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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Thursday, August 27, 2015

“The same enraged mob whent to the house of Judge Hutchinson”

On 26 Aug 1765, the Boston Gazette ran this notice on the bottom of its third page amidst the local news:
Messieurs Edes & Gill.

I Desire the Printers of the Thursday’s Paper [Richard Draper’s “News-Letter”] to tell their Readers who those Gentlemen of Integrity and Reputation were that informed the Populace that an honorable Gentleman had “not only spoke but wrote AGAINST laying on the Stamp Duties”

And if these Gentlemen will make it appear to be a Fact, they shall have the Honor of three Cheers, with the free Consent, of your humble Servant,

As Harbottle Dorr’s note on his copy of the newspaper shows, readers understood that the “honorable Gentleman” in question was Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.

Bostonians had been assigning Hutchinson some blame for the Stamp Act for weeks. On 14 August he tried to defend—reportedly with his sword—the house of stamp agent Andrew Oliver. The next night he refused to tell crowds at his door that he’d opposed the law because, as he wrote, “I did not like to be accountable to them.”

On top of that, Hutchinson was also connected to the Customs house inquiry that had riled Boston’s maritime community the previous year, as described yesterday. On the night of 26 August, crowds visited four men who had been part of that scandal, ransacking at least two of their homes. And then they headed for Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End.

The lieutenant governor left several accounts of this event, but I’ll quote one from his niece Hannah Mather Crocker, recently printed in Reminiscences and Traditions of Boston. Hannah’s father, the Rev. Samuel Mather (1706-1785, shown above courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society), was Hutchinson’s brother-in-law and neighbor. Thirteen years old at the time, she recalled:
The same enraged mob whent to the house of Judge Hutchinson [&] demanded his person. Not finding him, they distroyed great part of his house and furniture [&] drank wine till many of them could drink no more.

Part of the mob whent to Dr. Mather’s house where he had taken refuge. The Dr. told them his house was his castle and he should protect his brother Hutchinson.

At last the contest grew so warm that it was not thought safe for Mr. Hutchinson to stay any longer at his sister’s house. The present writer of this account was sent to shew him a private pass, the back way through an alley to the house of Mr. Thomas Edes [1715-1794] father of the late Edwards Edes.

There he remained till six o’clock in the morn when he partook of breakfast with his sister’s family. He conducted like a calm philosopher through the whole scene. After breakfast he whent up to court in his common dress, as his bag wig and robes had been distroyed by the mob. He opened court with a very affecting speach.
Young lawyer Josiah Quincy, Jr., heard that speech and wrote down one of two versions to survive. According to him, Chief Justice Hutchinson began:
Gentlemen: There not being a Quorum of the Court without me, I am oblig’d to appear.—Some Apology is necessary for my Dress—indeed I had no other. Destitute of every Thing—no other Shirt—no other Garment, but what I have on.—And not One in my whole family in a better Situation than myself. The Distress of a whole family around me, young & tender Infants hanging about me [Hutchinson’s youngest children were eleven and thirteen], are infinitely more insupportable than what I feel for myself, tho’ I am obliged to borrow Part of this Cloathing.
In addition to almost all his household’s clothes, Hutchinson was missing his windows, his furniture, his plate, his family pictures, his wainscotting, his front fence, his official comission as lieutenant governor, £900 sterling, and—perhaps most devastating to a historian—his books and manuscripts. Fortunately for Hutchinson, he had a backup mansion in Milton.

TOMORROW: A street-level view of this riot.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

“The usual Notice of their intention to plunder & pull down an House”

Eleven days after Andrew Oliver resigned as Massachusetts’s collector of the stamp tax on 15 Aug 1765, the Boston crowd mobilized again.

It looks like the Stamp Act was no longer the main grievance on people’s minds on 26 August. Instead, Bostonians were out to chastise other royal officials for holding back the town’s economy. And, with a wave of personal bankruptcies coming on top of the post-war recession, that economy was hurting.

Back in 1760, the Boston Customs office had been rocked by infighting. On one side was a lazy, lenient, and therefore popular official named Benjamin Barons. On the other were a handful of colleagues who collected confidential testimony about Barons’s cozy relationship with Boston merchants and sent it to London.

