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A “Barbarous Murder” on Boston Common: the Phillips-Woodbridge Duel

By the Honourable William Dummer, Esq; ... A Proclamation for Apprehending Henry Phillips Broadside

By the Honourable William Dummer, Esq; ... A Proclamation for Apprehending Henry Phillips

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On 4 July 1728, Boston was rocked by the scandal of a fatal duel the night before when Henry Phillips (or “Philips”—his name is spelled both ways in contemporary documents), and Benjamin Woodbridge met with swords on Boston Common. Woodbridge was mortally wounded and Phillips, aided by members of the local merchant elite and officers of the Royal Navy, fled the colony. Governor William Dummer issued this broadside proclamation (printing on one side of a sheet of paper to be circulated, read aloud, or posted), as a “wanted poster” calling for the arrest of Phillips on the charge of murder. The death of Woodbridge and subsequent flight of Phillips set in motion changes to the Massachusetts anti-dueling law, and a landmark lawsuit that pitted Phillips’s mother and sisters against his brother.

Henry Phillips: an unlikely duelist

Henry Phillips was born in Boston in 1704, the youngest of eight children of merchant and bookseller Samuel and Hannah (Gillam) Phillips. A 1724 graduate of Harvard College where he was given the nickname “Blubber Phillips,” Henry joined his brother Gillam in their father’s bookselling business. A handsome, fashionable young man about town, in 1728 Henry had differences with Benjamin Woodbridge, another “pretty young man” of the same social set, over drinking, gambling—or both—at the Royal Exchange Tavern in King Street.

Except for the “tragical” outcome, the “many and various” reported details of the Phillips-Woodbridge duel make it sound like more of a farce than an affair of honor. Newspaper readers were titillated and horrified by what had happened: a “vile fellow” named Robert Handy, characterized either as an instigator or a peacemaker, witnessed the immediate aftermath of the duel but did little to aid the mortally-wounded Woodbridge and then went off to a dinner party. Woodbridge wandered from the dueling place and his lifeless body was not located until early the next morning after a disorganized overnight search. The coroner quickly sorted out the details and Henry Phillips was indicted for murder, but he already had fled Boston.

Henry Phillips was aided in his escape by merchant and philanthropist Peter Faneuil, whose sister Mary was married to Henry’s brother, Gillam. Peter and Mary Faneuil’s father and uncles were Huguenot refugees who left France after the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes in 1685. The Faneuils retained family connections in their homeland who gave Phillips shelter beyond the reach of Massachusetts law.

Unable to lay hands on the chief suspect, Massachusetts quickly revised its 1719 anti-dueling law, replacing fines and brief imprisonment with more draconian punishments: the victim in a fatal duel as well as the victor, if convicted of murder and executed, were to be buried in unconsecrated ground near their places of death or execution with stakes driven through their bodies.

Phillips v. Savage

In 1729 or 1730, Henry Phillips died in lonely exile in Rochelle, France, in the care of Peter Faneuil’s French relatives. Since he had not signed a will before his death, Massachusetts colonial law divided his substantial estate (real estate valued at almost £4,000) equally among male and female members of his family, including his mother and sisters. His brother Gillam, however, claimed that under English common law he should receive the entire estate.

When Gillam Phillips lost his case in Massachusetts probate court, he appealed to the Privy Council in London. The appeal was contested by one of his sisters, Faith Savage, whose legal expenses (by contesting the appeal she defended Massachusetts law) later were reimbursed by the colonial government. Although the Privy Council had ruled in favor of an appeal in a similar case from Connecticut five years before (Winthrop v. Lechmere), in Phillips v. Savage they upheld the Massachusetts Bay law that required a “just and equal division” of the property of a person who had died intestate, basing their decision on the claim of “ancient colonial custom.”

Lieutenant Governor William Dummer

At the time of the duel, William Dummer (1677-1761) was the acting governor of Massachusetts, about to be replaced by William Burnet, the governor of New York and New Jersey. Dummer had been born in Boston, but lived in England before he returned to Massachusetts about 1712. He was elected lieutenant governor under Governor Samuel Shute in 1716 and served in that post until 1730, acting as governor between 1723 and 1728, after Shute returned to England. Although he was only the acting governor, Dummer actively pursued the war he inherited against the “Eastern Indians” of Maine (then part of Massachusetts), a campaign sometimes referred to as “Dummer’s War.” In 1729, after Governor Burnett died in office, Dummer briefly served again as acting governor until his replacement in 1730. He retired from public life to his farm in Byfield, Massachusetts, which became, after his death, the site of Governor Dummer Academy, now The Governor’s Academy, the oldest continuously operating boarding school in the United States.

Further Reading

Ames, Ellis. “The Case of Phillips vs. Savage.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1860-1862. (March 1861). Boston: Printed for the Society, 1862, 165-171.

Bilder, Mary S. The Transatlantic Constitution: Colonial Legal Culture and Empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

“On Thursday last the 4th. Currant….” The New-England Weekly Journal. Issue 68. Boston: July 8, 1729, p. 2.

Philips, Gillam. Gillam Philips, Esq; Brother and Heir at Law of Henry Philips deceased, Appellant. London: 1737.

The appeal to His Majesty in Council in the Henry Phillips (here “Philips”) inheritance case, Phillips v. Savage. See The Case of Faith Savage below.

Philips v Savage case, Report No. 05_1734_05. [Online presentation of documents: http://amesfoundation.law.harvard.edu/ColonialAppeals/index_new.php?report_no=05_1734_05] From Appeals to the Privy Council: An Annotated Digital Catalog (website). Compiled by Sharon Hamby O'Connor and Mary Sarah Bilder with the assistance of Charles Donahue, Jr. [http://amesfoundation.law.harvard.edu/ColonialAppeals/index.php]

Raimo, John W. Biographical Directory of American Colonial and Revolutionary Governors 1607-1789. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Books, 1980.

Savage, Faith. Gillam Phillips, only Brother of Henry Phillips deceased Intestate, Appellant. Faith Savage, Widow, one of the Sisters of the Intestate, and others, Respondents. The Case of Faith Savage, One of the Respondents. London: 1738.

Shaw, Samuel C. “The Woodbridge-Phillips Duel.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1903, 1904. Second series, vol. 18 (February 1904). Boston: Published by the Society, 1905, 239-242.

Shipton, Clifford. “Henry Phillips.” Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes of 1722-1725 (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, Vol. 7, 1722-1725). Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1945, p. 424-429.

Simons, Brenton. “Death on the Common: The Duel of Benjamin Woodbridge and Henry Phillips 1728.” Witches, Rakes, and Rogues: True Stories of Sandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630-1775. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 2005, p. 112-121.

 


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