January 15

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Essex Gazette (January 15, 1771).

“A POEM on the Execution of William Shaw.”

True crime!  News of the murder of Edward East circulated widely in New England.  The Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter was among the first publications that presented the news to the public.  A short article in its September 27, 1770, edition reported, “We hear from Springfield, that one Edward East, was murthered in the Gaol at that Place, by William Shaw and George French, who wounded him in several Parts, on the 17th of this [month], of which Wounds he died the next Day.”  As was common practice at the time, several newspapers reprinted this news over the course of several weeks.

On October 12, the Connecticut Journal provided updates in a longer story, reporting that a “jury by their verdict declared” Shaw “to be guilty” of murder, “whereupon the sentence of death was passed upon him.”  The execution was scheduled for November 8.  At the same time, the jury did not find enough evidence to convict French as an accomplice but instead “returned a verdict in his favour.”  On November 19, the Boston Evening-Post noted that Shaw’s execution was delayed until December 13, but did not provide an explanation.  The Connecticut Journal reported on Shaw’s execution in its December 18 edition.  “On which solemn occasion,” the editor declared, “an affecting sermon was delivered by the Rev. MOSES BALDWIN … to an audience of many thousands collected from all the adjacent towns as spectators of the awful scene.”  Newspapers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island all reported on the execution.

Advertisements for commemorative items soon appeared as well, including one for “A POEM on the Execution of William Shaw” in the January 7, 1771, edition of the Boston Evening-Post.  On January 10, an advertisement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter promoted another commemorative item, “A SERMON intitled, The Ungodly condemned in Judgment; Preached at Springfield, December 13th 1770.  On Occasion of the Execution of WILLIAM SHAW, for Murder, By MOSES BALDWIN.”  Printers and booksellers in other places also advertised and sold the poem and the sermon.  Samuel Hall, printer of the Essex Gazette in Salem, for instance, advertised the poem on January 15.  These advertisements helped to deliver news of current events while offering consumers opportunities to learn more.  For those who were not among the “many thousands” who heard the sermon and witnessed the execution, the commemorative items served as a proxy in addition to as supplement for coverage in newspapers.

May 31

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

May 31 - 5:31:1770 Pennsylvania Journal
Pennsylvania Journal (May 31, 1770).

“The LIFE and CONFESSION of HERMAN ROSENCRANTZ; Executed in the city of Philadelphia.”

True crime!  James Chattin hoped to capitalize on interest in current events when he hired Joseph Crukshank to print The Life and Confession of Herman Rosencrantz.  An advertisement in the May 31, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, presumably placed by Chattin, provided an overview of Rosencrantz’s story.  Just a few weeks earlier he had been “Executed in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th day of May, 1770, for counterfeiting and uttering the bills of credit of the province of Pennsylvania.”  To incite greater interest and achieve a greater return on his investment, Chattin declared that the Confession was “Taken from his own mouth, in one of the cells of the goal [jail], a short time before he was executed,” the words of a man condemned to die for his crimes.  Chattin also asserted that he published the Confession, a short pamphlet, at Rosncrantz’s request “as a warning to all others.”

While that may have been Rosencrantz’s motivation for dictating his Confession, Chattin likely hoped to earn a profit by publishing and distributing this story of the consequences of a life misled.  He proclaimed that it was “SOLD by the Booksellers in Philadelphia” and had already gained such popularity, the “sale of 2000 of this interesting piece,” to require “that a new impression should be struck off.”  Chattin intended that “Hawkers, Pedlars, and others that buy to sell again” would acquire and distribute the new edition of the pamphlet.  He offered “good allowance,” a discount for purchasing by volume, to retailers and peddlers.  Chattin’s claim that 2000 copies had already sold was most likely inflated to suggest to prospective customers that they stood to miss out on something that had enthralled a good portion of their community.

Chattin also traded on the spectacle of the entire affair, from Rosencrantz’s life that led to his conviction for counterfeiting to his confession delivered in jail to his execution.  The pamphlet also included “an Account [of] his CONFEDERATES,” though much of that part of the narrative was pure imagination.  In The Death Penalty: An American History, Stuart Banner notes that “in a last-minute effort to gain favor” the condemned man “named so many innocent people as his accomplices that the publisher of his confession felt compelled to clear their names in an appendix.”[1]  The false accusations, an attempt to buy time, added to the spectacle.

Chattin aimed to create the eighteenth-century equivalent of a bestseller, trumpeting that he already sold 2000 copies of the account of this extraordinary event.  He invited hawkers and peddlers to disseminate the pamphlet even further beyond the city of Philadelphia, spreading Rosencrantz’s “warning to others” while generating greater revenues.

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[1] Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 61.