John Adams 1st of three Legal Victories; a Murder on the HMS Rose; A major Confrontation running up to the the Boston Massacre
The British military began its occupation of Boston on October 1, 1768. Thus began the inevitable march to the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. Boston initially greeted the occupation with complacency. Multiple impressment events during April 1769, by the desperate British Navy, would ignite the entire town of Boston and lead to a murder trial watched by the entire British Empire.
In April 1769, John Adams, at the age of thirty-five, lived on Brattle Street Boston with his young sprite family. The British occupation force was a very contemptible fixture in his neighborhood with daily drills and untimely military band rehearsals, often on the Sabbath. Adams was a very even-tempered Colonist, yet eight verses of Yankee Doodle Dandy played routinely by the British Military band were maddening. It was a high-pitched military song with a historical backhanded slight that questioned every Colonist’s manhood.
John’s legal practice and reputation were thriving on Brattle Street. Nearby, the Liberty Tree, at the southern entrance to the Common served as a rallying point for protests against the Stamp Act. He would soon move his family to a quiet farm in Braintree.
John Adams’ defense of four Irishman in April 1769, would be the first major political stepping stone to a great legal career. Unfortunately, his legal practice would suffer. In just three months he would defend John Hancock at his libel trial against the British Admiralty. Less than a year later John would boldly defend the nine British soldiers accused of murder during the “bloody riot on King Street,” known today as the Boston Massacre. The success of his first challenge to the British Empire brought him prominence throughout the Thirteen Colonies and the world. His new farm provided for the economic well-being of his family for years to come.
From here, we will discuss the HMS Rose incident. First, we offer you our earlier blog providing an overview of the history of impressment by the Royal Navy. Under our blog category Colonial Boston, there is material to consume an evening of reading about the Admiralty’s extra-legal assumptions of power. For now, stay with us here for the story of John Adams’ first step to prominence.
It began with the HMS Rose, a British Frigate built in 1757 as a six rate ship of the line. Roughly speaking she was the equivalent of the USS Constitution, just an earlier design, and generation. Her length was 180 feet, she required 20 miles of rope rigged or in storage for an ocean voyage and weighed about nine-hundred and fifty-thousand pounds. Typically, she would run full sail with 24 cannons, 126 officers, and seamen. While her expertise was to seal off ports and eliminate smuggling she was quite adequate for offensive operations. Unfortunately, The Rose and the British Navy worldwide routinely suffered manpower shortages. During the Spring of 1769, the Rose sailed to the Carribean. Six sailors including the night watch officer deserted. Typical of a ship of the line, the ensign in training was fourteen years old with three years of high seas experience. Not exactly the experienced commanding officer wanted as the captain slept.
Captain Caldwell, an Irishman of Dublin, decided to solve his manpower needs by impressing as he sailed the coast of New England. He stopped a commercial vessel and impressed a Colonist from North Carolina attempting to return to his family. Hours later the Rose impressed an English merchant sailing to England.
The Rose was still short-handed. On April 23, 1769, H.M.S. Rose attempted to haul over a local brig. A commercial brig is our equivalent of a box truck, making deliveries up and down the coast. If you did profiling in the 18th Century, you would be better off assuming that this brig was mostly transporting domestic product and move on to bigger prizes. To avoid capture, several seamen took to a row boat and ran to shore.
Next, H.M.S. Rose intercepted the Pitt Packet inbound to Marblehead seven leagues from the port.[i] Three leagues are the equivalent today of nine nautical miles. Pitt Packet is owned by a Mr. Hooper and captained by Thomas Power, both of Marblehead.
After several warning shots, the Pitt-Packet prepared to accept a boarding party. Incidentally, included in the boarding party was the impressed North Carolinian. You can imagine his confusion. Captain Caldwell ordered Lieutenant Panton to board the Pitt Packet. He reached the top deck with his sword encased in his scabbard. He removed his sword and laid it on the deck. Panton entreated the captain to direct him to the main cabin. The two officers walked to the lower rear deck accompanied by several British marines. Panton inspected the ship's manifest and concluded that this outbound ship had hundreds of lemons, several casks of rum fermented in Boston, and a good deal of salt on board with proof the owner paid his customs duties.
At this moment Panton is alarmed by shouting from the top deck. The remainder of his boarding party found a secret hiding place containing Michael Corbet and three other Irish seamen. The British sailors could not reach the four Irishmen from the top deck. Upon Panton's return to the main deck, he replaced his sword in his scabbard. His party moved down to the foredeck and began dismantling the secret panels hiding the four Irishmen. Upon completion Lt. Panton came face to face with Michael Corbet. Panton attempted to talk the Irishmen into a peaceful surrender. Some pushing and shoving ensued, and certain fishing instruments were thrust at the British sailors. A pistol was fired into the dark foredeck wounding Michael Corbett in the face. Seconds later Private William Peacock discharged his musket breaking the arm of the Irish seaman, John Ryan, causing a serious loss of blood. All four Irishmen continued to resist. A third musket was discharged by one of the Irish seamen penetrating no more than a British sailors coat.
