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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Thursday, October 31, 2019

“Carting the feather’d Informer thro’ the principal Streets in Town”

John Mein going under cover didn’t end the violence in Boston on Saturday, 28 Oct 1769. In fact, that date saw the town’s first tarring and feathering.

Though Boston became notorious in the British Empire for tar-and-feathers attacks in the 1770s, the town adopted that form of public punishment late. The first documented example took place in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1766.

A couple of years later, crowds used tar and feathers three times in Salem and once in Newburyport. (With typical Massachusetts chauvinism, Judge Peter Oliver later wrote that the ritual was invented in Salem.) In his 2003 article for the New England Quarterly, Ben Irvin then listed incidents in New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia.

In all those attacks, the victims were men who worked at a low level for the Customs service or were thought to have given Customs officers information about smuggling. Several were identified simply as “informers.” The attackers were usually sailors and waterfront workers directly affected by Customs seizures. The 16 Oct 1769 Boston Gazette and Boston Evening-Post reprinted a favorable report on the New York attack. (Irvin lists two attacks in that city, based on reports with differing details, but an item in the 5 Oct 1769 New-York Journal shows they were the same event.)

Many histories of pre-Revolutionary Boston depict the tar-and-feathers attack as an outgrowth of the uproar over Mein. Indeed, witnesses of the time had to sort them out. Province secretary Andrew Oliver wrote on 11 November:
Just before Sunset I heard that Mr. Mein had fired a pistol upon some people in the street & had betaken himself to the Main guard for protection. Soon after this there was a great noise of halloing & huzzaing by people who I could easily perceive shifted their Stations, by the Noise coming from different quarters successively: upon which I concluded that the populace had got Mr. Mein & were carrying him about the Town in an abusive manner; but I was afterwards told that it was an informer whom they were serving in this manner. It was thought a lucky incident for Mr. Mein that his Man fell in their way, as it diverted the Attention of the People from Mr. Mein.
However, the Boston Gazette’s sympathetic report on the tarring and feathering says that during the day, before the merchants confronted John Mein, people were already preparing to attack sailor George Gailer. The crowd may have grown larger and more worked up because of the excitement over Mein, but it looks like the two incidents developed independently and in parallel. The upper-class merchants confronted the printer while working-class sailors lay in wait for one of their own. We historians might have been tempted by the longer paper trail and political roots of the Mein attack to treat the other event as subordinate.

Here’s the Boston Gazette report from 30 Oct 1769, which also appeared in the Boston Evening-Post:
Saturday Afternoon, a Person who lately belonged to the Sloop Liberty, and came round to this Place in the Sloop Success from Rhode Island, and soon after his Arrival informed of her having a Cask or two of Wine on board, which occasioned the Vessel’s being seiz’d, was discovered and pursued, but took Shelter in a House where he secreted himself till the beginning of the Evening, when thinking the Coast clear he ventured out, but, the Avenues to the House being strictly watched the whole of the Time, he was immediately seized upon by the Populace, and soon placed in a Cart, his Jacket and Shirt taken off, and his naked Skin well tarr’d and feather’d; they oblig’d him to hold a large Glass Lanthorn in his Hand that People might see the doleful Condition he was in, and deter others from such infamous Practices:—

He was then carted from the Town-House thro’ the main Street up to Liberty Tree, amidst a vast Concourse of People, where he was made to swear never to be guilty of the like Crime for the future; but in their going thither, as they pass’d Mein and Fleming’s Printing-Office a Gun was fired from thence and two others snap’d at them just as they got by, upon which some of the Company rushed into the Office in order to secure the Offenders, but they had fled; however they bro’t off three Guns, two of them well charg’d, as Evidence against them whenever they can be taken:—

This imprudent Conduct of those in the Printing Office (for what Reason we know not, as no injury seemed designed them) did not interrupt the Carting the feather’d Informer thro’ the principal Streets in Town for about three Hours, when they bro’t him back to Kingstreet, and after renewing his Obligation of behaving better for time to come, and asking Pardon for his past Offence, he was dismissed without further Damage, after having his Cloaths returned him again, and then all peaceably dispersed about Nine o’Clock.
A few more observations about this article. First, historians often report Gailer’s service on the Customs sloop Liberty, which would make this yet another Liberty riot tied to North America’s resistance to the Townshend duties. It looks like his more recent informing about the “Cask or two of Wine” (the same issue as in the New York attack) was the bigger reason.

Second, in a letter Mein complained that after threatening him the Boston crowd “attacked the House & Printing Office, broke open the great Gate, & our other Doors, and our Ware room.” Was he referring to the same forcible search this article described? If so, that’s another example of an event pegged to Mein that had at least a mix of motives. The crowd didn’t go the print shop immediately after the confrontation on King Street. They went by during their procession that night, perhaps even making a special stop to jeer the people inside. Gunfire from inside prompted people to break in and seize weapons.

TOMORROW: More on the shots from the printing office.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

“If he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice”

As described yesterday, late in the afternoon of 28 Oct 1769, a group of Boston merchants approached the Boston Chronicle printer John Mein on King Street in Boston.

Mein was an increasingly vocal supporter of the royal government, in turn supported by contracts with the Customs service. The merchants were part of the non-importation movement boycotting British goods—except, as Mein’s newspaper revealed, when men who had signed onto that boycott imported goods anyway. One merchant, Samuel Dashwood, had particular reason to be upset with Mein, who had dubbed him “the Grunting Captain.”

The conversation became a confrontation and quickly turned violent. Mein pulled out a pistol and backed toward the army’s main guard, where he could find redcoat protection. (It was in the building to the left of the Old State House in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s painting above.) As the printer reached the doorstep of that building, a tailor and militia officer named Thomas Marshall swung an iron shovel at his back. That’s when someone fired a shot.

According to Mein, the shot came from a pistol held by his printing partner:
Mr. [John] Fleeming, who was at a little distance, on seeing him [Marshall] coming up, run to us also, but before he came near Marshal had made the blow and was running off; however, Fleeming struck at him with a stick he had in his left hand, which just touched Marshals Back, Fleeming having missed his Blow reeled forwards, and in endeavouring to recover himself, grasping his hand close, a Pistol he had in his right hand accidently went off, but the ball went into ground & did no harm:
However, most people watching from King Street believed the shot came from Mein’s own gun. Even shopkeeper Elizabeth Cumings, who was on the printer’s side politically, wrote that he “fired a pistel he had in his hand, loded only with powder.”

Furthermore, the shot did cause a little damage. Merchant John Rowe wrote that Mein “wounded a Grenadier of the 29th Regiment in the Arm.” A report in the Boston News-Letter said the shot “tore the Sleeve of a Soldier’s Coat; but whether with a Bullet or only a Wad we cannot say.”

For that offense, some of the Boston Whigs rushed to sympathetic magistrate Richard Dana and secured a warrant to arrest Mein “for having put innocent People in Bodily Fear.”

The printer insisted the whole thing had been a set-up, the mob preconcerted:
their plan was to get me into the Custody of the Officer, & it being then dark, to knock on the head; & then their usual sayings might have been repeated again, that it was done by Boys & Negroes, or by Nobody.
Crown informant George Mason also reported hearing talk that once “Mr. Mein…was in Custody of the Civil Officers,…it was intended the Mob should rescue him from their hands, and deal with him as they themselves should think proper.” That was surely wild speculation, but the gunshot gave the Whigs all the legal reason they needed to pursue the man.

