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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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

“I also Seized the schooner, and her appertunances”

As recounted yesterday, on the afternoon of 18 May 1770, Customs service land waiters Owen Richards and John Woart spotted a schooner being unloaded on Greene’s Wharf. They went over to that ship, the Martin, and found Capt. Silvanus Higgins in charge.

Inviting the Customs men into his cabin, Higgins showed them his official papers. Richards, the more experienced of the Customs men, said he suspected the ship was carrying more cargo than that. Higgins offered punch and a friendly bribe. Refusing, Richards and Woart searched the forehold and discovered many containers of undeclared sugar.

“Mr. Richards then asked me for a piece of Chalk,” Woart stated. Richards started marking the barrels and kegs with an upward-pointing arrow—the sign of royal property. “I seized as many Casks as I could come att,” he wrote; “then we both went on Deck, and I also Seized the schooner, and her appertunances, for a breach of the Acts of Trade.”

Leaving Woart on board, Richards reported everything to William Sheaffe, Deputy Collector of the Port of Boston. Sheaffe went through the legal ritual of seizing the Martin again, then “ordered Mr. Woart to go to the tide Surveyor, and desire him to send Two more tidesmen onboard.” Josiah King and Joshua Dutton arrived. That evening, between 6:00 and 7:00, “the schooner was transported to Mr. [James] Pitts Wharf at the town dock.”

The Customs office now had the Martin both legally and physically. Capt. Higgins and his crew were about to lose all their goods and their vessel. Those men hailed from New London, Connecticut, but they turned out to have support on the Boston waterfront—particularly now that there were no soldiers patrolling the town.

Richards described what happened next:
between seven & Eight OClock I went to my house to bring my great Coat—a little after Nine as I was Returning onboard, near the draw Bridge I was Violently assaulted in the Street by a great Number of disorderly men & Boys & Negroes, also, with Clubs & Sticks, Crying out, and Informer, an Informer; Repeating the word Informer continually.
That was the same term Bostonians used for Ebenezer Richardson, convicted the month before of murdering a child. Richardson had actually started out as a secret informer, but Richards had been working openly for the royal government.

I must note that thirteen years later, when applying for compensation from the Loyalists Commission, Richards testified that “a Tumultuous Mob of near 2000…came to your Petitioners House, Broke his Windows, and distroyed his Furniture.” That wasn’t how he described the attack immediately afterwards—but the British government was compensating Loyalists for lost property, and it was easier to put a money figure on that than on suffering.

Richards’s 1770 account continued:
they set upon me furiously, and I defended myself, as long as I could, with my Stick, but being at last overpower’d, by numbers of murdering Villains, they beat me out of measure, and Halled and Dragged me thro’ the Streets, and being intirely overcome, and faint, thro’ loss of blood, and my Sense quite gone, I could make no more resistance.

they then gott a Cart and dragged me into it, in a barbarous manner, and Carried me into King’s Street, and there right against the Custom House, in a Most Cruel & Violent manner, they Robb’d me of my Hatt, Wigg & Coat, waistcoat & Shirt, and stripped me naked down to my breeches, they poured Tarr on my head, and tarr’d my body all over, and then putt feathers thereon, repeating an Informer:
This was the second tar-and-feathers attack in Boston, following the October 1769 assault on George Gailer, another man who worked for the Customs service. And it wasn’t over yet.

TOMORROW: Coming for the rest.

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