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The Catastrophe in State Street: A Fourth of July Celebration in Boston Leads to Deadly Violence

Funeral Dirge: Liberty and Science mourn a promising and favorite Son Broadside

Funeral Dirge: Liberty and Science mourn a promising and favorite Son

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This broadside printing of the music and lyrics for a funeral dirge by John Horace Nichols “mourned a promising and favorite Son,” Charles Austin, an eighteen-year-old Harvard College student, who was killed early in the afternoon of 4 August 1806 in State Street, the main thoroughfare of Boston. Austin had “chastised” lawyer Thomas O. Selfridge by striking him with a sturdy walking stick. Selfridge, who had been forewarned that he might be attacked by a “hired bully,” had just left his office in the Old State House with a loaded pistol either in his pocket or held behind his back. He shot and killed young Austin—a “catastrophe” that shocked Boston.

A Fourth of July Feast

Tragically, Charles Austin died because of a disputed bill for a Fourth of July party held a month earlier on Copp’s Hill in Boston’s North End. Thomas Selfridge, the shooter, had been locked in an increasingly bitter public controversy with Charles Austin’s father, Benjamin Austin, Jr. The two men were leading figures of the sharply divided political factions (parties) in Boston.

Benjamin Austin had been the chairman of a committee that organized a separate Fourth of July celebration for Boston’s (Democratic) Republican faction, supporters of President Thomas Jefferson, after it became clear that the town’s official celebration would be dominated by Federalists—the political faction that had grown up around Presidents George Washington and John Adams. The Federalists had fallen from favor except in New England, but Massachusetts, which then included the District of Maine, was exquisitely balanced between the factions in one closely fought gubernatorial election after another, elections that then took place each year.

In this tense political atmosphere, the Fourth of July party hosted by Benjamin Austin’s committee turned out to be a great success—it was too successful. The presence of a Tunisian diplomat and his colorfully garbed entourage on Copp’s Hill attracted an overflow crowd and the estimated cost of $360 became a final bill for $630 (seven additional roast pigs and ten bushels of green peas added substantially to expenses). Austin refused to pay more than the estimate and Eber Eager, the keeper of the Jefferson Tavern on Prince Street in Boston who catered the affair, although a Republican himself, hired Thomas Selfridge, an arch Federalist, to press his demand.

A private mediator quickly negotiated a settlement between Eager and Austin’s party committee, but Austin and Selfridge kept up an escalating barrage of “posts” by attacks on each other published as advertisements in partisan Boston newspapers. Austin accused Selfridge of unethically seeking legal business—barratry—while Selfridge accused Austin of spreading “jesuitically false” statements about him.

“Stand Your Ground”

Dueling was illegal in Massachusetts but adversaries who had “posted” each other through published advertisements would, in some cases, “chastise” their opponents by bullying or assault. If too old or infirm—Benjamin Austin was 54 and Thomas Selfridge, although only 31, had been in poor health since his college years--they employed relatives or even hired “bullies” to carry out “chastisements.” When Charles Austin struck Selfridge, he was acting on behalf of his father. Selfridge was indicted for manslaughter and the case of Commonwealth v. Selfridge became a legal landmark notable for judicial decisions about the right of a defendant to “stand his ground” when attacked and whether a defendant could use lethal force in defending himself, even if he was mistaken about an attacker’s murderous intent.

Commonwealth v. Selfridge

The case was tried in December 1806 before Judge Isaac Parker of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and pitted “Republican” prosecutors, Massachusetts Attorney General James Sullivan and Solicitor General Daniel Davis, against a defense team made up of notable Federalist attorneys, Christopher Gore and Samuel Dexter. When Selfridge was found not guilty, there were large scale protests of the verdict. Both Selfridge and Theophilus Parsons, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, who was widely understood to have influenced the grand jury’s decision to try Selfridge for manslaughter rather than murder, were hanged in effigy in Boston and elsewhere.