Once Justice Dana issued the warrant, Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Cudworth and a constable went into the main guard. Along with them went merchant William Molineux and officeholder Samuel Adams, both top Whig organizers. They spent “above an hour searching” before giving up.

Mein was hiding “above the room in the Garret,” he wrote. “I made my escape in a Soldiers Dress to Col. [William] Dalrymple’s.” From there he slipped “on board of his Majestys Schooner [Hope, commanded by] Lt. [George] Dawson,” later to “the Rose Man of War” under Capt. Benjamin Caldwell. Meanwhile, he wrote, the mob “went to the South End, attacked the House & Printing Office, broke open the great Gate, & our other Doors, and our Ware room:”

Mein had to lie low. Elizabeth Cumings declared, “the people are so exasperated they would sertenly kill him if he appered.” That year’s Pope Night processions on 6 November (because the fifth was a Sunday) featured Mein as the villain hanged in effigy. According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, Mein told him
he intended to pursue in the law the persons who had assaulted him; but he was unable to do it, having been threatened that if he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice: And he therefore applied to me for protection and to call in the military power for that purpose.
Hutchinson declined to use military force that way and dissuaded Mein from suing. In a short time witnesses spoke up about the printer defending himself. According to province secretary Andrew Oliver, “Mr. Danas Son it is said was a Witness of the Transaction.” The warrant against Mein was withdrawn.

Nonetheless, the printer didn’t feel safe in Boston. Mein gave Fleeming a power of attorney to continue running the Boston Chronicle and the London Book-Store. He collected letters from Hutchinson to the Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough; from magistrate James Murray to his sister, Elizabeth (Murray Campbell) Smith; and from secretary Oliver to Gov. Francis Bernard. He sailed out of Boston harbor on H.M.S. Hope on 17 November.

Though Mein still had property and legal entanglements in Boston, and he continued to write about Boston politics, he never returned to the town. The merchants had driven away their sharpest critic.

TOMORROW: More violence that same night.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Sestercentennial Stand-Off on King Street

By publishing Customs house documents that embarrassed the Whig merchants of Boston, John Mein knew that he made himself unpopular.

In fact, a confidential informant, the painter George Mason, told Customs Collector Joseph Harrison on 20 Oct 1769 that Mein was “oblig’d to go Arm’d, and ’tis but a few Nights since that two Persons who resembled him pretty much were attack’d in a narrow Alley with Clubs, and would in all probability have lost their Lives if the Mistakes had not been timely discover’d.”

Mein’s insulting “Characters” of top Whigs, published in his Boston Chronicle newspaper on 26 October and republished in a pamphlet two days later, pushed some of those enemies over the edge. Toward the end of the day on Saturday, 28 October, Mein and his printing partner John Fleeming, were walking along King Street.

Merchant captain Samuel Dashwood (1729?-1792) confronted Mein, angry at being called “the Grunting Captain.” With him were other Whig merchants, such as William Molineux (1713?-1774), Edward Davis (1718-1784), and Duncan Ingraham (1726-1811). Two of those men were in their forties, the other two in their fifties, but they were about to behave like the twenty- and thirtysomething gentlemen who had thrust themselves into the Otis-Robinson fight the month before.

According to Mein, writing on 5 November:
Davis first made a push at me with his Cane which struck me on the left side of the belly, and has left a Bloody Contussion, which now, 8 days after, still remains with great hardness all round; on being struck I immediately took a Pistol out of my Pocket, cocked, and presented it; instantly a large Circle was formed
As one would expect.

Mein, pointing his pistol, backed toward the main guard near the Town House (now the Old State House). “I often told them I would shoot the first Man who touched me,” he declared. Fleeming followed. The crowd, still at a distance, grew larger. Shopkeeper and importer Elizabeth Cumings, visiting a friend on King Street, heard “a violent skreeming Kill him, kill him” outside. Mein said people were throwing things. He spotted selectman Jonathan Mason within the crowd.

The main guard was the building where the army organized its sentries and patrols, where soldiers on duty that night were gathered. As the printer approached, an officer recognized him and “desired the Centries to keep their Posts clear” of people. Those soldiers probably stepped forward and presented their bayonets. Mein began “cooly stepping up the Guardroom steps.”

Thomas Marshall (1719-1800, shown above) didn’t want to see Mein get away. He was a tailor with a shop on King Street, but he was better known in Boston as the colonel in charge of the town’s militia regiment. Mein listed Marshall among the men who had first confronted him, but it seems just as likely that he came out of his store after he heard the commotion.

The colonel grabbed “a large Iron Shovel” from the hardware shop of Daniel and Joseph Waldo, the sign of the Elephant. He slipped around the sentries and came at Mein from the rear, swinging the shovel. Mein stated, “the Blow cut thro’ my Coat & Waistcoat, and made a Wound of about two Inches long in my left Shoulder.”

And then a gun went off.

TOMORROW: Manhunt.

Monday, October 28, 2019

John Mein and the “Well Disposed”

Since 17 Aug 1769, John Mein had been publishing manifests of vessels arriving in the port of Boston in his Boston Chronicle newspaper.

I’ve called those leaks from the Customs service, but it’s possible all Mein had to do was go to the office on King Street and copy down what incoming captains had officially declared.

Such information may seem politically innocuous, but publishing it caused a lot of trouble. Those manifests suggested that many Boston merchants, including some at the forefront of the non-importation movement against the Townshend duties, were actually importing goods. That raised resentment in Boston and suspicion in other ports.

The Whig press responded by increasing its attacks on Mein. Eventually Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette listed him on the top left of the front page among “those who have AUDACIOUSLY counteracted the UNITED SENTIMENTS of the BODY of Merchants throughout NORTH-AMERICA; by importing British Goods contrary to the Agreement.”

Mein retaliated by using the corresponding corner of the Chronicle to list the six Boston gentlemen on the committee to enforce the boycott, and by directing a series of pointed questions to them. “Do the ‘well disposed’ think the public is ignorant, that one of their number, and a Committee-man too, has been a great transgressor, though the signs of grace, which he shewed on a late occasion, entituled him to some mercy”? “Well disposed” was a label the merchants’ committee had adopted early on, and Mein proceeded to overuse it sarcastically.

On Thursday, 26 October, Mein went further, filling the front page of the Boston Chronicle with “Outlines of the Characters of some who are thought to be ‘WELL DISPOSED.’” This item took the form of a series of descriptions of books he was supposedly going to publish, hinting at the men’s embarrassing or criminal deeds.

Here are the nicknames Mein printed and the names of the men being lampooned, taken from a manuscript Mein himself wrote which is now at Harvard. The first six were the boycott committee, the rest their supporters.
On 28 October, 250 years ago today, Mein reprinted all his shipping reports since August plus the pointed questions and an edited version of these character sketches in a pamphlet titled A State of the Importations from Great-Britain into the Port of Boston. You can read the text here.

As Mein must have expected, that ticked off some of the merchants involved. Especially the merchant captains, who were used to being masters of their little worlds. John Rowe wrote in his diary (giving no sign that he himself had nearly been named and shamed), “Mr. M—— Publication that appeared to Day has Given Great uneasiness & this evening he was spoke to by Capt. Dashwood.”

