Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mr Sweetzer and Mr Bancroft

Sidney & Smith, 1852 (copyright © 2000 by Cartography Associates.)
David Rumsey Collection

[H. Sweetzer appears on the map above in the lower left quadrant, just above the bold letter B. The house seems to have been across from today's Faulker Hospital on Centre street.]

The few times I've found mentions of African-Americans in Jamaica Plain in these pre-1924 newspaper archives, it has generally been when they were accused of a crime. Although I think that it is of historical interest that African-Americans lived in the community during these years, I haven't posted any of the articles because of the obviously unbalanced picture they portray. In this case, I think the date of the event makes the articles worth reproducing. This is the first dated reference I've found to a named African-American in Jamaica Plain that post-dates the presence of slaves in the community. The fact that black people could only make the newspaper when they were accused of crimes says more about the newspapers and their readers than about the people themselves. If John Bancroft had gone about his business and never met Henry Sweetzer, we would never have known his name. As it is, we know that he and his wife lived somewhere in Jamaica Plain, and that he did odd jobs for the local gentry. Maybe someone somewhere knows more about him; where he came from, and how he came to be in rural West Roxbury, when African-Americans in Boston were limited to living in a segregated community on the back side of Beacon Hill.

New York Daily Times September 2, 1856

News from Boston.

Ferocious And Probably Fatal Assault

On Saturday, Mr. Henry Sweetzer, a wealthy gentleman, residing at Jamaica Plain, called at the house of John Bancroft, a colored man, to engage him to do some work, and finding Bancroft intoxicated and abusing his wife, he remonstrated, where upon Bancroft strick him with a piece of iron with so much violence that no hopes are entertained of Mr Sweetzer's recovery. Bancroft fled and has not been arrested.

September 4, 1856

The Murderous Assault At Jamaica Plain.

Mr. Henry Sweetzer, whose skull was fractured by being struck with an iron crane by John Bancroft, a negro, on Saturday afternoon, lingered till this morning, when he expired. Mr. Sweetzer was a gentleman of about 64 years of age, and had held several town offices. He had acquired a fine property by active business in this city, but retired to spend the closing years of his life on his own estate. The negro who committed the assault came home on Sunday evening and delivered himself up to the authorities, by whom he was immediately carried to Dedham Jail. He said that he did not know what he was about at the time he did the deed. He was maddened by liquor and did not even know who the person was whom he struck. However true this statement may be, he is evidently a very dangerous character.-- Boston Traveller, 2d.


  1. Love your site! Im nearly addicted now. I’ll be sure to stop by and leave more elaborate comments.

  2. An interesting and unfortunate story! As it turns out, Bancroft and Sweetzer were next door neighbors. If you look closely at the map, you will see the name S. Giles just below that of Sweetzer. The S. Giles was Simeon Giles (1780-1858), an African American man who was a nearly lifelong resident of that property and a woodcutter, farmer, and laborer for his neighbors. Giles' father's name was Peter and he was a slave belonging to Samuel Adams who owned the Peacock Tavern across Centre St. and presumably worked there.

    If you look at the 1850 census, Giles is listed first as the head of household. John Bancroft is listed next followed by his wife Hannah and their children. Hannah would appear to be Giles' daughter and that she and Bancroft were living with him. I suspect that Hannah is Giles' daughter because Giles wife was also named Hannah (nee Robbins of Dedham), and we often see names repeated from generation to generation. Sweetzer also appears in the 1850 census just a bit before Giles on the same page.

  3. And a bit more research turns up that John Bancroft was tried for Henry Sweetzer's murder : Commonwealth v. John Bancroft. Murder of Henry Sweetser. Trial Dec. 23d and 24th, 1856, Verdict—Guilty of Manslaughter. Sentence—20 years State Prison.