Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“My boy JOHN COFFE ran away.”
Advertisements for runaway indentured servants and apprentices as well as enslaved people who liberated themselves by fleeing from their enslavers regularly appeared in colonial newspapers. The November 28, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, for instance, carried several. Peter Care informed readers that “a Dutch servant man, named George Foell” absconded a month earlier, described the runaway’s appearance and clothing, and offered a reward to whoever “apprehends and secures the said servant, so that his master may have him again.” In another advertisement, John Anderson, the jailkeeper in Newtown in Bucks County, reported that he had in custody “a likely NEGROE man” suspected of liberating himself from George Adam Widner of Reading. “His master,” Anderson instructed, “is desired to come and pay charges, and take him away.”
Among the many runaway advertisements that competed for the attention of readers, Andrew Moore sought to distinguish his notice by resorting to verse. “THE ’leventh month, the sixteenth day, / My boy JOHN COFFE ran away,” the poem began. Moore described Coffe’s age and appearance, but did so in rhyming couplets in hopes of keeping readers interested. “His age uncertain, yet appears / To be at least full fifteen years,” Moore asserted, before providing an extensive description of Coffe’s clothing. “A good wool hat he took away, / Quite new, just bought the other day … His jacket was, as I am told, / Too big for him, and something old.” He commented on the fit of another garment as well. “Old buckskin breeches too he had, / Too big I’m sure for such a lad.” Moore may have intended this attention to the size of Coffe’s clothing to allude to his lack of experience and maturity. As with most advertisements about runaway servants and apprentices, this one concluded with an overview of the reward. “Whoever takes him, pray don’t fail / To lay him fast in any jail, / And then, to you I’ll freely give / Full Thirty Shillings if I live.”
Moore frequently forced the rhymes to make his poem about Coffe work, but his intention was not to write a work of literature but instead to create an advertisement that took a familiar theme and made it fresh and memorable. Rather than a dense paragraph of text, he gave readers a breezy poem that entertained as well as informed. It certainly took more effort to compose than typical runaway advertisements, but Moore likely that a worthy investment that would aid in recovering the recalcitrant Coffe.