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, October 04, 2009

More on Town Criers and Town Government

A look at Robert Seybolt’s Town Officials of Colonial Boston confirmed what I’d surmised back here: originally the job of town crier was one of Boston’s elective town offices, but it changed to being an appointment of the selectmen.

Specifically, this happened after the meeting on 9 Mar 1702. Bostonians voted then to make Thomas Davis, Robert Shelston, Gabriel Warner, and Ezekiel Gardner their town criers, and they never voted on candidates again.

Seventeen years later, the meeting instructed the Boston selectmen to “Introduce a Cryer” in Shelston’s place, and from then on men applied to the selectmen for official approval to do the job for whoever paid them.

That privatization of what was once government work makes it a challenge to find evidence of criers’ activities in the Revolutionary period. For example, I’ve seen statements that a Boston town crier spread word of a public meeting at Liberty Tree on 1 Nov 1773, during the tea crisis. However, I haven’t seen those statements in contemporaneous sources, such as newspapers; the trail goes back only to the mid-1800s.

It’s possible that the public crier was such a familiar part of daily life in the Revolutionary period that people didn’t feel a need to record his activities. Or it’s possible that when nostalgic Americans looked back on the Revolution, they added details that they considered authentically historic, like those vanished criers. In that regard, the image above, showing a town crier in a cocked hat, almost certainly dates from the late nineteenth century.

TOMORROW: A case study from Newbury.

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