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, 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.

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