The Cuming sisters were not accustomed to fearing their neighbors. For five years, they had lived peaceably and prudently in the heart of Boston’s commercial district, near the intersection of Cornhill, King Street, and Queen Street. King Street, lined with taverns and shops, ran eastward to the harbor, where it continued onto Long Wharf, the port’s principal landing site. Queen Street, which stretched westward, toward Beacon Hill, housed the jail, the auction house, and the printing offices of Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette and Green and Russell’s Boston Post-Boy. Cornhill, which split King and Queen, boasted a hodge-podge of shops, as well as the Post Office and the Old Brick Meeting House. In the center of it all, the Town House rose from the cobblestones like a solitary boulder disrupting the flow of a stream. The crowds that swirled around it — apprentices hawking the latest pamphlets, hucksters with baskets of fish and cakes, bewigged lawyers, farmers sent to town to exchange pigs and potatoes for tea — haggled and laughed and argued. Here, on the eastern side of Cornhill, between Thomas Fleet’s printing office at the sign of the Heart and Crown and Samuel Whitwell’s wool and leather shop under the Buck and Glove, stood the Cuming sisters’ house, the smallest on the block.
Customers who crossed the threshold into the relative quiet of the first floor shop found shelves and counters bursting with color, glittering with the riches of a global empire. Boston may have been an outpost of barely 15,000 souls — a village next to London’s million — but was that any reason not to wear the “newest fashion’d French Necklaces,” “large fringed Barcelona Handkerchiefs,” and “Velvet Masks”? A cheerless November afternoon or blustery March morning could hardly dampen the spirits of those arrayed in “yellow-ground brocades,” “green mantua Silks,” or “plain, flowered, and spotted Sattens.” When chill winds off the iron-gray harbor rattled the windows of unheated meeting houses, the ladies of Boston may well have offered a prayer of thanks for the “white and silver, purple and silver, and pink and silver Tippets” wrapped snuggly around their shoulders. If they belonged to the Church of England, the shivering sufferers could smile their gratitude at pew #36, where Ame and Betsy offered their own thankful prayers.
As “she-merchants,” Ame and Betsy were both a part of and apart from the male-dominated world of their bustling commercial neighborhood. Orphaned in their youth, the two sisters never married. They could easily have stayed at home in Concord, where their older brother, John, was a prominent doctor, and lived a quiet life on income from the farm they inherited from their parents. Instead, Ame and Betsy sold most of their land and boldly removed to Boston. There, they relied on their own industry and a broad network of female friends, patrons, and customers to cobble together an honest living. Under the tutelage of Elizabeth Murray Smith, a wealthy merchant who regularly supported other women’s business ventures, Ame and Betsy developed an array of enterprises that ensured their financial independence while preserving their status as genteel ladies. In addition to their work in the shop, the sisters took in boarders, rented out mourning clothes for funerals, and ran an embroidery school for young girls. Their days were consumed in visiting and being visited, entertaining customers for whom the shop was also a social space, and writing letters that mixed business reports with the most personal confessions. “We cannot have every thing we wish in this life,” observed Betsy, waxing philosophical in a letter to her dear friend, Dolly Murray Forbes, “but to make the most of our ingoyments is the surest way to be happy.”
While Ame and Betsy Cuming pursued their happiness, rumblings of discontent rippled through the city. In 1767, Parliament had passed the Townshend Acts, a series of duties imposed on British goods such as glass, tea, paper, and paint. In protest of these acts, Boston’s leading merchants decreed that no British goods should be imported after January 1, 1769. Prominent Whigs, including John Hancock, James Otis, and Samuel Adams, supported the boycott, hoping that they might repeat their victory over the Stamp Act. Many merchants in the Cornhill/King Street neighborhood were eager to pledge their support for the nonimportation agreements. Others were less enthusiastic, but acquiesced in order to remain in the Whigs’ good graces and preserve what business they could. By the end of the summer of 1769, nearly all of Boston’s merchants had formally signed onto the nonimportation pact.
