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Monday, October 16, 2017

"The Savage in Man is Never Quite Eradicated" - The New England Vampire Panic

In the late 18th century, a bizarre panic set in throughout rural New England and continued almost until 1900.  Known today as the “New England Vampire Panic”, the century long fear appears to be in response to outbreaks of “consumption”, known today as tuberculosis.  The first known reference to an American vampire scare appeared in the June 1784 edition of the  Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. Moses Holmes warned people to beware of “a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner” who had urged families to dig up and burn dead relatives to stop consumption. Holmes had witnessed several children disinterred at the doctor’s request and wanted no more of it: “And that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves without such interruption, I think the public ought to be aware of being led away by such an imposture.”

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that primarily attacked the lungs.   The infection spreads easily via a sneezing, coughing, speaking, or spitting.  As a result, the infection could easily pass among a family living in close quarters.  When one family member died of consumption, other members were often infected and gradually lost their health.

In the 19th century, the causes of consumption were unknown.  However, many New England residents believed that this was due to the deceased sufferer draining the life from other family members. Fearing that their dead family members may come back to life, many bodies were exhumed to see if any showed signs of being a vampire. The corpse was deemed to be feeding on the living if it was determined to be unusually fresh, especially if the heart or other organs contained liquid blood.



After the culprit was identified, there were a number of proposed ways to stop the attacks. The most benign of these was simply to turn the body over in its grave. In other cases, families would burn the "fresh" organs and rebury the body. Occasionally, the body would be decapitated. Affected family members would also inhale smoke from the burned organs or consume the ashes in a further attempt to cure the consumption and internal organs ritually burned to stop the "vampire" from attacking the local population and to prevent the spread of the disease.  In some areas of New England, participants would burn the heart of the deceased.  

The odd rituals were not simply a family affair.  Often whole towns would participate.  An account of a vampire ritual in Manchester, Connecticut noted hundreds of people appeared for such an event.  “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton . . . It was the month of February and good sleighing.”

Many 19th Century New Englanders, including those in Newburyport, were justifiably skeptical of the practice.  One newpaper noted the practice was an "old superstition" and a "curious idea".  Another opined “we seem to have been transported back to the darkest age of unreasoning ignorance and blind superstition, instead of living in the 19th century, and in a State calling itself enlightened and christian” In 1859, Henry David Thoreau grimly noted “The savage in man is never quite eradicated. I have just read of a family in Vermont--who, several of its members having died of consumption, just burned the lungs & heart & liver of the last deceased, in order to prevent any more from having it.”   

What caused this multi generational fear?  The Boston Daily Globe suggested “perhaps the frequent intermarriage of families in these back country districts may partially account for some of their characteristics.”  European newspapers suggested the phenomenon was the result of copycat killings inspired by “modern novels”.  Somewhat humorously, a reporter for the London Post declared that whatever forces drove the “Yankee vampire,” it was an American problem and most certainly not the product of a British folk tradition.  

Historians suggest the concept of “vampires” was likely introduced by German immigrants or Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution.  Desperate for a way to explain and combat the deadly disease, many New Englanders simply adopted the erroneous belief that the undead were the root cause of their misery.

The last recorded vampire ritual was near the end of the 19tth Century.  By then, the unusual panic caught the attention of Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and possibly influenced some of their literary works.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Whipped Not Exceeding Ten Stripes" - Attempts to Curb the Violence of Boston's Pope's Night

Each year in 18th Century New England, November 5th was celebrated as Guy Fawkes' Day.  The holiday marked the 1605 disruption of the “Gunpowder Plot”.  


During colonial times, the annual commemoration became known as “Pope's Night” and quickly evolved into an anti-Catholic celebration. Effigies of the Devil, Pope, and government officials were often fought over by rival mobs and eventually burned in a huge bonfire.  


By the mid-18th century, violence had become an established part of the Pope Night tradition in Boston. Residents attacked each other with clubs and brickbats, often resulting in serious injuries and even death. Isaiah Thomas recalled that "altho' persons were seldom killed, yet broken heads were not infrequent".


Another resident complained in a letter to the Boston Evening Post “The rudest and lowest Sailors out of Boston ... fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlasses, in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire ... what Madness must seize the two Mobs, united Brethren, even as they would appear against Popery, to fall upon each other, break each other's Bones, or dash one another's Brains out!”


