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, February 27, 2007

John Piemont: wigmaker, tavern-keeper, assailant?

John Piemont was born in 1717 or so. He was later referred to as “a Frenchman,” so he probably came to Boston from France or French Canada. I can’t find anything else about Piemont’s life before late 1759, when he advertised in the Boston News-Letter that he was working out of Peter Smith’s house on Union Street. In any event, his trail grows clearer at the end of that year.

On 20 Oct 1762, John Piemont married Hannah Crosby (born in Jan 1739) at Christ Church (now called Old North). They had four children baptized at King’s Chapel: Hannah (1763), John (1766), Elizabeth Murray (1767), and Thomas (1769). In Feb 1766, the couple also sponsored the baptism of John’s apprentice Thomas Allen.

In the 1760s Piemont established himself as a wigmaker on King Street in Boston, one of the town’s busiest streets. In 1767, for example, he sold a bag wig to James Bowdoin, one of the town’s leading merchants and Whigs, but he also served Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, leader of the court party. In the summer of 1766, Dr. Joseph Warren visited Piemont’s home twice and sold him medicine for a “Servt.,” which was colonial Boston’s usual euphemism for a slave. In 1769, Piemont sold tickets for a fireworks artist and hosted a confectioner—both these men had French names, so he may have been helping out his countrymen.

That same year, according to Pvt. John Timmons of the 29th regiment, Piemont participated in an assault on him. On 28 July 1770, Pvt. Timmons swore to this deposition before the chief justice of New Jersey:

That on the Fourteenth June, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty Nine, he had the Main Guard [i.e., was on sentry duty] in Boston, and between the Hours of Nine and Ten O’Clock at Night, was Knocked down in the Street, by the Blow of a Stone, or Brickbatt, as this Deponant Supposes, and after he Recover’d Himself, he heard a Woman shout Murder, & said the Rogues that struck this Deponant was gone up that way, Pointing towards the South Meeting House, upon which word she was pushed down, and Damn’d for a whore to Keep Silance,

this Deponant then persued according to her Directions, and turning the Corner of the Meeting House, was met by three persons armed with Clubs, who Gave this Deponant a blow on the Forehead, which Knocked him down and Cut him very much, that on this Deponant attempting to rise to Defend himself, they Gave this Deponant another most Desperate Cut on the head, which Rendered this Deponant incapable of helping Himself, and Quite Sensless, they afterwards most Terably Kicked this Deponant, and Dragged him along the Streets but hearing the Main Guard was coming, they left this Deponant for Dead, upon which one Mr. Winslow an Inhabitant, ordered this Deponant to be carried into a House, and Sent for the Docter of the Fourteenth Regiment, who Dressed this Deponant’s wounds, and with a great Deal of Difficulty stopt the Blood,

The Docter at the Same time Asked Mr. Winslow, if those Villians could not be found out, Mr. Winslow told the Doctor, they should be found out, and the Next Morning Mr. Winslow and Mr. [Harrison] Gray (Provincial Treasurer) informed this Deponent of three of the Men they knew, which were John Reed, Josiah Davis, & John Paymount all three Wigmakers and Inhabitants of Boston, and advised this Deponant, to take the Civil law of them, upon which this Deponant applyed to Justice [Edmund] Quincey, when after informing him of the abuse Received, the said Justice advised this Deponant to drop it, if the said Reed, Davis and Paymount would make the Deponant any Restitution, telling this Deponant, it would put Him to more expense then he could afford saying they might postpone it from Court, to Court, upon which this Deponant Imagined the Said Justice Mean’d to baffle him, and insisted for a Warrant, which the said Justice Refused at that time, telling this Deponant he had too Much business in hand, and Desired this Deponant to Come in the Evening, which he accordingly did,

The Said Justice then advised this Deponant to make it up, and said he would send for Mr. Davis, to whome he had Given a Warrant against this Deponant, after this Deponant had left his, the Said Justices House in the Morning, Which this Deponant Refused. Desireing the Said Justice again to Grant a Warrant, which the Chief Justice Refused a Second time, on pretence of Business, Upon which this Deponant, apply’d to two other Magistrates Justice Deney [Francis Dana?] & Justice [John] Hill who both put this Deponant off with Excuses of the same Nature, nor could this Deponant Gett any Satisfaction, for the Injury he had Received, and further Saith not.
There were many brawls like this between soldiers and locals in 1768 and 1769. Some Boston magistrates, including Quincy, Dana, and Hill, did discourage British soldiers from taking legal action after these fights, and put obstacles in their way. Crown authorities took Pvt. Timmons’s deposition, along with scores of others, in mid-1770 in order to document how badly Boston had treated those soldiers.

However, the notion of Piemont assaulting a soldier like this doesn’t add up for me. It seems a bit extreme for a fifty-two-year-old man. It also seems odd that Winslow and Gray were able to track down the soldier’s mysterious assailants overnight. In fact, I can’t track down wigmakers named John Reed and Josiah Davis at all.

