What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A servant, that from Ireland came, / Catherine Waterson her name.”
Advertisements concerning runaway indentured servants as well as advertisements concerning runaway apprentices and enslaved people who escaped from those who held them in bondage often comprised a significant portion of the notices that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The December 21, 1769, edition and its supplement included several such advertisements. A “servant boy, named RICHARD LITTLE, about 19 years of age,” ran away from Thomas Renick. An “English convict servant man, named JONATHAN STICKWOOD” ran away from William Goodwin. An “Apprentice lad, a German, and speaks but broken English, named GEORGE THOMAS GERHARD” ran away from Matthias Folk. Several other aggrieved masters described servants and apprentices who departed without their permission. Each offered rewards for apprehending and returning the rebellious servants and apprentices.
James Gibbons, an innkeeper, was among those who placed an advertisement in hopes of recovering a runaway servant. To attract more attention to his notice, he composed it in verse. A series of rhyming couplets transformed what otherwise would have been a mundane description of Catherine Waterson, an indentured servant from Ireland, into an amusing piece of entertainment for readers of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Its format alone distinguished it from the other advertisements on the page, each comprised of dense blocks of text.
Gibson provided the same information that appeared in other advertisements for runaways, but in a manner intended to make the details more memorable. He offered a physical description of Waterson, “Of a down look; complexion dark, / In her face much pock mark’d,” and described her clothing, including “Two handkerchiefs about her neck, / One a flag, the other check.” Waterson, who was “Very apt to swear and lie,” could not be trusted. Gibbons underscored that she “is very artful to deceive, / And an answer quick will give” (relying on a near rhyme to complete the couplet). He noted an encounter Waterson had with “one / Who stop’t her as away she run,” exclaiming that “by a cunning craft wile / She did him so much beguile.” Waterson had a talent for talking her way out of difficult situations; anyone who interacted with her needed to be wary of trusting anything she said. Gibbons suspected that Waterson would attempt to pawn a pincushion and a “very large silver spoon” that she had stolen, presenting perhaps the best opportunity to identify and apprehend her. In that case, he requested that prospective buyers think of him rather than completing the transaction “And safe secure her in some Goal [Jail] / That I may have her without fail.” In return, Gibbons would pay “reasonable charges” and “SIX DOLLARS Reward.”
In the course of thirty rhyming couplets, Gibbons presented a lively tale of runaway servant Catherine Waterson. Although the general narrative did not much differ from those in any of a half dozen other advertisements concerning runaway servants and apprentices in the same edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the innkeeper likely made his tale more memorable, increasing the likelihood that an observant reader would recognize the wayward Waterson. The clever poem was not a great work of literature, but it served its purpose by distinguishing his advertisement from the other notices for runaways.