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 13, 2009

Three People Detained at the Castle

On 1 Mar 1775, a group of middling-class Boston activists sent a letter to the Sons of Liberty in New York, asking to set up a regular correspondence so as to share news and “contradict the many infamous lies which are propagated by the Enemies of our Country.”

Three of those Bostonians are well known to the authorities at Boston 1775: silversmith Paul Revere, printer Benjamin Edes, and decorative painter Thomas Crafts, Jr.

The other three were also active in the Patriot movement:

Of those six men, three (Edes, Crafts, and Chase) had been part of the “Loyall Nine,” the political club that helped organize Boston’s Stamp Act protests in 1765. Three (Revere, Ward, and Crafts) would gain the title “colonel” in the coming war.

The Bostonians asked to set up a correspondence with their counterparts in New York so as to share news and “contradict the many infamous lies which are propagated by the Enemies of our Country.” They added a postscript about Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie’s recent unsuccessful raid on Salem:
Enclosed you have an account of the late Expedition which terminated to the honour of Americans. In addition to the secrecy with which the maneuvre to Salem was conducted, we inform you that three persons were occasionally at the castle on Saturday afternoon and were detained there till 10 o’clock on Monday lest we should send an Express to our brethren at Marblehead and Salem.
When that letter, now in the John Lamb Papers at the New-York Historical Society, was printed in Elbridge Goss’s 1891 biography of Revere, there was one small error. Instead of saying “three persons,” Goss’s transcription said “these persons.”

While writing her biography of Revere, Forbes interpreted “these persons” to refer to the men who had signed the letter, including the silversmith. At the time Revere was leading an effort to gather information about the army, so she concluded that he and his colleagues had gone to Castle William to spy on the troops. Later she fictionalized the same scene by adding her young hero Johnny Tremain, but then removed those pages from her final manuscript.

The letter to the New Yorkers is correctly transcribed in David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride, where I first read about this mixup years ago. What’s more, the word “occasionally” in eighteenth-century usage implies that the three people detained at the fort just happened to be there on business rather than to be spying on the army. Since the letter offers no first-hand details about being held at the Castle, we can feel certain that none of those three men were Revere or his colleagues (or Johnny Tremain).


Robert J. said...

Just for interest, by way of family connections in the study of New England history: Esther Forbes' mother was Harriette Merrifield Forbes, whose 1927 book Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them remains the most comprehensive study of early New England stonecarvers and the foundation for all subsequent work. Her photographs are a core collection at the AAS in Worcester, and the Association for Gravestone Studies presents the Forbes Award for distinguished work in the field.

relee said...

I am reading Esther Forbes bio on Paul Revere and I am enjoying it very much.Revere was much more involved in all the build up to the Revolution than I realised.

According to Forbes he became an accomplished rider to NY.Phil.,etc with important messages for the leaders resisting British taxes and military occupation.He risked capture many times.

In the book I get the sense that Revere enjoyed the role he played in resisting British control.