Home Crime and Scandal The Duel on Boston Common That Shocked the Town to its Core

The Duel on Boston Common That Shocked the Town to its Core

In 1728, Henry Phillips ran Benjamin Woodbridge through with his sword

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Just after sunset on July 3, 1728, Dr. George Pemberton and Dr. James Cutler were enjoying beverages together at the Sun Tavern when a waiter summoned Pemberton outside. An agitated young man with a bloody hand and a sword at his side was waiting for him. Pemberton recognized 23-year-old Henry Phillips, the youngest son of a well-to-do merchant family. They went to Pemberton’s house nearby, and Phillips then told him what everyone in Boston would learn the next day: he had just fought Benjamin Woodbridge in a duel on Boston Common.

The Sun Tavern, many years later

Phillips feared he had wounded him mortally. He begged Pemberton to help find Woodbridge. They returned to the tavern, found Cutler and told him to come with them. The three rushed off to the spot a half mile away where Phillips had left Woodbridge. It began to rain.

Phillips said he’d left Woodbridge by the Powder House, where the town stored its gunpowder. When they arrived, Woodbridge had gone. They searched the ground in the dark and the rain, but they found no sign of Woodbridge.

Aftermath of a Duel

Cutler told Phillips to meet him at his house in Bromfield Lane. The two doctors thought Woodbridge might have gone home, so they went to his lodgings. They found no sign of him. They went to several other houses and taverns in the neighborhood, but no one had seen Benjamin Woodbridge. The doctors, perplexed, returned to Cutler’s house, where an anxious Phillips awaited them.

Cutler bandaged the young man’s hand and two slight stab wounds to his belly. Phillips was extremely upset.

“If I could think he was alive, I would be a happy man,” Phillips told them.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument now stands where the Powder House used to be.

By midnight, a search party formed.  Around 3 a.m. , the search partyfinally  found Woodbridge’s lifeless body under a tree on Boston Common. Apparently, he had crawled there seeking shelter from the rain.

The coroner, William Alden, quickly surmised how Woodbridge had died.

He had a small stab, under the right arm, but what prov’d fatal to him was a thrust he received, under his right breast, which came out at the small of his back. The forefinger of his left hand was almost cut off at the uppermost joint, supposed to be done by grasping a naked sword.

The search party took Woodbridge’s body to the home of his partner, Jonathan Sewall.

Duel on Boston Common

The local authorities quickly rounded up people associated with the tragedy and pieced together what happened.

One Robert Handy turned out to be a key player in the duel on Boston Common. He served as custodian of a local militia’s weapons.

Map showing the location of the White Horse Tavern

At a hastily assembled inquest, Handy said Woodbridge had come to him at the White Horse Tavern that night and demanded his sword. Handy claimed he asked him why, fearing he wanted to fight Henry Phillips. Woodbridge wouldn’t give him a reason, Handy claimed.

Handy then followed Woodbridge to Boston Common, where Henry Phillips approached them wearing a cloak and sword. Handy testified he feared they’d quarreled and asked what they were doing. Phillips, he said, told him they had some business to attend to and wished him to go on about his. Handy then said he asked again what they intended to do and if they’d had a quarrel would they make it up? Phillips then insulted him, and he left.

Witness to the Duel on Boston Common

He walked around the Common for a short while and then returned to see Benjamin Woodbridge come toward him holding his left hand under his right breast with blood on his coat. “Phillips wounded me,” he said. Just then Phillips returned with Woodbridge’s sword.

“I’m surprised you’ve quarreled to this degree,” Handy said. Then to Phillips, “You have wounded Mr. Woodbridge.”

“Yes, so I have,” Phillips said. “And Mr. Woodbridge has wounded me, but only in the fleshy part.” He then gave Woodbridge his sword back.

Woodbridge, said Handy, began to faint, and begged him to find a surgeon. Handy walked away from them until Phillips came running up to him. “For God’s sake,” said Phillips. “Go back and take care of him while I return with a surgeon.”

Handy said he told Phillips to hurry. Then he returned to the White Horse and told two men about the duel, then asked one of them, a Mr. Barton, to check on Woodbridge. Barton said Phillips had already gone to get a surgeon. Handy then went to a dinner engagement.

But why had they quarreled? The two young men had been good friends. Both came from prominent merchant families, pretty young men, well liked, well behaved. Woodbridge was a gentleman merchant whose father served as an admiralty judge in Barbados. Phillips’ father, Samuel, had published Cotton Mather’s books, and Henry had joined his brother Gillam in the family business after graduating from Harvard.

The coach stands in front of the Royal Exchange Tavern

Authorities learned the two young gentlemen had been drinking in the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street. They’d gotten into a fight over gambling or maybe a woman. Woodbridge then challenged Phillips to the duel.

Wanted: Henry Phillips

By noon, the authorities had plastered wanted posters all over Boston. The town criers also shouted out the order. “A Proclamation For Apprehending Henry Phillips.“ Lt. Gov. William Dummer, it said, ordered all justices, sheriffs and constables to use their utmost endeavours to apprehend Henry Phillips. It further forbade anyone from harboring or concealing him.

Gillam Phillips

But Henry Phillips had already left Boston. On the night of the duel, he had returned to the Royal Exchange Tavern to find his brother Gillam. Gillam had married the sister of the great Boston merchant, Peter Faneuil, and he took Henry to Faneuil for help. Faneuil hid Henry while Gillam arranged for him to be taken to the British man-of-war Sheerness, set to sail at dawn. By the time the wanted posters went up, Henry had disappeared. He sailed to LaRochelle, France, where Peter Faneuil’s family took him in.

Peter Faneuil

Lonely and depressed, he hoped for a pardon.

Eighty-three of the most eminent men of Boston signed a testimonial about his character in the hope of obtaining a pardon. He was a “a youth of a very affable, courteous and peacable behavior” who was ”soberly brought up in the prosecution of his studies.”

He didn’t get his pardon.

Shock and Dismay

News of the duel on Boston Common shocked Boston. It was a new and almost unknown case. Puritans didn’t duel. The only place people dueled in 1728 was in South Carolina, far from Puritan influence.

The Rev. Joseph Sewall denounced the duelers in a sermon “endorsed by all Boston ministers.” He described a “Society of Evildoers” that encouraged young men to fight “bloody and mortal duels.”

Rev. Joseph Sewall

Massachusetts Bay Colony quickly changed the law to require hanging for anyone found guilty of participating in a duel.

Nevertheless, Boston’s elite buried Benjamin Woodbridge in the Old Granary Burying Ground. The commander in chief, several of the Council and most of the merchants and gentlemen of the town attended the funeral in which he was “decently and handsomely interred.”

You can still see his gravestone from Tremont Street, though you probably can’t read the lichen-covered inscription: “Here lies the body of Benjamin Woodbridge, son of Hon. Dudley Woodbridge, who died July 3, 1728, in the twentieth year of his age.”

Old Granary Burying Ground

Phillips in France

Henry Phillips lived for less than a year after the duel. But he included a clue to the cause of the duel in a letter to his mother: Robert Handy, the man who left Benjamin Woodbridge to die.

Phillips mentioned an affidavit signed by Peter Pelham, John Singleton Copley’s stepfather. The affidavit said Woodbridge complained that Handy pressured him for three weeks to a month to challenge Phillips. He said he’d never do it, until at last that “vile fellow” persuaded him to do it.

Nearly two centuries later, historian Samuel Shaw concluded:

The consciousness of having played this part may have made him doubly anxious to wash his hands of the affair, and fears for himself may have outweighed all considerations for a dying man.

Images: Old Granary Burying Ground: By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70889505.



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