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, June 26, 2016

Following the Money after the Phillips-Woodbridge Duel

As I prepared yesterday’s posting about the duel between Henry Phillips and Benjamin Woodbridge, I noticed there’s a considerable literature about it. Samuel G. Drake wrote about the event in 1856. The Massachusetts Historical Society heard a paper on the topic in 1861 and another in 1904. In 1874 the Overland Monthly published another telling titled “A Duel on Boston Common.” Brent Simons devoted a chapter to the incident in Witches, Rakes, and Rogues.

Why do we have so much information about this event? Both duelists were from the social elite, but they weren’t really important. As I said yesterday, Phillips had graduated from Harvard. At age thirteen, Woodbridge was one of the people whom Dr. Zabdiel Boylston inoculated against smallpox in the first year of that controversial treatment. But neither young man did anything truly noteworthy before their duel.

The duel itself was unusual because it was reportedly the first in colonial America to end in death, and because colonial Massachusetts society reacted so strongly to it. “The town is amazed!” wrote Judge Samuel Sewall in his diary. Acting governor William Dummer issued a reward for Phillips’s capture; the Massachusetts Historical Society offers a look at that proclamation.

In addition to the new law I mentioned yesterday, there was also an angry sermon from the Rev. Joseph Sewall, the judge’s son, published with a preface by all the town’s clergymen. (The Sewalls had a personal connection to the case; Woodbridge’s business partner was Jonathan Sewall, the judge’s nephew and minister’s first cousin.) But the newspapers, legal documents, and sermons don’t tell us much about the duel itself.

Instead, those details come from the unusually large amount of testimony about the event that was collected and preserved, and those documents were created for a very powerful reason—there was money involved.

Not in the duel itself. The two young men had apparently quarreled over a gambling debt, but ultimately they dueled because their sense of honor exceeded their sense. The big money was the nearly £4,000 in real estate that Henry Phillips owned.

After fleeing to France, Phillips ended up dying in less than a year. Moralists of the time attributed his death to guilt for killing Woodbridge. Today we might wonder about the effect of depression or stress—i.e., a different way of linking the two deaths. Of course, there’s always the possibility Phillips died of a virus or congenital condition that didn’t care about the duel at all.

Whatever way he died, Phillips left no will. Under British common law, his property would go mostly to his older brother, Gillam Phillips (shown above). In contrast, Massachusetts law divided the estate in five among the deceased’s brother, mother, and three sisters (or their children).

Gillam sued, seeking to take a considerable sum from his female relatives (or their husbands). Losing in the Massachusetts courts, he appealed to London. It was apparently as part of that transatlantic lawsuit that Gillam Phillips gathered several depositions from witnesses to the men’s quarrel and the discovery of Woodbridge’s body.

Ten years after the duel, Gillam Phillips finally lost that case. The Privy Council ruled that Massachusetts law applied. In The Transatlantic Constitution, Mary Sarah Bilder of Boston College Law School wrote that that was an important precedent in establishing that colonial law could sometimes differ from British law. Gillam Phillips’s collection of documents eventually came to the Harvard Law School archives, becoming the source material for a no-doubt endless stream of articles about his brother’s fatal duel on Boston Common.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

So in this particular case, the Privy Council ruled that local, colonial law, could trump imperial jurisprudence...interesting to speculate what might have happened in the following decades had that precedent carried weight with Parliament!

J. L. Bell said...

At the same time the Privy Council ruled in favor of Massachusetts law in this inheritance case, it overturned Connecticut law in another.

I read one analysis that suggested the key difference was that provincial Massachusetts had to pass all its laws through a royal governor and the Privy Council already, so the imperial government had signed off on that law already, whereas Connecticut's older government was standing outside the imperial system. I wasn't sure whether that was actually part of the rulings or whether that came from a lawyer looking at them later and trying to make sense of them. The difference might have arisen out of the circumstances of those particular disputes instead.