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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Saturday, March 07, 2020

Gingerbread, Cheese, and Spilling the Beans?

Even as some Bostonians crowded Faneuil Hall on 6 Mar 1770 to report threatening encounters with British soldiers, the young French servant Charles Bourgate was telling his story for the first time.

That morning, according to a sympathetic article in the 8 Apr 1771 Boston Evening-Post, Charles went into Joseph Waldron’s shop on Back Street “to buy bread, &c., as usual.”

Waldron was legally a tailor. In August 1767 the selectmen had licensed him to sell distilled spirits from his shop, but he didn’t handle that business. Instead, Waldron had married Elizabeth Bell at the Old South Meeting-House in 1766, and she maintained the shop selling “ginger bread and drams,” and perhaps other comestibles.

Everyone must have been talking about the fatal clash the night before. Charles Bourgate spoke to Elizabeth Waldron—“Showing much anxiety,” the Evening-Post stated. Soon the French boy was “confessing that he had fired two guns, and his master [Edward] Manwaring one, from the first chamber of the custom-house.”

Elizabeth Waldron may have rewarded Charles for his confession. Months later, a fellow prisoner in the Boston jail, James Penny, testified to hearing the boy say that at some time Waldron gave him “gingerbread and cheese, and desired him to swear against his master.” It seems more likely that Waldron felt sympathy after hearing Charles’s story than that she induced him to level a false accusation.

According to the 18 Mar 1771 Boston Gazette, “Mrs. Waldron…immediately went to Justice Quincy, and declared what she had heard, upon oath.” Edmund Quincy (1703-1788, shown above) was a staunch supporter of the Whigs. Other people were also talking about seeing flashes of gunshots from the Customs house windows.

Word of the French boy’s claim probably got back to Manwaring. Charles later declared that that night “my master licked me…for telling Mrs. Waldron about his firing out of the Custom house.”

Justice Quincy summoned the servant boy for examination. I can’t tell when that happened, but the clues point to Wednesday, 7 March, or the couple of days that followed. Standing before the magistrate, supposedly fearing another licking from his master, Charles denied all that he’d told Mrs. Waldron.

The boy must have denied his previous story quite vehemently because Quincy sent him to jail for “profane Swearing.” Or perhaps that was just the Whig magistrate’s legal excuse to get Charles Bourgate away from his master.

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