News was slow to reach Maine in 1766, and it cost William King dearly. The Maine Stamp Act Riot of 1766 targeted King, of Scarborough, and ironically it occurred after the act had been repealed. It also was not, strictly speaking, about the Stamp Act – at least not completely. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other colonies had played host to stamp act riots. So it’s not surprising violence erupted in Maine.
On March 19, 1766 King and his family were asleep when a band 20 to 30 of their neighbors, dressed as Indians and likely quite drunk, sneaked up on the King house. They tossed hatchets through the windows and started terrorizing the family and its servants.
King and his family cowered while the fake Indians rifled his papers, burning all they could find. First they destroyed the papers in his house and then all the papers they could find in his store. Then the party left.
King would spend the rest of his life trying to obtain justice.
King came to Maine from Watertown, Mass. where he had been a successful businessman. In Maine, his prosperity blossomed. He understood the demand for lumber in Massachusetts and became a lumber exporter. His ships returned to Maine with goods that he sold at a store.
He extended credit to his neighbors. Those who couldn’t pay him with money were allowed to pay him with land, from which he could take more lumber and load on his ships to Boston.
But King’s wealth began making him unpopular. As treasurer for the parish, King published a list of parishioners who owed money to the church. Many of those who owed money disagreed.
King, a loyalist, further alienated himself from his neighbors by supporting the Stamp Act, which required American paper goods to carry a stamp signifying that tax had been paid to Britain.
King had two chief opponents: the Andrews family and the Stewart family. Both played an active role in town affairs and disagreed with King’s politics. They also owed him money, which undoubtedly influenced their dislike of him.
King received an appointment to serve a constable in 1765, but he declined. Townspeople fined him for refusing to do his civic duty, but King refused to pay.
The outspoken John Stewart criticized King. He charged that King not only neglected his civic responsibilities, but that he had earned his money by taking advantage of the poor. Stewart vowed to oust King from Scarborough.
The riot at King’s house set up an awkward tension in Scarborough. To some extent the rioters had achieved their aims, as they had destroyed many of King’s records related to the debts he was owed and property he had taken in trade. But King did not leave town.
King and his tormentors sat side by side in church, with King refusing communion as long as his enemies were allowed to receive it. And he sued Stewart and Andrews and others, seeking ₤ 2000.
The attacks on King continued, meanwhile. In 1767 his barn was burned and a house on his property torched. But King would not back down. He pushed on with his case.
King won a small judgment, but lost on appeal. John Adams would represent him in one trial, offering an impassioned plea for justice:
Imagine yourselves each one for himself—in Bed with his pregnant Wife, in the dead of Midnight, five Children also asleep, and all the servants. 3 Children in the same Chamber, two above. The Doors and Windows all barrd, bolted and locked—all asleep, suspecting nothing—harbouring no Malice, Envy or Revenge in your own Bosoms nor dreaming of any in your Neighbors, In the Darkness, the stillness, the silence of Midnight.
“All of a sudden, in an Instant, in a twinkling of an Eye, an Armed Banditti of Felons, Thieves, Robbers, and Burglars, rush upon the House.—Like Savages from the Wilderness, or like Legions from the Blackness of Darkness, they yell and Houl, they dash in all the Windows and enter—enterd the[y] Roar, they stamp, they yell, they houl, they cutt, break, tear and burn all before them.
“Do you see a tender and affectionate Husband, an amiable deserving Wife near her Time, 3 young Children, all in one Chamber, awakened all at once—ignorant what was the Cause—terrifyd—inquisitive to know it. The Husband attempting to run down stairs, his Wife, laying hold of his Arm, to stay him and sinking, fainting, dying away in his Arms. The Children crying and clinging round their Parents—father will they kill me— father save me! The other Children and servants in other Parts of the House, joining in the Cries of Distress.
“What Sum of Money Mr. Foreman would tempt you, to be Mr. King, and to let your Wife undergo what Mrs. King underwent, and your Children what theirs did for one Night?
“I freely confess that the whole sum sued for would be no temptation to me, if there was no other Damage than this.
But Adams’ arguments did not carry the day. King died in 1775. His sons continued his case and won a small judgment, but it’s doubtful they collected.
This story was updated in 2023.