Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had one of the finest homes in Boston – until August 26, 1765.
On that 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. Hutchinson, though, wasn’t necessarily the right person to protest.
The early incarnation of the Sons of Liberty had already taken out its anger on Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Andrew Oliver, Massachusetts’ future tax stamp administrator. On this night a mob wanted to continue the protest, though their anger went beyond Oliver.
Protesters began gathering around a bonfire on King Street, drinking and discussing what to do next. They first went 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.
They broke into the home of William Story, register of the court of admiralty, and destroyed his papers along with some of his belongings.
Mobs, Once Raised…
William Gordon told the story in his 1788 History of the Independence of America:
…he 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,” he noted, and direct the mob to do something other than their original intent.
The mob proceeded to the house of Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of the customs for Boston. There they broke in and tore through his papers. This time, they 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.
Bare Walls and Floors
Someone had warned Hutchinson of the mob’s approach. By the time the crowd arrived, Hutchinson had already sent most of his children away and barred his doors and windows. A few moments before they reached his house, Hutchinson’s daughter persuaded him to leave.
The rioters smashed through his front door with an ax and poured into the house through all available doors and windows. Once inside, they took everything they could move: clothes, silver, paintings. Seeking shelter at one neighbor’s house, Hutchinson had to scamper through the gardens to a house more distant when he learned the mob searched 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.
The Damage Done
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,” he wrote. Though that alone cost them two hours, they cut down the cupola and lantern and began to take the slate and boards from the roof.
Only the approaching daylight prevented them from totally demolishing 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,” he wrote.
They carried off about £900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything including family pictures, plate, household furniture, his children’s and servants’ clothing. They did leave a part of the kitchen furniture. Otherwise they left not a single book or paper in the house. The mob scattered or destroyed manuscripts and papers he’d collected for 30 years, plus public papers in his custody,
He had taken off his coat and put a ‘thin camlet surtout’ over his waistcoat before fleeing. The next morning, the weather turned cold and Thomas Hutchinson had to ask his host to borrow a coat.
His plate and clothing later turned up around town, but the mob had smashed all his furniture, cut open the beds and thrown the feathers 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 helped the collection of the taxes by issuing writs of assistance. Those gave the holder the legal right to search the property of people suspected of avoiding payments.
One dark rumor held that the mob targeted Thomas Hutchinson’s house 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. His city home thus became one of the first casualties in the American Revolution.
Voice of Reason
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. He believed that maintaining and protecting them cost far more than their worth in terms of trade. Hutchinson 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.
He always thought taxing America inadvisable, he continued. “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 distrusted Massachusetts residents after that night and more supportive of oppressing the budding rebels.
This story about Thomas Hutchinson was updated in 2019.