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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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

“About midnight a fray happened at a house of bad fame”

On 3 May 1768, a man was killed in Newport, Rhode Island.

This is how the 9 May Boston Chronicle reported the incident:
We hear from Newport, that on Tuesday the 3d inst. about midnight a fray happened at a house of bad fame there, between some of the officers of the Senegal man of war on that station, one Nichols a Dutchman a shoemaker, and one Dexter a sailor, both belonging to Newport.—

It began in the house with high words, during which Dexter put out the candle, and a scuffle ensuing one of the officers had his nose cut off, then Nichols and Dexter went away, and the people belonging to the man of war, went to a doctor’s—

Soon after their departure, it is said, Dexter having changed his dress, came back to the house with a club stuck with nails, threatening to search it, but on being answered they were not there, after some time departed, they however unluckily met again in the street, came to blows, when Nichols and Dexter were both run through the body—the Dutchman immediately ran home, called out that he was a gone man, and died in a few minutes. Dexter was alive when the post came away, but, it was thought could not long survive.

Next day an application being made to Capt. [Thomas] Cookson, of the Senegal, he expressed much sorrow for what had happened, accompanied the sheriff [Joseph G. Wanton] on board his ship, and delivered up his officers to the civil authority; a vast concourse of people attended their landing, and threatened to dispatch them; but by the prudent management of the sheriff, they were safely conducted to the court house, followed by the croud, where they were examined, and afterwards committed to gaol.

During the examination, several of the croud behaved with such indecency to the judges, that they ordered the sheriff to carry them to gaol, but the mob prevented him from putting their orders in execution.
There was no overt political aspect to this dispute. But, according to Wilkins Updike’s Memoirs of the Rhode-Island Bar (1842), it “excited an intense interest growing out of the exasperated state of animosity existing between this country and Great Britain, respecting the Stamp act.” So the mob threatened to lynch the naval officers and defied their own judges.

Or did they? This account of the killing contained a serious inaccuracy: the name of the dead man. So how many of the other details didn’t reach the Boston press intact?

TOMORROW: The report from Newport.

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