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, September 25, 2017

A Secondhand Story of Capt. Thomas Preston

On 17 May 1856, John Langdon Sibley, librarian of Harvard University (shown here), recorded this conversation about the Boston Massacre in his private journal:
Saturday. At the bookstore of the Antiquarian S.G. Drake in Boston I met an aged man named Bates, from Hingham. He said he was well acquainted with Miss Troutbeck [?] who resided in Hingham, daughter of the clergyman in Boston, & that they went to Halifax at the evacuation of Boston by the British & that he had many of her letters.

She told him many times that she knew Capt. [Thomas] Preston well when in Halifax, that as newspapers from Boston often came, containing very severe reflections on his conduct on the evening of the 5th of March 1770, he repeatedly said that the Bostonians “wronged” him, he never gave the order to “Fire,” that when the riot broke out he was in his loose gown & slippers sitting by his fire, that he immediately went, at the peril of his life, & did all he could to suppress it, that the truth was there was a great tumult among the people, the rabble calling the troops damned lobster-backs & other hard names, & from the mass went out the word “Fire”, by whom given it was not known, & such was the noise that it could not be known where it originated, some supposing it was given by one person, others by another, & that he had nothing to do with it.

Mr. Bales was intelligent, apparently well educated, & on being questioned repeated his statements without any essential modification & without any confusion.
Harvard’s online transcript renders the aged man’s name in two ways: Bates and Bales. But we have more information from Frederic Kidder, who followed up on this story to record a version in his History of the Boston Massacre (1870). He identified the man as “the late Caleb Bates, Esq., of Hingham.”

A man of that name was born in Hingham in 1780 and died in 1857. At a meeting of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society soon after his death, Bates was recalled as “a man of great probity and of marked individuality of character, with a strong love for historical studies, and a great fund of information upon local and general history.” A longer profile appeared in the society’s Memorial Biographies, noting Bates’s “wonderful memory” and “keen relish for historical studies.”

Bates’s story about Capt. Preston was only as reliable as his informant, of course. So who was “Miss Troutbeck”?

TOMORROW: The clergyman’s daughters.

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