Casualty of Revolution: The Sad Case of Betty Smith


February 5, 2019
by Len Travers Also by this Author


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On October 1, 1768, two regiments of British infantry with an artillery detachment—witnesses estimated 700 to 800 men in all—disembarked from transports in Boston Harbor and formed up on Long Wharf. Then, in a procession lasting several hours, they marched “with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, colours flying, drums beating and fifes . . . playing” through the town’s commercial and government center, to their temporary encampments on Boston Common.[1]

Among the largely subdued throngs of citizens who witnessed the spectacle, one likely onlooker was a young Boston resident named Elizabeth Smith. She could not have known it, but the Revolution had come to claim her, seven years before the shootings on Lexington Green, though not in that violent way. Elizabeth, known as “Betty” to some, already possessed a reputation for being difficult. What seems certain is that she resented authority, and in the event proved sadly vulnerable when the British arrived to “lend assistance” to harried customs officers.

As is true for the vast majority of Boston’s eighteenth-century residents, we would scarcely know of Betty’s existence, except for a handful of documents from Suffolk County court records and Boston’s newspapers. Through these we can glimpse moments when the town’s authorities took notice of her. But in Betty’s case, adding context and perspective to the official data is the extraordinary diary of a twelve-year-old girl, Anna Green Winslow. Two years before the redcoats’ arrival, young Miss Winslow had come to Boston to live with an aunt while she finished her social education. She kept in contact with her parents in Halifax, Nova Scotia through a series of journal-letters, keeping them abreast of her activities, as well as of local news and gossip.

Anna apparently knew Betty Smith, or knew of her from family repute; Smith may have been a servant for the Winslow family at some time. That’s at least one way of explaining Anna’s reference in a letter to her mother on February 25, 1771: “Dear mamma,” she began, “I suppose that you would be glad to hear that Betty Smith, who has given you so much trouble, is well & behaves herself well. & I would be glad if I could write you so.”[2] The next word, of course, was “but.”

For Betty had fallen into bad company—the very worst kind, some would have said. “But the truth is,” Anna continued, “no sooner was the 29th Regiment encamp’d upon the common, but miss Betty took herself among them (as the Irish say) & there she stay’d with Bill Pinchion & awhile.” Those acquainted with English novels and popular songs from the period will be familiar with the almost stock character of the young woman whose head is turned by a soldier in uniform—usually the latter turns out to be an undeserving cad. But clearly the arrival of the soldiers in Boston did not offend everyone, as the radical press preferred to have people believe. It rather appears that some soldier, or perhaps several, had caught the troublesome—or troubled—young woman’s fancy, and that she consorted rather freely (promiscuously, Winslow clearly implies) with them. In this she was hardly alone. A considerable amount of fraternization occurred between the officers and soldiers of the Crown on the one hand, and Bostonians of all ranks upon the other. Not only were commercial and occupational transactions common, but some of the “better sort” of Bostonians attended balls and parties organized by British officers. As Serena R. Zabin has found, these interactions extended to romantic liaisons as well, even to as many as forty marriages between American women and British soldiers over the course of their several years in the town.[3] But Betty was not one of them.

“The next news of her,” continued Miss Winslow, “was, that she was got into gaol for stealing.”[4] Indeed she was. Sometime on the night of August 12, 1769, “Elizabeth Smith of Boston in the County of Suffolk Spinster” did “with force and Arms” break into the house of Samuel Whitwell, a Boston leatherdresser, and “steal, take & carry away” a large armful of women’s apparel worth £10. The clothing, probably that of Whitwell’s wife, included a “Camblet Ridinghood, one flower’d Silk gown,” and a good pair of shoes.[5] Betty could hardly have gotten away with wearing such attire herself, which suggests that she intended to sell them for whatever she could get. Crime rates in Boston rose alarmingly after the soldiers had arrived. They were not to blame for all of it, but certainly they were for some, and in this there was some collaboration with local criminal elements. Whether Betty was stealing goods to be “fenced” by her new associates, or on her own initiative, is not clear. In any case, she was apprehended and put in Boston’s jail to await her day in court.

That came the following October 31, when Betty, perhaps advised to do so, pleaded guilty to the charges. The court demanded a fine plus court costs, but also treble damages to Whitwell for the theft (the court allowed the returned goods to make up a third of this). Smith clearly was “utterly unable” to make Whitwell or the court satisfaction, “otherways than by Service.” Whitwell was therefore “fully Authorized & Impowered to sell and dispose of the said Elizabeth Smith’s Service to any of His Majesty’s Subjects for the space & term of two years.”

