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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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

“Jury went out after noon and did not agree all night”

On 20 Apr 1770, Benjamin Lynde, acting chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, wrote in his diary:
Fair. Richardson and Wilmot’s tryal, begun morn. and Jury went out after noon and did not agree all night.
As recounted yesterday, Lynde indeed presided over the trial of former Customs employees Ebenezer Richardson and George Wilmot for murder.

The jury actually started deliberating about 11:00 P.M. Per the rules of the time, they were shut into a room of the courthouse and not given any food or drink or allowed to sleep. That was to encourage them to reach a verdict. (And of course it saved the government money.)

Those jurors had been drawn from Suffolk County outside of Boston, on the assumption that Bostonians might be biased. We have their names, and I wish I knew which towns they came from in order to nail down their identifications. I’m going to assume they’re the most prominent men of those names from Suffolk County outside Boston since a man had to be at a certain economic level to be on the jury list. (And because it’s easier to search where the light is best.)

The foreman was Jonathan Deming. A man of that name lived in the part of Needham that eventually became Wellesley. He was born in Boston in 1723, possibly son of a sea captain from Wethersfield, Connecticut, who later retired to the country. From his twenties Deming filled various town offices in Needham. In November 1768, Boston ministers published his intention to marry Elizabeth Clark, but that doesn’t appear to have worked out since in November of 1770 Deming went to Charlestown and married Esther Edes. He was in his late forties, but she was sixteen years younger, and they had three children over the next few years. Jonathan died in 1791 and Esther in 1792.

Apparently Deming and all the other jurors quickly agreed that Wilmot was innocent of the charge of murder. Most also agreed that Richardson was guilty. There were two holdouts from a quick unanimous verdict, Deming later testified:
Mr. Lothrop was satisfied as to Fact, but not Law. Mr. Clap not so fully satisfied as to Law.
Thomas Lothrop was from Hingham, the portion that became Cohasset in 1770. He had been born in 1738. After his father died and his mother remarried, he went to live with a rich uncle who left him an estate. Lothrop served in the French and Indian War, becoming a lieutenant, and in town government his neighbors chose him to be clerk, moderator, selectman, and eventually representative to the Massachusetts General Court. He married Ruth Nichols in 1760; they moved into a big house “near the cold spring” and raised twelve children.

Notably, as Massachusetts’s conflict with Britain heated up, Lothrop was active on Cohasset’s committee of correspondence and committee of inspection. He was also a militia officer, rising to lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Suffolk regiment during the war. Lothrop lived until 1813.

Seth Clap was born in Dedham in 1722, two years before part of that old town broke off to become Walpole, where he lived the rest of his life. Clap married Mary Bullard in 1745 and they had ten children before she died. In February 1769 Clap married Elizabeth Weatherbee, and they got right to having more children, the first arriving in November. Ultimately they had six. Clap served Walpole in various ways: as a schoolteacher as a young man, as a town clerk in his fifties, and in 1758 by “making a place in the meeting-house to secure the town stock of ammunition.” He died in 1788.

There’s no sign that Lothrop or Clap supported the royal government in 1770. In other words, their reluctance to convict Ebenezer Richardson wasn’t due to their politics. They were sincerely concerned about whether he should be convicted of murder for shooting at a crowd attacking his house. Lothrop later said, “I did not fall in so soon as some, for I thought the time might be as well spent in Argument.” Clap agreed, “At first going out I was not so clear as afterwards.”

In the wee hours of 21 April, 250 years ago today, Deming and the rest of the jury worked at winning over those two men. Clap apparently noted that under British common law a man was not guilty of murder if he killed someone breaking into his house. But that was only at night, other jurors replied. Richardson had shot young Christopher Seider “in the Day,” and that won Clap over. Deming assured him that “the Court knew the Law.”

What finally moved Lothrop was his fellow jurors’ belief that “if the verdict was not agreeable to Law the Court would not receive it.” The judges had already made clear they believed Richardson did not commit murder. Thus, a man could vote to convict him of a capital crime and not feel that he was necessarily sending the man to his death.

After dawn, the twelve jurors finally agreed on a verdict. About half an hour later Deming announced their decision in the courtroom. Wilmot was free to go, but everyone really cared about the other defendant. As Judge Lynde wrote in his diary:
Fair; Jury agreed abo. 9; Richardson guilty.
Judge Peter Oliver later wrote of the Whig crowd: “the Courtroom resounded with Expressions of Pleasure; ’till, even one of the Faction, who had some of the Feelings of Humanity not quite erased, cried out, ‘for Shame, for Shame Gentlemen!’—This hushed the clamorous Joy.”

The judges then adjourned court until 29 May, when one of the first orders of business would be sentencing Ebenezer Richardson.

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