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Sparking the Revolution
How a band of Rhode Island rebels torched HMS Gaspee and lived to tell the tale
By Gerald M. Carbone
Journal Staff Writer

About the time of the shutting of the shops, soon after sunset, a man passed along the main street of Providence beating a drum. On that evening June 9, 1772 a man beating a drum along Towne Street was sure to attract attention in what was then a quiet, harborside town of 4,300.

Among the people who gathered to view the spectacle was one Ephraim Bowen, then 19. Bowen listened as the drummer called out the news: His Majesty's ship Gaspee had run aground on Namquit Point, and could not float off until 3 o'clock the next morning. All men who wanted to go and destroy that "troublesome vessel" should repair to James Sabin's public house across from Fenner's Wharf.

Bowen dashed home and grabbed his father's gun, the gun that would soon spill the first blood of the American Revolution.

He carried the gun, a powder horn, and bullets to Sabin's tavern, where he found the pub packed with people. The crowd that gathered there to sack one of His Majesty's ships was not composed of commoners; these were men in fancy, ruffled shirts, merchants and sea captains who were thoroughly sick of having their ships stopped and searched by the Royal Navy. The schooner Gaspee had been a particularly aggressive enforcer of the customs laws, and the locals felt a keen dislike for its skipper, Lt. William Dudingston.

Bowen loaded his powder, wad, and ball, then waited for orders to move out into the night. Some of the men passed time in Sabin's kitchen casting bullets from molten lead.

At around 10 p.m. orders came to cross the street to Fenner's Wharf, (near where the Rhode Island School of Design is now) where the wealthy merchant John Brown had assembled a fleet of eight longboats to ferry the raiding party. Their target lay grounded on Namquit Point, six miles south. Brown ordered men to muffle the oars, five to a boat, for the sneak attack.

Under cover of darkness, the oarsmen slipped down the Narragansett (now the Providence) River till they were about 60 yards from the Gaspee. A sentry on the schooner's listing deck called out: "Who comes there?"

He received no answer. He hailed again.

"Who comes there?"

A minute later Lt. Dudingston himself appeared on the deck, dressed in a shirt without his red topcoat. He stood on the starboard gunwale and shouted into the night, "Who comes there?"

Again there was no answer. He hailed again; this time he received a loud, blasphemous reply from Capt. Abraham Whipple: "I am the sheriff of the County of Kent, God Damn you. I have got a warrant to apprehend you, God damn you; so surrender, God damn you!"

Bowen sat on the wide rowing bench, his gun by his right side. Joseph Bucklin said, "Ephe, reach me your gun and I can kill that fellow."

Bowen handed Bucklin his gun. The sheriff was still shouting at Dudingston when the muzzle flared into the night with a boom. Dudingston fell to the Gaspee's deck.

"I have killed the rascal," Bucklin said.

Whipple commanded: "Men, spring to your oars!" Within seconds the longboats pulled alongside the Gaspee; the colonists, armed with barrel staves, spikes, and paving stones, swarmed aboard.

John Mawney, a young surgeon along for the raid, jumped down into the hold. He was tying the hands of two Englishmen behind their backs with tarred rope when he was summoned to the deck by John Brown.

"Don't call names," Brown said, "but go immediately into the cabin. There is one wounded, and will bleed to death."

Mawney ducked into the cabin where in the lamplight he found Lt. Dudingston slumped on his left side; he lay beneath a white woolen blanket soaked red with his blood. Mawney threw aside the blanket and saw a lead ball lodged in the lieutenant's left groin. Mawney feared that the ball had severed Dudingston's femoral artery; the surgeon threw open his own waistcoat, took his shirt by the collar, and tore it to his waistband for bandages.

From his bed, Dudingston said, "Pray, sir, don't tear your clothes; there is linen in that trunk."

A VAULT in the state archives on Westminster Street contains detailed accounts of Dudingston's shooting and the subsequent burning of the Gaspee, accounts written by the men who were there on June 10, 1772. It is a fat and fascinating volume that lays bare the underpinnings of the American Revolution.