Naturally, Boston's elites were appalled by the rowdy festivities of Pope’s Night and described the revelers as "rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white".  Many residents urged authorities to crack down on the lawless behavior.  In response, in 1748, Boston justices of the peace announced that "whereas sundry persons have heretofore gone about the streets ... armed wh. clubs & demanding money of ye inhabitants and breaking ye windows of ye who refuse it", constables would be dispatched to keep the peace. In 1753 the Massachusetts General Court resolved that "all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies" were prohibited from  "carrying pageants and other shews through the streets and lanes of the town of Boston and other towns of this province, abusing and insulting the inhabitants".  Following an accident on Pope Night in 1764 which resulted in the death of a local boy, the "Sheriff, Justices, and Officers of the Militia" were ordered to clamp down on Pope’s Night activities.  




Of course, authorities also attempted to discourage extortion of residents by Boston youths. In the days leading up to Pope’s Night, young boys from the North End and South End of Boston would often go door to door ringing bells and begging for money to support their faction's activities.  If unsuccessful, the boys would often resort to threats of violence to secure payment.  In response, the Massachusetts General Court 1769 Riot Act imposed penalties for shaking down wealthy residents:  “Be it enacted, That if any Persons being more than three in Number, and being armed all or either of them with Sticks, Clubs, or any kind of Weapons, or disguised with Vizards (so-called) or painted or discolored Faces, or being in any other Manner disguised shall assemble together having Imagery or Pageantry for a public Shew, Shall by Menaces of otherwise exact, require, demand, or ask, any Money or other Thing of Value from any of the Inhabitants or other Person in the Streets, Lanes, of any Town within this Province ... shall for each Offense forfeit and pay the Sum of Forty Shillings, or suffer imprisonment not exceeding one month; or if the Offender shall be a Negro Servant, he may be whipped not exceeding Ten Stripes.”


Unfortunately, law enforcement officials were so overwhelmed during Pope’s Night celebrations that they were simply rendered ineffective and irrelevant.  However, in rare instances, offenders were apprehended and prosecuted.   In 1752, a sailor named John Crabb was clubbed to death on Pope’s Night by Thomas Chubb and a slave named Abraham. Chubb was arrested, tried and convicted.  Afterwards, he was branded on the hand and sentenced to a year in prison for his part in the killing. It is unknown what happened to Abraham.


Even General Washington attempted to discourage the destructive behavior of Pope’s Night.  During the Siege of Boston the commander ordered “As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.”

Ironically, it was time itself that led to the decline in celebrations.  The last Pope’s Night in Boston was in 1776.  Newburyport ceased celebrating the event after 1778.  Salem continued its celebrations until 1817.  Portsmouth appears to be the lone holdout...continuing its Pope’s Night celebrations well into the 1890s.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"The Boys Eke Ev’ry One" - The Role of Boston Boys and Girls During Pope's Night

In our last blog post, we described some of the Pope’s Night celebrations that occurred in different seaports in 18th Century Massachusetts. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the younger male and female participants of Boston's Pope's Night.

In the days leading up to Pope’s Night, young boys from the North End and South End of Boston would go door to door ringing bells and begging for money to support their faction's activities. A period broadside, Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, describes the excitement of the young participants: “The little Popes, they go out First, With little teney Boys: Frolicks they are full of Gale And laughing make a Noise.” Usually the young boys would have with them hand made “little popes, dressed up in the most grotesque and fantastic manner, which they carried about, some on boards, and some on little carriages.”



During the celebration of November 5th, young boys would often use noisemakers to drown out their rivals. Period prints suggest conch shells or “Pope Horns” were the popular choice for noise makers among the young celebrants.

Older boys would also participate in Pope’s Night activities. During evening processions, these boys often donned outlandish costumes. Period accounts suggest older boys wore tall pointed hats that imitated bishops’ mitres, devil costumes covered with tar and feathers, or dressed in drag as Nancy Dawson, an English actress and dancer popular in 18th Century Massachusetts.

It is unclear if women or girls participated in Pope’s Night. The broadside Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night also suggests Bostonian girls were encouraged by their male counterparts to join in the revelry. “The Girls run out to see the Sight, The Boys eke ev’ry one; Along they are a-dragging them, With Granadier’s Caps on.”