The contemporary manuscript annotations at the top and the foot of A Funeral Dirge indicate the continued political divide in Massachusetts: Charles Austin was “shot by a pistol from the hand of T O Selfridge” but then, a different writer adds “in self defense.” At the foot of the page, the “mourning Sire” in the text was identified as “Honestus – or Ben: Austin [Austin wrote under the pseudonym “Honestus”] an old fashioned Jacobin.” The Jeffersonian Republicans supported the French Revolution and often were condemned for its excesses.

The Massachusetts Historical Society Divided

While fellows and members of the Massachusetts Historical Society have seen themselves as removed from party politics, the roles of James Sullivan (a Republican), the first president of the MHS, 1791-1806, and Christopher Gore (a Federalist), the second president, 1806-1818, as the lead prosecutor and defense attorney in the Selfridge case makes it very difficult to believe that politics did not intrude upon the Society’s activities. The fact that they both would serve as governors of Massachusetts in the years following the trial (Sullivan from 1807 to 1808 and Gore from 1809 to 1810) brought party politics into the rooms of the Society. Even Paul Revere, full of years but still active in civic life, enters the story. Revere was the foreman of the jury at the Selfridge trial and when he later was accused of bias in favor of the defendant, newspapers favorable to Selfridge cited the “papers of the Historical Society” as proof of Revere’s distinguished public service—and honorable character—before and during the Revolution.

For further reading

Boston had seven newspapers in 1806, most supporting one or another political faction. Benjamin Austin, writing as “Honestus,” had been a contributor to the Independent Chronicle, a reliably Republican newspaper, while the Columbian Centinel played the same role for the Federalist party.

Bentley, William. The Diary of William Bentley: Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts. Salem: The Essex Institute, 1905-1914. 4 vols.

In diary entries for 4 May 1806 and 1 September 1808 (vol. 3, p. 226 and 381), Rev. Bentley describes how from political motives the Society “neglected their old President” in 1806 and “[President James] Sullivan was thrust from the chair & [Christopher] Gore promoted.”

Breen, Daniel. “Parson’s Charge: The Strange Origins of Stand Your Ground,” Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, vol. 16, p. 41-78.

Brown, Richard M. No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Emerson, William. A Sermon, Delivered to the First Church in Boston, on the Lord’s Day after the Calamitous Death of Mr. Charles Austin. Boston: Printed at the Emerald Press by Belcher and Armstrong, 1806.

Rev. William Emerson lamented not only the death of Charles Austin, “a youth of this religious society,” but also “the evil principles and manners of the times.”

Selfridge, Thomas O. A Correct Statement of the Whole Preliminary Controversy between Tho. O. Selfridge and Benj. Austin: Also a Brief Account of the Catastrophe in State Street, Boston, on the 4th August 1806. Charlestown: Printed by Samuel Etheridge for the Author, 1807.

Selfridge, Thomas O. Trial of Thomas O. Selfridge, Attorney at Law, Before the Hon. Isaac Parker, Esquire. For Killing Charles Austin, on the Public Exchange, in Boston, August 4th, 1806. Boston: Published by Russell and Cutler, 1807.

The trial was transcribed in shorthand by two independent reporters and “sanctioned by the court, and reporter to the state.” The transcription is remarkably detailed and includes a scale diagram of State Street where the shooting took place.

Tager, Jack. “Politics, Honor, and Self-Defense in Post-Revolutionary Boston: The 1806 Manslaughter Trial of Thomas Selfridge,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts, vol. 27, no. 2 (Fall 2009), p. 84-105.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

While not focusing on the Republican Fourth of July party on Copp’s Hill that led to the death of Charles Austin, Travers describes the role of political parties in the creation of the national holiday.

Triber, Jayne E. A True Republican: A Life of Paul Revere. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Warren, Charles. Jacobin and Junto or Early American Politics as Viewed in the Diary of Dr. Nathaniel Ames, 1758-1822. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931.