Gwenn Stearn, the state archivist, sets this volume on a felt pillow for its protection whenever she takes it from the vault. The documents in it were written in a brown ink made from the powder of ground-up oak galls. The paper was made of linen, and it is remarkably well preserved.

Most of the documents were gathered by five commissioners, men appointed by King George III to investigate the Gaspee affair; the king charged the commissioners with identifying the men who shot Dudingston and torched the Gaspee so that they may face "condign punishment" in this case, hanging.

Discovering the identities of men seen by the British as criminals proved to be a difficult task in a hostile colony, where many viewed them as heroes.

ON THE LAST day of December, 1772, one of the commissioners arrived on the wharves at Newport. He was an old man, 76, by the name of Daniel Horsmander. He suffered from rheumatism in his knees, and the cold weather that froze the bay north of Newport made him feel exceedingly stiff. He could not walk without aid, so he brought with him his wife, carriage, and two horses.

Horsmander was surprised by the state of affairs he found in Rhode Island. He wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth: My Lord, as to the government (if it deserves that name) it is a downright Democracy: the governor is a mere nominal one, and therefore a cypher, without power or authority, entirely controlled by the populace elected annually.

He was shocked that the commission's upcoming meetings were public knowledge. News of the meetings had been published in Boston's weekly newspaper "and spread industriously all over New England." Even more amazing, Rhode Island's governor had told the General Assembly of the meetings, and the assembly told the newspaper!

Horsmander wrote that Rhode Island and its sister colony in Connecticut has got a rich soil, abounds in timber fit for shipbuilding; the country upon the whole is superior to any I have seen in my travels from Boston to Virginia. But it must be confessed as to the people, it would require a gentleman of very extraordinary qualifications and abilities to adventure upon the first, arduous task for modeling them into due subordination and decorum.

RHODE ISLANDERS harbored many grievances against the Gaspee - the schooner's crew once went ashore and cut firewood on personal property; they seized a small boat from South Kingstown as it tried to deliver some locally grown tobacco to Newport; they raided one sea captain's small wine chest that he kept aboard ship for personal use.

But the event that sealed the Gaspee's fate happened one Februrary day in 1772, months before the schooner was torched. The Gaspee swooped upon a boat lying at anchor off North Kingstown, and demanded that its captain, Rufus Greene, carry some freight for them. Greene said that he could not. The boat, a cargo schooner called the Fortune, already carried 12 hogsheads of rum.

An officer from the Gaspee boarded the Fortune and ordered Greene below decks. Greene asked the officer what authority he had to order him about on his own boat. The officer drew his sword.

"If you do not go into the cabin I'll let you know," the officer said. He grabbed Greene by the collar and shoved him below. When Greene tried to flee the officer struck him in the head, knocking him down. Greene was confined while the Gaspee took his schooner under tow for failing to pay duty on the rum.

Under English law, seized ships and their cargo were supposed to be kept in the jurisdiction where they were seized, pending trial. Dudingston broke the law and took the Fortune, with its cargo of rum, to Boston. He feared that storing seized rum in Newport would cause Rhode Islanders to riot to take it back. He wrote to his admiral "no seizure could be safe with them."

The ship and its cargo belonged to Nathaniel Greene Jr. of Coventry, a member of the General Assembly who later became one of George Washington's most trusted generals. For the merchants and sea captains of Providence, the seizure of Greene's schooner was the gravest in a string of offenses committed by the Gaspee.

On March 21, the deputy governor in Providence wrote to Gov. Joseph Wanton in the colony's capital at Newport:

Sir: The inhabitants of this town have, of late, been much disquieted in their minds, by repeated advices being brought by a schooner which for some time past hath cruised in the waters of the Narragansett Bay and much disturbed our Navigation. She suffers no vessel to pass, not even packets or others of an inferior kind, without a strict examination.

In his letter to the governor, Darius Sessions complained that Dudingston was carrying on like a pirate. Sessions wrote: Who he is and by what authority he assumes such conduct it is thought needs some inquiry.