Unfortunately, we are unaware of any other period accounts relative to the roles of women and girls during Pope’s Night.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Dressed Up in the Most Grotesque and Fantastic Manner" - Pope's Night

We at Historical Nerdery would like to apologize for our absence over the past few weeks.  We’ve been busy with an awesome side project promoting Newburyport’s heritage through a walking tour.  You can check out our project over at Untapped History.  

Better yet, in the spirit of unabashed self promotion...why not book a tour with us?!?

Self promotion aside, our friends at Revolution250 Boston have been hard at work researching the events surrounding the 1767 “Pope’s Night” celebration, which was clearly influenced by the political and economic tensions surrounding the Townsend Duties.  

So what was Pope’s Night (also known as Pope's Day)?  Each year in 18th Century England, November 5th was celebrated as Guy Fawkes' Day.  The holiday commemorated the thwarting of the “Gunpowder Plot” to overthrow King James I in 1605. In New England, during colonial times, the annual commemoration became known as Pope's Day, and had quickly evolved into an anti-Catholic celebration. Effigies of the Devil, Pope, and government officials were fought over by rival mobs and eventually burned in a huge bonfire at Copp's Hill in Boston.



Violence was commonplace and death a possibility during Boston celebrations.  John Boyle noted in his journal that on November 5,1764 “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.”  John Rowe also recorded the violence of the 1764 celebrations.  “1764 Nov. 5. 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 S° & North End Popes. In the afternoon they got the North End Pope pulled to pieces, they went to the S° 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.”

However, not all Pope Day celebrations ended in gang brawls, death or destruction.  According to an account published in the November 7, 1765 edition of the Massachusetts Gazette.

“Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Commemoration of the happy Deliverance of the English Nation from the Popish Plot, commonly called The Powder Plot, the Guns at Castle William and at the Batteries in Town were fired at one o’clock; as also on board the Men of War in the Harbour.  It has long been the Custom in this Town on the Fifth of November for Numbers of Persons to exhibit on Stages some Pageantry, denoting their Abhorrence of POPERY and the horrid Plot which was to have been executed on that Day in the Year 1605; these Shews of late Years has been continued in the Evening, and we have often seen the bad Effects attending them at such a time; the Servants and Negroes would disguise themselves, and being armed with clubs would engage each other with great Violence, whereby many came off badly wounded; in short they carried it to such Lengths that two Parties were created in the Town, under the Apellation of North-End and South-End: But the Disorders that had been committed from Time to Time induced several Gentlemen to try a Reconciliation between the two Parties; accordingly the Chiefs met on the First of this Instant, and conducted that Affair in a very orderly Manner; in the Evening the Commander of the South entered into a Treaty with the Commander of the North, and after making several Overtures they reciprocally engaged on a UNION, and the former Distinctions to subside; at the same Time the Chiefs with their Assistants engaged upon their Honor no Mischiefs should arise by their Means, and that they would prevent and Disorders, on the 4th.  When the Day arrived the Morning was all Quietness, about Noon the Pageantry, representing the Pope, Devil, and several other Effigies signifying Tyranny, Oppression, Slavery, were brought on Stages from the North and South, and met in King [State] Street, where the Union was established in a very ceremonial Manner, and having given three Huzzas, they interchanged Ground, the South marched to the North, and the North to the South, parading thro' the Streets until they again met near the Court House: The whole then proceeded to the Tree of Liberty, under the Shadow of which they refreshed themselves for a while, and then retreated to the Northward, agreeable to their Plan; – they reached Copp's Hill before 6 o’clock, where they halted, and having enkindled a Fire, the whole Pageantry was committed to the Flames and consumed: This being finished every person was requested to retire to their respective Homes – It must be noticed to the Honor of all those concerned in this business that every thing was conducted in a most regular manner, and such Order observed as could hardly be expected among a concourse of several thousand people – all seemed to be joined, agreeable to their principal Motto Levely Unity – The Leaders, Mr. McIntoth form the South, and Mr. Swift from the North, appeared in Military Habits, with small canes resting on their left arms, having music in Front and Flank; their assistants appeared also distinguished with small reeds, then the respective Corps followed, among whom were a great Number of Persons in Rank: These with the Spectators filled the Streets; not a Club was seen among the whole, nor was any Negro allowed to approach near the Stages; - after the Conflagration the Populace retired, and the Town remained the whole Night in better Order than it had ever been on this Occasion. – Many Gentlemen feeing the Affair so well conducted, contributed to make up a handsome Purse to entertain those that carried it on - This Union, and one other more extensive, may be look'd upon as the (perhaps the only) happy Effects arising from the S-p A-t."


