Think the grocery store is charging you too much for that chicken? Gas prices seem a bit out of line? Why not take the stores to court for price gouging? That’s what the Puritans would have done. In the early 1600s, it was a crime and a sin to profiteer. You could have just asked Robert Keayne.
Keayne, best remembered today as founder and first commander of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, ranked as one of the wealthiest early colonists. In his own time, people knew him as a drunk, a cheapskate and a chiseler.
He came to America in 1635, a convert to Puritanism. The son of a butcher, he succeeded as a merchant in England before departing for the colonies at age 40. He had shown an interest in the colonies earlier, as an investor in the Puritan expeditions to Massachusetts.
In 1635 he decided to jump in and join them. A self-styled student of the gospel, Keayne enjoyed attending sermons and kept notes on them. He inspired one major sermon a few years after arriving in Boston, though not in a way he liked.
In 1639, Keayne found himself hauled into court and tried for charging too high a price for nails, eight pence rather than six. Gov. John Winthrop in his journal noted that Keayne had a reputation for selling goods at too high a price. His conviction came as no shock. He had been warned previously both publicly and in private that what he was doing was wrong, but he did not change his ways. In addition, stories of similar price gouging in Britain followed him to America.
A Hefty Fine
All of this worked against him, and the deputies who arrested him initially fined him 200 pounds. Magistrates, however, viewed the fine as too harsh and reduced it by half.
In those days deputies were representatives sent by each town to advise the governor and carry out the government’s business. Magistrates were higher on the pecking order, deriving their power from the colonial governor. The laws were not always clear on how much could be charged and what the punishment should be, the magistrates ruled. The deputies probably reflected the more common view of the wealthy Keayne as a cheat.
Keayne’s next hurdle was to deal with the same allegations, this time in his church, the First Church in Boston, where he faced an ecclesiastical trial for his sins. Even though his brother-in-law was one of the ministers at the church, Keayne was still called to account for his price gouging. Keayne acknowledged what he had done, and begged forgiveness. And he also offered some defenses, mainly his confusion over what was allowable in setting prices. This inspired the church’s other minister, John Cotton, to craft a lecture for the church on the appropriate “Rules of trading.”
In his lecture, he noted that merchants may not set a price for anything above what an educated buyer would pay, and he must not ask anyone to pay more than the set price. Further, a merchant who makes a bad decision in one transaction may not recover his losses by raising prices on other items. And a merchant may not raise prices to cover losses on goods lost at sea, as that was God’s will at work. A merchant was allowed to raise prices in response to scarcity, as that was also God’s work.
A Pig and the General Court
While he had saved his place in the church, Keayne was not well regarded and he received a harsh rebuke from the church leaders. A minister from Rowley would use the case as an argument for hanging price gouging merchants.
But nothing stopped Keayne from amassing one of the largest fortunes of the early colonies.
The case was hardly Keayne’s only run in with controversy. In 1643 he again divided the magistrates and deputies when he was accused of stealing and slaughtering a prize pig belonging to innkeeper Elizabeth Sherman. She sued Keayne over it. He, in return, accused her of slander.
Though she lacked much evidence, Sherman ultimately prevailed in convincing a majority of the deputies and magistrates that Keayne had stolen her property. However, the magistrates overturned the majority and sided with Keayne. Sherman was ultimately ordered to pay damages to Keayne.
That case so rankled the deputies that Governor Winthrop had to create a bicameral legislature to separate the deputies from the magistrates. He assigned unique powers to each.
By 1652, the now-established General Court finally prevailed in the last case against Keayne. By then he had parlayed his fortune into a judgeship. But he faced several accusations of drunkenness and had to leave office.
Robert Keayne Gets His Revenge
Keayne’s bitterness led him to settle scores in his will, which ran to many pages and dealt with his estate of 4.000 pounds. He died in 1656.
“I have not lived an idle, lazy or dronish life, nor spent my time wantonly, fruitlessly or in company-keeping as some have been too ready to asperse me….” he wrote in his will.
One-third of his estate he left to his wife and family, with the threat that if someone challenged the will they should get nothing. He also funded numerous charities and causes, though not without a dollop of spite. Keayne also left money to build Boston’s first Town House.
Robert Keayne left a significant sum to the Ancient and Honourables, but took a shot at them in the will pointing out that they were inferior to similar English military companies. Nonetheless, the Ancient and Honourables march to King’s Chapel Burying Ground every first Monday in June and lay a wreath on his grave.
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: First Town House By BPL – originally posted to Flickr as The First Town House, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7208333