The governor agreed that the Gaspee's captain should show some commission from the King that authorized him to harass mariners in Narragansett Bay. So, from his office in Newport, Wanton wrote a quick letter addressed: "To the commanding officer of schooner near Brenton's Point:"

I have sent off the high sheriff, to inform you of the complaint exhibited against you, and expect that you do, without delay, produce me your commission and instructions, if you have any.

From his state room aboard the Gaspee, Dudingston dashed off a reply: the people complaining of his conduct showed "their ignorance" of his duty as a naval officer. He sent a lesser officer to deliver his letter to the governor; this officer brought no commission to show the governor.

Wanton sent a letter back to Dudingston, admonishing that he had not received that satisfaction that I had a right to expect; neither was the bearer of the letter qualified to give me any authentic information respecting the legality of the authority you have presumed to exercise within this Colony."

Dudingston was so insulted by the governor's reply that he stopped dealing with him, writing instead to his fleet admiral in Boston to complain of Wanton's insolence.

The admiral, John Montagu, sided with his officer. Montagu, in handwriting slanted so that it looks like its being blown by a gale, wrote to the governor that Lt. Dudingston: has sent me two letters he received from you of such a nature I am at a loss what answer to give them, and ashamed to find they come from one of his Majesty's Governors. ... I am also informed that the people of Newport talk of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any vessel the King's schooner may take carrying on illicit trade. Let them be cautious what they do; for as sure as they attempt it, and any of them are taken, I will hang them as pirates. .. and I would advise you not to send your Sheriff on board the King's ship again on such ridiculous errands.

Within three weeks, the correspondence between the governor and the King's Navy had ballooned from a simple inquiry into a threat of hanging. Gov. Wanton's insult was so great that he took nearly a month working on a lengthy reply in which he told the admiral: I do not receive instructions for the administration of my government, from the King's admiral stationed in America. ... As to your advice not to send the Sheriff on board any of your squadron, please to know, that I will send the Sheriff of this Colony at any time, and to any place, within the body of it, as I shall think fit.

The roots of mutual mistrust had taken hold.

ON THE 9th DAY of June, 1772, Capt. Benjamin Lindsey left Newport in his packet boat, about noon, with the wind from the north. Soon after, Lindsey saw an armed schooner chasing him as he beat his way up Narragansett Bay.

Lindsey had declared his cargo at the customs house in Newport, so he saw no reason why he should stop for further inspection by the King's Navy. Lindsey stayed his course, standing easterly until somewhere north of Prudence Island; there he quickly changed his course to westward.

The schooner followed, a fateful mistake. Lindsey's packet, the Hannah, cleared the sandy shoals of Namquit Point, but the bigger schooner ran hard aground.

Lindsey continued his course to the Town Wharf, about where the Rhode Island School of Design now stands. Lindsey told John Brown of the Gaspee's straits; Brown calculated the tide and determined that the Gaspee could not float off the point until some time after midnight. He ordered one of his shipwrights to collect eight of the largest longboats in the harbor.

Soon a drummer was marching along what is now North Main Street, beating a call to arms.

At sunset, the Gaspee lay high and dry. Peter May, 1 of 19 sailors aboard the schooner, recalled in a deposition "that she lay so dry that (we) walked round her and scraped her bottom." May, like many of the enlisted sailors, was illiterate, and signed his deposition not with his name but with his "mark" of a crooked cross.

The crew set an anchor out and attempted to haul the Gaspee off the sandbar "but after striving till sunset they desisted from any further attempts," May said. Dudingston then ordered all but one watchman below decks to sleep.

Bartholomew Cheever stood the watch after midnight; some time before 1 a.m. on June 10, he saw a number of boats gliding toward the schooner. He hailed them, to no effect, so he woke the lieutenant.

Lt. Dudingston hailed the boats; from the darkness Cheever heard the reply: "Damn your blood, we have you now."

