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, March 06, 2017

“Returning to our Watch House meeting with three Officers”

As I described yesterday, in the summer of 1768 Edward G. Langford started to work under Benjamin Burdick, constable of the Town House Watch.

As town employees, their assignment was to patrol the streets of central Boston at night. They called out the time and “All’s well” if all was indeed well, and raised the alarm if there were fires or other problems.

Neither Burdick nor Langford had roots in the town’s old Puritan establishment. Burdick was a Presbyterian, Langford an Anglican. Burdick was a barber by trade; I don’t know Langford’s profession, but he didn’t own much property or engage in trade. They were working-class men, doing a important but undesirable job when most of their neighbors were asleep.

And that job got harder in October 1768 when the first of four British army regiments arrived in town, sent to tamp down riots against the Customs department. For the watchmen, the problem wasn’t the soldiers—it was their officers.

In my paper about Boston’s pre-Revolutionary town watch published in the Dublin Seminar volume on Life on the Streets and Commons, I quoted a complaint that Burdick, Langford, and another watchman named John McFarland filed on 14 Nov 1768. They said two “Officers with their Swords under their Arms” had yelled at them for doing their jobs, threatened them with a “drubbing” from the soldiers, and said “they had Orders from his Majesty, and they were above the Selectmen.” (The whole complaint appears here.)

It turns out that wasn’t the first time Burdick and Langford had clashed with army officers. I recently found this deposition published in the Magazine of History in 1910:
Boston, November ye 5, 1768.

At two o’clock in the Morning Benjamin Burdick Constable of the Watch & Edward Langford a proper Watch Man being upon our rounds returning to our Watch House meeting with three Officers as we gave the Time of Night they gave the Time of Night in answer to us with a great noise in the streets and we hailed them & they came up to us & call’d us damd Scoundrels & swore by God they would put the Constable in Irons

then we retired to our Watch House

Then he went to the Guard gave the command not to suffer the Watch to hail any Body in the street

we told them our orders were to hail every Body that walked the streets & we should obey Our Order

then they replied God damne you you scoundrels I will pull you out of the House & put you in Irons & all the answer I gave them was as thus. Gentlemen I am sorry to see you behave in such a Manner in the Street & they still kept cursing and daming of us & we never receiv’d so much abuse in our lives.
Justice of the peace John Ruddock, who would have his own physical run-ins with the army, collected this testimony on 10 November, and both Burdick and Langford signed it. (I broke up the one big paragraph to make it slightly easier to follow, but I couldn’t do anything about the shifts between first person singular and first person plural.)

In those encounters the watchmen thought they, as “proper” employees of the town, had authority to hail all pedestrians at night. Army officers thought they, as officers and as gentlemen, shouldn’t have to answer to working-class civilians. Likewise, at checkpoints, army sentries were under orders to halt people and vehicles; Bostonians, especially those of higher social rank and Whig consciousness, resented having to answer to a standing army.

Those conflicts flared into violence many times during the regiments’ first months in Boston. On 18 Jan 1769, “several officers of the army” even attacked the watch-house on King Street, where Burdick and Langford worked. The violence became less frequent for most of 1769 but came roaring back at the end of that year and in early 1770.

Thus, when Langford and later Burdick arrived on King Street on 5 Mar 1770, they weren’t surprised to see a fight between locals and soldiers. They had been in the middle of that conflict for months.

TOMORROW: What Langford witnessed.

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