That conversation quickly turned violent.

TOMORROW: More gunshots.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Riot against the Neck Guard

I have still more to share about the Otis-Robinson brawl, but sestercentennial anniversaries are catching up, so I’ll have to get back to that story. That fight was just the start of an uptick of violence in the fall of 1769.

The next confrontation started on the night of 23 October, when a housewright and Whig activist named Robert Pierpont (also spelled “Peirpoint”) went to the British army guardhouse on Boston Neck. Pierpont owned land nearby, and he had already complained about soldiers stealing his firewood.

Under the Quartering Act of 1765, when the British government stationed soldiers in a town, the local government was supposed to supply housing and firewood. Boston had already balked at the housing back in 1768, and I don’t doubt they resisted supplying firewood as well. As the nights grew cooler, soldiers might not have worried about the such legalities.

The officers of the Neck guard sent Peirpoint away. Sgt. James Hickman and four men of the 14th Regiment later testified that the local man warned “he would go home where he had a brace of Pistols, would Load them and Fire at the first Soldier that came in his way belonging to the Guard.”

The next morning, a little before 10:00 A.M., a constable came to the guardhouse and asked for the officer in charge, Ens. John Ness. He brought a warrant from justice of the peace Richard Dana for “Stealing wood, assaulting, and knocking down one Robt Peirpoint,” in the ensign’s words.

Ens. Ness refused to leave his post until his shift was done. In other words, he placed the authority of the army over the authority of the local legal system. Instead, the young officer promised to obey the summons after he went off duty. The constable was satisfied with that. And really he didn’t have the force to make an army officer protected by armed soldiers do anything.

But there was force in numbers. Ness recalled: “Some minutes after, Peirpoint with a Number of People, came to the Front of the Guard room abusing, and pressing in upon the Centinels.” Ness assembled his whole guard with their bayonets fixed. For fifteen minutes there was a stand-off, during which “the Mob increased, keeping a little distance from us, throwing dirt, and Giveing a great deal of abuse.”

Then another squad of soldiers arrived to take over the post on the Neck. Ness formed his troops into lines to march them back to their barracks. The crowd, seeing no sign of the officer obeying the legal summons, grew angry. They started “Throwing Stones” at the soldiers. One man was hit “in the Face which made the Blood flow from his mouth and nose,” comrades recalled.

Ens. Ness declared:
In forming the Guard again, which by the Crowding in of the People had been divided, a Firelock, which had been loaded unknown to me went off, on hearing the report I turned about to the Guard, and gave positive orders for no Soldier to Load or Strike any of the Mob.
But that shot had hit the doorway of a forge where a young blacksmith named Obadiah Whiston was working. This was, as far as I can tell, the first gunshot in Boston’s Revolutionary history.

Enraged, Whiston ran after the squad to attack the soldier who had fired, Pvt. William Fowler. Ness said the blacksmith caught up opposite “the Officers Barracks of the 14th Regiment,” coming up on the right side of the troops. Fowler said Whiston “Struck him with a piece of a brick, which Cutt his head in a desperate manner, and for some time deprived him of his Sences.”

Whiston charged up a second time. Sgt. Hickman testified that he “placed the Butt end of my Halbred before him to hinder him from passing, but without striking or doing the said Whiston the least Violence.” Ens. Ness kept his soldiers moving, Fowler now staggering. He got the men “into the Barrack yard” and reported to the regimental commander, Col. William Dalrymple. Despite the crowd throwing rocks, despite Fowler’s musket firing, despite Whiston’s counterattacks, no one had been killed.

The conflict then moved to the courts. Ens. Ness reported to Justice Dana to answer Pierpont’s warrant. Meanwhile, Whiston hurried to a magistrate to swear out a complaint against Sgt. Hickman for assaulting him. The next day, Pvt. Fowler tried to start an action against Whiston, and Ness received a second summons, issued by Dana, John Ruddock, and Samuel Pemberton, for having his men fire on the people.

The proceedings that followed over the next few days showed how biased those Whig magistrates were against the soldiers. They tried to put off Fowler’s complaint. They ignored Pierpont shaking his fist and threatening Ness during the proceedings. They refused to hear testimony from soldiers. They declined to accept bail from a British officer and a Customs solicitor. When Sgt. Hickman was finally released, the crowd yelled, “Bail him with a Rope!” Soldiers said the hatter Thomas Handysyd Peck was particularly abusive. After officers complained about that behavior, Justice Dana declared “that he was deaf and could not hear…any abuse.

Eventually all those court cases fizzled out. But the Neck guard riot raised tensions in Boston in late October 1769, 250 years ago.

(The map above shows the British fortifications on the Neck during the siege of 1775-76. Back in 1769, there was just a gate and a guardhouse. And a pile of firewood.)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Breen on “The Will of the People” in Concord, 30 Oct.

On Wednesday, 30 October, the Concord Museum will host T. H. Breen speaking on the topic of his latest book, The Will of the People.

Here’s an extract from the book at LitHub:
During the course of this evolving political crisis, a colonial rebellion gave birth to a genuine revolution. Although the precise moment varied from region to region, there can be no doubt that the transformation brought forth a new political culture.

The driving force behind the creation of a regime based on the will of the people can be found in the quotidian experiences of managing local affairs, of actually participating in a political system in which ordinary Americans found that they had to negotiate power with other ordinary Americans, people who insisted that they were as good as any other member of civil society, in essence discovering a powerful sense of mutual equality that remains the rhetorical foundation of our political culture.

A government by the people was not something that the revolutionaries could take for granted; it had to be discovered and then reaffirmed by living through a challenging period of political change.
Breen is the John Kluge Professor of American Law and Governance at the Library of Congress and Founding Director of the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of many books, including George Washington’s Journey, winner of the History Prize of the Society of the Cincinnati, and Marketplace of Revolution, winner of the Society of Colonial Wars Book Award.

This talk is scheduled to start at 7:00 P.M., and will be followed by a reception and book signing in partnership with the Concord Bookshop.

This is the museum’s annual Sally Lanagan Lecture, named in honor of a long-time volunteer. It is free and open to the public. Register for a seat here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

“Count Brown” of King William County, Virginia

In 1767, William Burnet Brown moved out of Massachusetts.

He sold his father’s country house on Folly Hill, “Browne Hall,” to his cousin William Browne, by then one of Salem’s representatives on the Massachusetts General Court. [That meant this property went from William Browne to his son William Burnet Brown to his cousin William Browne, causing immense headaches for future chroniclers.]

It looks like Brown sold his mansion in Salem to his aunt Elizabeth, mother of William Browne, who had remarried Epes Sargent and then been widowed again. She eventually sold that property to her son Paul Dudley Sargent, later a colonel in the Continental Army.

William Burnet Brown, his wife Judith, and their infant children moved to her home colony of Virginia. He bought the King William County estate called Elsing Green from Carter Braxton, a politician who would become one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Braxton might have needed cash in 1767 because he was caught up in treasurer John Robinson’s embezzlement of colonial funds.

The mansion house of Elsing Green is shown above. It was built beside the Pamunkey River in the late 1710s. Around it were dependencies, one of those buildings dating to the 1690s; gardens; and fields of tobacco. The estate rested, of course, on the backs of the black workers enslaved there. In the early 1780s the state tax assessors counted seventy-five people working a thousand acres.

