Ebenezer Richardson, The Informer
Richardson, born in Woburn, Massachusetts made his living as a customs official for the British Administration at Boston Harbor, Massachusetts. The local Sons of Liberty considered him a snitch.
He had a privileged position. Thanks to the Writ of Assistance of 1660 the customs officials in the British Empire had a blanket court order to enter on demand any private or public structure and search for smuggled goods. Parliament offered incentives to their North American representatives to aggressively do their job. One-third of any cash converted from confiscated goods was the customs officials’ reward. The magistrate that signed the writ also received one-third and the British government the remaining third.
Richardson was very competent at irritating the local Puritans beyond his money-making endeavors as a customs official. He married for money. During his marriage, he impregnated his wife’s sister. In denial, he blamed the event on their local minister. The reverend was driven out of town. Richardson’s wife died. He married her sister and charged his wife’s estate for the maintenance of her children.
Richardson continued a running battle over the non-importation of British goods with the Sons of Liberty. This quote sets the scene for Richardson’s most felonious episode.
“The occasion arrived on 22 February 1770, a Thursday, which, like all Thursdays, was by Boston custom a market day and a school holiday; plenty of idle schoolboys as well as numerous up-country farmers stood available to bolster the already powerful Boston mob.”
Richardson worked himself into a frenzy over a non-importation sign planted on his neighbor’s house, Theophilus Lillie. The sign was the handy-craft of the Sons of Liberty and was not the first or last time a merchant’s home would be violated by a mob. Lillie’s intelligent defense of his business practice is available at Boston 1775, linked here.
As the evening progressed Richardson attempted to remove the sign using another vendor’s horse and wagon as a battering ram. He failed. Richardson was now amongst the crowd and clearly more a target than Lillie.
As verbal abuse was given and taken, Richardson’s windows seemed to attract any and all available stones and oyster shells lying in the road. Too many adolescents leaned on his fence and gate until it collapsed. Eventually, his wife was hit by a projectile launched by Richardson and returned by the Sons of Liberty. He had enough. Richardson rushed into his house, not to escape the crowd but to get his blunderbuss on the second floor. He pointed it out the window and fired. Poor Christopher Seider, a German immigrant of a few months, reached down to find a small object and was hit with eleven pellets from Richardson’s gun. Despite the aid of every Boston doctor, Seider, aged eleven, died a few hours later in his mother’s arms. Christopher Seider’s story is linked here.
Richardson was nearly lynched but William Molineaux, perhaps the instigator of this non-importation riot, rushed him to jail with momentum provided by a raging crowd. He was tried and found guilty of murder in the first degree. The judge delayed sentencing expecting, and months later receiving, a pardon from Parliament. Richardson rushed off to the customs office in Philadelphia and continued to build on his substantial reputation.
Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston massacre. New York, W.W. Norton, 1970.
https://www.masshist.org/database/318 The Boston Gazette 3/5/1770
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