Most important, this assault doesn’t fit with how we know Piemont was running his wigmaking business in 1769-70. Not only did he serve royal officials and British army officers, but in March 1770 he was employing Pvt. Patrick Dines of the 29th regiment. Soldiers were allowed to moonlight in order to earn extra cash; this produced some resentment among local workers, but employers like Piemont probably liked a larger labor pool.

Furthermore, within five years Massachusetts Patriots were whispering that Piemont was a Tory. In June 1773, he announced that he was quitting the wigmaking business and moving to Danvers, where he opened a tavern. John Adams stayed there in June 1774. Three days after the Revolutionary War began, a committee from Danvers put the following certificate in the Essex Gazette:
This may certify, That about two years ago Mr. John Piemont came to dwell in the Town of Danvers, and was well recommended by the Selectmen of the Town of Boston, and though some Persons have called him a Tory, to his great Damage, yet we as a Committee of Inspection for the Town of Danvers, have carefully examined into Mr. Piemont’s character, and are fully satisfied that he is a friend to us in the common cause of our country, and we hope all our friends will treat him as such, and call upon him for Entertainment, as he keeps a large public House in said Danvers.
People in Salem probably whispered about Piemont’s loyalties because he was a stranger to town, a foreigner, and an Anglican. But if he’d been such a fervent Whig as to attack a soldier on duty, why did neighbors have any doubt about his politics?

Of course, the historical record is full of holes. I can imagine reasons why Piemont might have attacked Pvt. Timmons in 1769 yet employed Pvt. Dines in 1770. But I must also entertain another reason why Timmons named Piemont as his assailant.

Pvt. Timmons knew that his superiors were gathering depositions as a response to the Boston Massacre of March 1770. And, as I’ll discuss later this week, apprentices from Piemont’s shop helped to instigate that event. [Yes, you thought this was yet another post about wigs, but it’s actually about the Massacre.] So Timmons might have thought that his superiors would be pleased with information that could exonerate his companions back in Boston—such as a tale of a violent barber.

As for Piemont, he was still in Danvers in 1776 when he billed the new state for “supplies to the provincial army.” In 1783 he was keeping an inn in Ipswich, and lost his barn and one cow in a fire; the next year, he assured customers that he could once again stable their horses. By 1789, according to Boston’s first business directory, John Piemont was back in Boston. Indeed, he was back on King Street, now renamed State Street. He was retailing liquor that year, and in October 1791 he took over the Eastern Coffee House (again advertising “Good Stabling for Horses”).

John Piemont died in Boston on 15 Sept 1802, aged 85. The Columbian Centinel said that he would be buried out of his home on Ann Street, and “the Brethren of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Masons (of which he has been an able and eminent Member) are invited to attend.” His wife and all four children survived him.


Anonymous said...

Was he, perhaps, a transplanted Acadian? The time period is right, and as you know numbers of dispossessed families from Acadia were settled in Massachusetts. Andover, the eastern Massachusetts community whose history is most familiar to me, had the "Bear" and "Laundry" families whose names were twisted anglicizations of French ones.

J. L. Bell said...

Acadian is a possibility, but according to its 1765 census Boston contained no "French neutrals," which was the usual legal label for Acadians. Also, the fact that Piemont was in the luxury profession of peruke-maker makes it less likely that he had trained in an outpost like Acadie.

Another possibility is that he was of Huguenot descent, like James Bowdoin, Paul Revere, Peter Faneuil, and other prominent Bostonians. But most of those families had arrived generations earlier.

Newspaper advertisements, like this one from Salem, show that hairdressers were arriving in Massachusetts from Europe, particularly France, in the pre-Revolutionary period. So despite the enmity between the British and French Empires through most of the 1700s, there was an opportunity for French hairdressers in the British colonies.

And finally, he might have come from a French colony in the Caribbean. Those colonies did produce enough wealth to make a luxury trade conceivable.

Unknown said...

Is there any possibility that John Piemont's sons Thomas and John could have moved to Virginia?

J. L. Bell said...

It’s possible. One John Piemont—I assume the father—remained in Boston after the war and became a member of the town’s first Catholic church. But I haven’t tried tracking the family.

If that man trained his sons in barbering, then they had professional skills they could transfer to other genteel towns. On the other hand, the wigmaking business got badly squeezed when fashions changed by the end of the 1700s. Piemont’s apprentice Bartholomew Broaders went into general retail after the war, as did another barber’s apprentice, Ebenezer Fox.

The name Piemont is often rendered as Paymount or other variations in Boston, if that helps.

Chris Cowan said...

I would dearly like to see a copy of Boston's First Business Directory. Can you supply a reference?

J. L. Bell said...

Here’s a reprint edition from Google Books. Enjoy!