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, November 03, 2017

“Poor Charles the batchelor that was once master of the ceremonies”

When I say that Customs official Charles Paxton was “queer,” I’m not claiming to know whom he had sex with, or wanted to have sex with. I’m saying that Bostonians saw something odd in Paxton’s lifestyle and manners, and they teased him for supposedly lacking masculinity. From 1761 on, Whig newspapers referred to Paxton as “Charles Froth, Esq.,” bubbly and insubstantial.

Paxton never married. That stood out in New England society, which encouraged men to find a wife and have lots of children. Of course, there were other lifelong bachelors in Revolutionary Boston, such as the Boylston brothers and Dr. Joseph Gardner.

But Bostonians made a big deal out of Paxton not marrying. During the 1767 Pope Night processions, one of the signs recorded by the artist Pierre Eugene du Simitière in the drawing above read, “poor charles the bachelor.” (Those drawings are in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

That label continued, “…that was once master of the ceremonies.” Another sign read, “everybody’s humble servant & nobody’s friend.” Locals evidently knew what those lines alluded to without needing to read anything more.

For those of us from farther away, we have an explanatory anecdote printed in the 6 Nov 1769 Boston Gazette:
one day, after having fleeced a very worthy gentleman, [Paxton] met him, and with the impudence of Beau Nash and Tobit’s Dog, but in the antique, aukward air of the last century, accosted him with “Mr —, your most obedient humble servant, Sir!”

Yes, yes, answered the other, “every man’s humble servant, but no man’s friend.”
Lots of people must have repeated that story because as late as 1809 Bostonians still remembered Paxton as “no man’s friend.”

Beau Nash meant Richard Nash, noted dandy and master of ceremonies at Bath in the early and mid-1700s. As for “Tobit’s Dog,” it looks like eighteenth-century authors used that Biblical figure as an emblem of slavish devotion. According to Samuel Johnson, “impudence” meant shamelessness.

Thus, Bostonians looked at Paxton and saw a fawning courtier with overly elaborate manners and the “antique, aukward air of the last century.”

TOMORROW: A cross-dressing anecdote from 1769.

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