Soon Brown brought his sister Mary, his only surviving sibling, to live at Elsing Green. Their voyage in late 1767 was delayed by a storm that blew their ship aground near Stonington, Connecticut. The 24 Dec 1767 Boston News-Letter reported that all the passengers and “the Baggage and Horses of Mr. Brown” were safe.

Living in colonial Virginia was quite different from living in colonial Massachusetts, but the shift was probably not so drastic for William Burnet Brown as it would have been for others. He was an Anglican, not a Congregationalist, so the church worship was the same. He had grown up immensely rich and being served by enslaved black domestic servants. He now had to run a large agricultural plantation, but his wife and her Carter relatives no doubt helped him adjust to the Virginia way of doing things. He became a justice of the peace, and eventually his neighbors called him “Count Brown” for his wealth.

Brown still owned real estate up north. An attorney advertised in the 27 Jan 1769 Connecticut Journal of New Haven about a large amount of property for sale in that colony.

Brown was probably visiting Boston on business of that sort in September 1769 when he happened to witness the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson (no relation to the late Virginia treasurer). Why he got involved, swinging his cane and striking John Gridley, is unclear. But it caused some legal difficulties in the following weeks, as I’ll soon discuss.

Brown returned to Virginia, and I’ve seen no evidence that he ever visited Massachusetts again. He was never politically active. The only time his name appeared in the newspapers during the Revolutionary War was in 1779 when he advertised “a fine black horse” called Othello for either stud (“will cover mares for 20 dollars the leap”) or sale (for three payments spread out over up to ten years).

William Burnet Brown died in the spring of 1784, aged only forty-five. He was buried at Elsing Green. His daughter Judith married Robert Lewis, a nephew of George Washington. Without surviving sons, Brown willed the plantation to a grandson on condition that the child take his name. The name of William Burnet(t) Brown(e) has therefore been passed on to this day.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

“Virginia Billy” Comes of Age

The Princetonians profile of William Burnet Brown is a wonderful model of wringing a character study out of limited evidence.

Brown left almost no trace on the records of what became Princeton University except in the account books, but James McLachlan and his editorial team still created this portrait of a young man:
William entered the College’s grammar school on September 24, 1755. There he bought copies of the Newark Grammar, Isaac Watts’s Psalms, a Latin Erasmus, Guthrie’s translation of Cicero, and other books.

In the six months between his entrance and March 24, 1756, he ran up one of the highest bills of any student on whom President [Aaron] Burr kept records—a total of £41.4s.10d., at a time when the annual salary of a college tutor was £40. Between the time Browne arrived in Newark and the time he left Princeton he spent money on items such as the following: £1.2s. for having shirts made; £2 for special tutoring by John Ewing (A.B. 1754); £4.7s.1d. for having special closets and shelves built into his room; £3.16s for furnishing his room; and £2.4s. for painting his room.

His largest expenditure was for a horse, which he bought for £12.1s. on March 21, 1756. On the same day he paid £4.2s. for a saddle and bridle and £2.5s. for thirty bushels of oats. The horse was costly to keep, especially on February 22, 1757, when President Burr had to pay £4.16s.6d. “for redeeming his Mare yt he [Browne] had foolishly exchang’d.”

The date on which Browne entered the College is unknown, but that he entered it is certain, for he bought College texts and was charged for “tuition” rather than “schooling.” On May 26, 1757, President Burr recorded that Browne was “sent to Boston, not returned.” His last steward’s bill was rendered as of June 29, 1757.
William Burnet Brown was eighteen years old when he returned to Salem, Massachusetts. Two of his brothers and a sister had died the year before, and other siblings would die in the next few years.

As the eldest son, when Brown came of age, he inherited a large amount of property from his late mother. Then his father died in 1763, and Brown’s holdings grew even bigger. In addition to the estate on Folly Hill in Essex County, he owned other property there as well as real estate in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. He wasn’t tethered to any one British colony.

While in New York in 1764, Brown married Judith Walker Carter. She was from the Virginia Carters, an extended family that included some of the richest planters in North America. For a couple of years they lived in Salem, probably in the old mansion Brown had inherited from his father (shown above before it was taken down in the 1910s). They started having children.

Sometime in those years Judith’s sister Maria visited her, and a friend, Maria Beverley, wrote to her with unabashed gossip about marriages within their circle in Virginia. Beverley added:
But can you hear of so Vast many of our Sex about to change their Estate, without enlisting yourself in this Number? I cannot think the young gentlemen of New England so Vastly depraved in their way of thinking as not to have made you many applications of that sort. I remember your Grandmother told me you had a great Variety of Suitors.
Judith’s sister Maria eventually married a man from back home.

Brown served as a warden of Salem’s Anglican church in 1766 and 1767, but already his neighbors were calling him “Virginia Billy.” And already he was selling off his New England real estate.

TOMORROW: The big move.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

William Burnet Brown, Skinny Legs and All

Like his first cousin William Browne, William Burnet Brown was a wealthy man and therefore rather well documented in eighteenth-century sources and nineteenth-century accounts.

However, almost none of those accounts connect him to the fight between John Robinson and James Otis, Jr., in the British Coffee-House in September 1769. That’s because he wasn’t even living in Massachusetts at the time.

In fact, the longest modern profile of Brown was written for Princetonians, the reference series on all men who went to Princeton College. It doesn’t mention the Otis incident at all, instead saying Brown “sank almost without trace” from prominence after 1767. So let’s start filling some gaps.

William Burnet Brown was born on 7 Oct 1738 in Salem. (Brown spelled his name both “Brown” and “Browne” in newspaper advertisements, and later sources spelled his middle name as “Burnett.” I’m using the simplest form.) At the time middle names were rare in New England, but little William’s parents gave him one for two reasons:
  • To distinguish him from his first cousin, the future Massachusetts Justice William Browne, born the previous year.
  • To remind people of his illustrious maternal line, including his great-grandfather, His Grace Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), bishop of Salisbury; and his grandfather, the Hon. William Burnet (1688-1729), governor of both New York and New Jersey (1720-1728), and then both Massachusetts and New Hampshire (1728-1729).
William Burnet Brown’s father was Col. William Browne (1709-1763), a wealthy man and officeholder in Essex County. His mother was born Mary Burnet in 1723, married at the age of fourteen, and died of consumption at twenty-two, when her eldest son was about seven. Col. Browne later remarried.

After his cousin William went to Harvard College, William Burnet Brown headed south to join the class of 1760 at the College of New Jersey. The Princetonians profile speculates that this was because Col. Browne “was much given to theological speculation and controversy” and disliked the orthodox Congregationalists of New England.

I think it’s more notable that William B. was old for a college student. His cousin graduated from Harvard at the age of eighteen a few weeks before William B., a few weeks shy of seventeen, entered the New Jersey college’s grammar school for remedial lessons before becoming a freshman. So it’s possible the family chose that young college because it was the only one that would take him.