Dudingston ordered all hands on deck. Peter May came up and, he testified, saw Dudingston fire a pistol. (Neither Cheever nor Dudingston, in their testimony, make reference to Dudingston firing.) One of the men in the long boats fired, striking Dudingston in the arm and groin.

Dudingston yelled, "Good God, I am done for." He made his way aft and sat by the stairs to his cabin.

The mob in the boats swarmed aboard, knocking men down with staves before busting open the arms chest and stealing the cutlasses short, heavy swords. They found Dudingston, sitting aft. One of the ringleaders said, "Now you piratical rascal, we have got you."

A mob leader ordered Dudingston onto his knees to beg for his life; Dudingston said he could not, for he was wounded.

"Damn your blood," said the leader, "you are shot by your own people."

The gang carried Dudingston down into his cabin, where John Mawney and another surgeon examined his wounds. One of the surgeons was short, about 5 feet 5;; he appeared about 18 years old, with his hair pulled back from a face scarred by smallpox. The other surgeon, likely John Mawney, was taller, about 22, and described by one sailor as "very genteel."

The lead ball passed through Dudingston's left arm before sinking into his groin; the groin wound most concerned Mawney. He ordered Bucklin, the man who had fired the ball, to bust open the lieutenant's linen trunk. Mawney tore the linen into strips; he packed a half-dozen strips into the wound as a compress, then tied one tight around the thigh to stem the flow of blood.

When Mawney gave the word, the mob picked up Dudingston and set him into a long boat to be rowed ashore. A few members of the raiding party stayed behind; they set the Gaspee ablaze.

Dudingston was nearly naked as a few men rowed him ashore at Pawtuxet, a village of about a dozen houses. One of the men rowing was named "Potter," a tall, thin man with a sharp nose and his hair pulled back; another, rowing the bow oar, was described by a British seaman as "a negro." The seaman asked the black man for a chew of tobacco, which he gave him.

Once ashore, the men set Dudingston on a blanket that served as a stretcher; five members of the Gaspee crew were unbound and ordered to carry their leader to a nearby house. Behind them the sky glowed with flames consuming the Gaspee. One by one, the ship's guns exploded in the heat, sending blasts of thunder over Narragansett Bay.

ON THE MORNING of June 10, a young man paraded along the "great bridge" in Providence wearing Lt. Dudingston's gold-laced beaverskin cap. He proudly told the story of the night before until some older men warned him to hold his tongue.

The story circulated its way to the home of Darius Sessions, the deputy governor. He saddled a horse for the five-mile ride to Pawtuxet. When he reached the village, the Gaspee, burned to the water line, was still smoldering. He found Dudingston in a small house by the shore. The lieutenant was in "dangerous circumstances."

He offered Dudingston money, surgeons, better lodgings; Dudingston replied that he had saved $100 from the ship, "and therefore wanted no favors for himself," Sessions wrote. All he asked was that his crew be taken back to Newport.

Sessions asked Dudingston for his version of the attack, but he would talk only to his admiral. Sessions wrote: Mr. Dudingston answered that he would give no account of the matter; first, because of his indisposition of body, and secondly, because it was his duty to forbear anything of the nature till he had done it to his commanding officer, at a court martial, to which, if he lived, he must be called, but if he died, he desired it might all die with him.

Dudingston did not die. Two days after he was shot, Dudingston wrote his eyewitness account for the admiral. He dated it Pottuksett, June 12. He told the admiral of his attempt to repel the raiding party:

As I was standing myself to oppose them, and making a stroke with my sword at the man who was attempting to come up, at that instant I found myself disable in my left arm, and shott thro' the groin . . . I then begged they would either despatch me or suffer my wounds to be dressed.

While the surgeons dressed his wounds by lamplight, Dudingston got a good look at several of his captors. If I live, I am not without hope of being able to convict some of the people that was with them.

ON THE NIGHT of July 2, 1772, an 18-year-old indentured servant slipped away from his master's farm on Prudence Island in a stolen canoe. Then he paddled his way into the heart of a trans-Atlantic feud.

