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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Friday, October 11, 2019

“Others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons”

Boston newspapers published three detailed descriptions of the fight between Customs Commissioner John Robinson and Boston representative James Otis, Jr., on 5 Sept 1769.

The first appeared on 11 September, as Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette printed an anonymous news report that of course supported Otis. Picking up right after Robinson tried to pull his opponent's nose, it said:
…failing in the Attempt, he [Robinson] immediately struck at him [Otis] with his Cane, against which Mr. Otis defended himself, and returned the Compliment.

A close Engagement then ensued, and Mr. Otis having disarmed his Antagonist, several Persons in the Room prevented Mr. Otis from having fair Play, some of whom held him, while others struck with Cutlasses, Canes and other Weapons; and the Cry was Kill him! Kill him!
At this point, the Gazette writer said, “A young Gentleman, Mr. John Gridley,” came into the room and tried to protect Otis, but “was also attacked in the Manner Mr. Otis was.”

The crowd grew. “Robinson and those who were with him, retired through the back Door of the Coffee-House.—Mr. Otis and Mr. Gridley were carried off much wounded.”

The same column declared that most of the men in the room were “Officers of the Army, Navy and the Revenue.” The writer insisted that “the Plan of the intended and nearly executed Assassination of Mr. Otis, was concerted in Palmer’s Pasture.”

I’ve found a couple of references to that spot of Boston real estate. Once indeed a pasture, by 1769 it was a remnant empty lot on Pearl Street. The owner by inheritance was Thomas Palmer (1743-1820, shown above), who had married into the Royall family of Medford and later became a Loyalist. Palmer was also distantly related to the Hutchinson family.

However, I think the real significance of “Palmer’s Pasture” was that Palmer was the landlord of Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton. The 11 September Boston Gazette also included a paragraph said to have been “received from the Country before the Exploit on Tuesday Evening last.” It spoke of “Sir Charles Froth” (Paxton) and “Shan Ap-Morgan” (Robinson), who was supposedly going around “heavily armed” and making threats against “Candidus” (Samuel Adams).

In sum, the Gazette writer was broadly hinting that the Customs Commissioners had planned the violence in the British Coffee-House, with hopes of killing Otis. Which would have been quite the coincidence since Otis had threatened violence against Robinson just one week before in the same newspaper.

TOMORROW: But what did John Gridley say?

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