The stench and darkness caused by the gunpowder led to a pause in the confrontation. During the lull, Corbet removed some salt and drew a line in the sand. According to John Adams’ diary,[ii] Corbet said to Panton, “If you step over this line, I shall consider it as proof that you are determined to impress me, and by the eternal God of Heaven, you are a dead man.” Corbet’s statement might suggest that he, like thousands of Englishmen and Colonists, read William Blackstone’s[iii] Commentaries on personal liberties. All four Irishmen seemed to know their rights. They were about to defend their freedom at all cost. Panton responded, “Aye, my lad, I have seen many a brave fellow before now.”[iv] Panton opened his snuff-box and sniffed a pinch, perhaps to calm his nerves. Most eyewitness’ suggest that Panton then took one step over the line and Corbet thrust a fish gig into his neck cutting his carotid artery three inches wide and deep, ending Panton’s life.
In the interim, the four Irishmen must have assumed their life was at an end and began to drink heavily. The Irishmen were captured easily once the sailors returned Lt. Panton’s body to the Rose. Captain Caldwell, now on the Pitt-Packet, must have been at his disciplined best, preventing the Rose compliment from rendering immediate justice. The Irishmen were returned to Boston, though, lack of wind delayed Rose’s entrance to Boston Harbor by two days. The Pitt-Packet tied up at Rowe’s Wharf. The British Admiralty Court rented space at Rowe’s for administrative and warehouse needs. In all, the Admiralty felt it had jurisdiction over this apparent crime at sea.
A few days before the upcoming trial the British military organized a significant funeral procession and laid Lt. Panton to rest at the venerable burial ground next to Kings Chapel. A funeral procession of 2,000 armed soldiers and officers, was designed to send a message to a town that was most upset at the continued attempts to impress.
John Adams and James Otis represented the Irishmen and challenged the Admiralty at several legal levels. Otis was the most political of the two and Adams was the classic lawyer, defending the innocent or guilty.
It was clear that Corbet’s actions caused Lt. Pantons death leading the Admiralty to charge him with murder. All common law judges of this period understood that if Panton were clearly acting as a customs agent, Corbet would be guilty of manslaughter. Unfortunately, there is no manslaughter charge in Admiralty Court. Additionally, in secular courts, first-time manslaughter defendants, if convicted, had an out called “Benefit of Clergy.” Please see our endnote below to expanded on this medieval concept[v]. Here are the defining questions to be answered at trial now that the Admiralty Court claimed jurisdiction.
The Admiralty Court was not required to sit a jury. Thirteen judges were assigned to the case, but five judges sat through the entire trial. The four Irishman must have felt once again their lives were doomed to a deadly verdict. Here is a very brief profile of the five sitting judges.
Adams and Otis certainly knew the political history of each judge and any prejudice that might impact their decision. For instance, over the Stamp Act mob rule in 1765, completely dismantled Thomas Hutchinson's home in North Square, Boston and destroyed 30,000, pages he had written for his History of Massachusetts. A mob took vengeance upon issuance of the Stamp Act and destroyed the warehouse of Peter Oliver’s brother. At the time of this trial, Governor Bernard wanted nothing more than to return to London. Meanwhile, the radical Bostonians openly asked Parliament to recall Bernard. Admiral Hood would stand out as the least prejudiced of all the judges. He witnessed the Boston Tea Party from a Loyalists dinner table rising only to exchange a few jibes with the Mohawks. Judge Robert Auchmuty, Jr., was a loyalist and died in London in 1788. Auchmuty defended the nine British soldiers accused of murder at the Boston Massacre Trials. Curiously enough, he would defend them only if John Adams was co-counsel. Permit us to assume that Auchmuty was most impressed with Adams handling of the Corbet case.
Offsetting the mindsets above, most Boston merchants supported the Irishmen. Fairness was part of their analysis. At a second level, impressment was considered damaging to commercial trade. The entire nautical world would navigate around any port suffering under impressment. Parliament attempted to restrict impressment to assist her merchants, yet the Admiralty often bent the rules if desperate for manpower. John Rowe, a wealthy Boston merchant, was completely neutral during the many years of political hostility. In his diary for June 14, 1769, John says “This day Power & others were on Tryal for their Conduct on Board the Rose Man of War. Their Behavior was very Courageous & I think very Right.”
Adams immediately attacked the jurisdiction of the court. The owner of the ship was American so jurisdiction should have been in a land court. The Irishmen were entitled to a jury of their peers. Jury trials were not permitted in any Admiralty courts. Therefore, Boston Superior Court must be the venue for a jury trial. Thomas Hutchinson denied this request.
