What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Ranaway … a Negro Man, named Jack.”
“Elizabeth, my Wife, hath left my Bed and Board.”
Interspersed among the advertisements for consumer goods and services that ran in the October 2, 1770, edition of the Essex Gazette, another kind of advertisement documented disruptions to the social order. Two versions of “runaway” notices appeared in that issue, one concerning an enslaved man who liberated himself and the other concerning a woman who left her husband. In both instances, the advertisers attempted to use the power of the press to assert their authority and return to good order (as they understood it).
Joseph Homan reported that “a Negro Man, named Jack” made his escape from bondage sometime during the night of September 17. He offered a reward to readers and other members of the community who captured and returned Jack. To help others recognize the fugitive, Homan noted that Jack was “near 50 Years of Age” and “speaks bad English.” He also provided descriptions of the clothes Jack wore when he departed, but also noted that he may have changed. Given the uncertainty of what Jack might have been wearing, any Black man over the age of forty became a suspect worthy of scrutiny and surveillance.
James Messer stated that his wife, Elizabeth, “hath left my Bed and Board.” He feared that “she may run me in Debt,” so placed his advertisement as a warning for others “not to trust her on my Account.” He resolutely declared that he would “not pay one Farthing of Debt that she shall contract.” All in all, Messer’s advertisement followed a standard format for such notices.
Jack the formerly enslaved man and Elizabeth the absent wife certainly had different experiences and endured different challenges, yet their stories had similarities as well. Neither of them inhabited a position of authority, yet they exercised power when they chose to depart. Neither Jack nor Elizabeth published their own version of events in the Essex Gazette. Instead, an enslaver and an aggrieved husband placed advertisements meant to vilify Jack and Elizabeth, providing incomplete narratives. Neither advertiser could be taken at their word to tell the entire story, then or now. Contrary to the purposes for which they were placed, their newspaper notices provided evidence that people who were supposed to be subordinate and submissive did not simply accept those roles. Jack liberated himself, the abuses and hardships he had endured untold by Homan. Elizabeth removed herself from her husband’s household, that act only hinting at greater domestic discord that motivated her to take action. Cast as the offenders by Homan and Messer, Jack and Elizabeth demonstrated courage and conviction when they asserted their autonomy and sought to transform their lives for the better.