Master from New London & continued walking on Deck of said Vessel untill 11 oClock at Night when a great number of People came on board said Schooner.

Capt. Higgins on seeing the People collecting, advised Mr. King and myself to go down into the Cabbin, and as we apprehended it not safe for us to tarry there, We accordingly went down accompanied by him soon after we got down, the Companion Doors was shutt by the People above, & we heard a great noise of People on the Deck, Knocking with Sticks, or Clubs.

We tarried shutt up in the Cabbin untill about three oClock in the morning when the Noise in some measure ceased & several People came in the Cabbin & satt Drinking there for about half an hour when they went away & all was quiet.
Back in 1768, Customs employee Thomas Kirk testified that a captain and crew locked him below decks and then emptied out their ship. That doesn’t seem to have happened with the Martin, however. It’s possible the Customs office had already hauled its undeclared sugar away.

TOMORROW: The legal fallout.

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