What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Addison Richardson hath advertised me as a Runaway.”
Eighteenth-century newspapers carried advertisements for all sorts of “runaways.” Those runaways included enslaved people who liberated themselves from enslavers who held them in bondage, wives who “eloped” from their husbands to remove themselves from patriarchal authority (and often mistreatment) in the household, and apprentices and indentured servants who broke the terms of their contracts. Few of these advertisements garnered responses in the public prints. Even if they possessed the resources to place advertisements, enslaved people who liberated themselves had no reason to call additional attention to themselves. Aggrieved husbands usually declared that they would pay no debts on behalf of their absent wives, eliminating their ability to publish notices in response. Occasionally, some wives did find the means to run their own advertisements. Apprentices and indentured servants, like enslaved people who escaped, also avoided publishing responses to the advertisements that declared them runaways and requested aid in locating and returning them.
That made a pair of advertisements that ran in the Essex Gazette in the summer of 1770 especially notable. Addison Richardson first advertised Samuel Hobbs as a runaway on July 24. He claimed that the “Apprentice Lad” ran away and recommended that others “be very cautious in having any Concern with him.” Richardson also noted that Hobbs had “carried off a Box, containing sundry Articles of Cloathing,” but Richardson had since recovered the box and the stolen items. Richardson’s advertisement ran again on July 31. When it appeared for a third time on August 7, a response from Hobbs accompanied it. The compositor placed one notice after the other, making it easier for readers to follow the saga as it unfolded.
In an advertisement twice the length of the one that named him a runaway apprentice, Hobbs asserted that he “was not bound” to Richardson not was he “under any Obligation to live with him any longer than we could agree.” Hobbs suggested that Richardson had not lived up to whatever terms they had set, but if he had “fulfilled his Promise” then Hobbs “should not have left.” In response to the accusation of theft, Hobbs stated that neither the box nor the contents belonged to Richardson, except for “one Pair of Stockings full of Holes, and a Pair of Shirts, which he gave me.” Everything else in the box belonged to Hobbs, yet Richardson refused to return any of it. Hobbs also lamented that in “almost five Years Service” Richardson had not provided adequate clothing as was his responsibility. In response to Richardson’s advice that others be cautious in their dealings with Hobbs, he turned the tables by warning others to “be very cautious where they put out Children, especially poor fatherless ones, such as I am.”
To strengthen his credibility, Hobbs also included a short note from three men who endorsed his version of events. Joseph Symonds, Joseph Hobbs, and Joseph Hobbs, Jr., some or all of them probably relations to the alleged runaway apprentice, stated that they “have Reason to believe the Piece above to be the real Truth.” They asked that “the Publick … take no Notice of the Advertisement.” Quite possibly these supporters paid to insert Hobbs’s advertisement in the Essex Gazette.
Runaway apprentice advertisements rarely generated responses in print in eighteenth-century America, making this an extraordinary case of an alleged runaway defending his reputation, revealing mistreatment by his master, and marshalling the support of others who advocated on his behalf. Yet this was not the end of the exchange in the Essex Gazette. The following week Richardson published a response to Hobbs’s response. That will be the featured advertisement on August 14.