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, November 06, 2022

“Run over a Boy’s head & he died instantly”

Yesterday I quoted the portion of the article in Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter for 8 Nov 1764 discussing how kids these days were too violent and divisive in the way they celebrated Pope Night.

That article also complained about the link between that year’s rowdiness and the death of a little child:
It was tho’t this [brawling] would have been prevented on Monday last, by a melancholy Accident which happened just as one of the Stages at the North-End was setting off, a Child of Mr. Brown’s, about 5 Years of Age, falling down, one of the Wheels went over his Head, and kill’d him instantly; but this did not prevent the Rabble from executing their Design.—

In the Afternoon the Magistrates and other Officers of the Town went to the respective Places of their Rendezvous, and demolished their Stages, to prevent any Disorders, which they did without Opposition: Notwithstanding, as soon as it was dark, they collected again, and mended their Stages, which being done they prepared for a Battle, and about 8 o’Clock the two Parties met near the Mill-Bridge, where they fought with Clubs, Staves, Brick-bats, &c. for about half an Hour, when those of the South-End gained a compleat Victory, carrying off not only their own, but also their Antagonists Stages, &c. which they burnt on Boston Neck.

In the Fray many were much bruis’d and wounded in their Heads and Arms, some dangerously; and a few of those who were so curious as to be Spectators, did not come off so well as they could wish; tho’ many would have fared worse had it not been a Moon-light Evening.
We have a couple of other sources on Pope Night in 1764. The merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary:
A sorrowful accident happened this forenoon at the North End—the wheel of the carriage that the Pope was fixed on run over a Boy’s head & he died instantly. The Sheriff, Justices, Officers of the Militia were ordered to destroy both So & North End Popes. In the afternoon they got the North End Pope pulled to pieces, they went to the So End but could not Conquer upon which the South End people brought out their pope & went in Triumph to the Northward and at the Mill Bridge a Battle begun between the people of Both Parts of the Town. The North End people having repaired their pope, but the South End people got the Battle (many were hurt & bruised on both sides) & Brought away the North End pope & burnt Both of them at the Gallows on the Neck. Several thousand people following them, hallowing &ct.
The young printer John Boyle wrote in his “Journal of Occurrences,” perhaps based on the newspaper report and perhaps on his own knowledge:
A Child of Mr. Brown’s at the North-End was run over by one of the Wheels of the North-End Pope and Killed on the Spot. Many others were wounded in the evening.
I’ve looked for a more official record of this boy’s death to know his name and age, but without success. (It would of course be easier if the family wasn’t named Brown.)

Importantly, this child wasn’t killed during the brawling over the wagons, as many mentions of this sad event (including some of my own) have said. Instead, the accident happened “just as one of the Stages at the North-End was setting off.” That wagon was still in friendly territory, not yet menaced by South-Enders and hours before the big fight. The boy died because of crowding or carelessness, not violence.

The News-Letter dispatch didn’t criticize the brawlers for causing the child’s death, only for the poor taste to proceed with their rumble after it happened, and against the orders of town leaders.

Nonetheless, the death of the child in 1764 was and continues to be cited as contributing to the replacement of the usual processions and brawl in 1765. Probably it did play a role, in that after the destruction of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s house in August, Boston’s political leaders insisted the town had to be on its best behavior. The gangs wouldn’t stop for the Brown child, but they would stop to show their united and peaceful disapproval of the Stamp Act.

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