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 12, 2021

“Old Mr. Thompson” and Charlestown Cannon

For this posting I’m indebted to a tip from Chris Hurley, whom one can see at colonial reenactments demonstrating cider-making, among other skills.

Timothy Thompson (1750-1834) was a carpenter in Charlestown. He married Mary Frothingham in January 1775, and their first child arrived eight months later. By that point Thompson was a sergeant in the provincial army, Mary was a war refugee in Woburn, and their home was in ashes.

Charlestown rebuilt after the British left, so those years were probably a good time to be a carpenter. Thompson bought real estate, built on it, then expanded. He built two Federal houses for himself and his son Benjamin that today help to anchor the “Thompson Triangle.”

On 26 July 1830, Edward Everett, then a member of Congress, wrote in his diary:
Visited old Mr Thompson & received from him an account of stealing the Cannon from the Battery in the Navy Yard.—

He said that for ten years there had not been a new house added to the town prior to the Revolution.—
(So that decade before the war was not a good time to be a carpenter.)

Thompson’s story of “stealing the Cannon” took place on 7 Sept 1774, shortly after the “Powder Alarm” had pushed people on both sides of the political dispute into looking for military solutions.

At the time, Charlestown had a battery guarding its waterfront, cannon pointing out at where enemy vessels might round the Boston peninsula. In 1770 Capt. John Montresor had counted five iron eighteen-pounders in that battery.

According to the Boston merchant John Andrews, Gen. Thomas Gage heard rumors that the locals planned to move those guns out of his control. On the morning of 7 September, he sent an army officer across the river to scout out the site. By the time a squad of artillerymen arrived that evening to seize the ordnance, the five guns were gone.

That was one of the earliest moves in what The Road to Concord calls an “arms race” all around Boston in September 1774. Everett had heard about Thompson’s story at least once before. In 1878 the president of the Bunker Hill Monument Association, Richard Frothingham, reported:
…the account of the proceedings of the Standing Committee of August 2, 1824, has the following in the handwriting of Edward Everett, the Secretary: “An account of the carrying off and secreting some heavy artillery from a fort in Charlestown, in the year 1774, by Timothy Thompson, one of the persons engaged in that exploit, was presented by Col. [Samuel D.] Harris, and ordered to be filed.” This paper cannot be found.
In his own local history published in 1845, Frothingham had included the names of three men he believed had participated in that action: William Calder, William Lane, and Timothy Thompson.

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