Apparently there were no takers, for Betty was still in jail the following April 16.[6] In the meantime the fatal shootings in King Street (today’s State Street), touted as a “Massacre,” had occurred the previous month, and there in the same prison with Betty were housed Capt. Thomas Preston and eight other soldiers of the 29th regiment—very possibly some of the same men Betty had “took herself among.”

What happened next is related by Anna Winslow.[7] With Whitwell apparently unable to sell her service, and the court unwilling to continue her in jail, “she was taken to the publick whipping post,” where pain and humiliation awaited. “The large whipping-post, painted red, stood conspicuously and permanently” in King Street, only steps from where the infamous shootings had occurred weeks before. Samuel Breck, a boy of eleven in 1782, later recalled that it was “directly under the windows of a great writing-school which I frequented, and from them the scholars were indulged in the spectacle of all kinds of punishments . . . Here women were taken from a huge cage, in which they were dragged on wheels from prison, and tied to the post with bare backs, on which thirty or forty lashes were bestowed amid the screams of the culprit and the uproar of the mob.”[8] Betty’s experience was likely similar.

It is difficult to imagine any of the honest inhabitants of Boston—radical, Tory, or neutral—employing her afterward. Her dependency upon the king’s soldiery could only have deepened, as seems confirmed by the chatty Miss Winslow, who wrote that Betty’s “next adventure was to the Castle, after the soldiers were remov’d there, for the murder of the 5th March last.” Within days of the deadly shootings, the remaining soldiers in town were relocated to Castle Island in the harbor. The island was smaller than the twenty-two acre, nineteenth-century fortification one sees today, and with upwards of a thousand or more officers and soldiers in barracks there, anyone not on the army establishment did not make the trip. Anna implies that Betty tried, but “they turn’d her away from there.” Abandoned by her former companions and left with little choice, Betty “came up to town again, and . . . for new misdemeanours” (which Winslow did not specify) she was sent to Boston’s workhouse.[9]

Boston’s social safety net was pretty rudimentary by modern standards. An almshouse had long existed to support the town’s “deserving poor,” but Betty no longer qualified as such, despite being town-born. For troublesome and borderline criminal types Boston had erected a workhouse, where among other pursuits inmates spent their time “picking oakum:” untwisting old hemp rope for recycling as caulking material. The idea was to keep those poor who were able to work off the streets and gainfully employed in a kind of semi-incarceration, until they could get work on the outside.[10] By all accounts it was a miserable place to be, and Betty “soon ran away from there and sit up her old trade of pilfering again, for which she was put a second time into gaol, there she still remains.”[11]

The jail in Court Street had been renovated in 1767, and so may not have been the rat-infested, “stinking, dark, melancholy Place” one inmate called its predecessor, but it was unpleasant enough nevertheless, especially as winter drew on.[12] Sometime between ten and eleven o’clock on the night of December 27, 1770, Betty and “a number of her wretched companions,” according to Winslow, “set the gaol on fire, in order to get out, but the fire was timely discovered & extinguished, & there, as I said she still remains till this day [February 25, 1771], in order to be tried for her crimes.”[13]

Winslow relayed some follow-up gossip about that last eventuality. For months the town’s radicals had noted bitterly how British soldiers accused of civil crimes were saved one way or another from Boston’s vengeful justice—they had just seen the Massacre soldiers get away with murder, after all. “I heard somebody say,” Winslow wrote snarkily, “that as she has some connections with the army, no doubt but she would be cleared, and perhaps, have a pension into the bargain.” Paraphrasing from the Rev. Matthew Henry’s Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Anna concluded that “the way of sin is down hill, when persons get into that way they are not easily stopped.”[14]

As if to prove the Reverend Henry’s point, Betty was soon in trouble again.[15] With her former confederates in the army banned from the town, she was left to her own devices—and that was the problem. With no apparent skills of her own, twice a jailbird, and tainted by her association with redcoats, where could she get honest employment? Less than a year passed before she was apprehended a second time for stealing. The Court of General Sessions, meeting on March 10, 1772, had clearly lost patience with her; for her “second conviction of theft,” they sentenced her “to set on the gallows one hour with a halter round her neck, and to be whipped twenty stripes under it.” And again, “she being unable to pay the value of the goods stolen, will be sold for a term of years.”[16] It could have been even worse: also sentenced that day was one William Stoodley, for housebreaking and theft—the same crime for which Betty had first been arrested. He was branded with the letter B on his forehead.

