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 08, 2019

“Here comes A new or A Strange Lobster”

I’ve gotten away from reporting on what was happening in Boston 250 years ago, but this date offers a chance to catch up.

John Ruddock was the North End’s big man. He owned a shipyard and thus employed a large number of laborers. He was a justice of the peace and later a selectman. He was the captain of the militia company that manned the North Battery protecting that part of Boston harbor. (The picture of the North Battery above was engraved by Paul Revere for a militia certificate; the copy at the American Antiquarian Society is signed by Ruddock.) Ruddock was a fervent Whig in the pre-Revolutionary turmoil, as were his adult sons, John, Jr., and Abiel.

Justice Ruddock was also literally, physically big. When he died in 1772, John Andrews reported that he was “ye most corpulent man among us, weighing, they say between 5 and 600 weight.” Andrews’s numbers were typically exaggerated, but even Ruddock declared he was “a Very Heavy Man.”

So keep that picture in mind as we consider today’s sestercentennial event, recounted by Sgt. Thomas Smilie of His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot:
That on the 8th. day of June 1769, John Ruddock [Jr.] Gent: with others assaulted said Serjt. Thomas Smilie on His Guard with Stones, Sticks &ca. & upon Sd. Smilie Entreating them to Desist from such outrages, they Swore bitterly that they would Either Kill or be Killed before they would go away, useing at the same time the most scurrilous & abusive Language to Sd. Smili, Such as Blood back Rascal, Red Herring &ca.,

Upon which Sd. Smilie Secured the Sd. John Ruddock untill he Could acquaint his Father being a Magistrate of the Town of Boston, Who Came Soon after in a Chaise with another Son, who used the Same Invectives Swearing that they would make the bloody back Rascals pay for it, Wishing fervently to have Sd. Smilie farther from the Barrack, Swearing if they had or his Guard should never Disturb the Inhabitants of Boston More.
Another member of the 29th Regiment also complained about how Bostonians behaved in June 1769, as recorded in mid-1770 by magistrates more sympathetic to the Crown than John Ruddock was.

Pvt. Joshua Williams stated:
That in the Month of June one Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty Nine A few Days after he Joined the Regiment in Boston, he was going to his Barracks and was met by a Mob of People unknown to him, being A stranger in the place, they speaking to Each other in this manner, here comes A new or A Strange Lobster, and saing who sent him here, knock him Down, which they did, their Weapons being wood with one Sharp Edge, which Weapons Fractured, this Deponents Scull, some of them drove A Pike or Other Weapon into his Temples A Considerable length, they used this Deponent most Barbarous after he was knocked Down and was going to throw him into the Sea, others sai’d never mind him further, he is Dead already they Imediately left Deponent takeing A new Regimental Hatt, with them
It’s striking how Williams said his skull was fractured and he was left for dead, but he was still upset about that new hat. I suspect he got in trouble with his sergeant for losing that hat.

In both these cases, we have only a soldier’s description of what happened. Smilie and Williams provided sworn testimony, but they weren’t questioned by anyone representing the people they accused. We don’t know if they left out pertinent information that would complicate the picture of peaceful soldiers whom angry locals suddenly assaulted for no reason.

For example, Pvt. Williams’s story would look quite different if it turned out the men who attacked him with “A Pike or Other Weapon” were town watchmen carrying bill-hooks, trying to enforce the law.

So how does Sgt. Smilie’s depiction of the Ruddocks match up with what other sources say?

TOMORROW: A conflict from two sides.

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