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, April 24, 2007

Hanged by the Neck on the Neck

Spring, or possibly even summer, has finally arrived in Boston, and yesterday was lovely for walking around the city, visiting the Old State House for discussions and lectures on the city’s Revolutionary past. More about the museum’s “Liberty Tree Flag” later in the week.

In the morning Jane Kamensky of Brandeis asked me “a Boston 1775 question”: Where were Boston’s gallows in that period? Specifically, were people hanged inside or outside the town proper?

The 1769 map of Boston shows the gallows on the Neck leading from the town to the rest of the province, just outside the fortified gates on the east side of the road. But that map was based on a copperplate engraved decades before, and it was impossible for the reprinter to correct it, so he just left the gallows where they were.

According to Annie Haven Thwing’s Crooked and Narrow Streets of Boston, Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf had erected a new set of gallows on the Neck in 1765. These were on the west side of the road, “on a little rising spot of ground, and beyond the clay pond.” Either way, the gallows were “beyond the pale” that defined the inhabited part of Boston. You had to leave town to be executed.

In the pre-Revolutionary period, the gallows seem to have been used for more symbolic executions than actual ones. In 1764 merchant John Rowe reported in his diary that at the end of a fatal Pope Night the “South End people got the Battle (many were hurt & and bruised on both sides) & burnt Both of them [i.e., both sides’ effigies] at the Gallows on the Neck. Several thousand people following them, hallowing & c.”

According to shoemaker George R. T. Hewes in A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, an angry 1774 seized a Customs official who had attacked Hewes, tarred and feathered him, whipped him through town to the gallows on the Neck, whipped him another 39 times, “and then, after putting one end of a rope about his neck, and throwing the other end over the gallows, told him to remember he had come within one of being hanged.”

Richard Frothingham’s Life and Times of Joseph Warren offers this anecdote about the doctor and Patriot organizer, presumably from 1774-75:

One day he was passing the place at the Neck where the gallows stood, and met three [British army] officers, one of whom insultingly said, “Go on, Warren: you will soon come to the gallows.” Warren turned, walked up to the officers, and calmly asked who it was that uttered these words, but received no reply.
That story came from James Spear Loring’s The Hundred Boston Orators, who credited Warren’s nephew Dr. John Collins Warren.

Perhaps more reliable because it doesn’t even pretend to be true is this joke from “the Gleaner,” a pseudonym Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch used for his newspaper writings in the mid-1800s:
Two friends riding into town, one of whom, looking at the gallows said jocosely, “Where would you be now if everybody had their deserts?”

And the reply was, “I should be riding into town alone.”

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