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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Friday, August 21, 2015

Thomas Hutchinson and the First Stamp Act Mob

Boston 1775 now returns to exploring the sestercentennial of the movement against the Stamp Act, and specifically the experiences of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.

Hutchinson wrote his own long description of the Stamp Act disturbances in a letter to London, recently published in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s Papers of Thomas Hutchinson. Unlike Gov. Francis Bernard, who remained in the Town House during all the action until he left town entirely, Hutchinson actually thrust himself into the action to the point of personal danger.

There were a couple of reasons for Hutchinson’s behavior:
  • He had a personal connection to stamp master Andrew Oliver: the two were brothers-in-law.
  • He was courageous and confident and certain that he knew better than anyone else.
Even before the governor got involved, Hutchinson told Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf “that it was his duty to take some of his officers & go & cut it down & bring it away.” (All the sources agree that Greenleaf never risked confronting the crowd himself; he sent some of his underlings, who came back and said they couldn’t do the job safely.)

Likewise, when the Council told the governor that the disturbance should end at sunset, Hutchinson insisted, “I thought very differently.” And he was right:
Just at dark an amazing mob brought the image thro the court house [Town House] the council then sitting above & carried it to a small building which Mr. O had just erected & which was suppozed to be designed for the stamp office. In a few minutes the building was level with the ground.

The heads of the mob then gave directions to carry the image to forth. being near Mr. O. & then burn it but to do no damage to his dwelling house. I supposed the house in danger but my relation to Mr O would alone have obliged me not to desert him. I went up & found his family in terror and advised them immediately to quit the house which they did he himself intending to tarry. As soon as the bonfire was made the attack upon the house began by breaking the windows. I sent for the Sheriff & Mr [Charles] Paxton who lives near came in & we determined to keep possession of the house but obliged the owner to quit it supposing he would be in danger if they entred.

The breaking the windows continued 1/2 an hour or more until the glass & frames of the lower story were entirely gone on one side the house. At length some of the stones made their way thro the pannels of the shutters & a breach being made they were soon broke to pieces & we obliged to retire into another room. After a little deliberation they entred the house & we tho’t it time to withdraw.

I went immediately down to the Col of the Regiment [Joseph Jackson] & told him I thought it necessary to make an alarm the town being in the hands of the mob & while he was preparing I would procure the gov order for that purpose. The gov. readily gave me the order to make use of at my discretion.

I returned to a house near the scene of action where I found several gentlemen who had been at Mr O.’s & spoke to some of the villains & supposed they had spent their rage & did not doubt if I would take the Sheriff & go to the house I should have [wei]ght enough to disperse them. I was in doubt but how ever went, but upon my entring the cry was [Goddam]n their blood heres the Sheriff with the gov. stand by my boys let no man give way. The cry was suc[ceed]ed by a volley of stones & bricks.

I turned into a little room where a young gentleman cried out for gods sake [Sir pu]t out the lights or youll be dead in a moment & then ran & blew out the candles & fled. I considered [a momen]t whether to take my chance there or run thro the mob & chose the latter & escaped with [a sligh]t stroke in my arm & another in my leg & soon after it appeared by the hallooing they were [dispers]ing.
In The British Empire Before the American Revolution (1961), Lawrence Henry Gipson reported that the copy of this letter in the Massachusetts Archives has a corner torn away, but George Bancroft’s transcription of it from the mid-1800s includes the missing words in brackets above. Gipson therefore inferred that some late Victorian had torn off that corner to obliterate even the hint of “Goddamn.”

But back to 1765. As I quoted yesterday, on the evening of 15 August, Gov. Bernard saw a bonfire burning on a Boston hill and concluded that the mob was out again. Indeed it was, and it was headed for Hutchinson’s house.

TOMORROW: The mob at Hutchinson‘s door.


John L. Smith said...

I've heard two different stories (not surprising) that the mob looted and pretty well tore up Hutch's house + chopped down the fruit trees in his front yard. Another story says that by daylight, the mob had completely demolished his house, leaving the foundation. Which is why the site of his house, near Revere's, is only marked with a small plaque.

J. L. Bell said...

This entry breaks off on the evening of 15 Aug 1765, and I don't want to get ahead of the story. But I can say that the Hutchinson house stood until 1833.

G. Lovely said...

And Hutchinson's house in Milton, where he retreated to, stood long after. Some of the trees he planted and sections of his "haw-haw" are visible even today.

J. L. Bell said...

I was looking at a Library of Congress page about the Milton house today. It included a photograph, but also indicated the house was heavily rebuilt since Hutchinson's time, so I have no idea whether the photo showed anything Hutchinson would have recognized.

G. Lovely said...

The Hutchinson house is gone, though portions of it were reportedly salvaged and incorporated into a nearby house at 4 Hutchinson St. Aside from the haw-haw, other elements of the grounds, including the view of Boston Harbor from the Trustees of Reservations property called "Governor Hutchinson's Field" atop Adams St. are still to be seen.