The celebrations were not confined to Boston.  In fact, Pope's Day was popular in several seaports of New England. Prominent celebrations were held in Marblehead, Newburyport, Salem, Newport and  Portsmouth. In 1702, Marbleheaders met the Fifth of November with a bull baiting.  The meat was then distributed to the poor.  The Rev. Ezra Stiles described Newport’s Pope Day in 1771.  "Powder Plot, — Pope &ct carried about;" and again on November 5, 1774, he says, "This Afternoon three popes &ct. paraded thro' the streets, & in the Evening they were consumed in a Bonfire as usual — among others were Ld. North, Gov. Hutchinson & Gen. Gage."  John Adams described November 5th activities in Salem.  “Spent the evening at Mr. Pynchon's, with Farnham, Sewall, Sargeant, Col. Saltonstall &ct. very agreeably. Punch, wine, bread and cheese, apples, pipes and tobacco. Popes and bonfires this evening at Salem, and a swarm of tumultuous people attending.”

Newburyport appears to have had its own elaborate celebration.  As outlined in Joshua Coffin's A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury (1835) “In the day time, companies of little boys might be seen, in various parts of the town, with their little popes, dressed up in the most grotesque and fantastic manner, which they carried about, some on boards, and some on little carriages, for their own and others' amusement. But the great exhibition was reserved for the night, in which young men, as well as boys, participated. They first constructed a huge vehicle, varying at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the lights, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope, and several other personages, monks, friars and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could desire. Their next step, after they had mounted their ponderous vehicle on four wheels, chosen their officers, captain, first and second lieutenant, purser and so forth, placed a boy under the platform, to elevate and move round, at proper intervals, the moveable head of the pope, and attached ropes to the front part of the machine, was, to take up their line of march through the principal streets of the town. Some times in addition to the images of the pope and his company, there might be found, on the same platform, half a dozen dancers and a fiddler, whose together with a large crowd who made up a long procession. Their custom was, to call at the principal houses in various parts of the town, ring their bell, cause the pope to elevate his head, and look round upon the audience, and repeat the following lines . . . After the verses were repeated, the purser stepped forward and took up his collection. Nearly all on whom they called, gave something. Esquire Atkins and Esquire Dalton, always gave a dollar apiece. After peram bulating the town, and finishing their collections, they concluded their evening's entertainment with a splendid supper; after making with the exception of the wheels and the heads of the effigies, a bonfire of the whole concern, to which were added, all the wash tubs, tar barrels, and stray lumber, that they could lay their hands on. With them the custom was, to steal all the stuff.”

Interestingly enough, Newburyport clamped down on the use of effigies and displays during the  Pope’s Night celebrations of 1774.  That year, the town voted “that no effigies be carried about or exhibited on the fifth of November only in the day time.”  When France entered the American Revolution, Newburyport did away completely with the anti-Catholic celebration.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"In Addition to Disarming Them...Their Children Should Be Taken as Hostages.” - The Loyalist Experience in 1775 Albany County

By 1775, the seeds of rebellion had seeped into New York’s Albany County. Although initially slow to respond, many Albany County residents ultimately turned against their Tory neighbors. On May 3, 1775, the Albany Committee of Correspondence voted “ That Mess- Abraham Cuyler and Hendrick Wendell be a Committee to apply to Mr Dirck Ten Broeck for two hundred Stand of small Arms of the Parcel he is Possessed of, and when they are procured to put such of them as require it in proper Hands to be prepared and made fit for immediate Service. From the present state and Turbulance of the County . . . From the information of Col. Johnson respecting the Canadians and on Account of the great uneasiness of the Inhabitants, on these Occasions We conceive it prudent and advisable to have a Strict and Strong Watch well-Armed and under proper Discipline, and the Corporation declining to undertake the same.”

