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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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

“Pool Spear informs, that last Week he heard one Kilson a Soldier…”

I’ve been looking into Pool Spear, the Boston tailor accused of tarring and feathering sailor George Gailer in October 1769.

A little more than four months after that event, the young apothecary Richard Palmes met Spear near the center of town on the evening of 5 Mar 1770. Palmes had gone out as the alarm bells rang, learned there had been a brawl outside Murray’s barracks instead of a fire, and headed back home. He stated:
I then saw Mr. Pool Spear going towards the Townhouse, he asked me if I was going home, I told him I was; I asked him where he was going that way, he said he was going to his brother David’s. But when I got to the town-pump, we were told there was a rumpus at the Custom-house door; Mr. Spear said to me you had better not go, I told him I would go and try to make peace.
Palmes appears to have had a short temper, so he probably wasn’t the best person to pacify the situation that grew into the Boston Massacre. Indeed, after hearing a shot and seeing a man dead on the ground, Palmes started swinging his walking stick at soldiers and Capt. Thomas Preston.

It looks like Pool Spear took his own advice and didn’t stay to see what happened near the Customs office that night. But the next morning he went to Faneuil Hall, where there was supposed to be a town meeting, to share a story. The town meeting records say:
Mr. Pool Spear informs, that last Week he heard one Kilson a Soldier of Pharras Company say, that he did not know what the Inhabitants were after, for that they had broke an Officers Windows (meaning [landlord] Nathaniel Roger’s Windows) but that they had a scheeme on foot which would soon put a stop to our proceedure—that Parties of Soldiers were ordered with Pistols in their Pockets, and to fire upon those who should assault said House again, and that Ten Pounds Sterling was to be given as a Reward, for their killing one of those Persons, and fifty pounds sterling for a Prisoner—
Spear’s testimony wasn’t used in the town’s report or the trials as Palmes’s was, but it reflects the conviction of many Bostonians that the soldiers were eager to hurt people.

The next glimpse of Pool Spear that I’ve found comes from the siege of Boston. He and his wife Christiana were staying in her home town of Pembroke with six children. In March 1776, the Rhode Island Quaker philanthropist John Brown gave them £2 as charity.

The Spear family moved back into Boston after the British evacuation. Late that year Pool (now spelling his name “Poole”) was among scores of Bostonians who signed a petition on behalf of Hopestill Capen, a Sandemanian Loyalist who had helped to preserve their property during the siege but was locked up in the Boston jail on suspicion of disloyalty.

In 1779, the Boston town meeting elected Pool Spear, then forty-four years old, to be a constable. Often the meeting chose recently married young men for this office as a joke, and those men declined because they wanted to stay home. Spear accepted and was reelected in 1780 and later. The Fleets’ pocket almanac for 1782 lists him as a deputy sheriff of Suffolk County. Those jobs were more about delivering writs than patrolling the town, but it’s still a striking shift from being accused of tarring and feathering a man to working as a law-enforcement officer.

Also in 1779, the Independent Chronicle newspaper reported that the Spears were living in a house that the state was confiscating from the late Loyalist absentee John Borland. Six years later, Spear was in the Boston jail himself because of a debt to Borland’s estate, as brought to court by Richard Cranch. (See this note from the Adams Papers about Cranch’s tangled relationships with the Borland properties.) The court case may have involved that Boston house or Spear’s duties as a sheriff. In any event, the Massachusetts General Court passed a special law freeing Spear.

Pool Spear died in 1787, aged fifty-one. His widow Christiana helped to administer his estate. He didn’t leave her a lot of money, but he didn’t leave her in debt.

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