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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Sunday, February 23, 2020

“The first thought was to hang him up at once”

When Ebenezer Richardson fired his musket out of window of his house on 22 Feb 1770, as recounted yesterday, that gun was loaded with “Swan shot.” Those were lead pellets ”about the bigness of large peas”—larger than “Goose shot” and “duck shot” and similar to a typical pistol bullet of the time.

Several slugs of swan shot were enough to knock down one of the young boys mobbing his house. The Boston Evening-Post reported, “The child fell, but was taken up and carried into a neighboring house, where all the surgeons, within call, were assembled.” Another boy, nineteen years old, was wounded in the hand and thigh.

The men gathered on that North End street had largely been standing back, watching the boys attack Richardson’s house. Now they took action. Again from the Evening-Post:
The people, on hearing the report of the gun, seeing one wounded and another as they thought killed, got into the new brick meeting house and rang the bell; on which they soon had company enough to beset the house front and rear…
According to an anonymous letter sympathetic to Richardson, the “vast Concourse of people…broke down the side of his house & when they had made a breach wide enough several entered.”

Two witnesses testified that when the crowd yelled at Richardson that he had killed a boy, he answered, “I don’t care what I’ve done.” Edward Procter said, “He had a Cutlass drawn, and resisted. He said he would resign himself to proper Officer.” But there was no magistrate on the scene, and no police officer in Boston. People expected to band together to capture criminals, just as they all fought fires or trained for war. They pressed in.

Some men “wrenched a gun” from George Wilmot, the Customs service sailor who had come to help Richardson. They found it “heavily charged with powder, and crammed with 149 goose and buck shot.” Wilmot protested that “he could not have fired for the Screw pin was gone.”

Soon the crowd dragged Richardson out to the street. According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, “The first thought was to hang him up at once and a halter was brought and a sign post picked upon,” even though both of the wounded boys were still alive.

But by then William Molineux had arrived on the scene. He was normally the most aggressive of the Whig leaders, but at this moment he saved Richardson from lynching. Even Hutchinson acknowledged, “one who is supposed to have stirred up the tumultuous proceedings took great pains and prevented it.”

Molineux convinced the crowd to carry the two men to John Ruddock, justice of the peace and boss of the North End. The Evening-Post stated that Ruddock
was pleased to send them to Faneuil Hall, under a sufficient guard, where three other magistrates, Richard Dana, Edmund Quincy and Samuel Pemberton, Esquires with Mr. Ruddock, took their examination before at least a thousand people and and committed them.
All those magistrates were solid Whigs, of course.

The Boston News-Letter and Boston Chronicle both published issues that Thursday. Their printersRichard Draper and John Fleeming, respectively—scrambled to add the latest news to the bottom of the local round-ups. The 22 February News-Letter stated:
This Instant we hear that one Richardson having attempted to destroy some Effigies in the North End, the Lads beat him off into his House, and broke his Windows, upon which he fired among them, mortally wounded one Boy, & slightly wounded two or three others. Richardson is now under Examination.
The Boston Chronicle leaned more to the Crown:
This forenoon, a boy of about 14 years of age, was mortally wounded, and two others slightly wounded by a shot from a musket, fired out of a house at the north end.—Two persons, who were in the house from whence the gun was fired, are now under examination at Faneuil Hall.
The Chronicle was printed at 2:00 P.M., meaning the magistrates’ proceeding extended well into the afternoon. Already people expected one of the boys to die.

Eventually those justices determined there was enough evidence to charge Richardson and Wilmot with a crime—whether assault or murder depended on whether that badly wounded boy lived or died. The next step was to convey the prisoners from Faneuil Hall to the jail on Court Street.

According to an anonymous Crown report, “when the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] was carrying them to Goal, several attempts were made to gett a Rope round Richardsons neck.” The Evening-Post report obliquely admitted the same: “The numberless affronts and abuses both these persons had heaped on the inhabitants, exasperated them to such a pitch that, had not gentlemen of influence interposed, they would never have reached the prison.”

At the end of the afternoon, Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot were finally in the Boston jail. People turned their attention back to the house where doctors had come to treat the young boy.

TOMORROW: “The king of terrors.”

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