Almost immediately, armed night watches roamed the streets of Albany, the county seat, in an attempt to intimidate those loyal to the King and British government. Organized “committees” disrupted meetings held in Albany’s town hall between the Tory leaning mayor and his aldermen. Local businessmen with questionable loyalties, including the prominent Richard Cartwright, were brutally assaulted and imprisoned. Tories who openly criticized or challenged the rebels’ motives were quickly arrested and sent off to prison. Newspapers and print shops advocating loyalty to the King were immediately suppressed and shut down.


Coordinating the rebel’s efforts were a group of men known locally as the “Tory Committee”. The Tory Committee’s primary charge was to keep in check those loyal to the crown. Of particular interest to the committee was the Scottish population that resided throughout Albany County. The Scottish settlers were known for their fierce loyalty to the Crown. But devotion to the King was not the sole reason for hostility towards the Scots by the Tory Committee and its supporters. Many Scottish settlers were of either Presbyterian or Catholic faiths. Following the aftermath of the French and Indian Wars, the concept of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians openly practicing their religious beliefs deeply concerned their Congregationalist and Anglican neighbors. Worse yet, many Scottish ministers and priests openly welcomed black slaves and local Mohawks into their parishes and churches. This alarmed many local residents, especially those who either owned slaves themselves or lived within striking range of the Mohawk and Oneida tribes. To them, the recruitment of these two classes would most likely lead to either a slave revolt or Indian uprising. As members of the New York Provincial Congress warned early in the American Revolution, “the indulgence and establishment of Popery all along the interior confines of the Protestant Colonies tends not only to obstruct their growth, but to weaken their security.”

Economic competition also motivated the actions of the Tory Committee. As the French and Indian War drew to a close, Scottish sutlers who followed and supplied the Highland regiments established their own businesses throughout Albany County. With a readily accessible customer base and network, many Scottish businessmen easily outpaced their “patriot” counterparts. With the rise in tensions between those loyal to Crown policy and those who were not, the Tory Committee seized upon an opportunity to crush their economic competitors. Merchants such as James and Alexander Robertson were all but helpless as mobs incited by the Tory Committee first shut down their print shop, then their newspaper, the Albany Gazette. Many other merchants were physically jailed merely for suspicion of being a Tory.

As the war progressed, many members of the patriot faction believed those loyal to the Crown were internal foes who needed to be carefully contained. In an effort to limit loyalist military and political influence, early in March of 1776, New York’s Committee of Safety perceived loyalist opposition to be so strong in certain counties, that they “advised that, in addition to disarming them [the Loyalists], their children should be taken as hostages.”

By the Fall of 1776, conditions in Albany County had deteriorated to the point that many Tories started to flee northward towards Canada so as to avoid continued persecution. Those who remained behind were subjected to increased scrutiny and repeated interrogation before committees charged with identifying and incarcerating those loyal to the King. On May 10, 1777, under intense questioning, a suspected Tory denied being a Tory so as to avoid incarceration. Unfortunately, his fate was sealed when refused to renounce his allegiance to the King. “One [man] protested he was no Tory, but was a man for the King”.

As William Bolts accurately predicted, “history abounds with instances of nations driven into madness by the cruelty of oppression; it is the singular situation of us at present that we have been made mad by an impatience of all legal restraint and wanton abuse of power.”

Monday, July 31, 2017

"Denied All Communications" - Newburyport Loyalist Henry Atkins

In the past, we at Historical Nerdery have discussed the various activities of “patriots” that hailed from Newburyport.  But what about the Loyalists from that town?  A quick review of the historical work The Loyalists of Massachusetts: Their Memorials, Petitions and Claims reveals there were five identified Loyalist families and individuals in a town of three thousand on the eve of the American Revolution.

One such individual was Henry Atkins.  Mr. Atkins was born in Boston and until 1772 clerked for the Secretary to the Commissioners of American Customs, Richard Reeve.  On May 1, 1772, he was appointed a “weigher and gauger of Customs at Newburyport.”  Prior to the construction of a custom house in 1835, there had been at least two previous custom houses located in Newburyport.  The first was owned and operated by the English government.  After the war, American custom officers occupied the building and remained there until the early 1820s.  Afterwards, custom officers moved to an abandoned brick store.

The position was a lucrative post and yielded Atkins an annual salary of £80. Unfortunately, Atkins was “openly in favor of Gt. Britain.”  As a result, on July 27, 1775, a Newburyport mob greeted him at the custom house. This “revolutionary party” blocked Atkins from performing his duties and demanded he renounce the policies of the  British government.  When he refused, Atkins was promptly arrested and confined to a local jail.  He remained incarcerated for over two months.  After appearing before the Newburyport Committee of Safety, he was released on bail and confined to his home and gardens.