Testimony proceeded. Several of Rose’s Sailors and Marines confirmed that Panton carried his sword as he went below deck the second time and never identified himself as a customs official. More or less in the Admiralty’s face, Adams examined Englishman Charles Raynsford, pressed into service just days prior to the event at sea. He testified that Panton never identified himself as a customs officer. Diligent as always, Adams asked witnesses for the prosecution if they had gone through Panton’s possessions immediately upon his death. They did, and there was no “shipping book” or any written commission as a customs official. As a side note to our legal understanding, an accused could not testify in a criminal proceeding. Consequently, none of the Irishmen could testify to the warnings given Panton of their determination to defend their liberties.
In further support of Corbet, Robert Calef of Boston had met with Midshipman Peter Bowen of the Rose compliment and discussed the event. Calef repeating Bowen’s comments and confirmed that Panton “was given all the fair warning imaginable and it was the lieutenant's own fault.” It was hearsay, but the statement was heard by the judges, spectators, and newspapers.
Adams had two Common Law statute books in front of him from 1700 and 1711. As he began his closing argument, it was clear to the court that he was about to challenge the entire impressment process. One statute excluded Americans from impressments altogether. A good prosecutor might suggest that this law was narrow and intended only during a time of war. Regardless, it appeared Thomas Hutchinson wanted no challenge on his watch that might ruin impressment for the British Navy. Hutchinson called a recess. Adams suspected that Governor Bernard would now send the Irishman to England for trial.
John Galvin in his book Three Men of Boston noted that the judges returned at 1:00, P.M. Bernard turned to the defendants, terrified by the sudden events. Dramatically, he addressed each defendant. The audience expected the death sentence. Bernard announced the decision of justifiable homicide; everyone was acquited. Stunned, and in silence, no one moved. Judge Auchmuty stood and said in a booming voice,”The Court is unanimous in this opinion.”[vi]
The court did not publish their verdict. Years later, Hutchinson confirmed in his diary that Lieutenant Panton and Captain Caldwell had no authorization or special warrant to impress. To add emphasis, Admiral Hood one of the five panelists obviously accepted the unanimous verdict, perhaps for all of the same reasons feared by Hutchinson.
Three of the four Irishmen took the next ship out of Boston.
Subsequently, John Ryan, with Adams help, sued and was awarded damages for his broken arm by British sailor William Peacock. Several months later, with Admiral Hood’s helpful intervention, Ryan settled his suit for an undisclosed sum and went on with his life in Boston. A fair maiden may have encouraged his decision.
The Rose had a substantial nautical history, more or less spanning three centuries.
Then again “she rose”[vii] in 1970.
Currently, the Rose births in San Diego at the Maritime Museum. Well worth a visit.
John Adams defended John Hancock in a libel case that originated from a smuggling trial.
Months later John Adams defended the British soldiers that fired on a mob on King Street known today as the Boston Massacre.
[i] Per the New York Journal Supplement, May 4, 1769 p.1. Available online https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008570163;view=1up;seq=114 University of Michigan.
[ii] Adams Papers, Digital Editions Volume 2, Mass Historical Society, 1 May 1769 — 31 May 1769 Adams, John28. H. 8, c. 15. For Pirates. ... online.
[iii] More properly titled “The Commentaries on the Laws of England”; the 18th century’s common man’s defense against tyranny and star chamber court systems. 1765-1769, reprinted into the 20th century. Four volumes. Presently in print.
[v] Immediately upon sentence, Kilroy and Montgomery pleaded “Benefit of Clergy.” This is a medieval law of the thirteen century designed to prevent the secular legal system from targeting clergy for political retribution. Clearly, the law was perverted over the centuries to the benefit of those indicted in the secular courts.
In support of their pleadings, Kilroy and Montgomery were required to read the fifty-first psalm. This might imply that they were literate but they had eight months to memorize the psalm. With their life at stake, they surely passed the test. As an endorsement and recording of their conviction, each soldier is branded immediately on his thumb with the letter M. Should they ever be accused of manslaughter again they could be hung without a jury trial upon a judge’s order.
[vi] Three men of Boston pages 128-131. Galvin, John R, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York NY, 1976.
[vi] Pardon the pun
Three men of Boston pages 128-131. Galvin, John R, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York NY, 1976.
The navigation acts and the American Revolution. Dickerson, O. M. (Oliver Morton), 1875-1966. A. S.Barnes available Lasell College
Boston under military rule (1768-1769) as revealed in A Journal of the times. Da Capo Press 1970 Dickerson, O. M. (Oliver Morton), 1875-1966. Available Bedord Adult Library.
The Boston massacre, by Hiller B Zobel, W. W. Norton, 1970 1st Edition.
Adams Papers, Digital Editions Volume 2, Mass Historical Society