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, December 18, 2019

John Crane “knocked down by a chest of tea”

The story of John Crane at the Boston Tea Party comes to us through the Drake brothers.

Samuel Adams Drake (1833-1905) and Francis S. Drake (1828-1885, shown here) were sons of a Boston antiquarian, and they followed his path in writing multiple books about the past. Francis liked the biographical approach while Samuel organized a lot of his books geographically.

As the hundredth anniversary of the Tea Party came around, both brothers wrote about Crane. I think Samuel was first, in his Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873):
John Crane, another of the party, while busily employed in the hold of one of the ships, was knocked down by a chest of tea, falling from the deck upon him. He was taken up for dead, and concealed in a neighboring carpenter’s shop under a pile of shavings. After the party had finished they returned, and found Crane living. . . .

Here [on the corner of Hollis and Tremont Streets] was the dwelling and carpenter-shop of Colonel John Crane, who came so near meeting his death in the hold of the tea-ship. The shop is still used by mechanics of the same craft. Crane, after the construction of the fortifications on the Neck, commanded that post, being then major of a regiment of artillery, of which the Boston company formed the nucleus. He became an expert marksman, and was considered the most skilful in the regiment. It is related that one day, as he sighted a gun bearing upon Boston, he intended to hit the house of Dr. [Mather] Byles, a tory neighbor of his, who lived next door. The shot, however, passed over the doctor’s house, and tore away his own ridgepole.

Crane was wounded in New York in 1776; he was in [Gen. John] Sullivan’s expedition to Rhode Island in 1778, and succeeded [Henry] Knox in the command of the Massachusetts artillery. His services were highly valued by the commander-in-chief, who retained him near his headquarters. Colonel Crane was a Bostonian by birth.
At the end of that year, the January 1874 issue of Old and New magazine came out, carrying Francis S. Drake’s article on “The Boston Tea Party.” It said:
Col. John Crane, by trade a housewright, became a skilful artillerist, and commanded the regiment of Massachusetts artillery with distinction throughout the Revolution. So keen was his sight that he could see the course of the ball after its discharge from a cannon. Crane, while engaged in the hold of one of the tea ships, was knocked senseless by the fall of a derrick or a chest of tea upon his head. Some of his companions, supposing him dead, secreted the body under a pile of shavings in a carpenter’s shop adjoining the wharf; but he soon recovered, having sustained no permanent injury. 
Alas, neither brother mentioned the source of the information they set down.

Francis S. Drake repeated the story about Crane in his 1878 history of Roxbury and again in his 1884 book Tea Leaves, which aimed to profile every person involved in destroying the tea without, evidently, weighing the credibility of those stories.

The long Tea Leaves entry on Crane does state some sources, but not specifically about the Tea Party tale:
One of the famous tea party, his career came near being permanently ended by the fall of a derrick, used in hoisting out the tea, which, falling upon him, knocked him senseless. His comrades, supposing him killed, bore him to a neighboring carpenter’s shop, and secreted the body under a pile of shavings. They afterwards took him to his home, where good nursing and a strong constitution, soon brought him round. The late Colonel Joseph Lovering, who lived opposite to Crane, used to relate that he held the light on that memorable evening, while Crane, and other young men, his neighbors, disguised themselves for the occasion. . . .

Colonel Crane, in 1767, married Mehitabel Wheeler, believed to have been a sister of Captain Josiah Wheeler, a member of the tea party.
Wheeler’s name appears right under Crane’s on the list of men patrolling that docks that I showed yesterday.
His three daughters married three sons of Colonel John Allan, who, with his Indian allies, rendered valuable service to the patriot cause in protecting throughout the Revolutionary war, the exposed north-eastern frontier. William Allan, who married Alice Crane, was the grandfather of George H. Allan, of Boston, from whom many of the above facts have been derived, and who has made extensive collections relative to the Allan and Crane families.
Another possible source for the Tea Party anecdote was Catharine P. Perkins, wife of Richard Perkins. She stated that her father-in-law had married a grand-niece of John Crane, and in 1893 she gave the Bostonian Society a “China Tea-caddy, with tea found in the pocket and boots of John Crane, one of the Boston Tea Party, when taken injured to his home, Dec. 16, 1773.”

We can see some overlap between the Crane story and other well publicized lore about the Tea Party. The family of Thomas Melvill also preserved and displayed a vial of the loose tea that he inadvertently brought home, as I discussed last year. With the rise of the legend of the Bradlee brothers, authors noted they lived at the same intersection as Crane and often told those two stories together.

TOMORROW: The Lovering version.

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