In 1763 William B. Brown’s father died, and he came into a big inheritance. The colonel’s will, quoted by Ezra Dodge Hines in Browne Hill and What Has Happened There, with Some Account of the Browne Family, states these bequests to his eldest son:
All my farm and lands at Royall Side with my land at Porter’s Neck [in Danvers], with the farm house and out houseing, stock and utensils, and the house on said farm, which I have built and named “Browne Hall” after the place in Lancashire, England, from whence my ancestors originally came, to William and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, and for want of such issue, the remainder to my son Samuel, and heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, and for want of such issue male, remainder to son Benjamin and heirs male, of his body lawfully begotten, and for want of such issue male, remainder to son Thomas, and heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, and for want of such issue in him to revert to my proper heirs. And to prevent any doubt whom I mean by heirs male in this devise, and in other parts of this my last will, I do hereby declare them to be, what by the laws of England they would be understood to be, and are not to be construed otherwise by any colour of any particular law or laws of any of the Colonys of America.

To William all pictures Tapestry, Library and medals, the same to be deemed heirlooms, and to pass with my said house called “Browne Hall,” to the heirs males, to whom my said house is limited as aforesaid. But my other sons and all their issue male, are to have the perusal of any of the books, in the said Library and liberty of borrowing them from time to time, as they have occasion for them, giving receipts for them in a receipt book, fixed to the Catalogue of the said Library, and useing them carefully and returning them safely, after a reasonable time allowed them for the reading thereof, when the receipts given are to be cancelled.

To William, one gilt cup, embossed with silver which was my said wife’s and formerly belonged to her grand-mother, Bishop Burnet’s Lady, which grand-mother was descended of the Duke of Buccleugh’s family. This is to be deemed an heir loom, and to pass with my said house of “Browne Hall” to the heirs males, to whom my said house is limited, that so it may remain as a memorial of their noble extraction. . . .

To William, two dutch knives, in a sheath of velvet, powdered with pearl; being a marriage covenant of Apollonius Scott, and Maria Vanderhoog, the father and mother of the said Bishop’s Lady.
The mansion that Col. Browne proudly called “Browne Hall” was known to locals at least as early as 1796 as “Brown’s Folly.” It stood on what’s still called Folly Hill in Beverly. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about the mansion in 1860, but someday I’ll discuss the real story behind it. For now, I’ll just say that in 1763 William Burnet Brown inherited a very valuable property.

The “pictures” that came with the estate included “a copy of Holbein’s portrait of Sir Anthony Browne, Viscount Montacute,” “a fine [painting] of the Bishop,” and portraits of his parents, perhaps by John Smibert. The “Tapestry” consisted of “Gobelin tapestry hangings, the gift to Bishop Burnet of William of Orange.” And there was “an inlaid box, in which the episcopal sermons were kept.”

In sum, William Burnet Brown was about as close to a British aristocrat as one could find in Salem, Massachusetts. Which was advantageous for him, because he had been sent home from Princeton after less than two years.

TOMORROW: A true American aristocrat.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

“An Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft”

This is the anniversary of a notorious bit of fake news. On 22 Oct 1730, the Pennsylvania Gazette published a report about a recent witchcraft trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey.

The story was datelined from Burlington, 12 October:
Saturday last at Mount-Holly, about 8 Miles from this Place, near 300 People were gathered together to see an Experiment or two tried on some Persons accused of Witchcraft. It seems the Accused had been charged with making their Neighbours Sheep dance in an uncommon Manner, and with causing Hogs to speak, and sing Psalms, &c. to the great Terror and Amazement of the King’s good and peaceable Subjects in this Province; and the Accusers being very positive that if the Accused were weighed in Scales against a Bible, the Bible would prove too heavy for them; or that, if they were bound and put into the River, they would swim;

the said Accused desirous to make their Innocence appear, voluntarily offered to undergo the said Trials, if 2 of the most violent of their Accusers would be tried with them. Accordingly the Time and Place was agreed on, and advertised about the Country; The Accusers were 1 Man and 1 Woman; and the Accused the same.

The Parties being met, and the People got together, a grand Consultation was held, before they proceeded to Trial; in which it was agreed to use the Scales first; and a Committee of Men were appointed to search the Men, and a Committee of Women to search the Women, to see if they had any Thing of Weight about them, particularly Pins. After the Scrutiny was over, a huge great Bible belonging to the Justice of the Place was provided, and a Lane through the Populace was made from the Justices House to the Scales, which were fixed on a Gallows erected for that Purpose opposite to the House, that the Justice’s Wife and the rest of the Ladies might see the Trial, without coming amongst the Mob; and after the Manner of Moorfields, a large Ring was also made.

Then came out of the House a grave tall Man carrying the Holy Writ before the supposed Wizard, &c. (as solemnly as the Sword-bearer of London before the Lord Mayor) the Wizard was first put in the Scale, and over him was read a Chapter out of the Books of Moses, and then the Bible was put in the other Scale, (which being kept down before) was immediately let go; but to the great Surprize of the Spectators, Flesh and Bones came down plump, and outweighed that great good Book by abundance. After the same Manner, the others were served, and their Lumps of Mortality severally were too heavy for Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles.

This being over, the Accusers and the rest of the Mob, not satisfied with this Experiment, would have the Trial by Water; accordingly a most solemn Procession was made to the Mill-pond; where both Accused and Accusers being stripp’d (saving only to the Women their Shifts) were bound Hand and Foot, and severally placed in the Water, lengthways, from the Side of a Barge or Flat, having for Security only a Rope about the Middle of each, which was held by some in the Flat.

The Accuser Man being thin and spare, with some Difficulty began to sink at last; but the rest every one of them swam very light upon the Water. A Sailor in the Flat jump’d out upon the Back of the Man accused, thinking to drive him down to the Bottom, but the Person bound, without any Help, came up some time before the other. The Woman Accuser, being told that she did not sink, would be duck’d a second Time; when she swam again as light as before. Upon which she declared, That she believed the Accused had bewitched her to make her so light, and that she would be duck’d again a Hundred Times, but she would duck the Devil out of her. The accused Man, being surpriz’d at his own Swimming, was not so confident of his Innocence as before, but said, If I am a Witch, it is more than I know.

The more thinking Part of the Spectators were of Opinion, that any Person so bound and plac’d in the Water (unless they were mere Skin and Bones) would swim till their Breath was gone, and their Lungs fill’d with Water. But it being the general Belief of the Populace, that the Womens Shifts, and the Garters with which they were bound help’d to support them; it is said they are to be tried again the next warm Weather, naked.
According to the Museum of Hoaxes website, this article was eventually reprinted in Britain. However, there are no similar reports in other Philadelphia newspapers, nor any supporting legal documents or other corroboration.

Some scholars therefore concluded the story was a satire written by the printer of the Pennsylvania Gazette, young Benjamin Franklin. He did enjoy hoaxes in his journalistic career and was no doubt aware of the Salem witchcraft trials of the early 1690s. However, he didn’t claim the essay as his own later, so he may have simply enjoyed printing it. It’s in the Franklin Papers with a sort of asterisk.

Monday, October 21, 2019

William Browne: Justice, Councilor, but Not Coffee-House Brawler

Technical difficulties—i.e., a power outage after a storm, and attendant recovery work—threw off my posting schedule this week. I hope to catch up over the next few days.

The last posting quoted merchant captain Mungo Mackay describing William Burnet Brown as one of the men involved in the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson in the British Coffee-House on 5 Sept 1769. It finished with the question, “Who was William Burnet Brown?”

The answer starts with the fact that he was not William Browne, whom several authors have identified as that man in the midst of the action. That Browne was a prominent supporter of the royal government in Massachusetts, but he was probably nowhere near the British Coffee-House that day.

