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, August 30, 2009

The Marriage of Ebenezer and Kezia Richardson

When Kezia Fowle and Thomas Hincher (or Henshaw) first got married in February 1742 (according to our modern calendar), they didn’t go to any of the meeting-houses in their native Woburn. Instead, they went to King’s Chapel in Boston.

That was an upscale Anglican church while their families back home were Congregationalist, but perhaps it was more welcoming to a couple in their circumstances. Three months later Kezia gave birth to the couple’s first child, also called Kezia.

In 1754, when Kezia wished to get married a second time, to her late sister’s husband Ebenezer Richardson, she went back to King’s Chapel (recently rebuilt in stone, as shown above). Their intention was announced in January, though they didn’t actually get married until 14 May. At that time, they both listed themselves as “of Boston,” having left Woburn behind. As I’ve been recounting, Ebenezer and Kezia had made themselves unpopular in two ways:

  • by having a child while Rebecca, his wife and her sister, was still alive.
  • by letting people believe the Rev. Edward Jackson was the father.
Ironically, if Ebenezer and Kezia had just managed to put off their affair, or not gotten pregnant during it, then they could have married after Rebecca Richardson’s death without raising many eyebrows. I’ve found several examples of widowers marrying sisters of their late wives in eighteenth-century New England.

Boston welcomed Ebenezer and Kezia Richardson in its traditional way: on 30 Sept 1754, a town employee “warned out” the couple, a legal ritual establishing that Boston took no responsibility if they came to need public assistance. But they stayed, and put down roots. In April 1758 the Richardsons buried a child out of Christ Church (now called Old North).

In Woburn, Ebenezer Richardson was a yeoman farmer, but in Boston he had to find a new way to support his family. At some point he began to offer confidential information to the province’s Attorney General, Edmund Trowbridge. (Folks who’ve followed this saga closely will recall that Trowbridge had also been Jackson’s lawyer.) Trowbridge later passed Richardson and his tips on to a Customs official named Charles Paxton.

In 1760 Paxton had a rival in the Boston Customs office: collector Benjamin Barons, who was more popular with local merchants, probably because he let them get away with more. On 4 December, Barons tried to talk Richardson over to his side. The informer heard him out, then hurried to Trowbridge and blabbed. The following February, Richardson signed a deposition about his conversation with Barons that went to London in the record of that office dispute.

Someone in London leaked that document, or news of its contents, back to Boston. From then on, Richardson was known as “the Informer.” He was particularly unpopular with the prominent merchants he’d named as being “concerned in the Illicit trade”: John Rowe, the elder Benjamin Hallowell, Solomon Davis, and Arnold Wells. Around that time the Customs service hired Richardson openly since he could no longer work undercover.

In August 1765, four days after a mob sacked Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End, Boston’s Overseers of the Poor paid a man to carry Ebenezer Richardson, wife, and family to Woburn, possibly for their own protection.

In September 1767, after a dispute over a Customs search in the North End, a crowd of boys jeered Richardson’s home.

And in February 1770, when he tried to break up a picket line of boys outside an importer’s shop, those boys followed Richardson and threw garbage and rocks at his house. That confrontation ended with Richardson shooting Christopher Seider and Sammy Gore, and being arrested for murder.

At that time, Ebenezer and Kezia Richardson were still together. Their family also included two daughters—Sarah and Kezia—old enough to testify at Ebenezer’s murder trial. I haven’t found any other record of those girls.

There’s no evidence that the Richardsons’ marriage lasted through Ebenezer’s conviction, extended stay in jail awaiting sentencing, royal pardon, and flight from Boston. When he and his co-defendant petitioned the Crown for aid in early 1775, the other man referred many times to his “famely”; Richardson didn’t mention having a wife or child.

And that 1775 document is also the last trace I’ve found of Ebenezer Richardson.


Mr Punch said...

The current King's Chapel building, the one in your picture, opened in 1754; it was built around the former wooden church, which was then turn down and thrown out the windows of the new stone structure. Kezia's first wedding was in the old church, and her second must have been in the new one.

J. L. Bell said...

Good point! I’ll edit accordingly.

The new King’s Chapel also prompted the move of the South Latin School from its original location to a lot across the street. The Freedom Trail commemorates the original site, but that wasn’t the location of the school that the Revolutionary generation knew.