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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Tuesday, October 09, 2018

“Some would fire at all sorts of persons”

Yesterday I posted a Boston Evening-Post advertisement from 1768 asking the public to identify the militiaman who “discharge[d] his Musket against the Legs of a Gentleman then passing thro’ the Town-House” on 22 September.

That was, Boston 1775 readers may recall, the same date that the Massachusetts Convention of Towns opened in Faneuil Hall. The town’s Whigs were complaining about the imminent arrival of British regiments. They were using a short-lived scare about war with France to justify talk of strengthening local self-defense. So how did musket fire in the Town House fit into the routine of the Massachusetts militia?

Unfortunately, it was pretty standard. Timothy Pickering, a vociferous critic of shenanigans during militia drills, reported that startling citizens with musket fire was a common prank on training days. Writing as “A Military Citizen” for more than a page in the 21 Jan 1769 Essex Gazette, Pickering complained:
Did any awkward, or uncommon Figure of a Man unfortunately come in Sight of these Heroes,—by a sudden Excursion, they surprized, surrounded, and for a while buried him in Fire and Smoke, then, with self-approving Shouts, and Breasts glowing with the Thoughts of their valourous Deeds, they made a gallant Retreat, and again joined the main Body.
Writing under his own name in the 30 Oct 1770 Essex Gazette, Pickering said the prank was so institutionalized there was even a name for it:
I will instance in the article of firing. It had been the custom in Salem from my earliest remembrance, and for 50 or perhaps 100 years before, to fire at the officers, under the senseless notion of doing them honour. And not content with this, some would fire at all sorts of persons; and it gave them singular satisfaction to make women the objects of their dangerous diversion. Nor did strangers escape the hazard and inconvenience of their inhuman, inhospitable sport. This base custom I set myself to oppose and destroy.
Pickering’s son Octavius later said in a biography: “On some occasion a soldier in Mr. Pickering's company saluted him by firing at his feet; whereupon Mr. Pickering struck him with the flat of his sword.” Commissioned a lieutenant in 1766 and a captain in 1769, Pickering was determined to wipe out that “dangerous diversion.”

TOMORROW: And how did that go, Capt. Pickering?

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