The servant a "negro" or "mulatto" named Aaron rowed the canoe to a nearby British schooner in hopes of winning his freedom. His hopes were quickly dashed. No sooner had he clambered aboard the ship then he was put in irons.

The next morning the ship's captain told his boatswain to tie Aaron to the mast, and to give him two or three dozen lashings to find out why he came aboard.

Aaron was stripped and tied to the mast; before the lash fell, a sailor who had served on the Gaspee "jumped up" and told the captain that the Negro had been with the raiding party the night the Gaspee was burned.

The captain of the Beaver sent word to the admiral in Boston that he had an eyewitness to the burning of the Gaspee. Adm. Montagu was pleased. In a statement taken aboard a British Man of War, Aaron declared that on the night of the Gaspee burning, he had rowed his master's boat into the Bay, and met a man named Potter of Bristol, who convinced him to row up to Warwick to meet a raiding party from Providence.

Montagu sent word to the governor that Aaron "had impeached several others that were concerned in that piratical act" including: Simeon Potter of Bristol; Dr. Weeks of Pawtuxet; and John Brown.

Gov. Wanton immediately set out to discredit Aaron's testimony. He summoned Aaron's "master"to Newport with his other two "indented" servants, Somerset and Jack. The servants swore that on the night the Gaspee burned, Aaron slept in the same bed with them; he rose early and "to his usual custom" brought the cows into the yard to be milked. They signed their statements with their marks.

The master, Samuel Tompkins, swore that on that night his only rowing boat was in need of caulking, and was in such disrepair that "it could not swim."

Gov. Wanton decided to seize Aaron from the British. He directed the chief justice to draw up an elaborate arrest warrant, affixed with a wax seal, and ordered the high sheriff to row out to the Beaver and deliver Aaron's warrant to Capt. Linzee.

On July 17, James Brenton of Newport accompanied a deputy sheriff to deliver the warrant. Brenton rowed over to Brenton Point, where he and the deputy found Linzee in a private home. Brenton showed Linzee the warrant with the official seal attached.

The captain replied, "It might be good for all I know, but I don't regard it any more than if was a piece of blank paper." Linzee called Gov. Wanton "a damned rascal" and said that Adm. Montagu's power was the only authority he knew in America.

WORD OF the Gaspee affair sailed across the Atlantic, where it caught the attention of King George III himself. The king kept a staff of nearly 100 scriveners, and he set them on the task of drafting a proclamation regarding the Gaspee.

For this project the scriveners chose a calfskin parchment 2 feet long and 2.5 feet wide; a rubricator lined the parchment with red lines to keep the sentences straight; an artist was employed to draw the "cartouche" an oval portrait of King George in his high wig. The artist drew with lamp black, a dark, fancy ink made from lantern soot.

Then the scriveners set to work writing, in brown oak gall ink, the words of King George III. The King's proclamation established a commission of five men to investigate the Gaspee incident, and report back to him. It also established a reward of 1,000 pounds for information about the ringleaders. (Historian Ruth Herndon of the University of Toledo said that the reward was the equivalent of 20 years' salary for a common laborer. "That would be like hitting the lottery," Herndon said.)

The king's seal a knight in full armor on horseback was molded into a wax disc bigger than a hockey puck, then tied to the parchment. The scriveners drafted two identical proclamations to be sent on separate ships, in case one should sink. They folded the documents and set them into small, leather-bound boxes for shipping. (Today the Secretary of State's office has both boxes but just one proclamation; the whereabouts of the other is a mystery.)

On Jan. 5, 1773, a captain in the King's Navy delivered a box to the Colony House in Newport. A town crier opened it and unfolded the parchment. The King's seal hung from the parchment by braided red thread as the town crier read it aloud for a largely illiterate public.

The crier announced that the King had established a commission of five men to investigate the sinking of the Gaspee; that the five men had "full power and authority" to summon people, papers and records; they even had the authority to call in the Navy.

The commissioners waited in the wings of the Colony House as the crier read, ready to bring their first meeting to order. The king named Gov. Wanton as a commissioner, along with the judge of a high-ranking court in Boston, and the chief justices of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts Bay.

