Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had one of the finest homes in Boston – until August 26, 1765. That was the night violence boiled over in response to the British plans to impose the Stamp Act on the colonies. The tax would have applied to all official papers in the colonies, but Hutchinson wasn’t necessarily the obvious person to choose to protest against.
The early incarnation of the Sons of Liberty had already taken out its anger on Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Andrew Oliver, who was to be Massachusetts’ tax stamp administrator. On this night a mob wanted to continue the protest, though their anger was more widely focused.
Protesters began gathering in King Street, around a bon fire, drinking and discussing what to do next. Their first move was to go to the home of Mr. [Charles] Paxton, marshal of the court of admiralty and surveyor of the port. Paxton calmed the crowd and invited them to a nearby tavern for a barrel of punch. While he saved his own home, he fueled the growing crowd for their next stop, the home of William Story, register of the court of admiralty, where they broke in and destroyed his papers along with some of his belongings.
William Gordon told the story in his 1788 History of the Independence of America:
“It is the opinion of some that the first movers in the affair meant mainly an assault on the house of the deputy register who, by various mal-practices, had made himself highly obnoxious to persons doing business in his office. But mobs, once raised, soon become ungovernable by new and large accessions, and extend beyond their intentions far beyond those of the original instigators. Crafty men may intermix with them when they are much heated, and direct their operations quite differently from what was at first designed.”
The mob proceeded to the house of Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of the customs for Boston, where they broke in and tore through his papers and this time expanded their activities, taking clothing, money and liquor from his cellars, which they proceeded to drink. This fueled the crowd for their final stop of the evening, the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
By the time the crowd arrived, Hutchinson had already sent most of his children away and barred his doors and windows, having been warned that the mob was coming. But he was persuaded to leave by his daughter a few moments before they arrived.
The rioters smashed through his front door with an ax and filled the house via all available doors and windows. Once inside, they took everything that was movable: clothes, silver, paintings. Seeking shelter at one neighbor's house, Hutchinson was forced to scamper through the gardens to a house more distant when he learned the mob was searching for him.
By four in the morning, "one of the best finished houses in the province has nothing remaining but bare walls and floors. Gentlemen of the army, who have seen towns sacked by an enemy, declare they never saw such fury," Gordon recorded.
Thomas Hutchinson would describe the event in a letter:
“Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the Partition walls and although that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola or lantern and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat and all my trees &c broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. Besides my Plate and family
"Pictures, household furniture of every kind, my own my children and servants apparel, they carried off about £900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything whatsoever except a part of the kitchen furniture not leaving a single book or paper in it and have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for 30 years together besides a great number of Public papers in my custody. The evening being warm I had undressed me and slipped on a thin camlet surtout over my waistcoat, the next morning the weather being changed I had not clothes enough in my possession to defend me from the cold and was obliged to borrow from my host. Many articles of clothing and good part of my Plate have since been picked up in different quarters of the town but the furniture in general was cut to pieces before it was thrown out of the house and most of the beds cut open and the feathers thrown out of the windows.
“The next evening I intended with my children to Milton but meeting two or three small Parties of the Ruffians who I suppose had concealed themselves in the country and my coachman hearing one of them say there he is, my daughters were terrified and said they should never be safe and I was forced to shelter them that night at the castle.”
In addition, as a judge he actively assisted the collection of the taxes by issuing writs of assistance, which gave the holder the legal right to search the property of people suspected of avoiding payments.
One dark rumor held that Thomas Hutchinson’s house had been targeted because it contained papers that might alter the grant of lands in the Kennebec region of Maine (then part of Massachusetts) to the New Plymouth Company. Regardless, Hutchinson abandoned his house and moved to his country home in Milton, making his city home one of the first casualties in the American Revolution.
Thomas Hutchinson, actually, was something of a voice of reason on the British side. He would later record that he had tried to convince Britain to weigh carefully whether England wouldn’t be better off granting the colonies their independence, given that maintaining and protecting them cost far more than they were worth in terms of trade. Unfortunately, he saw the empire and its impudent colonies slowly locking themselves into intractable positions that would inevitably lead to revolution.
Later he would record: “I did not approve of the Stamp Act; but I never had seen an opportunity since the repeal of it when Government could have conceded to the claims of America, without admitting their principle of total independence. . . . I ever thought the taxing of America by Parliament not advisable, but as a servant of the Crown, I thought myself bound to discountenance the violent opposition to the Act, as it led to the denial of its authority in all cases whatsoever, and in fact, had brought on the Rebellion.”
Still, the loss of his property embittered him. He was more distrustful of the residents of Massachusetts after that night and more supportive of oppressing the budding rebels.
This story about Thomas Hutchinson was updated in 2017.