Jimmy Wilson, Boston’s town crier for 50 years, was loved by the city’s children, and was once paid to go around to the schools and announce that they could go play in the new-mown hay on the common.
Wilson was said to have announced the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Bunker Hill. He also announced missing children and the auction sales of furniture, fish or foreign fruit. “No one could equal him in describing the excellence of a cargo of Messina oranges, Malaga raisins, and Smyrna figs,” wrote Edward Griffin Porter in his 1886 book, Rambles in Old Boston.
The town crier for a century and a half was a fixture of urban New England. Though the job was pretty much the same throughout the region, the town crier tended to know everyone in town, and to be loved or hated depending on his idiosyncrasies. He was a combination newspaper, television commercial and, in many cases, stand-up comedian.
Jimmy Wilson was described as having the ideal qualities for the job: a quick wit, a gregarious nature and a powerful voice. He was short, thick-set and red-faced man, with keen eyes. He also owned a tavern that is still in business. It is called, appropriately, the Bell in Hand.
Town Crier, Freelance Ad Man
The town crier dates to 1640, the year Hartford passed an ordinance outlining his duties and Boston Town Meeting chose William Corser for a one-year-term.
In 1702, Boston made the town crier an appointee who was licensed regularly. Anyone who presumed to be a town crier without a license would be fined 10 shillings, according to J.L. Bell in his blog, Boston 1775.
Other cities and towns did the same, though Newport, R.I., had an appointed town crier until after the American Revolution.
The town crier often had another profession and made announcements for whoever would pay him. Jimmy Wilson made brushes from his shop in the basement of the Exchange Coffee House.
The main duties of the town crier were to announce the sale of goods and the loss of property or children, and they had to keep a written record of everything they cried.
Portland, Maine, for example, required the town crier to keep a
true and perfect list of all the matters and things by him cried, and the names of the persons by whome he was employed, and subject to the inspection of the mayor and aldermen.
Portland’s town crier, Samul Buntin, was born in 1730 and worked as a servant for a Scottish nobleman. When Buntin married the nobleman’ daughter, she was disinherited her and the couple moved to Portland. He ‘did all his crying professionally, and prospered, living to be nearly 100 years old.’
John Tucker became Boston’s town crier from at least 1688 because he was ‘educated unto letters.’ He was also ‘weak in body’ and needed a job that didn’t require heavy lifting.
Boston had another town crier named John Jenkins who was weak in body. He did the job until May 7, 1767, according to the Boston Gazette, when he ‘fell down just as he was going out to cry Fish, and died instantly.’
The town crier was strictly forbidden from crying anything obscene or slanderous.
In June 1724, Boston passed an ordinance that said,
if the Cryer or Cryers Shall Cry any vain foolish prophain or Obscene matter, He Shal forfeit and pay Ten Shillings fine, and be Discharged from his Place or Office, And the Person that ordered the Crying thereof, Shall pay a fine of Twenty Shillings.
He also announced news and summoned people to action.
Farmington, Conn., heard about the events leading to the American Revolution from the town crier Mr. Bull. Here’s how Ellen Strong Bartlett’s great-grandmother described how they learned about the Boston Tea Party.
Our town crier, Mr. Bull, has gone up and down our street, proclaiming the news, and to each house he leaves a command from some one who seems to have authority that no one is to use any more English tea…When the town-crier came to our house and told us we must not use any more tea, Mother sat down and cried; it was not really so much the loss of the tea as what all this was leading to.
As Revolution approached, she wrote, “This is only the beginning of our dark and anxious days. Every Sunday, this same town-crier, Mr. Bull, goes through the street beating a drum to call people to meeting, and it is arranged that in any sudden emergency growing out of this war, the drum-beat shall be the summons for all the men to come to the meeting-house.”
In 1772 in Providence, R.I., wealthy businessman John Brown hired a town crier to announce the hated revenue cutter Gaspee was grounded and anyone wishing to destroy her should come to a meeting.
Often the news was more mundane. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the town crier in Salem, Mass., in his Twice-Told Tales:
…he is telling the people that an elephant and a lion and a royal tiger, and a horse with horns, and other strange beasts from foreign countries have come to town and will receive all visitors who choose to wait upon them!
Town Crier, Town Character
Jimmy Wilson would find a spot to stand, ring his bell three times to collect a crowd, then put it under his arm and read his announcement.
After the war he often announced auctions on the steps of the Exchange Coffee House. He often at his post at 9 p.m., and always in a jovial mood. When he announced a missing child, wrote Porter, ‘His account of the agony of bereaved parents would be heart-rending, when he would suddenly explode a joke which would start the crowd off, roaring.’
Nantucket’s town crier blew a fish horn before he rang his bell. Samuel Adams Drake described his technique in an 1875 book called Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast. The town crier knew Drake was from away, and kept an eye on him. He watched for incoming boats from the tower of the Unitarian Church and announced them. According to Drake,
First he wound a terrific blast of his horn. toot, toot, toot, it echoed down the street, like the discordant braying of a donkey. This he followed with lusty ringing of a large dinner-bell, peal on peal…Then, placing the fish hown under his arm, and taking the bell by the tongue, he delivered himself of his formula. I am not likely to forget it: “Two boats a day! Burgess’s meat auction this evening! Corned beef: Boston Theatre, positively last night this evening.”
In 1893, Thomas Bailey Aldrich described Nicholas Newman, the last town crier in his native city, Portsmouth, N.H., His memoir, An Old Town By The Sea, includes memories of his boyhood before the Civil War.
Newman was ‘very short, cross-eyed, somewhat bow-legged, with an odd way of sidling up to people and with a bell out of all proportion to his stature.’
He cried ‘auctions, funerals, mislaid children, traveling theatricals, public meetings, and articles lost or found. He was especially strong in announcing the loss of reticules, usually the property of elderly maiden ladies.’
Newman conscientiously described every single item in the purse. It ‘would have seemed satirical in another person, but on his part was pure conscientiousness,” wrote Aldrich. People called him, ‘that horrid man.’
Town crier William “Billy” Clark (1846-1909) blowing his horn. Clark would blow his horn from the tower of the Unitarian Church to announce approaching boats.