The famous Wolfe Tavern was first established in Newbury. Although the Wolfe’s reputation was built upon catering to the upper crust, the tavern’s proprietor, William Davenport, was also privy to the more colorful and seedy tavern patrons. A potpourri of bar brawlers, sketchy privateers and local tarts found their way into his taproom. But the buzz that brewed among the port tribe one night at Davenport’s would stamp out all other naughty night dramas, and the bar bill is still around to prove it.
The great Boniface, Capt. William Davenport, fought with Gen. James Wolfe, who died on the Plains of Abraham during the battle of Quebec. Davenport, a talented wood carver, used his craft to immortalize the distinguished military general by chiseling his likeness into a sign post. The wooden General Wolfe made his debut in 1762 when Davenport opened his doors for business. The sign continued to patrol the public house until the great fire in 1811, despite threats to all things British.
The Wolfe supplied plentiful libations, warm beds and fine victuals for locals and visitors. The tavern also hosted meetings for the Marine Society and St. Peter’s Lodge of Freemasons. Even General Washington enjoyed an overnight stint at the Wolfe. On Saturday evenings, men came to the tavern to discuss politics, theology and the state of the crops. They gathered in the capacious barroom at night, around the cheerful, blazing fire, to while away the time with mugs of flip and mulled cider (Currier History of Newbury).
The year was 1765; the issue was the Stamp Act, which created a hotbed of conflict in Massachusetts. The Brits were already in hot water and the locals were fed up. The act would drain money from the colony: “Our Commerce would Stagnate and our Laborers Starve” (Newburyport Town Records). The Sons of Liberty in Newburyport were bent on preventing allegiance to a law that was contrary to the British constitution, certain laws of God and the common rights of mankind (MA House of Representatives).
The atmosphere was the same in every town; riots sprang up all over. According to the Rev. Appleton, the “uneasiness” was universal. “All as one man rising up in opposition to it, such a union, as was never before witnessed in all the colonies,” so that, in the language of Dr. Holmes, on Nov. 1, when the act was to take effect, not a sheet of stamped paper was to be had throughout New England, New York, Pennsylvania and the two Carolinas (Coffin). But Newburyport would overshadow even Beantown’s August revolt!
On Sept. 25, men were summoned to a meeting at the Wolfe to commiserate a stirring. A tavern had the proper ingredients to ease the “Greate Uneasyness and Tumult on Occasion of the Stamp Act.” Spirits fired to scorch a tax collector as well as the pockets of Dr. Joseph Stanwood. Stanwood, targeted as the main instigator, delegated a posse to storm the streets and stalk locals with the issue at hand: Stamp or no Stamp.
Recalling the infamous evening, Joshua Coffin wrote, “[the] question was put to another stranger, who replied, with a sagacity worthy of a vicar of Bray, or a Talleyrand, ‘I am as you are.’ He was immediately cheered and applauded, as a true son of liberty, and permitted to depart in peace, wondering, no doubt, at his own sudden popularity (”A Sketch of History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury”). However, poor John Boardman, selected for the post of stamp distributor, fell victim to the protest. He was hung in effigy from a tree dubbed “The Liberty Elm” located in Jonathan Greenleaf’s yard. Ten tar barrels surrounded him as his image was snipped and dropped into the flames to burn.
The next morning, when Davenport tallied up the bar tab, he must have held his breath as he handed over a bill for 59 pounds, 17 shillings and three pence to S D Co. This list included morning brew and vittles consumed after the all-night bender. A very amusing article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1876 estimated a gallon of punch for each partaker who kept his spirits up by pouring spirits down. The “uneasiness” now haunted Davenport as he attempted to collect — 85 percent was put on credit — 11 pounds from Captain Robud, Richard Farrow and one Celeby.
Three years after the event, Davenport, on his last nerve, appealed to officials at a town meeting, who voted that he should receive six pounds and six shillings compensation (Town Records Vol. 1 125). While the Wolfe would see many more nights of high spirits and even higher bar tabs, like the Independent Military Society’s 45 toast finish in 1774 (Essex Journal 21 Town records), there will never be another night like the Stamp Act riot!
Melissa Berry of Beverly is a descendant of William Davenport, owner of the Wolfe Tavern. He is her great-great-great-great-grandfather.