In early 1764 a ship’s captain named Briggs Hallowell (1728-1778) returned to Boston with news that he’d seen that testimony, and “that the whole body of merchants had been represented as smugglers.” Of course, many of Boston’s merchants were smugglers, but they didn’t want people talking about it. The town meeting had lodged official protests which went nowhere. But the mobbing of Oliver’s house appeared to have produced results—so maybe, people thought, the same treatment could make other royal appointees back off.

Gov. Francis Bernard’s report on that evening presented the action as preconcerted, not spontaneous—which may reflect his prejudices or be entirely accurate. He wrote:
Towards Evning some boys began to light a bonfire before the Town house, which is an usual signal for a Mob: before it was quite dark a great Company of People gathered together crying liberty & property, which is the usual Notice of their intention to plunder & pull down an House.
Barons’s main rival in the Customs office had been Charles Paxton, known for his courtly manners. He was also the office’s point person on writs of assistance in 1761, and he had reportedly sheltered Oliver on 14 August. Paxton, a lifelong bachelor, rented half of a three-story brick house near Fort Hill, putting his elegant furniture conveniently close to the South End gang’s favorite spot for bonfires. So, the governor said:
They first went to Mr Paxton’s House (who is Marshall of the Court of Admiralty & Surveyor of the Port); & finding before it the owner of the House (Mr Paxton being only a Tenant) He assured them that Mr Paxton had quitted the house with his best effects; that the house was his; that he had never injured them; & finally invited them to go to the Tavern & drink a barrel of punch: the offer was accepted & so that House was saved.
Paxton’s landlord was Thomas Palmer (1743-1820), shown above in later life courtesy of Harvard University. He had only recently come of age and come into that building from his father’s estate. He seems to have been a quiet, studious gentleman (here’s his bookplate), not involved in politics. And he did offer everyone punch.

So the crowd left Paxton’s home alone and moved on. There’s some evidence people might have split up at this point, which could suggest either coordination or the opposite, lack of clear leadership. Some went to the house of William Story near the Town House. Just that day Story had placed a notice in the Boston Gazette protesting that he hadn’t advocated for the Stamp Act or given harmful testimony about the merchants. Still, that didn’t save his house from the mob.
As soon as they had drinked the punch, they went to the house of Mr Story, Registrar deputed of the Admiralty, broke into it & tore it all to pieces; & took out all the books & papers among which were all the records of the Court of Admiralty & carried them to the bonfire & there burnt them. They also lookt about for him with an intention to kill him.
Contrary to the governor’s suggestion of homicidal intent, the crowd probably just wanted to cripple the Vice Admiralty Court he helped to maintain. Mobs never targeted Story again. In the next few years he sought higher positions from the Crown, even traveling to London to lobby for an appointment, but got stymied. In the early 1770s Story moved to Ipswich, threw in with the Patriot movement, and became one of the busiest members of the Massachusetts General Court in 1775 and 1776.

Another part of the crowd headed to Hanover Street and the house of Briggs Hallowell’s older brother.
From thence they went to Mr [Benjamin] Hallowell’s, Comptroller of the Customs, broke into his house & destroyed & carried off evry thing of Value, with about 30 pounds sterling in cash. This House was lately built by himself & fitted & furnished with great elegance.
Over the next decade Benjamin Hallowell, Jr., vied with Paxton to be the least popular Customs official in Boston. He was mobbed in one way or another about every two years until the war broke out, and then he even got into a fistfight with a Royal Navy admiral.

Gov. Bernard didn’t deign to mention another victim of the mob, but the 26 August crowd also did some damage at the house of Ebenezer Richardson. Those London documents had revealed how Paxton had paid Richardson to ferret out and inform on smugglers in the early 1760s. By the end of the month, Boston’s Overseers of the Poor sent Richardson and his family back to his home town of Woburn, perhaps for their own safety. But he was just as unpopular there for old reasons, and soon returned to Boston to work for the Customs service openly.

Gov. Bernard ended this portion of his report to London, “But the grand Mischief of all was to come.”

TOMORROW: The mob gets to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson’s house.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Andrew Oliver’s August Resignation

The anti-Stamp Act protest in Boston on 14 Aug 1765, followed that evening by the destruction of Andrew Oliver’s new building and other property, had a quick result: Oliver resigned as stamp agent for Massachusetts.

Oliver told his Connecticut counterpart Jared Ingersoll, who had visited Boston just a few days before, that he’d “stood the attack for 36 hours—a single man against a whole People, the Government not being able to afford me any help during that whole time.”