The Cuming sisters ignored the Whig merchants’ agreement. They were neither grocers, who might find American-grown substitutes for imported foods, nor hardware merchants, who could buy their tools from the local blacksmiths as readily as from the great manufacturers of Liverpool. Without imports, Ame and Betsy would have no gleaming satins, no silver baubles, no silk threads for their students’ stitching. Besides, they considered their business “verry trifiling” — certainly, it was beneath the notice of elite politicians and merchant tycoons. On the advice of Mrs. Smith, the sisters continued to order and receive goods from London, “never expeckting [the Whig merchants] would tack notis or try to inger two industrious Girls striving in an honest way to Git their bread.”
In August, tragedy struck. Mrs. Smith’s elderly husband died, leaving her little reason to remain in Boston, where bad business and bad health conspired to bring her low. In September, she packed her trunks and set out for London, promising her protégés that she would continue to advise them from abroad. The Cuming sisters, who referred to Mrs. Smith as “our Parent,” were crushed. “I am extremely sorry for the Miss Cumins poor Girels,” a friend wrote to Mrs. Smith, “what will they do without you[?] Betsy will sink under it.” Indeed, Betsy’s health, which had never been good, declined in the following months, as anxiety and grief gnawed away at her. “You know I dwell upon the gloomy,” she confessed to Dolly Murray Forbes, “& you cannot wonder at it when you think of the loce we have sustained in your dear Ant.” More than a friend and confidante, Mrs. Smith had been the Cumings’ guide and protector. The sisters were on unfriendly terms with their older brothers, so Mrs. Smith’s departure left them destitute of powerful local friends.
As the warmth of summer faded, the crowds around the Town House laughed less and muttered more. The taverns of King Street rang with shouted curses directed at John Mein, a friend of the Cuming sisters who published Boston’s lone Tory newspaper, The Boston Chronicle, on the north corner of the Cornhill-King intersection. Convinced that the Whig leaders were hypocrites and liars, Mein printed a 130-page pamphlet that accused many of the most vocal anti-importation merchants of violating their own agreement. Whigs all over the city denounced Mein, calling his pamphlet “the infamous villainy of the most atrocious and ungrateful wretch that ever crossed the Atlantic.” The Boston Gazette, published by staunch Whigs Benjamin Edes and John Gill, printed dozens of letters from the accused, in which they defended themselves, excoriated Mein, and maligned all those who continued to ignore the nonimportation pacts.
On October 4, 1769, the freeholders of Boston met at Faneuil Hall, where they adopted a resolution expressing their “Astonishment and Indignation” at Bostonians who continued to import goods. Wondering how anyone could be “so lost to the Feelings of Patriotism and the common Interest, and so thoroughly and infamously selfish,” as to obstruct the nonimportation agreement, they voted for the names of importing merchants to be “entred on the Records of this Town.” This official list announced that recalcitrant shopkeepers had “not only deserted, but opposed their Country.”
What country was this? Surely, it was not Great Britain, the ascendant empire-nation of the 18th century that commanded the allegiance of diverse millions. Instead, the Boston voters understood their “Country” in much the same way as their 17th-century forebears had — as a region or county that knit men together through personal loyalty, intermarriage, and fear-drenched provincialism. Though their London contemporaries considered such localism quaintly anachronistic, Boston’s Whigs saw themselves as the protectors of ancient “Rights of the Constitution,” including the right to be free from the meddlesome interference of a remote central government. The idea that some of their neighbors might place loyalty to transatlantic networks or far-away patrons above fealty to the local consensus confounded them. The voters found that merchants who defied the “legal” and “peaceable” nonimportation agreements to be “highly insolent, and justly deserving of Censure.” While some of those assembled would have been satisfied to issue a written reprimand, many agreed with Samuel Adams, whose escalating rhetoric cast importers as irredeemable outsiders. “It is too late in the day,” Adams told the crowd, “God perhaps might possibly forgive them, but I and the rest of the People never could.” With Adams’ imprecations ringing in their ears, the freeholders dispersed, already plotting how best to “censure” those merchants who were “Guilty of High Treason against the Majesty of the People.”
On the afternoon of October 28, Betsy Cumings was visiting a King Street neighbor who was “confined this three weeks with the Roomitez,” when she was “alarmed with a violent Skreeming Kill him Kill him.” Betsy “fleu to the Windue,” where she beheld an awful sight: John Mein, armed with a pistol, was careening down King Street, pursued by a “larg crowd” armed with cudgels, shovels, and bats. The “skreeming” mob that streamed toward the wharf contained many familiar faces. Betsy, horrified, identified her neighbors among the throng, though she could scarcely believe the transformation of “those who Call themselves Gintelmen, but in reality they ware no other thin Murderers.”
As Betsy looked on, Mein reached the guardhouse on the wharf, steps ahead of his pursuers. As Mein struggled to wrench open the door and slip inside, “Capt. Marshall” struck him repeatedly with a shovel, tearing open his shoulder. In desperation, Mein fired a pistol into the crowd. Though no one was injured, the sound of a shot reverberated through the street, shocking the crowd for a moment and allowing Mein to pull the guardhouse door shut behind him. Enraged by their quarry’s escape, the marauders loped back up King Street to Mein’s shop, where they employed the early evening in destroying hundreds of books, burning stacks of papers, and dismantling the offending press. As the sun set, their numbers grew. Betsy, frightened and alone, slipped through the streets unnoticed, back to her own small house, where she and Ame locked their doors against the terrors outside.
The deepening dark soon engulfed the little house and the two women inside. They “shut up” the building as best they could and waited, hoping that the mob would pass them by. It did not. Instead of hounding the sisters through the streets, “a larg Mob of ful a thousand Man & boys” performed an elaborately gruesome piece of theatre for their benefit. After Mein’s escape, the crowd had caught a suspected customs informer, George Gailer, who was beaten, tossed into a cart, and jostled through the streets. At strategic points along the route, men poured buckets of tar over Gailer’s bare skin, scalding his flesh and filling his wounds with hot, gummy resin. When the torturers “aranged themselves befor [the Cumings’] Dorr,” they applied this treatment once more, this time finishing it off with feathers. As they moved away, down Cornhill, someone thrust a lantern into Gailer’s hand, obliging him to stay conscious, lest he drop the flame and set himself afire. Though neither Ame nor Betsy was physically harmed, they came to regard their neighbors as dangerous men who could be restrained by neither reason nor force: “when there Malic will Subsid lise in the womb of fait to determan.”
Ame and Betsy could no longer hope that they would pass beneath the notice of Boston’s Whigs. Trifling or not, the silks and silver that adorned the sisters’ shelves marked them as dissenters in a city where everyday actions had become declarations of political allegiance. The Cumings were not allowed to attend the meeting of freeholders or vote on matters of town business, but that made no difference. They were expected to abide by the merchants’ agreements, whether they had had a voice in crafting those agreements or not. If Ame and Betsy had been accustomed to obedience, they might have acquiesced to the demands of their formidable neighbors. But if they had been accustomed to obedience, they might never have left Concord.
Three weeks after the spectacle enacted before their door, a large shipment of “seasonable goods,” ordered from London long before their present troubles, arrived at the Cuming sisters’ shop. If they had wished to please the Boston Whigs, Ame and Betsy would have turned the goods over to the Committee of Merchants to be stored until the agreement expired. Instead, they opened the crates and stocked their shelves. As soon as the goods were unpacked, representatives of the Committee accosted the women, charging that they had imported goods “Contrary to the aggremant of the Merchants.” “I told them we had never entered into any agreement not to import,” Betsy recounted in an indignant letter to Mrs. Smith, “they Sad then we must tack the Conciquances & so they have published [us] in the papers.”
To be “published” in Boston’s Whig newspapers was to find one’s name and address emblazoned on the front page of each week’s edition under the title, “A LIST of the Names of those who audaciously continue to counteract the united Sentiments of the Body of Merchants throughout NORTH-AMERICA; by importing British Goods contrary to the Agreement.” According to the list, Ame, Betsy, and a handful of others were “Enemies to their Country” who “prefered their own little private Advantage to the Welfare of America.” The papers warned potential customers that anyone who purchased so much as a pin from these renegades “must expect to be considered in the same disagreeable light.” By Christmas week, nearly every Whig-leaning newspaper in the city had added Ame and Betsy to its list of heretics. The last publisher to comply was the sisters’ next-door neighbor, Thomas Fleet, whose Boston Evening-News finally denounced them on January 8, 1770.
If the Whigs had hoped to frighten Ame and Betsy into docility, they badly overestimated their influence over two women who were quite used to governing themselves. Even as the first round of accusations appeared in the newspapers, the sisters allied themselves with another named importer, William Jackson, to organize “A Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music” for December 29th. Bostonians who wished to attend were advised to scoff at the published calumnies and visit either Mr. Jackson’s or the Cumings’ shop, where “Ticketts” could be purchased for half a dollar. Ame and Betsy soon found that the merchants’ ire did not discourage customers, but “ Spirit[ed] up our friends to Purchase from us.” In a forcefully cheerful letter to Mrs. Smith, Ame assured her patron that business in Boston had never been better:
I dare say you are at presant anxious about us if you have sean the Boston Pappers you have sean us mentioned as importers but dont be uneasy on our account, it has not hurt us at all in our Business, but the revers I think we have mor custom then before and trust in god we sall make our way throu the world and pay our debts honestly which is the heth of our ambition.Other correspondents, less optimistic or less solicitous of Mrs. Smith’s peace of mind, considered the situation a bad joke. “Would you not be diverted to see Squire Barnes and the two little Miss Cumingses Posted together in a News Paper as Enimys to their country?” wrote a rueful Christian Barnes, whose own husband was also suspected,
Do, Bless you, send us a little Dash of Politics from tother side the water that we may see something that has the appearance of Truth, for our Well Disposed import such a vast quantity of lies with their other Articles that they begin to find a difficulty in vending them.
Yet, for all their optimism, some of the Cumings’ letters betrayed the toll that stress and worry took on them. During a Thanksgiving Day visit to James Murray’s country estate, Betsy “joined in the amusement with a hivvy heart,” eventually excusing herself to the bedroom that had once been Mrs. Smith’s. There, she mourned the loss of her benefactress and “Shadd a few Cristil tears & not a few would Satisfie me for I thought my poor Heart would have Bursted.” One of the gentlemen in attendance pittied her with “honest Bluntness,” but, Betsy protested, “I want no pity.” Ame worried over her sister’s health, though she tried to persuade herself and Mrs. Smith that Betsy was on the mend. As the year drew to a close, the sisters found themselves under the eye of a watchful city, their every move betraying their contempt for the boycott they continued to ignore.
The New Year brought no relief. Edes and Gill made good on an earlier threat, publishing the names of shoppers who had been seen entering forbidden shops: James Hearsy and William Bradley of Abington, who purchased “a few articles for their Families Use” from importer William Jackson; Robert Breck and James Sheppard of Northampton, who pled ignorance as visitors; Isaac Viburt, who protested that, “neither myself, my Wife, nor any Person for us have directly or indirectly bought Tea or any other article,” though “printed Hand-Bills” posted around the city insisted that he was a collaborator. The Cumings’ friends, who had rallied around them all winter, found themselves maligned in “false and malicious” rumors. Sally Jackson, a friend whose father and husband were both Whig selectmen, issued a mealy-mouthed statement to the Massachusetts Gazette, in which she claimed that she had made a mistake by purchasing 13 yards of satin from Ame and Betsy in early January:
at the Time of purchasing the same it never entered the Mind of the Lady that the said Cummings were Importers, or she certainly would not have bought it of them, tho’ she might Regard them on other Accounts.
As allies retreated, violence directed at dissenting merchants became increasingly common. In February, Patrick McMasters, whose name appeared above the Cuming sisters’ on every front page in town, was abducted from his home, assaulted, and driven to the Roxbury town line, where a vigilante committee banished him from the city. Mrs. Smith, who had hoped to send her young niece to live with Ame and Betsy and learn to keep their accounts, gave up on the plan, due to “the fury of the People at Boston.”
The danger peaked on February 22, when the importers named in the Gazette arose to find their windows smeared with tar and feathers. Theophilus Lillie’s shop was decorated with a wooden effigy of its owner’s head impaled on a spike. When Lillie’s neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson, attempted to remove the effigy, a crowd of boys pelted him with ice, rocks, and feces. Richardson retreated into his house, but the barrage continued, shattering Richardson’s windows, breaking down his door, and injuring his wife. Richardson responded with a blast of birdshot that left 11-year-old Christopher Snider dead and several teenagers injured.
