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, March 11, 2008

Dr. Samuel Gelston in and out of Custody

I’m finally getting back to Dr. Samuel Gelston from Nantucket, and how he went from being a respected smallpox inoculator before the war to a prisoner under the Massachusetts General Court.

According to Fred B. Rogers’s article in the 1972 Journal of History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, quoted on David Kew’s Cape Cod History, the friction started in Nov 1775 when H.M.S. Swan anchored off Nantucket. Its captain, James Ayscough, had a good reputation in Rhode Island before the war. He, his wife, and his crew were welcomed by at least some Nantucketers, who didn’t share the mainlanders’ enthusiasm for rebellion. On the 16th, Shubael Lovell (1740-1805) of Barnstable sent the captain a letter saying: “Pray, sir, be pleased to accept a few vegetables, to be delivered to you by Doctor Gelston, a bold and staunch friend to Government...” That letter seems to have been intercepted by Patriots.

On 12 December, after the Swan had left the Nantucket harbor, N. Freeman wrote to Gen. George Washington:

This Shubael, though he appears an ignorant fellow, hath considerable influence among the Barnstable Tories, hath practised coasting [i.e., sailing along the coast] to Nantucket the summer past, and I have no doubt hath communicated every thing of intelligence to the navy, if not frequently supplied them with provisions.

Doctor Gelston, to whom he alludes in his letter, we have taken a number of depositions of his having supplied them considerably from Nantucket. He swears he will do it in defiance of the people, and threatens communicating the small-pox to any one who resists him. I wish he was taken, but cannot get any one, as yet, to join me in sending on for him.
Maj. Joseph Dimmick, commander of Falmouth’s minuteman company, took on that task. He sailed to Nantucket on 30 December, arrested Dr. Gelston, and brought him back to the jail at Plymouth. Shubael Lovell was already there.

The legislature then had to decide what to do with the physician. On 16 Jan 1776, a committee composed of members of both the House and the Council concluded that he had “supplied the enemies of American liberties with sundry articles of provision“ and was “a dangerous person.” It recommended that the General Court make the doctor post a bond of £1,000 and promise not to “assist or correspond with any of the enemies of this country.”

However, the lower house considered that too lenient. Instead, the representatives voted:
whereas, the greatest danger must necessarily result from permitting such persons to go at large and continue their traitorous practices of opposing the measures adopted for our defence, of spreading false and discouraging rumours, and of communicating in formation of all our operations to our unnatural enemies:

And it is, therefore, Resolved, That the honourable Board be, and they hereby are desired to cause the said Samuel Gelston to be forthwith confined in some Jail in this Colony, until it shall appear to the General Court, or other proper authority of this Government, that he can with safety to the United Colonies be again set at liberty.
Two days later, Joseph Palmer of Braintree brought Dr. Gelston from Falmouth to Watertown, where the General Court was meeting. On 22 January, the Council offered another solution, according to Samuel Abbott Green’s Groton During the Revolution: Dr. Gelston should pay the bond of £1,000 and not leave the town of Groton. If he refused, then he would be put in jail in Newburyport. Once again, the House voted against this idea.

The provincial authorities finally sent Dr. Gelston back to the Plymouth County jail. It looks like he may never have reached there. On 3 February the Council acknowledged that he “did make his escape from the Messenger of the honourable House of Representatives, who had him in his keeping.”

The Library of Congress’s American Memory project offers a look at the broadside that the legislature issued on 26 Jan 1776. The text reads:
RAN AWAY from the custody of the Messenger of the General Court, a certain Dr. Samuel Gelston, belonging to Nantucket, a short well set man; had on when he went away a reddish Sheepskin coat, dress’d with the wool inside, and a scarlet waistcoat; he was apprehended as an enemy to this country, ’tis suppos’d he will attempt escaping to the enemy, by the way of Nantucket, Rhode-Island, or New York,—

Whoever will take up said Gelston and deliver him to the messenger of the House of Representatives, shall be well rewarded for his time and expence.
(Thanks to Tom Macy for that lead.)

Dr. Gelston got as far as Rhode Island before being recaptured by 3 February. He must have made contact with some Loyalist or Crown official since Timothy Newell heard news from the doctor in Boston on 29 January.

A man named John Brown [why can’t everyone have uncommon, easily tracked names?] was found to have helped the doctor escape; according to the Boston Gazette, he had agreed to do so for £50. When the authorities arrested Brown, they discovered that he had the audacity to be carrying ten pounds of tea. The Council ordered Gelston and Brown to jail and had the tea publicly burned. So there.

COMING UP: Dr. Gelston goes to trial.

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