I’m not sure Oliver’s resistance quite totals to “36 hours.” That would have been from dawn on 14 August, when his effigy on Liberty Tree became apparent, to the evening of the 15th. Oliver resigned, according to his own writing, on that afternoon.

In the third, posthumously published volume of his history of Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson described his friend’s decision:

Several of the council gave it as their opinion, Mr. Oliver being present, that the people, not only of the town of Boston, but of the country in general, would never submit to the execution of the stamp act, let the consequence of an opposition to it be what it would. It was also reported, that the people of Connecticut had threatened to hang their distributor [Ingersoll] on the first tree after he entered the colony; and that, to avoid it, he had turned aside to Rhode Island.

Despairing of protection, and finding his family in terror and great distress, Mr. Oliver came to a sudden resolution to resign his office before another night, and immediately signified, by a writing under his hand, to one of his friends, that he would send letters, by a ship then ready to sail for London, which should contain such resignation; and he desired that the town might be made acquainted with it, and with the strong assurances he had given, that be would never act in that capacity.
Oliver’s decision took Hutchinson by surprise, suggesting it came after he left the Council meeting. On 20 Aug 1765 the lieutenant governor wrote, “This resolution he took without my knowing any thing of it & yet I was charged with advising him against it.”

Gov. Francis Bernard told the story differently on 16 August:
In the Afternoon of Yesterday, sevral Gentlemen applied to Mr. Oliver, to advise him to make a publick declaration, that he would resign the Office, & never act in it; without which they said, his House would be immediately destroyed, & his Life in continual Danger. Upon which he was obliged to authorise some Gentlemen to declare in public, that he would immediately apply for leave to resign, & would not act in the Office, (as indeed it was impossible for him to do) until he received further Orders. This satisfied the Leaders; but the lower Part of the Mob were not so easily pacified. 
However, Bernard appears to have skipped town before any of that happened (it’s not in the part of the letter he composed on the evening of 15 August), so he was reporting hearsay.

Oliver addressed his official resignation to the Treasury Office in London, which oversaw the collection of the stamp duty. He also released the news to “one of his friends,” and then copied out those “terms of Capitulation” for Ingersoll:
Mr. Oliver acquaints Mr. Waterhouse that he has wrote to the Lds. of the Treasury, to desire to be excused from executing the Office of Distributor of the Stamps: and that when they arrive he shall only take proper care to secure them for the Crown, but will take no one Step for distributing the same at the time appointed by the Act. And he may inform his friends accordingly.

Thursday Afternoon, 15th. August.
Why did Oliver make Samuel Waterhouse the recipient of this letter? Waterhouse was only a private merchant (he joined the Customs office in 1772). Oliver might have chosen him for two reasons:
  • Waterhouse wrote a lot of newspaper essays supporting the royal government, so he knew how to get news into the press. (Indeed, the resignation was reported in the papers on 19 August.)
  • Oliver was giving Waterhouse a heads-up that the office of stamp agent was soon to be vacant in case he wanted to apply for it himself.
The Whigs in town considered the second possibility serious enough that the following February Oliver had to publicly declare that he hadn’t meant that at all. By then he’d had to resign again—but I’ll get to that in December.

TOMORROW: The mob turns out again.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Details of the First Stamp Act Protest

The anonymous account of Boston’s 14 Aug 1765 Stamp Act protest I quoted yesterday also includes a passage that’s prompted a lot of questions about who was behind the event:
…thus Hung the Image thro all the Day tho Three Guineas [£3.3s.] was offerd to any one that should take it down and no one dared to make the Tryall. The Paper on which A. O in Capitals was wrote blew off and at mid Day a person came with an Hanchif over his Face went up with a Ladder and fastnid it on in the Sight of Numbers who dard not obstruct him. It was observd that in making a Slip his Trousers slide up and discovered a silke Stockinge and Breeches answerable in Goodness—from whence you may infer that some of them undress’d were not of the lowest Class.
Trousers were stereotypically sailors’ dress, and this anecdote suggests that a man wealthy enough to afford silk stockings and good breeches had disguised himself as a sailor during the protest. That man was probably a member of the Loyall Nine, the political club that included both better established craftsmen and young merchants.

That evening, “Forty or fifty tradesmen, decently dressed,” led the procession with the effigy, according to Thomas Hutchinson, writing in his capacity as historian. The organizers were obviously trying to present the protest as coming from the middling class, not the gentilty.

Another passage from that letter that I skipped yesterday described where that procession went:
They…proceeded to the Town House [shown above in 1751], went thro that and here the noise was Bombs bursting and cannons firing, on this the Governor and Councillors who were above stairs consulting the Dispersion of the Mob, thought it prudent to extinguish their Lights and take to their Heels as fast as they could.
Gov. Francis Bernard’s account said only:
knowing that we were sitting in the Council Chamber, they gave three huzza’s by way of defiance, & passed on.
However, Lt. Gov. Hutchinso confirmed that the crowd was actually in the building:
Just at dark an amazing mob brought the image thro the court house [Town House] the council then sitting above…
And Cyrus Baldwin wrote that the effigy “was brought by the Mob through the main street to the Townhous, carried it through…” The street level of the Town House (now the Old State House Museum) was set aside for a merchants’ exchange. Evidently in the evening it was open to pedestrians.

Baldwin’s letter contains another curious phrase about how the procession started: “after sun sett the North gave up & the South keept not back.” That appears to refer to the North End and South End Gangs, best known from their annual brawl on Pope Night. The effigies, the procession to the center of town, and the bonfire on Fort Hill were all part of the South End Gang’s regular Pope Night ritual.

The South End’s “captain” for that year, shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh, was soon being called the leader of the protest movement, so he was probably at the head of those “forty or fifty Tradesmen” who marched the effigy through the Town House. However, as Loyall Nine member Henry Bass wrote at the end of the year, those men were “not a little pleas’d to hear that McIntosh has the Credit of the whole Affair.”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Another Account of the Stamp Act Protests

About a century ago, there was a trend in American publishing to issue the works of famous authors in multi-volume sets. Those were “limited and numbered editions,” but that often meant the publisher would print only a few hundred copies with the title page The Works of Alexandre Dumas, another few hundred copies as Alexandre Dumas’s Works, another few hundred as Dumas: The Complete Works, and so on.

As an added inducement to collectors, the publishers sometimes included actual manuscript pages with these sets. For example, as the Harvard Gazette recently reported, in 1906 Houghton Mifflin published a twenty-volume collection of Henry David Thoreau’s works with a page from Thoreau himself—a handwritten manuscript—bound into the first volume of each set.

Of course, this commercial transaction split that part of Throreau’s papers into 600 separate pieces. It was, Harvard curator Leslie Morris says, “a nightmare for people who want to actually work with the manuscripts.” Morris and his colleagues recently put a lot of effort into regaining one part of that trove, Thoreau’s account of looking for Margaret Fuller’s body and effects after she drowned in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.

Likewise, in 1876 the city of Boston published a special edition of the program for its Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Evacuation of Boston by the British Army bound with “engravings, broadsides, newspapers, and manuscripts” from the Revolutionary period. Decades later that volume came to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and researchers realized one of those manuscripts was a previously unknown account of the 14 Aug 1765 Stamp Act protests. The society published that text in its Proceedings volume for 1966.

This manuscript is undated, unsigned, unaddressed, and probably unfinished. It appears to be a draft of a letter written on 15 Aug 1765. No one has identified the handwriting. The writer revealed no inside knowledge of the protest organizers. He (or she) wasn’t terribly sympathetic with those men or with the populace, but he (or she) didn’t write favorably about the royal officials, either.

Here are some extracts from that document:
Our Stamp Officer [Andrew Oliver] hung on one of the greatet Trees by Deac. [John] Eliots at the south End, resembling him as near in size Form and Dress as such a piece of Pagentry Would admit of with Diverse Libels hung on and a peic of Low Poetry descriptive of the Minds of the People. Near by was Boot with a Little Devil peeping out and thrusting the Stamp officer with a Horrid Fork. . . .

It was Observd that a Connecticut Man very attentively viewd the Image and at length took off the Lines on which some one asked him what he was about. He replied, that as he was going home he was only taking a Sample of the Fruit of that Tree, it would be seen more; for he was satisfied that some their Trees would bear the like. . . .

As Nightsun went down in an Instant a Crowd of People to the amount of a Thousand Suddenly appeard, but from whence they came none say—and with great Solemnity took down the Image put in a Coffin and carried it thro the main Street stop at the Governors [Province House, shown above] went up his Yard gave 3 Huzzas, on which all the People ran out in great surprise.
The letter described how the crowd visited the Town House and destroyed Oliver’s building, but I’ll discuss those passages later.
Some of the Mob went to the Secretarys [i.e., Oliver’s] House. The Lieut Governor [Thomas Hutchinson] who it is said followed them there with the High Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] drew their Swords and threatned them further that they got one or Two of them into a Room and shut the Doors in order to secure them, upon which the Mob was enragd and upon an Alarm given Crowds poured down from Fort Hill entered the House and the two great officers of State fled (the Secretary had already securd himself in Charles Paxtons house).

They took Possession went from Top to Bottom satisfied themselves with good Cheer broke all his Glass Windows &c. and Three very valuable Looking Glasses and then returned to fort Hill Where they were entertained with a good Bon Fire and Wine in flowing Bowls and at Eleven Clock dispersed.
And there the manuscript breaks off.

TOMORROW: The conspiracy theory of the Stamp Act protest.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

“It was rumord about my turn would be next”

Yesterday I quoted Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s account of the anti-Stamp demonstration and riot on 14 Aug 1765. The next day, Andrew Oliver (Hutchinson’s brother-in-law) put out word that he was resigning as stamp master, though he made no public statement himself.

But that didn’t quiet the mob, as Hutchinson found out:
Towards the evening of the same day it was rumord about my turn would be next. Several of my friends were in pain & advised me to quit my house [shown here]. I sent my daughters [Sally (1744-1780) and Peggy (1754-1777)] & young son [Billy (1752-1780)] to lodge abroad & secured my doors & windows in the best manner I could.

About 9 sevral 100 came to the back part of my house & finding all fast the leader asked whether they should begin with the coach house or stables, but first attempting the gates they soon forced them & came up to the doors which finding well secured they moved round the body of them to the front of the house in another street & with furious knocks at the door demand entrance promising to do no damage they only wanted to speak to me or if I would come & declare to them I had never wrote to Engd. in favor of the stamp act they would not hurt a hair of my head. They could obtain no answer & some began to break the windows.

My neighbours were in distress for me one of them called out of his window & declared he knew I was not in town, at length one grave elderly tradesman went into the midst of them & seeing one of the mob lay hold of the pales asked what he was going to do

he replied to pull down the fence

he asked whether I had ever injured him & then begged them to be silent & being a noted speaker in town meetings he soon engaged their attention; he challenged every one of them to say I had ever done them the least wrong charged them with ingratitude in insulting a gentleman who had been serving his country all his days.

Their speaker acknowledged they had a regard for me in my private character but it was said I was in favor of the stamp act they knew I would not lye & if they could know from my own mouth that I was not they would be easy.

He replied he would answer for me. I was in favor of no act that would hurt the country but yet it was unreasonable in them to expect, if I was at home that I should be accountable to them & went on with his harangue until he brought them to give the word to move.

I was not a little pleased at the raising the siege which lasted near an hour for if I had been obliged to answer their questions I must either have enraged them or else given them a handle to justify their extravagant behaviour.
The next day Hutchinson took his children out to his country house in Milton.

In another letter written on 20 August, after he returned to Boston, Hutchinson gave a shorter version of the same event and said:
I live in the midst of neighbours who are friendly & some of them ventured into the midst of the mob & expostulated with them so that I escaped with the loss of a little glass. They had a notion that I had wrote to England in favor of the Stamp act; if I would declare I had not they would believe me but I did not like to be accountable to them.
Events might have turned out quite differently if the lieutenant governor had deigned to tell the crowd that he’d told his contacts in London that the Stamp Act was a bad idea. After all, he had. But he couldn’t bring himself to answer to popular demands like that. And the next time a crowd came to his house, they wouldn’t be dissuaded.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Thomas Hutchinson and the First Stamp Act Mob

Boston 1775 now returns to exploring the sestercentennial of the movement against the Stamp Act, and specifically the experiences of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.

Hutchinson wrote his own long description of the Stamp Act disturbances in a letter to London, recently published in the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s Papers of Thomas Hutchinson. Unlike Gov. Francis Bernard, who remained in the Town House during all the action until he left town entirely, Hutchinson actually thrust himself into the action to the point of personal danger.

There were a couple of reasons for Hutchinson’s behavior:
  • He had a personal connection to stamp master Andrew Oliver: the two were brothers-in-law.
  • He was courageous and confident and certain that he knew better than anyone else.
Even before the governor got involved, Hutchinson told Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf “that it was his duty to take some of his officers & go & cut it down & bring it away.” (All the sources agree that Greenleaf never risked confronting the crowd himself; he sent some of his underlings, who came back and said they couldn’t do the job safely.)

Likewise, when the Council told the governor that the disturbance should end at sunset, Hutchinson insisted, “I thought very differently.” And he was right:
Just at dark an amazing mob brought the image thro the court house [Town House] the council then sitting above & carried it to a small building which Mr. O had just erected & which was suppozed to be designed for the stamp office. In a few minutes the building was level with the ground.

The heads of the mob then gave directions to carry the image to forth. being near Mr. O. & then burn it but to do no damage to his dwelling house. I supposed the house in danger but my relation to Mr O would alone have obliged me not to desert him. I went up & found his family in terror and advised them immediately to quit the house which they did he himself intending to tarry. As soon as the bonfire was made the attack upon the house began by breaking the windows. I sent for the Sheriff & Mr [Charles] Paxton who lives near came in & we determined to keep possession of the house but obliged the owner to quit it supposing he would be in danger if they entred.

The breaking the windows continued 1/2 an hour or more until the glass & frames of the lower story were entirely gone on one side the house. At length some of the stones made their way thro the pannels of the shutters & a breach being made they were soon broke to pieces & we obliged to retire into another room. After a little deliberation they entred the house & we tho’t it time to withdraw.

I went immediately down to the Col of the Regiment [Joseph Jackson] & told him I thought it necessary to make an alarm the town being in the hands of the mob & while he was preparing I would procure the gov order for that purpose. The gov. readily gave me the order to make use of at my discretion.

I returned to a house near the scene of action where I found several gentlemen who had been at Mr O.’s & spoke to some of the villains & supposed they had spent their rage & did not doubt if I would take the Sheriff & go to the house I should have [wei]ght enough to disperse them. I was in doubt but how ever went, but upon my entring the cry was [Goddam]n their blood heres the Sheriff with the gov. stand by my boys let no man give way. The cry was suc[ceed]ed by a volley of stones & bricks.

I turned into a little room where a young gentleman cried out for gods sake [Sir pu]t out the lights or youll be dead in a moment & then ran & blew out the candles & fled. I considered [a momen]t whether to take my chance there or run thro the mob & chose the latter & escaped with [a sligh]t stroke in my arm & another in my leg & soon after it appeared by the hallooing they were [dispers]ing.
In The British Empire Before the American Revolution (1961), Lawrence Henry Gipson reported that the copy of this letter in the Massachusetts Archives has a corner torn away, but George Bancroft’s transcription of it from the mid-1800s includes the missing words in brackets above. Gipson therefore inferred that some late Victorian had torn off that corner to obliterate even the hint of “Goddamn.”

But back to 1765. As I quoted yesterday, on the evening of 15 August, Gov. Bernard saw a bonfire burning on a Boston hill and concluded that the mob was out again. Indeed it was, and it was headed for Hutchinson’s house.

TOMORROW: The mob at Hutchinson‘s door.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wooldridge

Thomas Wooldridge (often called Woolridge) returned to London by September 1773, having cultivated a relationship with Secretary of State Dartmouth and made contact with merchants in multiple North American ports. Through his father-in-law, William Kelly, he already had excellent connections among the London merchants investing in the American trade.

Kelly took ill and died in 1774, and Wooldridge, still in his mid-thirties, stepped up to become a spokesman for London’s American traders. In the months when Parliament voted on its Coercive Acts, that interest group was lobbying hard for a peaceful end to the American crisis.

The merchants’ strategy seems to have been to argue that a rupture with the colonies would be bad for their nation’s economy and their own—but that they shouldn’t have to reveal how much loss they were personally exposed to, lest their creditors lose faith in them. Wooldridge met with Edmund Burke in January 1775 and with Josiah Quincy, Jr., the next month. In 1778 he testified to Parliament about losses to American privateers.

By then Wooldridge was an alderman of the City of London, elected in 1776 for the district called the Bridge Ward Within (shown above in 1720). He remained in that post until February 1783, though not always comfortably.

In 1777 Wooldridge was chosen sheriff of London and Middlesex, but that September he declined the office because of financial reverses. That same year, he declared bankruptcy. Wooldridge found a sympathetic audience in London. The same issue of the London Magazine that reported his resignation and the ensuing debate went on to say:
Last Thursday at a meeting of the creditors of a North American merchant, the state of his affairs was laid before them, by which it appeared, that his present situation could not in the least degree be imputed to any misconduct of his own, but totally owing to the present unhappy state of affairs in America. It appeared there is now due to the house 70,000l. from that quarter, and that the demand upon the house is no more than about 27,000l. It was agreed that a letter of credit be given to the said gentleman for three years; that his affairs should be put under the inspection of five trustees, and that he should assist in getting in his effects, allowing him a stipend of 500l. per ann. for his time, trouble, and the maintenance of his family, house rent, &c.
That merchant may well have been Wooldridge himself.

That same year, Wooldridge spoke out against the prosecution of the Rev. William Dodd for forgery. Later he signed one of the petitions Lord George Gordon circulated protesting the granting of political rights to Catholics. When in 1780 that movement provoked anti-Catholic riots in London, however, Alderman Wooldridge sent letters to Lord Jeffery Amherst requesting troops to keep peace in his district.

Britain lost the war, of course, and that result sunk Wooldridge’s prospects, whether because his firm’s debts became uncollectible or because the peace revealed that his finances were far worse than he’d represented. Wooldridge was imprisoned for debt in 1783 and had to declare bankruptcy again the next year.

This time, the City wasn’t forgiving. To lose one fortune was a misfortune; to lose it again looked like mere carelessness, or worse. Furthermore, according to Ben Saunders’s article “The Swindler Detected,” the city government determined that Wooldridge had been maintaining himself by submitting false expenses, skimming fines, and forcing defendants into military service, pocketing recruiting fees.

After a raucous meeting of the aldermen, Wooldridge’s voters stripped him of his post, an unprecedented step that prompted him to sue to get it back. That effort failed, though his wife Susanna continued to receive substantial sums from the aldermen’s budget for years afterward, “independent of her husband, for the support of herself and her children.”

Wooldridge’s reputation was ruined from then on. The City Biography of 1799, which was full of unabashed gossip about London politicians, stated of Wooldridge:
He was at one period regarded as a mouth-piece to the City, and if he had possessed capacity equal to his effrontery, it is probable he would have made a considerable figure. Impudence made him, and caused him to be unmade, an Alderman; but he had no talents beyond those that commonly fall to the lot of Aldermen.
In the new U.S. of A., lawsuits over the property and debts of William Kelly, his sons, and Thomas Wooldridge continued for years, such as this 1795 case in Pennsylvania. As for Wooldridge himself, at some point he went back to America. He was in Boston by late 1793, when a couple named a child after him. And he died in Boston on 5 Jan 1794, as recorded at King’s Chapel. The 6 January Boston Gazette reported the death “In this town, Thomas Wooldridge, Esq. aged 54, late an Alderman of the city of London.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Phillis Wheatley and Susanna Wooldridge

Yesterday I proposed that Phillis Wheatley wrote her “Ode to Neptune” about Susanna Wooldridge (sometimes spelled “Woolridge”). Here’s my argument.

On 29 Aug 1771, the New-York Journal ran this piece of news from London:
Saturday last was married, Thomas Wooldridge, Esq; Provost Marshal General, and Receiver General of his Majesty’s province of East-Florida, also Fort Adjutant and Barrack-master of Fort St. Marks, to Miss Kelly, daughter of William Kelly, Esq; of John street, Crutched Friers.
“Crutched Friars” was a newly fashionable neighborhood in the City of London near Tower Hill, named after a monastery closed by Henry VIII and burned in the Great Fire. Kelly later moved into “The Crescent” nearby, shown above in its modern form.

That wedding notice was meaningful for New Yorkers because the bride’s father did a lot of business in the city, and in America. William Kelly was a partner of Abraham Lott, treasurer of New York colony. He invested in the Great Dismal Swamp Company. In the summer of 1773, the East India Company invited Kelly along with select other merchants to discuss shipping tea to America. His business associates and executors included Brook Watson of shark fame.

Kelly’s August 1774 will, written when he was “in Bath for the recovery of a Numbness that has attacked me in my feet,” gives the name of the daughter who married Thomas Wooldridge as Susanna. It also indicates that before the marriage Kelly had promised Wooldridge “£3,000 in lands in the Provinces of New York and New Jersey” while arranging £2,000 for Susanna “free from the debts and control of her husband.”