William Browne was born in Salem on 27 Feb 1737. His father was a wealthy merchant, and he went to Harvard, graduating in 1755. Three years later he married Ruth Wanton. Though Browne practiced law, he appears to have spent most of his time managing the property he inherited—collecting rents, selling land, and making mercantile investments. He was a deacon and a militia colonel, responsibilities that neighbors expected rich men to take on.

In 1762 Browne was elected to represent Salem in the Massachusetts General Court, as his namesake uncle had before him. He became an active supporter of Gov. Francis Bernard and London’s policies. In 1768 he was one of the scant seventeen members who voted to rescind the body’s Circular Letter to other colonial legislatures.

According to the Rev. William Bentley, writing after Browne had died, “30 persons in Salem approved of his willingness to rescind, but the Town justified the Court & sent to the new Court in 1769 new Representatives.” In other words, the Salem town meeting chose not to reelect him.

The Crown then rewarded Browne with a royal appointment as a judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas in Essex County. He also occasionally served as a fill-in on the Superior Court of Massachusetts.

In 1774, as the conflict between the Crown and the people of Massachusetts heated up, the royal government named Browne to a permanent seat on the Superior Court. I’m not sure he ever actually heard a case since Patriot crowds were making sure the courts didn’t meet. In addition, militia officers refused to serve under Browne any longer.

The London government also appointed Browne to the new mandamus Council, and he took the oath before Gen. Thomas Gage in Salem in August 1774. The people of Massachusetts rose up against that change in the provincial constitution, making Councilors their particular targets. Browne moved into Boston for safety, though Bentley wrote: “It was supposed that the favour of the people was so great towards him, that he might have returned home from Boston had the public mind been properly represented to him.”

Justice Browne left Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War started, reaching Britain by May 1776. The state confiscated as much of his property as it could a couple of years later, but he remained a wealthy man. From 1781 to 1790 Browne served the British Empire as royal governor of Bermuda. He died in England on 13 Feb 1802.

Bentley recalled Browne as “short, and of a full habit, and remarkable for large legs [i.e., calves], by which he had distinction from another W.B. of the town.”

“William Brown” is a common name, of course, and some documents from the Otis-Robinson fight do indeed give that name for the man who intervened on Robinson’s side. But the accounts that include a middle name help us to clear the name of William Browne and point the finger at William Burnet Brown—his first cousin.

COMING UP: So who was William Burnet Brown?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

“Too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”

One of the more evocatively named citizens of Revolutionary Boston was a sea captain named Mungo Mackay (1740-1811).

According to family tradition, Mackay came from the Orkney Islands to Boston as a teen-aged cabin boy. He married Ruth Coney in 1764 and became a ship’s master the next year, trading with Newcastle and Tenerife. Soon he had a store on Long Wharf, and in 1768 he joined the St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons.

Mackay was another man who watched the John Robinson–James Otis fight from the open front door of the British Coffee-House, having been attracted by the noise. He could offer only a confused description of the action, not recognizing Robinson. He said he saw Otis “hustled back by the Crowd” and then “at least three [Sticks] over his Head, and the Blood running.”

Mackay’s testimony was most useful to the Whigs when he added:
I saw two Officers of the Navy talking together, one of whom said, “You have come too late to see your Friend Otis have a good Drubbing”, to which he replied, “I am very glad of it, he deserved it.”

I saw William Burnet Brown in the Room with a Whip in his Hand, who came up to Capt. [John] Bradford who was looking for Mr. Otis’s Hat & Wig, and asked him in a scornful Manner what he looked at him for, it appeared to me that he had a Desire to pick a Quarrel with Capt Bradford.
Bradford was another merchant captain and an active Whig. He was one of the Boston leaders who went out to deal with the “Powder Alarm” in 1774 and became the Continental government’s agent for the port of Boston during the war.

Mackay concluded his testimony by saying that almost all the men in the coffee-house were “Officers of the Army and Navy.” In other words, even if some men had been on Otis’s side, they were clearly outnumbered.

The Orkney-born captain swore to his affidavit “taken at the Request of James Otis, Esq;” in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton on 21 September, the same day as Thomas Brett.

As for Capt. Mungo Mackay, far from being only a pawn in the game of life, he’s managed to be remembered even in the age of Wikipedia.

TOMORROW: Who was William Burnet Brown?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

“Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson”

In the 25 Sept 1769 Boston Gazette, printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill ran two more eyewitness accounts of the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson.

One came from Thomas Brett, a merchant from Ireland. He said that on 5 September he was “in a Shop almost opposite the British Coffee-House” when he heard “an unusual Noise” that made him go look to see what was happening.

When I entered the Coffee-Room I perceiv’d two Gentlemen fighting with each other, the rest of the Company round them. I perceived several people rush upon Mr. Otis but in particular when Mr. Otis made a Trip (as they call it) at Mr. Robinson, which I believe would have brought him to the ground if he had not been supported by many people, who held him up.
Brett described John Gridley’s attempt to intervene, how “several people with Sticks struck” at him, and how he was shoved out of the building. Otis was shoved out at the same time, Brett said—a detail not in Gridley’s recollection.

And I don’t recall Gridley mentioning this moment, either:
Mr. Gridley in a short Time made his Appearance the second Time with his Arm (if I don’t mistake) tied up, and his Face very much disfigured with Blood, who said they were all a Pack of cowardly Rascals to take such an Advantage of a single Man, and told them altho’ one of his Arms were disabled, he would fight any cowardly Rascal of them all:
The Irish merchant also remarked on another man in the coffee-house, not previously mentioned:
I heard Mr. John Mein say that he was very glad if Mr. Otis had got much more; but said he was sorry for Mr. Gridley, as he believed he was an honest Fellow. I heard him say to some other Man he lost some Wine about it, but should pay it with the greatest Pleasure.
Mein, a Scottish bookseller and printer, had been carrying on a feud with Otis, Edes, and Gill since early 1768. That, too, had turned violent (Mein clubbed Gill because Edes had refused to confirm that a particular newspaper attack on Mein had come from Otis). So just as Mein was pleased to see Otis get beat up, Edes and Gill were probably happy to drag Mein into that affair.

“Upon the whole, as I was a Stander-by,” Brett concluded his affidavit; “in my Opinion there was foul Play shewn to Mr. Otis.” He signed that document on 21 September in front of justices Richard Dana and Samuel Pemberton, respectable officials who were always sympathetic to the Whig party line.

TOMORROW: Another witness, another accusation.

Friday, October 18, 2019

“The discipline of the stick, next ensued”

On 11 Sept 1769, the Boston Post-Boy published a response to what the writer called “a very gross misrepresentation of the quarrel which happened at the British coffee-house between Mr. Robinson and Mr. Otis” in earlier newspapers.

In particular, this writer complained that in that account “the characters of the spectators is impeached greatly to their dishonour.” The article evidently came from one of those spectators, signing himself “A Bye-Stander.” (He promised to divulge his name as soon as the writer of the previous account revealed his.)

