What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WHEREAS Addison Richardson has advertised me as a Runaway.”
When Addison Richardson advertised Samuel Hobbs as a runaway apprentice in the Essex Gazette in the summer of 1770, Hobbs took the extraordinary step of placing his own advertisement in response. In most similar situations, “runaways,” whether apprentices, indentured servants, enslaved people, or wives, did not possess the resources to publish their own advertisements or did not wish to call attention to themselves by doing so. As a result, masters, enslavers, and husbands controlled the narrative in the public prints. Yet Hobbs did manage to insert an advertisement that contested Richardson’s version of events in the August 7, 1770, edition of the Essex Gazette. His brother and two of his uncles attested to the “real Truth” of Hobbs’s depiction of what transpired with Richardson.
The aggrieved master was not amused by his apprentice’s advertisement. In the next issue, he ran a new advertisement in which he masqueraded as “SA——EL H—BBS.” He began by stating that “Addison Richardson has advertised me as a Runaway” and “I have told the Public one Story very contrary to Truth,” but “I now tell them another Story that is very agreeable to Truth.” Richardson as H—BBS then repeated each detail from Hobbs’s advertisement along with a clarification he considered the actual truth. For instance, “I told [the public] that I was not bound to him, but I was by the Rules of Justice, which the Public always looks upon as the strongest Obligation whatever.” In the original advertisement, Richardson accused Hobbs of stealing a box “containing sundry Articles of Cloathing,” but noted that he had recovered it. In his response, Hobbs stated that the box did not belong to Richardson, that the contents belonged to Hobbs except for “one Pair of Stockings full of Holes, and a Pair of Shirts which [Richardson] gave me,” and that Richardson did not provide him with adequate clothing during “almost five Years Service.” Richardson as H—BBS contested that narrative, offering this alternative: “I told the Public, that he had found me but one Shirt, which was very false, for I am very conscious he has found me five new Shirts since I lived with him, and a sufficient Quantity of all other Cloathing.” Richardson provided for H—BBS even though “I served him but very poorly for almost five Years.”
Richardson was equally unimpressed with the character witnesses who had testified to the “real Truth” of Hobbs’s advertisement. “As to the Conduct of the three that signed at the Bottom of my Piece,” Richardson as H—BBS opined, “ they say ‘We the Subsribers have Reason to believe the Piece above to be real Truth:’—What Reason? says the By-Stander: Why, say they, the Boy that run away from his Master told us so, and so it must be true; and that is all the Evidence they had.” To cast further doubt on the motives of these witnesses, Richardson as H—BBS requested that “the Public judge for themselves” if that was “sufficient Reason for two Uncles and a Brother to sign such a story.”
This new advertisement ended with a short statement of support by “A. RICHARDSON” for the version of events presented by “SA——EL H—BBS,” replicating the structure of Hobbs’s advertisement and deploying some of the same language. “I the Subscriber have Reason to believe the Piece above to be real Truth,” A. RICHARDSON declared before admonishing that he “still hope[s] the Public will hold Runaways in Contempt, and all their Abettors.”
The dispute between Richardson and his (alleged) apprentice played out in the public prints beyond a standard runaway advertisement. Both parties placed lengthy notices that impugned the honesty and character of the other in their efforts to convince others in their community which of them had indeed been wronged by the other. Most runaway apprentice advertisements went unanswered, but in this case both apprentice and master made further use of the press to present their version of events to the public.