The town crier announced the King's offer of 1,000 pounds, a sum that must have sounded good to the colony's shoemakers and farmers. And there was one who decided he would collect it.

James Borden owned an inn by the ferry stop in Portsmouth, that catered to people crossing to Newport from Bristol. On the night the reward was announced, a man named Stephen Gulley checked into the inn. Gulley "appeared to be in liquor" but Borden gave him a room all the same.

While Borden prepared Gulley's supper, he heard his guest out in the public house reading aloud a copy of the king's proclamation. He heard Gulley say that it was " a fine reward" and that he intended to have it.

According to a written deposition from Borden, another man later came to the pub and said to Gulley, "My friend, I believe you are on some bad design, as I understood by your talk you are going to Newport to give information about the burning of the Gaspee."

"That's nobody's business but my own," Gulley said.

Then, according to Gulley's own testimony, the man told him he would not reach Newport; Gulley asked him why. The man replied "there (are) 20 armed men in the road, one of them armed with two brass pistols . . . come to take (Gulley) alive or dead" to carry him back to Providence.

The innkeeper spirited Gulley out a back door. Instead of continuing on to Newport, Gulley found his way to the British warship Lizzard where he sought refuge from the men ashore.

ON THEIR FIRST day of business, Jan. 5, 1773, the king's commissioners took the required state oaths. They denounced the pope, swore off adoration of the Virgin Mary as "idolatrous," and pledged allegiance to King George III.

Daniel Horsmander, the old, arthritic judge from New York, read the oaths to Gov. Wanton, who then read them to the rest of the commissioners. Then the commission got down to the brass tacks of the proclamation.

Gov. Wanton noticed that the king had directed the commissioners to turn over any prisoners directly to Adm. Montagu. But Adm. Montagu was not there; he had sent a Capt. Keeler to deliver the proclamation instead of delivering it himself. This would not do.

The commission drafted a letter to the admiral ordering him from Boston to Newport so that they might continue their business.

The admiral received the letter on his flagship, the Captain, stationed in Boston Harbor. He responded that it would be nearly impossible for him to come to Rhode Island "as it is very improper to move so large a ship as the Captain this time of year, and without her it is impossible for me to carry on the service."

Nonetheless, the admiral reluctantly agreed to come to Rhode Island by land. It took nearly a week. While they waited, the commissioners sent an officer out to the Lizzard, to summon Gulley.

Under oath, they asked Gulley, "What do you know relative to the attacking and burning (of) the Gaspee schooner on said 10th June last?"

A: "As to my own knowledge I know nothing about it."

Gulley said that a man named William Thayer had told him about a shoemaker from Mendon, Mass., who knew something about the Gaspee affair. The shoemaker had recently died, but before he died he told Gulley that the Browns had been involved.

The commissioners sent an officer on horseback up to Mendon to depose Thayer. "I heard the names of one Potter and Brown, or Browns," Thayer said, adding "it being only a rumor which I heard."

ON JAN. 14, Adm. Montagu wrote the commissioners I am come to this place and have hoisted my flag aboard the Lizzard, the ship providing refuge to Stephen Gulley. I have ordered Aaron, the Negro, to be brought to the wharf. . . . when you are done with him, the civil officer may be directed to see him safe to the boat again.

The commission then heard a six-page deposition from Aaron, who told them that on June 9, he had asked his master's permission to row a hired hand named Samuel Faulkner to Bristol. (Tompkins, his "master," denied this.)

On his row back to Portsmouth, a man named Potter hailed him from a long boat; Potter told Aaron to follow him. Aaron said he could not. Potter said "There's no can't in the matter" and took Aaron's skiff under tow.

Aaron described the attack on the schooner, repeating a Gaspee crewman's claim that Lt. Dudingston fired a shot at the attackers. He said he saw John Brown shoot Dudingston, and saw a Dr. Weeks tend to the lieutenant's wounds.