Betty had two whole months in prison to remember her last whipping, and to dread what awaited her. The appointed day came on May 13, 1772, when she and another inmate were trundled a mile through town to the gallows at Boston Neck. According to Winslow, “She behav’d with great impudence,”[17] but this last attempt to hold onto some dignity could not have lasted long. Once again, Betty was unfortunate in her companions, for sharing the elevated gallows platform was “John Sennet, for attempting Sodomy with a mare,” his outrageous crime helping to draw the large crowd that formed. After standing their hour on the gallows, both “received the Discipline of Whipping,” Sennet getting thirty strokes and Betty her twenty. Throughout the ordeal, which probably continued as they were carted back to the gaol, “They were severely pelted by the Populace.”[18]

“A New Plan of ye Great Town of Boston . . . in the year 1743,” showing the location of the gallows at Boston Neck.

Battered, lacerated, and thoroughly disgraced, what eventually became of Elizabeth “Betty” Smith—even her name is the “Jane Doe” of its day—is not clear. Perhaps the court was more successful in getting her sold this time. She may have left Boston, though where she would go is uncertain; towns quickly “warned out” undesirables like her. Assuming she remained, she may have “took herself among” the redcoats once more when they returned two years later as a result of the “Tea Party” and subsequent “Intolerable Acts.” Or she might have found a pauper’s grave in the meantime, just one of the many thousands for whom no record remains of their passing.[19]

In her way, Betty Smith was an early casualty of the American Revolution. For all we know, she might have fallen into a life of shame and degradation even if British troops had not come to Boston in 1769. But her decision to take up with the seedier sort of redcoat practically guaranteed it, initiating and accelerating her downward spiral toward becoming one of Boston’s most unwanted—by anyone. And those soldiers would not have been there but for two conspiring factors: Boston’s obstreperous resistance to new British regulations, and an inflexible British ministry. Whether she understood the train of events that brought her to her fate is now unknowable. But that she, and many more like her, were impacted in some way by them, is unmistakable. Not all of the casualties of the Revolution were felled by bullets.


[1]“A Journal of the Transactions in Boston,” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, vol. 38 (1769), 512.

[2]Diary of Anna Green Winslow A Boston School Girl of 1771, edited by Alice Morse Earle (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895; reprint, Forgotten Books 2012), 36.

[3]My thanks to Serena R. Zabin for sharing data from her much-anticipated forthcoming book, tentatively titled An Intimate History of the Boston Massacre.

[4]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 36.

[5]Court of General Sessions of the Peace Record Book (Suffolk County), Box 902789 Reel 4: January 1, 1738-December 31, 1780, Massachusetts Archives, Columbia Point, Boston.

[6]“A List of Criminals now in Boston Goal For various Crimes viz. Taken April 16 1770,” Suffolk Files 89447, Massachusetts Archives.

[7]Many of Boston’s judicial records for this period were removed when British forces evacuated the town in 1776.

[8]Recollections of Samuel Breck with Passages from his Note-Books (1771-1862), edited by H. E. Scudder (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877), 36.

[9]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 36.

[10]Eric Nellis and Anne Decker Cecere, eds., The Eighteenth-Century Records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor (Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2007), 70-71.

[11]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 36. As will be seen, it was probably not for theft that she was arrested this second time.

[12]Daniel Fowle, A Total Eclipse of Liberty . . . . (Boston: Daniel Fowle, 1755), 17.

[13]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 36. Winslow’s version of events is confirmed by the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy and the Advertiser for Monday, December 31, 1770, which also supplied the date and time of the attempted jail-break.

[14]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 37. The passage is from nonconformist minister Matthew Henry’s commentary on 2 Samuel 11: “See how the way of sin is down-hill; when men begin to do evil, they cannot soon stop.” Matthew Henry, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Originally published in several volumes between 1708 and 1710, it is not clear which subsequent edition Winslow used, but she was evidently a very well-read young woman.

[15]Betty does not appear to have been tried for the offense that landed her in jail the second time, or at least no record of it remains in the Suffolk Court of General Sessions records. Likewise, her release date is not recorded.

[16]Boston Gazette and Country Journal, March 16, 1772.

[17]Diary of Anna Green Winslow, 65.

[18]Boston Gazette and Country Journal, May 18, 1772. In the sort of irony often depicted in Hogarth prints, among the crowd that day was John Bryan, arrested for selling stolen handkerchiefs “under the Gallows” while Betty suffered there. He had recently been whipped himself for stealing and had been released from gaol only the day before; Betty may well have known him.

[19]A number of women with the same name appear in the records of the Boston Overseers of the Poor around this time, but none of them appear to be “our” Elizabeth Smith.

One thought on “Casualty of Revolution: The Sad Case of Betty Smith

  • Well done, Doc. Nice to put more of a 3rd dimension to minor historical characters so often handled as 2 dimensional stereotypes.

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