When Burgoyne launched his invasion from Canada in 1777, Henry Atkins was again asked to renounce his allegiance to the Crown and take up arms against the British government.  When he refused, he was promptly arrested and thrown in jail again.  Shortly thereafter, Atkin’s son was also imprisoned for being a Loyalist

During both occasions of incarceration, Atkins was treated somewhat poorly by his jailers.  According to his cell mate, Captain Edward Barron of the 4th Regiment of Foot, the Loyalist was “denied all communications with friends by letter or otherwise and not suffered even to receive visits from his own children.”  

In April, 1778, Atkins and his son successfully escaped and eventually made their way to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Somehow, Atkins was able to secure safe passage from Newburyport to Canada for the remainder of his family.  

Facing financial ruin, Henry and his son left Nova Scotia in 1780 and travelled to England to secure compensation for his losses during the American Revolution.  He took up residence in Walthamstow, England.  While there he was supported financially by his neighbor Henry Goldthwait.

The Newburyport Loyalist spent the next six years petitioning the English government for restitution.  Ultimately, his health began to deteriorate and on May 24, 1786 he died in England.  His son continued to petition the government for compensation.  In the end, the Atkins family was only paid a lump sum of £40.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"They Performed the Manual Exercise and Filings" - The Independent Marines Prepare for War.

When war with England appeared inevitable, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress looked to the colony’s militia to serve as its military arm. The origins of the Massachusetts militia can be traced back to the reign of Edward I, when Parliament enacted legislation decreeing that every freeman between the age of fifteen and sixty was to be available to preserve the peace within his own county or shire. In the towns where the freemen were located, they were organized into military units known, by the virtue of their periodic training, as “trained bands”. However, when Parliament, under the rule of Charles II, revised membership requirements, established payment protocols and appointed officers, trained bands became known as militias. By the 17th century, militias had become one of the cornerstones of English society. Thus, when Plimouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were founded, the establishment of the militia followed naturally. In both colonies, every man over sixteen automatically became a member. Musters were frequent and mandatory, and punishments were doled out for being absent or not properly equipped. The governor maintained the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis. Each time a new town sprung up, a militia company was formed. As the town expanded, additional companies often were created. When counties were formed, the various town militias within the borders of each county were organized into regiments. The governor held the sole authority to activate the militia in the time of crisis. However, with the elimination of the French threat as a result of the French and Indian War, the need for a militia decreased significantly. After 1763, companies and regiments of Massachusetts militia rarely assembled to drill and as a result, were of little military value. By the eve of the Boston Tea Party, a militia muster was not viewed as a military gathering, but rather as a sort of town holiday offering an opportunity for families and friends to get together.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress recognized it had to “consider what is necessary to be done for the defence and safety of the province.” Quickly, it resolved to wrest control of the militia away from the group of loyalist officers who commanded it. To achieve this, the Provincial Congress first ordered the militias to “meet forthwith and elect officers to command their respective companies; and that the officers so chosen assemble as soon as may be . . . and proceed to elect field officers.” Congress also recognized the need to revitalize and further strengthen the colony’s militia system as quickly as possible. On October 26, 1774, the delegates set into motion the formation of minute companies within Massachusetts. As part of its resolution, it declared "[The] field officers, so elected, forthwith [shall] endeavor to enlist one quarter, at the least, of the number of the respective companies, and form them into companies of fifty privates . . . who shall equip and hold themselves in readiness, on the shortest notice from the said Committee of Safety, to march to the place of rendezvous . . . said companies into battalions, to consist of nine companies each."

Emphasis on proper military skill and supply was strongly encouraged by the delegates. On the same day as the creation of minute companies, the Provincial Congress resolved "That, as the security of the lives, liberties and properties of the inhabitants of this province, depends under Providence, on their knowledge and skill in the art of military, and in their being properly and effectually armed and equipped, it is therefore recommended, that they immediately provide themselves therewith; that they use their utmost diligence to perfect themselves in military skill; and that, if any of the inhabitants are not provided with arms and ammunition according to law, and that if any town or district within the province is not provided with the full town stock of arms and ammunition . . . that the selectmen of such town or district take effectual care, without delay, to provide the same."




