Crime and Scandal

Tavern Tales: Stories from Boston’s Colonial Taverns

Murder, affairs, brawls and politics! They all had a home in Boston’s colonial taverns.

Taverns provided vital services in colonial times. Strangers with no one to vouch for them could stay and dine there. Businessmen conducted meetings and transactions at colonial taverns. News flowed through them. And the taverns served as the political petri dish where the ideas and principles of the American experiment in democracy took root.

Of course, the other element to tavern life was the alcohol they dispensed. The colonial government tightly regulated alcohol – the General Court dictated everything from how much alcohol cost to how much someone could drink. Despite the government’s best efforts, however, Boston’s colonial taverns took center stage in a number of scandals and spats over the years. Here are seven great scandalous tales from colonial taverns in Boston:

Castle Tavern Cuckold

The Castle Tavern – William Hudson kept the Castle Tavern in Dock Square (near Faneuil Hall). It would later go by many names, but that’s how people knew it in 1642. Hudson had returned to England to fight in the English Civil War. For two years, he left his wife and family in the care of a friend. When he returned, however, he found his wife and his friend had gotten too friendly. Servants in the home saw the pair slipping into the bedroom together and accused them of adultery.

Adultery called for the death penalty, and that’s what the town’s magistrates recommended. A jury, however, adopted a more lenient posture and convicted them of “adulterous behavior,” accepting the woman’s story that the two had, in fact, been in bed together (as reported by servants). However, they did not consummate their affair because she persuaded her suitor it would be wrong.

As punishment, the couple stood in the town gallows for an hour wearing halters, and then submitted to a whipping. Hudson accepted his wife’s story and the two lived happily ever after.

Drunken Lawmaking at the Royal Exchange

In 1747, Boston’s Old Statehouse burned. The building still stands today, after repairs. The first floor housed the mercantile exchange, while the second floor held offices for the governor, assembly and courts. Many records survived the fire, though it did prompt the Commonwealth to establish laws requiring records be duplicated and backed up.

Repairs would be completed in 1748, but for a time the fire rendered the General Court homeless. Where better to makes laws than a tavern? And that’s where the legislators relocated: to the Royal Exchange. The Exchange was popular with Masons. It also featured in another shady event, this one in 1728. Henry Phillips and Benjamin Woodbridge had been drinking at the tavern when they got into an argument. The fight escalated until Woodbridge and Phillips found themselves on Boston Common, dueling with swords. Two sons of well-known families dueling caused a stir.

Woodbridge died of wounds incurred in the fight. Woodbridge, meanwhile, with aid from wealthy friends, fled Boston for France, where Phillips would die before 1730, leaving behind a massive lawsuit over his estate and a slew of new laws increasing the penalties for dueling.

Outrage at the British Coffee-House

The British Coffee-House, also on State Street, served as a sort of headquarters for the royalist faction in Boston. Here, a heated fight broke out between the Patriot agitator James Otis and British officers in 1769. One officer struck Otis on the head. The effects of the blow lingered for the rest of his life.

But the tavern gained notoriety first nearly 20 years earlier. In 1750 the tavern presented a play, Thomas Otway’s “The Orphan.” The play tells a tragic story of a love triangle that ends in suicides all around. Theater was frowned upon in New England and this play particularly infuriated the public . . . so much that the government outlawed the performance of plays altogether.

Poison At The Golden Ball Colonial Tavern

In 1735, Humphrey Scarlett owned the Golden Ball Tavern, also located near Faneuil Hall. The tavern dated back about 100 years at that point, with Scarlett as its latest keeper.

Scarlett and his second wife, Mary, had a year earlier had a son, and apparently their servants did not think highly of their living arrangements. Two black servants (some sources identify them as slaves), tried to poison the entire family, according to a criminal indictment. The two servants put arsenic in the chocolate and served it at breakfast.

The pair tried to implicate a maid in the scheme, but she proved her innocence by showing that she, too, had drunk some of the chocolate – something she would hardly do if she knew it contained poison.

Caesar and Yaw – the servants – had to stand on the gallows for an hour with a noose around their necks and endure 39 lashes with a whip as punishment for the attempted murder.

Eloping at the Exchange

Royal Exchange – Located on State Street at the corner of Exchange, the two-story building passed through several owners. In 1772 it became the Boston end of the first Boston-to-New York stage, and was a stagecoach stop for decades. It also no doubt witnessed its fair share of agitation in the days leading up to the American Revolution, as it looked out on the spot where the Boston Massacre occurred.

The Exchange’s clientele skewed toward the loyalists. Mrs. Mary Clapham, in charge of the tavern, boarded a number of British officers at the establishment – a decision she may have regretted. Clapham had several daughters, one of whom took a liking to their British guests and eloped with an officer who caught her eye.

Gambling for Grapes

The Bunch of Grapes tavern stood on State Street. John Marston, originally from Salem, managed the tavern before and during the American Revolution. Marston had an illustrious military career and served on Boston’s Committee of Correspondence during the war, helping to arm and supply the revolutionary soldiers.

John Marston also reportedly took part in the Boston Tea Party – which seems plausible since the Bunch of Grapes served as an unofficial headquarters for the Sons of Liberty, who plotted the revolt against England.

But Marston also had a blot on his record, as well. In 1778 he was cautioned by the courts. His crime? Allowing or encouraging gambling at his establishment with games such as backgammon.

Off With Cromwell’s Head

Politics permeated Boston’s taverns, and none more so than the oddly named Cromwell’s Head on School Street. In England, Cromwell’s literal head served as a warning to any who would challenge the authority of the king.

Oliver Cromwell, bearing the title Lord Protector, took charge of England after his colleagues beheaded King Charles I during the English Civil War. Cromwell died in 1658 of natural causes and his countrymen buried him in a ceremony every bit as grand as a funeral for a king. However, when the monarchy returned to England, under King Charles II, the government disentombed Cromwell and his fellow revolutionaries, removed Cromwell’s head and posted it on a stick in London as a warning to potential traitors. There it stood for 20 years (give or take).

In Boston 100 years later, however, Cromwell’s head did not represent a repudiation of the man. Rather, Cromwell’s Head tavern celebrated his pluckiness and willingness to take on the king, or at least that’s how the British loyalists saw it.

When passing by, loyalists would cross to the other side of the street rather than pass under Cromwell’s likeness on the sign above the tavern door. And, when the British took control of Boston in the early days of the American Revolution, the tavern owners had to remove the sign and store it for safekeeping. It made its return after the hostilities ended.

Thanks to:

The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, John Winthrop.

Old Boston Taverns and Tavern Clubs, Samuel Adams Drake, Walter K. Watkins.

Diary of the Rev. Samuel Checkley, edited by Henry Winchester.

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