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His Health

After James Otis “behaved very madly’

On 8 May 1770, 250 years ago today, Bostonians gathered for one of their annual town meetings.

Every March, the white men of the town elected its selectmen and other officials for the coming year. Every May, a smaller section of those white men, those who owned more property, elected the town’s four representatives to the Massachusetts General Court.

For the last few years the town had reelected the same four men:

But Otis was no longer in his right mind. He’d gotten into a coffee-house brawl with a royal official in September, suffering a bad head injury. For a while he appeared to recover, but in March, in the wake of the Boston Massacre, he had broken windows in the Town House.

Then on 22 April, the day after Ebenezer Richardson was convicted of murder for shooting at a crowd from his window, the merchant John Rowe wrote this in his diary:

This afternoon Mr. Otis behaved very madly, firing guns out of his window, that caused a large number of people to assemble about him.

Personally I’d stay far away from Otis’s house in that situation, but people might have felt safe once he’d emptied his guns. In any event, the man’s family subdued him and bundled him away to a doctor’s estate in the country.

One item of official business at the May town meeting, therefore, was:

The Honble. James Otis Esq. having by the advice of his Physicians, retired into the Country for the recovery of his Health.

Voted, that the Thanks of the Town be given to the Honble. James Otis Esq; for the great and important Services which as a Representative in the General Assembly through a Course of Years He has rendered to this Town and Province; particularly for his undaunted Exertions in the Common Cause of the Colonies from the beginning of the present glorious Struggle for the Rights of the British Constitution. At the same Time the Town cannot but express their Ardent Wishes for the recovery of His Health, and the continuance of those publick Services that must long be remembered with Gratitude, and distinguish his Name among the Patriots of America Voted, that the Gentlemen the Selectmen be a Committee to transmit to the Honble. James Otis Esq. an attested Copy of the aforegoing Vote

Otis’s departure meant that there was now an opening for the town’s fourth representative.

By a happy coincidence, there was also a prominent Whig politician in Boston who’d been shut out of his usual legislative seat the previous year. James Bowdoin (shown above as a young man) had served in the Massachusetts house back in the 1750s before rising to a seat in the Council. In that body he had led the opposition to Gov. Francis Bernard. In May 1769, the legislature chose Bowdoin for the Council again, but this time the governor “negatived” or vetoed him. Bowdoin therefore had had no official political role for a year.

Bowdoin had used that free time to publicize the letters of Gov. Bernard that leaked from London. After the Massacre, Bowdoin was the principal author of the town’s report on the shooting. So voters knew what he had done for Boston.

The official tally in the records was that out of 513 total votes the top candidates were:

The Honble. James Bowdoin Esq. – – – – – 439
Honble. Thomas Cushing Esq. – – – – – 510
Mr. Samuel Adams – – – – – – – – 510
Honble. John Hancock Esq. – – – – – 511

It’s possible that Bowdoin’s lower number meant there was another candidate or two but clerk William Cooper kept that man’s name out of the record.

(I don’t know if there’s any significance to the way those tallies appear in the minutes, from the lowest to the highest vote-winner. John Rowe attended the meeting and recorded the same numbers in his diary, but he listed Hancock second. In the next couple of years, there was no similar pattern in the order of votes recorded.)

TOMORROW: More town business.