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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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Death of Nathaniel Ropes

The Ropes Mansion, topic of yesterday’s posting, is named after the family of Nathaniel Ropes, who bought the house in 1768. Ropes was a wealthy Salem merchant and attorney, and an ally of the royal governors in the Council. In 1772, the royal government appointed him to the Superior Court.

That was just in time for a controversy over whether the court’s justices should receive salaries paid from the proceeds of the tea tax, which would insulate them from the Massachusetts General Court and thus from the people they judged. Ropes apparently first accepted the money (various sources put it at £100 to £250 a year), then realized how unpopular that move was. In early 1774 he refused the salary, and even reportedly submitted his resignation from the bench after less than two years.

On 29 May 1774 John Adams wrote in his diary about Ropes’s mix of feelings:

[Essex County lawyer William] Pynchon says Judge Ropes was exceedingly agitated, all the time of his last sickness, about the public affairs in general, and those of the superior court in particular; afraid his renunciation would be attributed to timidity; afraid to refuse to renounce; worried about the opinion of the bar, &c.
By then Ropes had died, on 18 Mar 1774 at the age of forty-eight.

The earliest reports of Ropes’s death in the newspapers apparently said nothing about the circumstances. But in the 1800s, historians recorded the local tradition—no doubt preserved by the Ropes family, who were still living in that Salem mansion—that the night before the justice died, a mob had been surrounding his house, breaking windows. The family felt those disturbances had hastened the justice’s death.

Most historians have since written that that crowd was motivated by the issue of judicial salaries. But Ropes had formally and publicly renounced his pay on 8 February, along with all of his colleagues except Chief Justice Peter Oliver. The legislature was focusing its ire on Oliver, threatening to impeach him, and the Whig press reported all that. Other historians have therefore suggested that the mob was driven by general class resentment.

I suspect the biggest reason for the attack on Ropes’s mansion in March 1774 was the disease the justice was dying of: smallpox.

TOMORROW: Salem’s smallpox crisis of 1774.

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