Methuen and Haverhill appear to be the first two towns in Northern Essex County to take steps towards preparation for war. Approximately twenty days before the resolutions of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a Methuen Company of Militia declared "Whareas milartrary Exercise hath been much nelicked we the Subcrbers being the first comptrey in methuen Do Covenant and Engage To from our Bevels in to a Bodey in order to Lam the manual Exercise. To be Subegat To Such officers as the Comptrey shall chuse by Voat in all constutenel marsher according to our Chattaers . . .[list of sixty eight men] . . . the ferst Compyney in Methuen meat att Mr. Eben Carlton's in order To Chuse officers, and thay chose Lieut. Benj'm Hall Moder ator, they Chose Mr. James Jones for thar Capt. Mr. Ichobied Perkins furst Leut. Mr. James Wilson Sonent Leut. Mr. Sam Messer Ens. Mr. Nath Messer Jr. Clark for said Compyney."

In Haverhill, the town took the extraordinary step of establishing an artillery company:

Haverhill Sept, 5th. 1774. We the Subscribers, sensible of the importance of a well regulated Military Discipline, do hereby covenant and engage, to form ourselves into an Artillery Company at Haverhill according to the following Articles, — First, That there shall be four officers (viz) a Capt, Lieut, Ensign and Sergeant, who is to act as Clerk, To be chosen by a majority of the Company when met together, 2d. That we will meet together (on the first and third Mondays of September, October and November following, and on the first and third Mondays of the six Summer months annually till the Company shall agree - to dissolve the same) for the exercise of Arms and Evolutions, And that the role shall be called two hours before Sunset, and the Company shall be dismissed at Sunset N. B. If it be fowl weather the Day appointed, the Company shall meet the next fair Day — 3dly. Any one neglecting Due attendance shall be subject to a fine of eight pence, for the use of the Company; unless on a reasonable Pica; excused by the Company, 4thly. That no new member be admitted without the vote of the Company, That each member shall be Equiped with Arms, Accoutriments and Dress, according to Vote of Company, 6thily. That each member shall be supply'd with one Pound of Powder and Twenty Balls ; to be reviewed twice a year ; upon the Days of a chusing Officers, to commence the first Monday in October, from that time, the first Monday in May and August annually.

However, the first Massachusetts independent organization to possibly prepare for war with England may have been Newburyport’s Marine Society. Independent organizations in 18th Century New England were private social or charitable organizations that were often composed of males from the upper echelon of a community. The Newburyport Marine Society was founded on November 5, 1772 by ship captains and merchants.

In September, 1774, the members formed their own military unit known as the “Independent Marines”. As with the Haverhill artillery company and the Methuen militia, it appears the Independent Marines were drilling well over a month before the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued its orders.

According to the September 21, 1774 edition of Essex Journal and Merrimack Packet, “Wednesday last the independent military society in this town met at the town-house compleat in arms and ammunition: After having been reviewed by their officers chosen by the society, they performed the manual exercise and filings, after which they marched to the Mason's arms tavern, and there performed the evolutions; and from thence marched to Mr. William Tell's (a gentleman that has always not only talked, but acted upon the genuine principles of patriotism), who had prepared an elegant entertainment for the society; after spending a few very agreeable hours with a number of gentlemen (whom Mr. 'Feel had invited) in conversation, repast, and drinking a number of loyal and patriotic toasts, the society again rally, march to the town-house, and after firing three vollies lodged their arms. All was conducted with the greatest order and good humour.”

What is also interesting about this particular account is it describes the Independent Marines as being properly armed and equipped. The term “compleat in arms and ammunition” suggests the Independent Marines attended the September drill with muskets, cartridge boxes, packs and edged weapons (either bayonets or swords). In otherwords, the Independent Marines were fully equipped for war.

This is highly unusual. In September, 1774, most Massachusetts towns and independent military companies had not yet adopted measures to properly supply or equip its minute and militia companies. Newburyport did not address the matter until October 21, 1774 when it resolved to put itself on a wartime footing. “Voted that all the Inhabitants of this Town be desired to furnish themselves with arms and ammunition according to Law, and that they have, also, Bayonets fixed to their Guns as soon as may be.” It would be months later that its military companies actually received bayonets and cartridge boxes.