Snider’s death electrified the city. The Gazette devoted the greater part of a page to coverage of this “barbarous murder,” proclaiming that Snider was “the first whose LIFE has been a Victim to the Cruelty and Rage of Oppressors!” On February 26, two thousand Bostonians paraded Snider’s coffin through the streets as thousands more looked on. Coverage of the funeral dominated the March 5 edition of the Gazette, including the rumor that Richardson would escape prosecution. That night, a crowd of enraged civilians confronted British Regulars in the shadow of the Town House, hurling ice, bats, and curses. Unlike John Mein, the soldiers did not flee. Someone shouted, “Fire!” and the Regulars fired into the pressing throng. When the chaos of clubs and gunfire subsided, five civilians lay dead or dying in the street and the fragile peace lay in shambles.
In the days that followed, Bostonians began to refer to the King Street incident as “The Bloody Massacre” and, later, the Boston Massacre. On March 6, half the city descended on Faneuil Hall, clamoring for the expulsion of all troops from Boston. When Governor Hutchinson’s councilors proposed a compromise that would have removed only half the soldiers, the assembled freeholders deemed the plan insufficient by a vote of 4,000 to 1. “Nothing can rationally be expected to restore the peace of the town and prevent blood and carnage, but the immediate removal of the troops,” wrote Samuel Adams, speaking for the Whig majority. Many understood him to mean that a standing army would continue to perpetrate violence. Others heard a threat to unleash the people’s rage.
It was no longer safe for Ame and Betsy to remain in Boston. They leased their shop to Richard Jennys, a dry goods merchant, and moved to a tiny farm in Concord. Though no letters from their years there survive, Ame and Betsy do not appear to have reconciled with John, though, perhaps, the townspeople may have been hesitant to attack the sisters of the local Justice of the Peace. When war pursued them even into that corner of the earth, they finally quit the land of their birth and sailed for Nova Scotia. There, they established another shop on the same model as their Boston premises, bringing small touches of imported elegance to dismal Halifax. “Our business is no fatigue but an amusement,” Betsy assured Mrs. Smith, “we are esteemed by the people here, a pleasant little Hous, & one of the Best Servints that ever mortals was blessed with . . . this is a maricle in this place.” Friends put on brave faces and heartily agreed that the evacuation from Massachusetts had done Ame and Betsy good: “the Miss Cumings are well and doing well, by being thrown hither they have fallen on their feet and are more prosperous than ever they were in Boston.” The two women lived out their lives in Halifax, giving thanks for “the Mirsays we injoy,” but “liment[ing] absence from our friends.”
In May of 1781, Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and attorney general of Massachusetts, charged Ame and Betsy Cuming, in absentia, with “Treasons and High Crimes.” Their property in Concord — “One and half acre of land, with a small house and barn thereon, about two miles west of the meeting-house” — was seized and sold at public auction. John Cuming, the brother who seems never to have extended a hand in friendship to his younger sisters, was offered a generalship in the Continental Army, but turned it down to serve on Massachusetts’ Revolutionary governing body, the Committee of Correspondence. In the years that followed, these patriots and their allies enshrined their commitment to freedom in the founding documents of an infant nation. On August 1, 1776, as the Continental Congress prepared to sign the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams emphasized the importance of freedom of conscience to a crowd gathered at the Pennsylvania State House: “Freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience, driven from every corner of the earth, direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.” Unfortunately for Ame and Betsy Cuming, America’s celebrated hospitality for abstract principles did not always extend to flesh-and-blood dissenters.
*Citations available on request — I just don't know how to put 50 footnotes into an already overlong post.
I love how you wrote this essay, one point of view, that may not have been considered before, of a major event. brilliant really! great job!
In the tax list of 1771, Henry Knox appears to be using real estate that belonged to the Cumings sisters and a woman named Ann Dordon. Did he move into their shop?
Hm, I don't know. I was only able to trace their shop as far as Richard Jennys — there is an ad in the Boston News-Letter on Nov. 15, 1770 that says that Jennys is now occupying the shop formerly run by the sisters.
Do you mind telling me which version of the 1771 list you are looking at? I've only ever seen the tax list in database form and the entry for Henry Knox doesn't mention the sisters. I'd love to check out any info on them!
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