What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Stop the Felons!”
Although colonial newspapers carried stories about a variety of events, much of the crime reporting appeared among the advertisements. Rather than printers, editors, and others affiliated with newspapers writing those accounts or selecting them to reprint from publication to another, the victims of crimes composed the narratives and paid to insert them in the public prints. This was especially true in instances of theft.
Consider a burglary that took place in late December in 1770. Joseph Hopkins, a goldsmith, placed an advertisement in the January 4, 1771, edition of the Connecticut Journal. The dramatic headline proclaimed, “Stop the Felons!” Hopkins explained that his shop “was broke up” sometime during the night of December 27. The “Felons” stole “sundry Pair of Stone Ear Rings, one Pair Stone Buttons, one Pair Gold [Buttons], and one Gold Ring.” The thieves also took some cash and “likely some other Articles of Goldsmith’s Ware.” Hopkins identified a suspect, Richard Steele, though he did not venture a guess about Steele’s partner. The goldsmith imagined that Steele was the culprit because he had been “lately punished for breaking open Mr. Marks’s House in Derby.” According to Hopkins, Steele bore the marks of having been punished for that crime and possibly others. He had “both Ears crop’d” in addition to being “branded twice in the Forehead.” The goldsmith offered a reward for apprehending either Steele or his accomplice.
The same day that Hopkins advertisement first ran in the Connecticut Journal, another advertisement in the New-Hampshire Gazette also reported a crime. “THIEVES,” the headline alerted readers, before listing a variety of items stolen from Isaac Hill’s shop in Dover on December 14. Hill did not name any suspects, but he did offer a reward to “Whoever will discover” them “so that they may be brought to Justice.” Not every issue of every colonial newspaper carried similar advertisements, but they were so common that they did not seem out of place when readers encountered them. The victims of crimes, especially thefts, played an important role in producing newspaper coverage. As a result, their advertisements often reported news, supplementing the articles and editorials that appeared elsewhere in newspapers.