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Wednesday, February 26, 2014


In heavens eternal court it was decreed
Thou the first martyr for the common good

 - Phillis Wheatley, On the Death of Mr Snider Murder'd by Richardson

In 1770, John Adams wrote in his diary:

Monday. February 26, or thereabouts. Rode from Weymouth;—stopped at my house, Veasey’s blacksmith shop, my brother’s, my mother’s, and Robinson’s.

These five stops took up the day. When I came into town, I saw a vast collection of people near Liberty Tree; inquired, and found the funeral of the child lately killed by Richardson was to be attended. Went into Mr. Rowe’s and warmed me, and then went out with him to the funeral. A vast number of boys walked before the coffin; a vast number of women and men after it, and a number of carriages. My eyes never beheld such a funeral; the procession extended further than can be well imagined.

This shows there are many more lives to spend, if wanted, in the service of their country.

It shows, too, that the faction is not yet expiring; that the ardor of the people is not to be quelled by the slaughter of one child and the wounding of another.

At club, this evening, Mr. Scott and Mr. Cushing gave us a most alarming account of Otis. He has been, this afternoon, raving mad; raving against father, wife, brother, sister, friend, &c.

It is a little remarkable that no notice is taken in the Diary of the case of Captain Preston and the soldiers, for several years after the time at which it occurred.

I find it interesting that Adams apparently made no mention of the event in his diary.  Wonder if he was too busy at the time to record details, and his later writings about it were reconstructed from memory and perhaps his legal notes.

We'll take a look at the Boston Massacre and its remembrances next week.  In the meantime, I wanted to note a few other things from this passage.

Adams refers to a man named Ebenezer Richardson, who was reportedly an unsavory character, an informant and after his cover was blown, became a Customs employee.  Customers officers were not very popular in Boston.  Much of the unrest in the early 1770s was about not only "taxation without representation" but also involved a bit of mob rule regarding non-importation agreements (boycotts, before the term was invented) and their enforcement.  

So here's what went down:

Bostonians, in January 1770, voted to deny “not only all commercial dealings, but every act...of common civility” from merchants who were especially flagrant violators. Four merchants — John Taylor, William Jackson, Nathaniel Rogers, and Theophilus Lillie — were singled out for special abuse. Schoolboys taunted them, their houses and shops were pelted with dirt, and potential customers suffered intimidation. Defacecl shop signs were replaced with placards warning against buying from them. Three February Thursdays in a row, market day in Boston and a school holiday, crowds gathered at the merchants’ homes. 

On the last of those Thursdays, February 22, a crowd collected at Lillie’s home. A placard painted with the features of importers was erected pointing toward the house. According to one account of the event, Richardson, who lived nearby, became enraged by the sign. He urged others to knock it down with their wagons. Unable to convince anyone, he seized a cart and attempted to do so himself. Richardson and the crowd traded insults. Retreating to his home, he vowed to defend it with a seaman, George Wilmot, who appears to have had connections with the customs commission.

Despite the danger, there was a theatrical, almost farcical, touch to the riot. Richardson and his wife repeatedly went into the street and men- aced the schoolboys who had gathered. When the boys began throwing light rubbish, Richardson responded by pointing a gun out his door. The crowd, angered by this threat of violence, pelted the house with stones. Windows were broken. According to a sympathetic source, Richardson used his weapon only after being struck quite hard with a rock. He fired a volley of bullets, wounding two schoolboys. Eleven-year-old Christopher Snider, struck in the chest and pierced by almost a dozen bullets, would die later that night.

With that backdrop, one can understand the tensions leading up to the Boston Massacre a couple weeks later.  One also appreciates John Adams' involvement in the British soldiers' defense, given the potential for vigilante justice:

After the shooting, the mob seized Richardson and Wilmot. More people gathered as the bell at the New Brick meeting house was rung. The riot and shooting demonstrated that civil authority had broken down in Boston. What should be clone with Richardson? “The first thought was to hang him up at once,” [Lieutenant-Governor Thomas] Hutchinson claimed, “and a halter was brought and a sign post picked upon.” Although Hutchinson had sent a sheriff to impose order, he was afraid to interfere. Patriot leaders were not.

William Molineux rescued Richardson from hanging, and other Bostonians, acting like a sheriff or posse comitatus, captured him and brought the prisoner before Justice of the Peace john Ruddock. Richardson also understood this as the popular usurpation of police power. Denying the crowd’s right to arrest him, Richardson threatened to resist. He demanded that he would only “resign himself to a proper officer.”

The justice of the peace consigned Richardson to constables, who escorted him to Faneuil Hall. They had to contend with “the mob endeavoring to put a rope around his neck and take him from the con- stables to execute him themselves.”" At Faneuil Hall, Richardson was examined by a panel of iudges — Richard Dana, Samuel Pemberton, and Edmund Quincy — and sent to prison for his own safety. Here, too, the public interjected itself in iudicial proceedings. More than a thousand people, according to one newspaper's count, were present at the examination. Popular justice and official justice were not distinct and separate spheres...

The child's memorial was a big deal:

There were 500 school boys and 1,000 people. According to Hutchinson, not a sympathetic observer, the funeral was “perhaps the largest ever known in America.” Six youths supported the coffin from the Liberty Tree, where Snider’s corpse was displayed, during the procession to the burial ground.

The funeral was grand political theater. An inscription in silver letters at the foot of the coffin read: “Later aguis in berba — the serpent is lurking in the grass,” a reference to Richardson and other political opponents. On the Liberty Tree a placard was hung with the threat that “thou shall take not satisfaction for the life of a murderer - he shall surely be put to death.” While the Latin motto underscored the fact that the Liberty Tree, like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, was surrounded by serpents, the placard borrowed its authority from an apodictic Hebrew scriptural code. The Bible provided a touch of official legality to what might be called law out-of-doors.

An excellent example of Method: 45. Demonstrative funerals, and there would be more.  Wonder if we could galvanize public opinion in a similar fashion over, say...people dying from lack of insurance.  There are some states suffering a Massacre every day.  We should change that.


February 26, 2014 | Permalink


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