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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Monday, November 04, 2019

“An assault, on the Body of the said George Gailer”

George Gailer, the first victim of tarring and feathering in Boston, was an ordinary sailor. He was therefore not the type of person who typically left letters, journals, newspaper essays, or other writings.

However, we do have Gailer’s perspective on that assault through a lawsuit he filed three months later in January 1770.

The sailor’s attorney was Robert Auchmuty (c.1722-1788, shown here as a young man, courtesy of Amherst College), who also had Crown appointments. Since Auchmuty was probably beyond Gailer’s price range, I suspect the Customs office helped pay his fees.

John Adams represented one of the defendants, the Boston tailor David Bradlee. Adams also copied Auchmuty’s initial filing into his “Pleadings Book,” just in case he needed to file a similar motion for another client. We’re lucky he did so because the original court file has been lost.

Gailer’s warrant said:
Attach &c. Eleazar Trevett Junior and Benjamin Trevett, Merchants, Daniel Vaun Mariner, all of Newport in the County of Newport and Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, and David Bradley, Pool Spear, Taylors, and David Provence Infant and Edward Mathews Mariner all of Boston in our County of Suffolk.

To answer unto George Gailer of Boston aforesaid Mariner, in a Plea of Trespass, for that the said Eleazar Trevett Jnr., Benjamin Trevet, Daniel Vaun, David Bradley, Pool Spear, David Provence, and Edward Mathews, at said Boston in the Evening of the twenty Eighth Day of October last, together with diverse other Persons to the said George Gailer unknown, with Force and Arms, an assault, on the Body of the said George Gailer did make, and then and there with Force as aforesaid did strip the said George Gailer naked, tar and feather his Skin, and carry the said George Gailer naked, tarred and feathered, as aforesaid in a Cart about said Boston for the space of Three Hours, and with Clubbs, Staves, and a hand saw did then and there strike him the said George Gailer, sundry heavy and grievous Blows, upon the said George Gailers naked Body, and greatly bruise, and wound him and hit him the said George Gailer diverse grievous Blows, with Stones:

By Reason of all which the said George Gailers Life was put into great Hazard and Danger, and greatly despaired of, and many other Enormities, and Cruelties, the said Eleazer Trevett Jnr., Benja. Trevett, Daniel Vaun, David Bradley, Pool Spear, David Provence, and Edward Mathews, with others unknown to the said George Gailer did then and there commit, on the said George Galer, against the Peace of our Lord the King and to the Damage &c. £2000.
This description of the assault differed in some details from what was in the newspapers. The warrant said the crowd “did strip the said George Gailer naked.” However, the Boston Post-Boy said “his Cloaths except his Breeches [were] pulled or torn off,” and other papers agreed. So this is an example of the period usage of “naked” not being stark naked.

On the other hand, the warrant described more violence than the newspapers, saying the crowd hit Gailer “with Clubbs, Staves, and a hand saw” and “Stones.” The press, particularly the Whig press, might have suppressed those blows, or decided they were few and exceptional and didn’t deserve mention. It’s also possible Gailer and Auchmuty pumped up those details because they were fighting a perception that a tar-and-feathering wasn’t a real assault. Yet that “hand saw” doesn’t seem like the sort of detail one could make up.

According to The Adams Legal Papers, Gailer’s case was initially “decided in the defendants’ favor on demurrer,” meaning the defendants didn’t address the truth of the allegation but argued that those actions weren’t enough to justify a legal judgment. Adams received 19s.4d. from Bradlee. Auchmuty filed an appeal in March 1770. None of the parties appeared when the case came up in the August 1771 term, and the case was dropped. I’ve never come across any other mention of George Gailer.

TOMORROW: An eyewitness account from a soldier.

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