Aaron then described his time on the Beaver, the British schooner where he had gone to flee his master's farm.

On the day of his planned escape, Aaron rowed out to the Beaver at about 10 p.m. The ship's crew immediately locked him in irons as a runaway slave. The next morning the captain ordered Aaron stripped and tied to the mast for a whipping.

Before the lash fell, a crewman who had been aboard the Gaspee "jumped up" and told the captain that he had seen the Negro aboard the Gaspee.

Capt. Lindzee asked the crewman, "Are you sure of it?" The crewman, Paddy Alis, said that he was. The captain ordered Aaron back into irons. Then he called Alis and Aaron into his cabin.

Again, Capt. Linzee asked whether Alis was sure that Aaron had been there. With his palm on the Bible, Alis answered yes.

Linzee turned to Aaron. "My lad, you see this man has declared you was there, and if you don't tell who was there with you, I will hang you at the yardarm immediately, and if you do, you shall not be hurt."

With his life on the line, Aaron started talking.

ON THE DAY after Aaron's testimony, the commission did not meet due to "The weather being extremely cold and violent stormy." Narragansett Bay froze, and from all over the colony people wrote letters to the commission saying that they could not possibly obey their summonses to come to Newport.

From Providence, a man named Arthur Fenner wrote "I am a man of 74 years of age, and very infirm, and at the time said schooner was taken and plundered, I was in my bed and I knew nothing of it."

George Brown wrote "my health has been on decline these two months past, and it would be dangerous should I leave house."

John Andrews, who had ridden with the deputy governor to Pawtuxet on the day of the burning, sent word "I should have cheerfully obeyed said summons had my health permitted, but I have been confined for a week past with a swelling in my hand."

Although the commissioners required Adm. Montagu's presence, they agreed to postpone the depositions of all these men, and more. On Jan. 19 the commissioners adjourned due to "the extreme rigor of the season, which renders it almost impossible to get witnesses."

They resumed on May 26, nearly a year after the burning. They took testimony for three more weeks before reaching a finding in the case.

George Brown appeared at the summer session, testifying that on the night the Gaspee burned he was in Sabin's public house when "I heard a drum beat in the street; I asked the reason of said drum beating, on which some of the company, but whom I do not recollect, answered there were some boys beating the drum, which was common for two or three years past in summer evenings."

Andrews testified that he, too, had heard the drum, and had been told it was a military training day and the "people were breaking up their frolic" with a beating of the drum. He testified that he and the deputy governor had tried to interview Dudingston on the very day he was shot, but Dudingston "would render no account about the matter."

Samuel Faulkner, the handyman whom Aaron said he had rowed to Bristol on the night of the burning, testified that Aaron had done no such thing.

On June 22, 1773, the commissioners wrote their final report to King George. They told the king that they discounted Aaron's testimony because he confessed "in consequence of illegal threats from Capt. Linzee of hanging him at the yardarm."

The commissioners complained that they had tried, early on, to depose Aaron, but Capt. Linzee had refused to surrender him. The captain had treated the sheriff "in a most contemptuous and unjustifiable manner."

"There is also some reason to believe," the commissioners wrote, "that in some instances Lt. Dudingston, from an intemperate, if not a reprehensible zeal . . . exceeded the bounds of his duty.

The commission concluded: "After our utmost efforts, we are not able to discover any evidence" against any man.

NEARLY SEVEN DECADES after the destruction of the Gaspee, the last surviving member of the raiding party broke his life-long silence of the affair. On Aug. 29, 1839, Col. Ephraim Bowen published a detailed statement describing how he handed his father's gun to James Bucklin, how Bucklin had pulled the trigger, and what Bucklin said after he'd shot Lt. Dudingston.

He mentioned the names of "the most conspicuous actors," among them: John Brown; Captains Abraham Whipple, John B. Hopkins, Benjamin Dunn, and a few others whom Bowen described as "my youthful companions, all of whom are dead I believe, every man except myself."

Bowen, 86 when he published his statement, soon followed his "youthful companions" to the grave.