This week’s blog post is guest written by one of our research fellows, Nicole Breault, who was able to travel to Burns Library and conduct research earlier this year as part of the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium
With the generous support of a New England Regional Fellowship, I spent two weeks at John J. Burns Library at Boston College working with the Ellerton J. Brehaut Collection of Edward Hartwell Savage Papers. My first encounter with Edward Hartwell Savage was while conducting preliminary research for my dissertation project, “The Night Watch of Boston: Law and Governance in Eighteenth-Century British America.” Searching for materials on nightly watches, I stumbled on a mid-nineteenth century work: A chronological history of the Boston watch and police, from 1631 to 1865; together with the Recollections of a Boston police office, or, Boston by daylight and gaslight, from the diary of an officer fifteen years in the service. The author, then Deputy Chief of Police, included vivid stories describing the locations of watch houses, dialogues between watchmen and residents, and revealed subtle details of the experience of serving in the watch. Literature on the practice of watch-keeping is quite scarce. While written in the tone and style of an antiquarian, Savage’s history of the Boston watch offered details not found elsewhere. In the hope of locating more materials, I went in search of Mr. Savage and his archive.
The Ellerton J. Brehaut Collection of Edward Hartwell Savage Papers contains a variety of materials ranging from personal poetry to sanitation logs to correspondence. I spent much of my time combing through two thick manuscript volumes Savage prepared while writing his book on the Boston watch and his second book Boston events: A brief mention and the date of more than 5,000 events that transpired in Boston from 1630 to 1880. Labeled “Annals of Boston,” these volumes were encased in a smooth, velvety binding and filled with a rich chronology of events written in a perfect, delicate script. To my delight, I found a number of entries on Boston’s watch that were not included in the published version. However, my most significant find was not part of Savage’s notes, but a small, yellowing piece cut from a newspaper and pasted onto the backside of one of the pages. The short article began, “AN OLD DOCUMENT.—The following is a copy of a constable’s return, found among some old rubbish which was dumped in the Back Bay a day or two since.” When I saw the date a wave of emotion came over me! Resurrected from oblivion was a watch return (or report) dated for the 25th of May 1772. Of the hundreds of extant watch reports I have located for this project, this was the first surviving return for 1772. Composed by a familiar character, Constable of the Dock Square Watch Edward Ireland, the transcription revealed few revelatory events. Nonetheless, it gave me a small window onto a year I thought was otherwise lost to me.
While many of Edward Hartwell Savage’s records lay far outside of my project’s chronology, the collection offered me many insights into the longer history of Boston’s watch. Filled with meticulous data, the record book Savage kept as the Captain of the North End station demonstrated the shift toward punitive policing; some years boasted as high as a 90% conviction rate! One can gain a sense of the day-to-day administrative concerns of the Boston Police Chief by perusing the copies of Savage’s correspondence and a deeper sense of the man himself from his entries in his commonplace book. The official records and personal musings of one officer walks us through the city’s mid-nineteenth century transition from a centuries old system of watch-keeping to a municipal police force. The most delightful discovery, however, was Savage himself. In him I found a fascinating, multi-dimensional man: a mediocre poet, a story-teller, tenacious record-keeper, a dedicated civil servant, and also, a fellow historian.
Nicole Breault is a Ph.D. candidate in early American history at the University of Connecticut. Her research is focused on law, culture, and society in eighteenth-century British Atlantic world with an interest in the history of governance, institutions, gender, urban life, and material culture. Ms. Breault’s dissertation-in-progress undertakes the first comprehensive study of watch-keeping in eighteenth-century British America. Focused on colonial and revolutionary Boston, the project examines setting a watch as a legal, social, and cultural practice and positions watch-keeping as its own particular form of governance and method of surveillance, not an early equivalent to modern scientific policing.