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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Monday, November 23, 2020

The Disappearance of George Penn

After George Penn sat on the Salem gallows for an hour and was whipped twenty times, as described yesterday, the authorities sent him back to the Essex County jail to finish another part of his sentence for rioting: two years’ imprisonment.

At the time, Penn was “(a Mulatto) aged thirty, five Feet nine Inches, and remarkably stout for his Heighth.”

We have that description from the 18 Aug 1772 Essex Gazette. It appeared there because of an event reported in the same paper:
The several Prisoners confined in his Majesty’s Gaol in this Town made their Escape last Saturday Night [15 August].

They were all committed on criminal Actions, viz. Charles Lee, Francis Lewis, Samuel White, William Campbell, and George Mitchell, for Theft, and George Penn, a Mulatto, for being concerned in a Riot at Cape-Ann two or three years ago. For the better Security of them, Mr. Brown, the Prison-Keeper, had them all confined in the two lower Apartments, which were deemed the strongest of any in the Prison.

They however, by Means of a Gimblet and Chizel, made a Hole through the Partition, which divided the two Rooms, and thereby all got together: They then bored off a square Piece of Plank in the Floor, and with the Chizel cut it quite out. Having thus got through the Floor, they applied themselves to work out a Passage through the Stones and Earth, and finally forced their Way through the Underpinning of the Building, quite into the Yard, which is inclosed with a very high Fence; they however, with their united Strength, forced open the Gate, and went off entirely undiscovered.
County sheriff Richard Saltonstall ran an advertisement in that paper describing the six escapees and offering a reward of $10. Those men ranged from “a French Lad, (as will be discovered by his speech) aged twenty” to a man “about forty Years old.”

The same newspaper also reported that a married couple who had arrived in town with the suspected thief Mitchell, “with much pretended Innocence,” had departed town suddenly, leaving behind some scraps of cloth. Also, a Danvers man reported finding a pile of clothing “hid in the Corner of a Wall,…near where Mr. Putnam found the Goods supposed to be stolen by Campbell.” So those thieves were very much on the locals’ minds.

It’s notable that the newspaper referred to the man previously called “a Mulatto Servant [i.e., slave] of Samuel Plummer, Esq; of Gloucester, named George,” with a surname. Did the full name George Penn indicate that Dr. Plumer had freed him? Or simply disowned him?

In the eighteenth century the word “stout” referred to muscle, not fat, so for George Penn to be “remarkably stout for his Heighth” suggests he contributed a lot of the “united Strength” that forced open the prison gate.

Once outside, the men presumably scattered. The harbors of Salem and neighboring towns offered plenty of opportunities to move. Sheriff Saltonstall’s advertisement appeared in the newspaper for several more weeks, into September. But so far as I can tell, George Penn was never apprehended to serve out the rest of his sentence.

TOMORROW: Whatever happened to Jesse Saville?

ADDENDUM: The vital records of Ipswich report an intention of marriage on 16 July 1777 between George Penn and Flora Freewoman. There’s no racial label for either of those people, but this town may have used the appelations Freeman and Freewoman for former slaves. In the 1770s and 1780s listings are Prince, Cesar, and Titus Freeman, the latter marrying Katherine Freewoman. So George Penn may not have completely disappeared after the jailbreak, just laid low in a nearby town until the government changed.


G. Lovely said...

Pure speculation, but might the price Mr. Penn extracted for "taking the rap" was his freedom?

J. L. Bell said...

That’s what I’m wondering.

Mike said...

A Stephen Burroughs in the making, but without the getting caught and sent back to prison part.