I promised myself I wouldn’t write a new post until I had gone back and done the bibliography for my previous posts. But this is too cool not to write out now.
Last week, I was running down some details on Sophronia Durant Dewing for a colleague making an exhibit placard for a desk that belonged to her. Sophronia was granddaughter of Privateer Ned Durant, great-granddaughter of Edward Durant III, and great-great-granddaughter of Edward II and Judith Waldo Durant. In 1834, she married Paul Dewing, grandson of Ebenezer Dewing.
On November 25, 1766, Ebenezer Dewing had been beaten on the road as he passed through Newton, and though he got himself almost all the way home after the attack, he succumbed to his injuries the next day. As he struggled home in the last hours of his life, he stopped in at Bullard’s Tavern, near what is today the Washington Street entrance to Wellesley College and reported what had happened to him. As a result of what the tavern patrons heard him say, Titus, “servant” of Edward Durant of Newton, was arrested for Dewing’s murder. He was tried in Boston the following spring and, astonishingly, acquitted.
At the museum where I work, we tell this story on the basis of two newspaper reports, the one from before the trial, announcing the death and Titus’s arrest, and the other from after, announcing the verdict.
So, as I was reading through a Dewing family history looking for notes on Sophronia, I was delighted to discover a footnote referring to a Dewing family account, in a manuscript held by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, of the circumstances of Ebenezer’s death. I made an appointment at the NEHGS and went this morning.
Not only do I now have rather a LOT more detail as to what allegedly happened out on the road, I also see some really important holes in this story — but I also now have the citations necessary to track down the court records! If they’re still in existence, that is — just because they were in 1885 doesn’t mean they still are, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up.
But now I have a summary of what witnesses reported Dewing saying at the tavern, as well as a witness list. Interestingly, the witness list includes no Durants (it appears to be the tavern patrons, mostly), but it does include two “negro servants,” (enslaved people) named Jeney (a girl) and Cato (a widow’s “manservant”). And while these accounts are Dewing/Needham accounts, the manuscript strikingly says exactly *nothing* about Titus’s defense.
At the museum, we’d always assumed Titus wasn’t allowed to testify in his own defense, but the calling of two enslaved people as witnesses belies that understanding, at least at some level. For some reason, the version of the story I inherited is that it was an affirmative defense — that he was defending himself from Dewing. There’s not any record of that in what I’ve found so far, but what’s really interesting is what it also doesn’t supply: any proof Titus was there.
This is why I need the court records. I need to see the actual evidence. But I’m forced to consider for the first time that it’s possible I have perhaps overlooked the oldest and ugliest legal maneuver in the book — blame the innocent black guy.
There is much, much more to look into here, but I now have a moral imperative to be sure. If we’re not telling the full story because we haven’t seen all the records, we have to get that straightened out. So my next move is to figure out what I need to do to sit down with the court records, if they still exist.
But the manuscript did provide another interesting detail I passed along to my colleague with the desk she needed to label.
We knew that Paul and Sophronia’s youngest son, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, had become a renowned artist, and I had begun to piece together some information from profiles of Thomas — including that Paul had been an alcoholic who died in 1863 when Thomas was 12. What confused me, though, was that Sophronia was buried in Newton when she died in 1899, and while her monument also marks the grave of the couple’s five-year-old daughter Ellen, who died in 1849, Paul isn’t there. Or anywhere else in Newton, it seems. Now I know why:
[Manuscript Image courtesy of NEHGS: Ancestry of Benjamin Hill Dewing (Mss A 3985). R Stanton Avery Special Collections Department, New England Historic Genealogical Society.]