Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“CATHERINE DESSENER … came and stole away said boy.”
Beyond the articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in eighteenth-century newspapers, advertisements often relayed news, gossip, or a combination of the two. In a notice that ran in the May 28, 1772, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, Thomas King relayed the story of a child that he had sheltered for more than five years and the child’s mother who “stole away said boy.” Like advertisements about wives who “eloped” from their husbands, apprentices and indentured servants who ran away from their masters, and enslaved people who liberated themselves from their enslavers, King’s notice relayed the perspective of the advertisers and included only the details he chose to share with readers. The mother, Catherine Dessener, might have given quite a different account had she placed her own advertisement.
According to King, Dessener left her son, Johannes, with him when the child was “only ten weeks old.” Over the course of the next five and a half years, Dessener “made no satisfaction for [King’s] trouble of maintaining her child.” King did not specify the details of any agreement he and Dessener reached when he agreed to shelter Johannes or how often he and the child had contact with Dessener while Johannes resided in his household. He did warn others “not to take an indenture on said child, or entertain him at their peril.” He might have been worried about Dessener earning the trust of another colonizer and then absconding with Johannes again … or he might have already had a claim on the child as an apprentice or servant when he reached an appropriate age. King did not address issues that could have prompted Dessener to flee with her child, such as the quality of the food, clothing and shelter he provided or the treatment the child received in the King household.
King presented a straightforward story of a generous patriarch who welcomed a child of little means into his home, only to have the mother take advantage of the situation for years. Whether or not that was accurate, King’s version framed the narrative for the public. Dessener and her friends and relations may have circulated an alternative account via word of mouth, but they did not have the benefit of the power of the press that King purchased when he paid to place an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal.