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, May 04, 2017

“A supposed murder committed on the body of one Henry Sparker”

Yesterday I quoted from the 9 May 1768 Boston Chronicle about a fatal dispute in Newport, Rhode Island.

That same day, Solomon Southwick of the Newport Mercury (his house shown here) ran his first report about the same event:
On the Night following [another event], between 11 and 12 o’Clock, as Mr. Henry Sparker, Shoe-Maker, of this Town, and Mr. Philip Dexter of Providence, being in Company with some of the People belonging to his Majesty’s Sloop Senegal, now in this Harbour, commanded by Capt. [Thomas] Cookson, a Difference happened between them, which ended in a very tragical Manner; Sparker being run almost thro’ the Body, with a Sword, as ’tis supposed; by which he died in about an Hour after; and Dexter received a Stab in his right Side, and had his head very much cut and mangled, by which his Life is still in Danger.

The Senegal’s Men concerned in this unhappy Affair are Mr. Robert Young, Mate, Mr. Thomas Careless, and Mr. Charles John Marshall, Midship-men; who are now confined in his Majesty’s Jail in this Town, and are to have their Trial on the first Monday in June next. As yet it seems to be a little uncertain who were the first Aggressors in this melancholy Event, the Particulars must therefore be deferred till after the Trial.
The June trial date was notable in itself. Ordinarily the colony’s superior court wouldn’t have convened until September. But on 4 May, the day after the arrest of the three naval officers, the Rhode Island legislature convened and approved
An Act empowering the justices of the superior court of judicature, court of assize and general jail delivery, to meet and hold a special court, for the trial of Thomas Careless, Charles John Marshall and Robert Young, officers on board His Majesty’s ship of war, the Senegal, now lying at anchor in the harbor of Newport, who stand committed to His Majesty’s jail, in Newport, for a supposed murder committed on the body of one Henry Sparker, in the night time, on Tuesday, the 3d day of this instant May.
The stated reason for not waiting until September was that “His Majesty’s service, by their detention in jail until that time, may greatly suffer.”

The Newport Mercury report differs in some notable ways from what the Boston Chronicle stated the same day. Most significantly, the local newspaper identified the dead man as shoemaker Henry Sparker instead of a “Dutchman” (Dutch or German?) named Nichols. It said the other American in the fight, Philip Dexter, was from Providence rather than a Newport sailor. It said that Robert Young was a mate, not merely a midshipman, on H.M.S. Senegal. Presumably these details are more reliable than the report printed off in the neighboring colony.

On the other hand, the Newport Mercury said much less about the “melancholy Event” itself than the Massachusetts paper. There was no mention of the dispute starting at “a house of ill fame” or description of how the violence developed. Southwick left out Sheriff Joseph G. Wanton’s difficulty in securing the three officers from an angry, defiant crowd. Some of those omissions might be due to how the local readership had already heard a lot about the killing over the preceding week. But the Mercury was also making its home base look better.

On 3 June, exactly one month after the fatal fight, attorney general Oliver Arnold prosecuted Young, Careless, and Marshall on the charge of murder.

COMING UP: Well, of course I was going to break here, wasn’t I?

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