Thomas Wooldridge has already made an appearance on Boston 1775. My description of him back then was based on his correspondence with the Earl of Dartmouth, mostly about patronage positions in Florida mentioned in the wedding notice above. In 1772 Wooldridge was back in America, traveling around and currying favor by sending Dartmouth various dispatches, an effort that promised to pay off when the earl became Secretary of State.

Among the people Wooldridge met in America, as I described before, was Phillis Wheatley. On 24 Nov 1772 he sent Dartmouth a letter telling how she’d answered his challenge to compose a poem as he watched. He enclosed the result, “To the Earl of Dartmouth,” and Wheatley’s personal letter. Those documents are dated 10 October—the same date as her “Ode to Neptune.” Later that month, he stood sponsor for a baby during a baptism at King’s Chapel and then he went back to New York to write his report to Dartmouth.

I don’t have evidence that Thomas Wooldridge had brought his bride to America and that she was planning to sail back home to London toward the end of 1772. But I think that was the case. She’s certainly a “Mrs. W——” who could be addressed as “Susannah.” Perhaps Susanna Wooldridge came to Boston with her husband and met Wheatley. Perhaps Thomas asked the enslaved poet for a special composition which he could bring back to his wife in New York. But this seems like a more logical story for that poem than that Wheatley wrote it for Susannah Wheatley (who never sailed abroad) or Patience Wright (who never went by “Susannah”).

Under my scenario, “Ode to Neptune” isn’t Phillis Wheatley’s plea for smooth sailing for her beloved mistress or for an artistic colleague, but a well-crafted commission in classical style created for a well-connected patron. Wheatley was adept at that aspect of an eighteenth-century author’s life, just as she was adept with words.

TOMORROW: Thomas and Susanna Wooldridge in London during the war.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mystery of “Mrs. W——”

Yesterday I quoted Phillis Wheatley’s “Ode to Neptune,” published in London in 1773 with the subtitle “On Mrs. W——’s Voyage to England” and dateline “Boston, October 10, 1772.”

For readers seeking to identify “Mrs. W——,” the poem offers some internal clues:
  • Her last initial was W, of course, and she was almost certainly married and alive in October 1772.
  • Later the poem addresses her as “my Susannah.”
  • She was about to make a voyage across the ocean to the Thames River in England.
Given the first two clues, most people’s first guess is that Phillis wrote this poem to her mistress, Susannah Wheatley. Except that other evidence strongly suggests that Susannah Wheatley never went to England.

Phillis Wheatley almost certainly addressed her mistress in another poem titled “A Farewel to America. To Mrs. S. W.” But that was when Phillis was about to sail to London and Susannah was staying behind in Boston.

The next guess is based on notes in a copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 book of poetry owned by the American Antiquarian Society. Beside the “Farewel” poem someone penned “Mrs. Susannah Wright,” and then a different someone penciled, “eminent for her Wax Works etc.”

Scholars agree that the “Mrs. S.W.” mentioned in “A Farewel” is Susannah Wheatley. So some have argued that the notes in that A.A.S. copy were actually meant for another poem—namely, “Ode to Neptune.” A woman named “Susannah Wright” who traveled to England in late 1772 would fit all the internal clues. However, no one has identified such a woman or linked her to the Wheatleys.

The “eminent for her Wax Works” line has prompted other interpreters to assert that Wheatley addressed her “Ode to Neptune” to Patience Wright (shown above), who indeed became famous on both sides of the Atlantic for her wax likenesses of people. Wright was in Boston in the early 1770s, and, like Wheatley, she created a tribute to the Rev. George Whitefield.

Patrick Moseley wrote a whole article in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (2011) about the relationship of Patience Wright and Phillis Wheatley as two women seeking sustenance and respect from their arts in the pre-Revolutionary British Empire. But there remain some inconvenient facts:
  • Patience Wright sailed for England in February 1772, months before Phillis Wheatley wrote her poem about “Mrs. W——” embarking.
  • Wheatley’s poem clearly addresses its subject as “Susannah.”
  • There’s no evidence Wheatley and Wright had any relationship aside from those notes in the A.A.S. copy, which have no source, get Wright’s name wrong, and are attached to a different poem written for someone else.
So here’s my contribution to Wheatley scholarship: The “Mrs. W——” mentioned in “Ode to Neptune” was Susanna Wool(d)ridge, daughter of London merchant William Kelly.