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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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Robert Treat Paine Loses His Purse

Last week at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I spent some time perusing the third volume of The Papers of Robert Treat Paine, published last year. Paine, a lawyer from Taunton, was one of Massachusetts's delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Returning to Massachusetts in the winter of 1774-75, Paine left behind a delicate task for Stephen Collins, a Quaker merchant born in Lynn with whom he often dined while in Philadelphia. Collins wrote to Paine about his progress, or lack of it, in a letter dated 14 January 1775. To understand the problem he was trying to solve, we have to know that "vault" meant not the back part of a bank but the lower part of an outhouse. (I've added paragraph breaks to make this passage easier to read online.)

Esteemed Friend, Soon after thy departure from this City, I called on, and sent to that Man whoe attempted gitting thy Purs out of the Vault, and endeavoured to prevail with him to make a further Tryal, which on the whole he absolutly refus’d, and declair’d he would have nothing more to do with it, and pretends he was not well treated in the first attempt.

I told him his now refusing to to any thing more at it might create a suspicion that he allready got it, at which he was very outragious and went directly off, and have not seene him since.

I made Inquiry for some other suteable person for that purpose, but could find nothing incouraging, and therefore thought best to wate thy coming here in may next, when thou will have an opportunity of Judging whether it is worth another tryal or not.

To me it seems very doubtfull.

On 25 February, Paine wrote back:
I am much obliged to you for the Care of my purse; I wish our endeavours to recover it had succeeded, for the scituation of our public affairs, makes Cash very scarce, as well as much wanted; respecting any suspicion that the Goldfinders have got it, perhaps an enquiry of their circumstances since the affair might be serviceable, at least so far as to know if it were worth while to try again.
Note that neither gentleman suggested that he might have a look himself.


Robert Sulentic said...

Haw! Now that's a curious bit of history.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, little anecdotes like this make those dour, white-wigged men more human, I find. As I recall, a few weeks before Paine lost his purse, over in England Lord North was held up on the highway. (Sometime in the first week of October.) So all these guys who thought they were steering the world were also struggling to keep hold of their own money.

Paine's remark about how he missed the gold because cash was "very scarce" also offers insight into how the shutdown of trade and the courts in Massachusetts was causing him hardships. So there is a touch of greater significance in this anecdote as well.