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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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Skimmington ride leads to death in 1764

One aspect of life in colonial America that we now find unsavory is "rough justice": communities meting out physical punishment and embarrassment on individuals viewed as sinful or disruptive. Another term for this combination of pain and shame at the hands of one's neighbors was a "skimmington ride," a term explored in detail at Michael Quinion's excellent World Wide Words site. As depicted in the plaster frieze illustrated there, a skimmington ride often included being "ridden on a wooden horse," a most painful experience for men. (That custom's also the source of our phrase "ridden out of town on a rail.") Prof. William Pencak discusses these traditions in his introduction to the anthology Riot and Revelry in Early America.

Here's an account of "rough music" from the Boston Post-Boy, 5 Nov 1764. The original is all one paragraph; in deference to ease of reading on the web, I've broken up the text wherever a period and em-dash denoted the ends of full sentences:

Since our last we have receiv’d the following more circumstantial Account of the Affair at Attleborough, viz One Jonathan Shepherdson, jun. of said place, being suspected of having an unlawful correspondence with a young woman who he had for some time entertained in his house, tho’ a married man; a number of men who lived near him, and were acquainted with his way of life, formed a resolution of punishing him for his domestic misdemeanors; and as the most suitable method to render his behaviour contemptible, they concluded to mount him upon a wooden horse, and ride him Skimmington, as a mark of indignity: They accordingly assembled for that purpose about ten days ago, disguis’d in such a manner as to prevent a discovery, but Shepherdson being resolutely bent on defence, and charging his gun with a design to shoot any who should dare to molest him, they tho’t proper to desist from their enterprize, till a more convenient opportunity.

The party being considerably augmented, they renewed their attempt, which gave birth to the melancholy consequences which followed: for on Monday the 22d ult. about sun-rise Shepherdson went into a pasture not far from his house, in order to drive home his cows, but not finding them readily, took up an arm full of wood, to carry back to his house, and returning thither, was suddenly rush’d upon and surrounded by a party of between thirty and forty men, with their faces black’d and otherways disfigured, who had concealed themselves there for effecting the scheme that had been premeditated.

A warm dispute immediately arose, and Shepherdson, still determined to defend himself, drew a long sharp knife from a sheath he had fixed in the inside of his coat, and warn’d them on their peril to keep their distance; but all this was unregarded, and in a few minutes one Benjamin Hyde, jun. advanced and seized upon him, followed by several others, when Shepherdson instantly cut him across one of his arms to the bone, and then, when clench’d together, gave the knife a violent thrust into his side, which enter’d his kidneys; this obliged him to quit his hold, and he retreated a few rods distance, into the highway, where he expired in less than fifteen minutes, without being able to speak but a few words, (which he did to a person who happened to be there present) signifying who had done the fatal deed.

Another of the company, who attempted to assist Hyde, received a bad cut, and a third came up and swore he would lose his life but he would take away the bloody weapon, and being a stout fellow, he actually got it away, but was so terribly wounded in the contest that his life is despaired of.

The whole mischief was done, in a manner, instantaneously, and did not admit of a prevention from the riotous company, who, perhaps, not dreading any bad consequences, were exulting on the prospect of gratifying their resentment; for regardless of the wounded men, it appears they persisted in their first designs, and seized Shepherdson, and carried him some distance on a rail, ‘till the sad tidings of Hyde’s death reached them, which greatly intimidated them, and they immediately dispers’d and fled, lest a discovery who they were should involve them in the difficulties their conduct had subjected them to.

Shepherdson being now left at liberty, judg’d it the most prudent measure to repair to a magistrate and surrender himself, which he did accordingly.

A jury of inquest was summon’d on the body of the deceased, who brought in a verdict, "That Benjamin Hyde, jun. was slain by Jonathan Shepherdson, jun. after a violent manner." Shepherdson is committed to Taunton gaol.

The deceased was about 36 years of age, had a wife and several children, and was esteem’d a person of an irreproachable life.
Genealogy sites of uncertain certainty indicate that Shepherdson was around thirty years old himself.

On 12 November, the Newport Mercury published a letter from Taunton, dated 1 November, that tried to draw a lesson from this case:
'Tis to be hoped the sorrowful Occurrence which happened at Attleborough, as lately mentioned, and for which Mr. Sheppardson is now confined here, will put a Check to such lawless and outrageous Proceedings, which have of late been very frequent in this Part of the Country, considering not only that it is the grossest violation of civil Society to punish any Person unheard [i.e., untried], but also fatal Disasters may attend the Perpetration of them. If those Persons who Indignation is so kindled, would take half the Pains to observe their Neighbours bad Conduct, as they do to punish it, at the Expence of public Peace, they might furnish the Authority with sufficient Evidence for a Conviction, by which they would serve the Public, gratify their own Resentments, and at the same Time be free from the fatal Disasters and legal Punishments that attend Skimmington Rioters.
The letter-writer was trying to replace community justice with the rule of law. "Rough music" traditions would gain political meaning in the years that followed, however: processions of effigies of Crown officials and carts bearing tar-and-feather victims have their roots in skimmington rides.

I haven't found newspaper accounts of what happened to Jonathan Shepherdson, Jr., when his case came to trial. Although local public opinion reviled him as an adulterer, legal precedents gave him lots of leeway to defend himself against disguised men surrounding him in or near his house in dim light.

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