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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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Dr. Ezekiel Brown in the Concord Jail

Yesterday we found Ezekiel Brown back in his native town of Concord. He had left as a boy, his poor family seeking better farmland, and returned as a young man with enough skills and drive to set up a shop—only to be locked in jail for debt on the eve of the Revolution.

Brown rejoined his family in Concord in 1781, having read a bunch of medical books and served in the Continental Army for four years as a military surgeon. He entered private practice. Soon Dr. Brown’s neighbors again elected him to town offices and invited him to join the Social Club.

But then the war ended. From London, Brown’s old creditor Frederick William Geyer contacted his father-in-law—Duncan Ingraham of Concord, another member of the Social Club. Together the two men resumed Geyer’s lawsuit for debt.

In February 1786, Brown signed a certificate stating he had witnessed the death of Moses Parker in the Boston jail back in 1775, a document now held by the Boston Public Library. Two months later, Ingraham and Geyer won a judgment against him of more than £500.

Naturally, that made the Social Club meetings more rancorous. The oldest members of the group, later called the Social Circle, remembered Dr. Brown as the main reason that it broke up in the 1780s. Lemuel Shattuck wrote that he was a “notorious disturber” who wouldn’t let anyone else speak. John S. Keyes described him as “that hot-headed, long-winded, hard-used, rough-tongued, ill-bred, ‘jack at all trades,’” who “would out-talk his neighbors, especially choleric old Duncan Ingraham.”

On the other hand, Grindall Reynolds, who wrote a profile of Brown in 1871 later published in The Centennial of the Social Circle in Concord, took the doctor’s side of the quarrel. Reynolds made much of the fact that Brown was an American military veteran while Geyer was a Loyalist and Ingraham had Loyalist leanings before the war.

According to Shattuck, Dr. Brown offered to pay his debt in “government securities”—presumably at full face value. But 1786 was at the height of the economic crisis that provoked the Shays Rebellion. The market value of those securities was low. Ingraham refused the offer. There was no way Brown could raise enough cash. At depressed prices, even his property in the center of Concord couldn’t cover the debt.

Ingraham and Geyer had Brown committed to the Concord jail on 13 May 1787. The doctor escaped at some point but was locked back up on 8 May 1788. After a move to the Cambridge jail, the creditors finally agreed to let Brown go free in June 1789.

By then Dr. Brown and his wife Mary had seven children, the oldest fourteen and the youngest an infant. Their best option was to leave Concord for Maine, where Brown or his father had received a land grant before the war. The family settled on about 500 uncultivated acres in what was then Clinton and is now Benton. For the third time Dr. Brown set to work establishing himself.

Ultimately, Dr. Ezekiel Brown was able to regain his social and financial footing. He made his house a tavern. His sons held town offices and cleared their own farms. In 1818 the Revolutionary veteran applied for a federal pension. He stated that he was in reduced circumstances and had “lost the use of my left arm and hand by reason of an ague” while still supporting his wife, two widowed daughters (one “insane”), and a grandson.

Under the 1820 pension law, however, the federal government said Brown owned too much property to need support. He and the selectmen of his town petitioned Congress to approve a pension, but it doesn’t look like that happened before his death in 1824 at the age of eighty.

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