Imagine waking up on June 13, 1772 and reading about a group of Rhode Islanders burning a British ship in your weekly issue of The Providence Gazette.
What would that paper look like? What would that article say?
Well, no one needs to imagine anymore. A 241-year-old issue of the Gazette from June 13, 1772 has been donated to the Gaspee Days Committee. On page 3, where breaking news of the day was published, is the original account of the burning of the Gaspee.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Carol Deming, president of the Gaspee Days Committee. “It’s something you can’t even think about ever having. We can’t be more excited.”
Nor can the committee be more grateful to Mark Tracy, a Providence resident and history buff, who discovered the paper in a group of newspapers up for auction at Skinner Auction House in Boston.
“I just figured it wasn’t going to be in it,” said Tracy in a phone interview Tuesday. He read in a Providence Journal article the auction house was auctioning off newspaper coverage of the Boston Massacre, which initially caught his eye. But the $20,000 price tag put those papers out of his reach.
However, down the list, he saw the group of Providence Gazette papers from 1772 and 1773 up for auction as well. Being a lifelong Rhode Islander and passionate about Rhode Island history, Tracy said he made an “educated guess” that coverage of the burning of the Gaspee might be in there. He bought the papers, which were from the estate of a Providence collector, sight unseen.
When he got the papers home and was able to put on cotton gloves to handle the delicate papers, he knew exactly what issue he was looking for. Tracy said actually finding the June 13 issue in a pile of dozens of newspapers turned him into a kid on Christmas morning.
The scant report is five sentences and says a “great number of people” boarded the schooner about midnight.
Tracy admits the thought of financial gain crossed his mind. He only paid $2,500 in total for the set of papers and can’t imagine how much the June 13 issue could be worth, or how much it might have cost if the auction house realized what they had. But he ultimately decided donating it to the Gaspee Days Committee was best.
“I really wanted it preserved for the public. The awareness [of this historic event] is still below what it should be,” said Tracy. He feels the Gaspee Days Committee does an incredible job bringing history to life and says being able to see the actual newspaper from the time will only make the story come to life more, especially for children.
And that is exactly what Deming says the document will be used for. The committee plans to have it preserved, just as the Pawtuxet Rangers had a copy of their original charter preserved earlier this year.
Deming says they plan to display the paper at the Rangers’ armory, where the door to Sabin’s Tavern and the Rangers’ charter will be kept.
When Tracy told Deming that he had an “unusual donation” for the committee, she didn’t know what to expect, but she is more than pleased, especially after receiving the newspaper Monday night at the Shakespeare’s Head Building and seeing the condition it is in.
“It is legible. It’s very good quality,” said Deming.
Tracy is also amazed at the quality the paper is in.
“It looks no older than 40 years,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to have been given special care.”
Tracy truly believes he found the needle in a haystack. He said there were probably only 4,000 residents of Providence in 1772 and most of them couldn’t read. He estimates that only 600 copies of the paper would have ever existed.
“The fact that it survived in this condition is ridiculous,” said Tracy, imagining who has had this over the years. “John Brown could have read this paper.”
Deming said the committee is still in the process of researching about preserving the newspaper and the cost of preservation. Whatever the cost, Deming said they will fundraise for it.
She also plans to ask how the newspaper should be displayed since the article, along with a wanted ad for those involved, is located on the inside of the paper and not the front page.
“I am going to leave that to the preservationists,” said Deming.
Even though Deming has not opened the paper to see the actual article, Tracy has and provided her with a copy of the text.
“I didn’t think it gave a slant,” said Deming when asked about the nature of the story. “It was a true news story. It doesn’t tell you if it is a good thing or a bad thing.”
The wanted ad is a proclamation from Joseph Wanton, the governor of the colony of Rhode Island at the time, calling for the apprehension of all the guilty parties. A reward of “One Hundred Pound Sterling” is offered.
“A hundred pound sterling is probably a lot more than $2,000,” joked Tracy.
Tracy doesn’t believe there are any other articles regarding the event because no one ever came forward with information. He suspects there are more wanted ads, but he hasn’t had the chance to look through the remaining papers yet.
“It is really stressful to touch them,” said Tracy, explaining that he is not professionally trained. Instead, Tracy plans to use the library at his alma mater, Brown University, to examine microfilms of the issues to see what else may be buried in the pages.
Tracy explained that some of the biggest figures from the Revolutionary War, such as Sam Adams and Ben Franklin, often wrote Letters to the Editor to small local papers under pseudonyms.
“I would like to comb through and find one of those,” said Tracy. “But I’ve already found the needle in the haystack. To find two would be ridiculous.”
He jokes that there are probably history scholars who already know what is in all of these issues and he shouldn’t even bother. “But if I had that attitude, I never would have found this,” said Tracy.
Deming and the committee plan to have the newspaper properly preserved and displayed by the 50th anniversary of Gaspee Days in 2015, but they hope to have it sooner.
Report from 1772
“Monday last a Sloop from New-York arrived at Newport, and after reporting her Cargo at the Custom House, was proceeding up the River on Tuesday. The Gaspee armed Schooner, then lying near Newport, immediately gave Chace to the Sloop, crowding all the Sail she could make; but the People on board not being acquainted with the River, at Three o’Clock in the Afternoon she ran on Namquit Point, near Patuxet. About Twelve at Night a great Number of People in Boats boarded the Schooner, bound the Crew, and sent them ashore, after which they set Fire to the Vessel and destroyed her. A Pistol was discharged by the Captain of the Schooner, and a Musket or Pistol from one of the Boats, by which the Captain was wounded, the Ball passing through one of his Arms, and lodging in the lower Part of his Belly. He was immediately taken to Pawtuxet, and we are told he is in a fair Way to recover.”