According to this purported witness, the fight took place this way:

Mr. Robinson having received a public affront from Mr. Otis, proceeded to take public satisfaction of him in the open coffee-house, for which I don’t find him condemned by any man acquainted with the custom of the world in such cases; but instead of attacking Mr. Otis abruptly, they had a short conversation together, both standing, and after Mr. Otis had come round the table, Mr. Robinson attempted to take him by the nose, which is a kind of indignity generally used on such occasions.-------

The discipline of the stick, next ensued, during which, Mr. Otis received many heavy blows on his head, and one particularly on his forehead, that instantly produced a copious discharge of blood. Several persons then interfered in behalf of Mr. Otis, one of whom laid hold of Mr. Robinson, tore his coat, and wrested his stick from him, but through the interposition of the company fair play was soon restored, and a ring formed, when a brisk manual exercise followed, which ended greatly to the disadvantage of Mr. Otis, who was carried off by his friends, and Mr. Robinson went out at the street door.

Not a single jota is here advanced that can not be well attested, and there are about 20 Gentlemen, many of whom are inhabitants of this town, and others, strangers, that can prove, that neither sword, cutlas, or other edged weapon whatever was seen drawn, nor the least foul play offered Mr. Otis, nor were the words Kill him! once heard during the whole engagement.---

Several Gentlemen can also testify that they saw Mr. Robinson give Mr. Otis the blow before mentioned, on his fore-head, which has been reported to be the cut of an edged weapon. If Mr. Otis could recollect himself, he must allow the justice of this representation: Mr. Robinson did not stand in need of any assistance, his superiority over his antagonist was such, that he did not receive one blow from him.
This writer deployed arch language—“public satisfaction,” “The discipline of the stick,” “brisk manual exercise”—to emphasize that this was a private affair between gentlemen, even if it had played out in public.

As for any suggestion of murderous intent or deadly weapons, that was completely false, the “Bye-Stander” declared. This article even claimed that “several persons” entered the fray on Otis’s side, not just John Gridley, and “the company” intervened only to ensure “fair play.”

In sum, this account said, Robinson had beaten up Otis fair and square. Of course, that claim was hampered by the writer’s anonymity. In contrast, witnesses for Otis were going on the record.

TOMORROW: Two more witness statements.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Chaplin on Climate Recording in Almanacs, 18 Oct.

Joyce Chaplin, Professor of Early American History at Harvard University, is compiling a large database of the notes people kept in their almanacs about the daily weather.

On the afternoon of Friday, 18 October, Chaplin will speak on “Climate in Words and Numbers: How Early Americans Recorded Weather in Almanacs” as part of the M.I.T. Seminar on Environmental and Agricultural History. In particular:

Her talk focuses on how people recorded weather in numbers (including degrees Fahrenheit) and in words, ranging from “dull” to “elegant!” These notations are significant as records of a period of climate change, the Little Ice Age, also as records of how people made sense of and coped with that climatic disruption.
This talk and discussion are scheduled from 2:30 to 4:30 P.M. in Room 095 of Building E51 at the corner of Amherst and Wadsworth Street in Cambridge.

Chaplin is also scheduled to present her research in the Environmental History Seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Tuesday, 3 December, starting at 5:15 P.M.

Here’s a sample of the sort of data Chaplin is working with. It’s a page from interleaved almanac kept by Andrew Bordman in 1743, now part of the Harvard libraries’ vast holdings.
This shows that November 1743 started out “Very pleasant,” but the 3rd brought “wind Fogy & Rain.” There were three straight days of rain at the middle of the month, and on 23 November “great Storm Snow over Shoes.” How will next month compare?

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Hardesty on New England Slavery in Medford, 17 Oct.

On Thursday, 17 October, Jared Hardesty will speak at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford on his new book, Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England.

The site describes the book this way:
Shortly after the first Europeans arrived in 17th century New England, they began to enslave the area’s indigenous peoples and import kidnapped Africans. By the eve of the American Revolution, enslaved people comprised only about 4% of the population, but slavery had become instrumental to the region’s economy and had shaped its cultural traditions.

In this concise yet comprehensive history, Jared Ross Hardesty focuses on the individual stories of enslaved people in New England, bringing their experiences to life. He also explores the importance of slavery to the colonization of the region and to agriculture and industry, New England’s deep connections to Caribbean plantation societies, and the significance of emancipation movements in the era of the American Revolution.
Hardesty is an Associate Professor of History at Western Washington University. His last book was Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston.

This free event is scheduled to start at 7:30 P.M., and will end with a book signing. Royall House expects a large crowd for this event, so attendees must register in advance.

For people who can’t get into this event, Hardesty is scheduled to return to the site on Wednesday, 18 December, for another talk.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

“We Still Live Here” Screening, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Boston Athenaeum will host a screening of Anne Makepeace’s documentary movie We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, about the current effort to revitalize the Wampanoag language.

The Wampanoag were the first people to encounter the Pilgrims in 1620. Later English missionaries worked with converts to develop a writing system for their language and translate the Bible into it. In the 1700s, even as disease, war, and economic hardship strained the Wampanoag communities, their literacy rate is said to have rivaled that of British settlers in America.

In the following centuries, the Wampanoag community’s language nearly became extinct. Then in the 1990s Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag social worker, began to have recurring dreams of her ancestors speaking to her in their native tongue. Those dreams inspired her to acquire a master’s degree in linguistics at M.I.T. and study hundreds of surviving documents written in the Wampanoag language. Eventually Baird developed a language education program with members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities.

After the screening of the film, the audience will be able to discuss it with assistant producer Jennifer Weston. Having grown up on the Hunkpapa Lakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, she now directs the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Language Department. Weston is also Associate Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

This event will start with a reception at 5:30 P.M. The documentary will be shown from 6:00 to 7:00, followed by discussion until 8:00. Admission is $15 for Athenaeum members and $20 for others, and registration is required.

Folks who can’t attend this event can screen the film at home through Makepeace’s webpage.

Monday, October 14, 2019

“Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North” panel, 16 Oct.

On Wednesday, 16 October, the Old North Church hosts a panel discussion on “Slavery and Its Legacies at Old North: Confronting the Past, Envisioning the Future.”

The event description says:
Captain Newark Jackson was a merchant, mariner, and congregant of Old North Church in the 1730s and 1740s who made and sold chocolate near Clark’s Shipyard in the North End. In 2013, Old North Church & Historic Site opened a living history chocolate experience named after the seemingly innocuous seafarer and cacao importer. Over the past seven years, Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate has become an integral part of the historic site and a beloved gem along the Freedom Trail. The story of colonial chocolate and Jackson is woven into the story of Old North Church.

In 2016, historian Jared Hardesty became intrigued with this man about whom very little was known. So began a three-year international research project that revealed significant insights into Old North’s past that affects its future. Jackson’s personal history, as that of Old North and the city of Boston, reveals a complicated past involving slave owning and slave trading that weighs upon the present and alters our sense of ourselves.
The panelists include:
  • Prof. Hardesty, author of Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, now at Western Washington University
  • Prof. Jonathan Chu of University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • Madeleine Rodriguez, associate at the Foley Hoag law firm
  • Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Their conversation will address “how a historic site comes to terms with information that alters its self-identity, its interpretation, and its public face,” examining “the complexity of past narratives, the impact of the past upon the present, and the necessity of history in correcting a fractured identity.” There will be time for questions and comments from the audience.

The event is scheduled to take place from 6:30 to 8:00 P.M. It is free, but attendees can register to attend through this page.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

“I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson”

On 18 Sept 1769, the Boston Gazette’s front page featured an item of local news. Usually the Boston dispatches ran on page 3 or so, after reports reprinted from newspapers in other cities, because the local news was freshest. But Edes and Gill put this piece in type early on. They knew they had to run it.

The article was a legal affidavit from John Gridley, the young merchant who had thrust himself into the fight between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson back on 5 September.

Gridley testified that he had been passing by the door of the British Coffee-House on King Street and saw Otis and Robinson “engaged in Discourse, and by their Words and Gestures he perceived they were in great Warmth.” They were talking about “a Gentleman’s Satisfaction” and agreed to go out of the room.

Gridley went on:
Mr. Otis on saying the last Words was retiring to go out at the Door which leads into the Entry, and was hindered by Mr. Robinson’s Attempt to take him by the Nose, which Mr. Otis prevented by holding his Cane before him.

Mr. Robinson then closed in upon said Otis and struck him with a Stick, which Mr. Otis returned with his Stick, and reciprocal Blows passed, which lasted about One Minute, and neither seemed to have the Advantage:

Then they were disarmed of Sticks, and engaged with Fists, which being perceived by some of the Spectators, (most of whom were of the Army, Navy and Revenue) they endeavoured by pushing and pulling the said Otis, to prevent his beating the said Robinson.

Immediately on seeing such foul Play (the Door of the Coffee-House being open as usual) I stepped into the Room and cried out, it was dirty Usage to treat a Man in that Manner; and on saying this, I rushed in between the said Otis and Robinson; but on going between them I felt some Person pull me by the right Shoulder, I instantly disengaged myself from the Person who had me by the Shoulder, and took Mr. Robinson by the Collar, and he, in twitching, and I in holding, tore his Coat, near or quite down to his Pockets:

I immediately received two Blows on my Head, with some Weapon from the right, by a Person who appeared standing on a Bench; the Blood which issued from my Wounds instantly filled my Eyes: I then lifted my right Hand to strike a Person who was pulling me, but who I could not see so as to know, by reason of the Blood which covered my Sight: As I lifted up my right Hand, I received a Blow from some Weapon just above the Joint of my Wrist Bone, which broke it.

I was then turned out out of the Coffee-Room Head and Shoulders by the said Persons, or some of them: I then went into said Room again, and was turned out by the Persons aforesaid: As I went in the last Time I took a Stick off the Floor (on which lay 5) hoping by that Means to find out at least one of those who had so basely and meanly abused me, that I might have reasonable Satisfaction:

I then went in at the Entering Door of the Coffee-House (not the Door which leads into the Coffee-Room) and met Mr. Otis, and told him he had better go into the front Room, set down and compose himself; which he did for about 2 Minutes: I also told him that I would defend him from any farther Abuse, as far as I was able; who replied “I am much obliged to you”—! A Person (unknown to me) told him he had better go and get his Wounds dressed; upon which he went off.—

He further saith, that after his receiving the Blows on his Wrist as aforesaid, he heard divers Voices hollow out, KILL-HIM! KILL-HIM! and I make no doubt they meant said Otis, as they were done beating me, and continuing to beat him when they thus cried out Kill Him! Kill Him!
That last detail of hearing people shout about killing was crucial to the Whigs’ claim that Otis’s enemies had tried to assassinate him in the coffee-house. It’s notable, however, that Gridley said nothing the attackers wielding “Cutlasses,” as stated in their first newspaper report of the brawl.

Gridley signed this affidavit on 13 September, eight days after the fight. The justices of the peace involved were Richard Dana and Dr. Belcher Noyes (c.1708-1785), both middle-of-the-road Whigs. In fact, Dana had overseen a hearing to arrest one of the men who had allegedly attacked Otis and Gridley. I’ll discuss that soon.

Gridley’s affidavit was in part a response to another account of the event that had already appeared in the newspapers—from the opposite side.

COMING UP: An innocent bystander?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

“A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley”

As I quoted yesterday, the earliest newspaper reports on the British Coffee-House brawl between James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson said that “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” waded into the fight on Otis’s side.

Who was John Gridley? Having researched Boston’s Gridley families because of their connection to the Continental artillery, I can say this isn’t a simple question. They were an old New England clan with the annoying habit of having lots of children and few given names. At any one time there were multiple John, Richard, and Samuel Gridleys.

Period sources provide a couple of clues about this John Gridley. First, the fact that the newspapers consistently call him a “young Gentleman” gives a hint about his class. Second, in a letter to John Wilkes in London, Dr. Thomas Young stated that he was “a nephew to the famous attorney of that name”—Jeremy Gridley (1702-1767), who had trained Otis in the law.

In a footnote to an article about Dr. Young published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Henry H. Edes wrote, “The only John Gridley of whom any record is found in Boston who may have been the person mentioned in the text was John, son of Isaac and Sarah (Porter) Gridley, who was baptized 16 October, 1737,” in the New South Meetinghouse.

Isaac Gridley, born in 1703, was indeed a younger brother of the attorney and older brother of the artillery officer. He became a ropemaker. Among his many real-estate transactions catalogued by Annie Haven Thwing, he sold John Gray property in the center of Boston that probably became part of the ropewalk where fights broke out before the Boston Massacre. After 1748 Isaac was legally referred to as “Isaac Gridley, Esq.,” indicating that society saw him as a gentleman.

John Gridley thus inherited a certain status. He married Mercy Bartlett of Newton on 18 Mar 1761. Four years later his name appeared on advertising for fishing nets and other cordage, so he had probably started to help run his father’s business. Isaac died in April 1767.

The Boston town meeting elected a John Gridley as a Clerk of the Market in March 1768. This was a low-level position that showed the respect of the town. Some men chosen for it moved up in government and others, like Gridley, simply served out the year.

When Gridley barged into the British Coffee-House on 5 Sept 1769, he was thirty-one years old—not exceptionally “young” but still part of the rising generation. He wasn’t out of place in a genteel establishment or in Boston’s business center.

A few months later, Gridley got involved with another milestone event in Boston’s pre-Revolutionary turmoil. On the evening of 5 Mar 1770, he was in the Bunch of Grapes tavern (shown above) with three other men when they heard the fire alarm. Gridley offered to go find out what was happening. Outside the Customs house he saw Pvt. Hugh White facing off against a crowd comprised mostly of “Little trifling boys.”

Gridley walked on, then came back when he saw a squad of British soldiers arrive. He even “walked betwixt the two ranks” as the men loaded their muskets. By this time, Gridley thought the crowd was full of “Mother Tapley’s boys,…boys as big as I am.” (No one can find that expression anywhere else in the entire corpus of English literature, and it needed to be explained at the trial.)

The soldiers’ attorneys called “John Gridley Merchant” to testify for their defense. He described hearing locals speak of attacking the main guard. He said the crowd doubled to about fifty people, some at the back throwing snowballs. And:
As I stood on the steps of the Bunch of Grapes tavern; the general noise and cry was why do you not fire, damn you, you dare not fire, fire and be damned. These words were spoke very loud, they might be heard to the Long wharff.
That sort of testimony was helpful to the defense and the royal cause in general, but Whig commentators don’t seem to have singled out Gridley’s testimony for criticism.

Nonetheless, in the next couple of years Gridley left Boston on some sort of business in the Caribbean. He never returned. The Boston Gazette and Evening-Post of 12 Apr 1773 reported that “Mr. John Gridley, Merchant,” had died in the West Indies.

TOMORROW: Gridley’s testimony about the brawl.