Microhistories, Poor relief, Crime in early U.S., Early U.S. legal system
Over the past forty years, historians have produced a veritable mountain of studies that may best be described as microhistories. When writing microhistories, historians often invoke a specific moment, or a few moments, from a subject’s life to reach some broader conclusions of that subject’s community.1 Two recent books provide excellent examples of microhistory. In Robert Love’s Warnings, Cornelia H. Dayton and Sharon V. Salinger study the copybooks and warnings issued by Robert Love to investigate the region’s mobile working population. In doing so, they uncover Boston’s civic, legal, social, and civil community in the last decade of the colonial period. In Taming Lust, Doron S. Ben-Atar and Richard D. Brown examine the lives of Gideon Washburn and John Farrell, two elderly men who, in the 1790s, were accused and convicted of bestiality. The trials and their aftermath reveal a New England in flux as residents struggled to reconcile their cultural and political traditions with the new realities of a post-Revolutionary United States. Both books use their specific subjects as windows to explore and explain the wider world these men inhabited. While Dayton and Salinger expertly detail the changes Boston’s mobile working class faced as the imperial crisis [End Page 313] intensified, Ben-Atar and Brown show us a New England in turmoil as the region’s residents tried to make sense of their new, post-Revolutionary world.
Dayton and Salinger introduce readers to Love’s world by taking us on a walk. This is, however, no ordinary walk. Love was appointed to issue warnings to non-residents in Boston, a job he held from January 1765 until he died in April 1774. Thus, for roughly nine years, Robert Love spent approximately three days per week walking the streets of Boston, looking for people he needed to question. If the people he interrogated had no prospects for work or a place to live, he warned them that they had to leave the city in fourteen days. Few people saw transient and working-class people more regularly, or more closely, than did Robert Love.
Love’s story of warning out is part of a larger English culture that colonists carried with them when they crossed the Atlantic. In the seventeenth century, England’s Parliament began passing a series of acts collectively termed the Poor Law that determined who was eligible for poor relief and how officials should provide it. People removed from town were ultimately sent back to their hometowns, where they might legally obtain some aid. In eighteenth-century Massachusetts, nonresidents could be warned and, if necessary, removed after authorities acquired a court order. While less onerous than the practice in England, Massachusetts used warning out as a way to minimize or eliminate the amount of poor relief paid to strangers. By the time Robert Love issued his warnings in 1765, Massachusetts officials were using warnings more as a way to keep track of people than as a way to get rid of the poor.
Love kept track of his interactions in a series of notebooks, which Dayton and Salinger use to reveal the people who lived and worked in Boston in the last ten years of the colonial period. Because he relied on visual cues to remind him whom he had warned, Love often described people’s faces, hair, clothes, and accents. One man he described as middle aged with his ''own black Hair'' (60). Another was a sailor who had apparently deserted a British ship but had been born in Northern Ireland. Dayton and Salinger painstakingly show precisely where Love met the people he warned, detailing the weeks and months he was busiest. Love tracked, and kept track of, newcomers in...