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, April 07, 2021

“Strict Examination into the Affair of taring, feathering & carting Owen Richards”

Yesterday’s posting quoted two accounts of the assault on Customs employee Owen Richards on 18 May 1770.

Richards and a colleague had caught a ship’s captain from Connecticut trying to sneak in undeclared barrels of sugar. They refused a bribe and used their legal powers to confiscate the cargo and the ship.

That evening, a waterfront mob grabbed Richards, tarred and feathered him, paraded him through town, and threatened to do the same to the other Customs men.

This was a couple of months after the royal government had pulled soldiers from the center of town following the Boston Massacre. The first tar-and-feathers attack in Boston had occurred in October 1769, when the troops were still there, so there’s no guarantee a larger military presence would have protected Richards. But Customs officials certainly argued that withdrawing the regiments had turned the town over to the mob.

On 21 May, two of those officials—William Sheaffe, Deputy Collector, and Robert Hallowell, Deputy Comptroller—prepared a report on the incident for their superiors, the Commissioners of Customs. They gathered three accounts from lower-level officers called tidesmen:
  • John Woart, also attacked but more mildly.
  • Josiah King and Joshua Dutton, who had hidden from the mob in the captain’s cabin of the ship they were supposed to be patrolling.
The Customs service didn’t have the power to arrest anyone for assault; it could only seize property. So Sheaffe and Hallowell set about doing that. King and Dutton testified about hearing “a great noise of People on the Deck, Knocking with Sticks, or Clubs.” Sheaffe and Hallowell interpreted that as
such hideous noises & thumping of Clubs and handspikes that they durst not venture out for a great part of the night during which time it is violently suspected, that part of the sugars, with other goods were taken out, which is very much confirmed, by our going Early the next morning into the Hold, and finding a great Vacancy on the starboard side of the Vessell the Ceiling of the Hold maked with the drainings of the Sugar Casks and but one or two of those Casks marked with —> the day before by Mr. Richards. . . .

We found in the Vessell seventeen hogsheads four teirces & two barrells Sugar, which are in the Store at the Custom house, which with the Vessell will be Immediately prosecuted [i.e., seized].
I saw those documents in the Treasury Papers at the National Archives in London. In the long run they might have helped to influence royal policy in Boston, but they didn’t do much for Owen Richards. The only officials who could indict the rioters who assaulted him were the town’s justices of the peace.

The Massachusetts Council was scheduled to meet on 23 May, but acting governor Thomas Hutchinson called those gentlemen together on the same day Sheaffe and Hallowell made their report. They agreed that “it does not appear that the Justices of the Peace within the Town of Boston have made any enquiry, or taken any notice of such disorder.”

The Council therefore advised Hutchinson to send for the justices. The Boston Post-Boy reported how the governor
enjoined them to meet, and make strict Examination into the Affair of taring, feathering & carting Owen Richards, as mentioned in our last, and to bind over such Persons, as shall appear to have been active in it, to answer the same in due Course of Law; and that in all Respects they pursue the Steps of the Law, in order to bring the Offenders to Justice.
But the result?
The Same Day and the Day following His Majesty’s Justices met at the County Court-House, and sent for several Persons as Evidences, but could obtain no Intelligence of any one that was concerned.
Even though parts of the attack on Owen Richards had taken place on King Street in the center of town, no one would identify any of the men involved.

TOMORROW: Owen Richards goes to court.

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