Zenas Smith's Ride to Roxbury

LOST on Saturday, the third of this instant March, between five and ten of the clock in the morning, five Johannes’or Josephus’ s, or both, loose out of my pocket, between my dwelling-house in Abington and the widow Susanna Richardson’s in Roxbury. Whoever shall take up said pieces of money and will give information to the printers hereof, or to the subscriber, shall have ten dollars reward, or two dollars for each piece, paid by me the subscriber.


ABINGTON, March 5, 1770.

This advertisement appeared in the Boston Gazette of March 12, 1770. just one week after it was dated. The editorial and news columns of that issue of Messrs. Edes and Gill’s journal were filled with accounts of the Boston Massacre and the indignation meetings consequent, while broad black margin lines and a row of black coffins in illustration supplemented the horrors of the letterpress.

Who was Zenas Smith of Abington, and what was the reason of his long journey to Roxbury ? I may picture him pretty closely by focusing the lines of the advertisement. Zenas was doubtless well to do. The man who owned a house in Abington, and carried a pocketful of gold pieces,—carried them “loose in his pocket,” — was certainly not going to Susanna Richardson’s for cold victuals or old clothes. The value of a Johannes of Portugal or Brazil was seventeen dollars and six cents (Webster gives it as eight dollars, but this contradicts Emerson’s table) ; the Josephus may have been a popular name for dobra or doubloon, one worth twenty-four cents more, and the other a dollar and four cents less, than a Johannes : so it becomes evident that Zenas’s loss was not less than eighty and probably more than eighty-five dollars, with a possibility of its having been eighty-six and a half. I have been very explicit in making the statement, because I think it proves that the advertiser was not pinched for money, and disposes of the idea that he may have gone to the widow for pecuniary aid. The same argument forbids the supposition that he was an artisan or tradesman. An artisan would not have had what was a large sum for that day “ loose in his pocket ” as he went to his work, and a tradesman, if well to do, probably would have sent an employee. That this man was not himself an employee is, I think, shown by his signature. No clerk would advertise over his own name the loss of his employer’s money, even supposing that he carried such sums of it with him. Nor can we suppose that he was a landlord making collections, though it was upon the Saturday succeeding the end of the month that the loss occurred, for the sum which he lost would have paid the monthly rent of a larger and more palatial house than Roxbury contained, and it was not yet time for the quarterly or half yearly rent; he would have waited till May for that. Besides, he speaks of Susanna Richardson’s house in a way that convinces us that it was her own house. Nor was Zenas a tenant. The idea of his being out at five o’clock, on a raw March morning, upon a road that has never lost its reputation for blusteriness, to pay his rent or to pay any other debt, is preposterous.

On March 3d the sun rose about 6.30 ; that is to say, one hour and a half after Mr. Smith was on his way to the widow’s. It was an early start for a business man, and much too early for one who had no business. His confessed ignorance of the exact denomination of the pieces of gold that he had in his pocket and the certainty with which he states their number go to show that he had counted out five coins, of about the same size and weight, before he started, and that he had done this in the dark. There was no doubt in his mind that he lost five gold coins, and that these pieces were either “ Johannes’or Josephus’s, or both ” (notice how carefully he words that statement), but he had no idea which. If he had said four or five, or had in any other way shown a careless habit of memory, we might believe that he had carried those pieces for a few days, and had forgotten exactly what they were ; but this definiteness gives one an idea of method and forehandedness. Or if the pieces in question had been all of his store of wealth, we could not conceive how it would be possible for him to be unable to state within the price of a new saddle how much he possessed.

No ; we see a capitalist, a man of wealth, rising long before daylight to go upon a journey of twelve or fourteen miles on a March morning, along a road exposed for a great part of its length to all the fury of March winds. We see him open the strong-box where he has placed the wealth which colonial troubles make it unwise to leave in a banker’s hands. He takes from that repository five gold coins, running his fingers over them to be sure that they are of about the same value, and places them loose in his pocket. He will have use for a sum equal to eighty dollars. During this time no light has been struck, because the clicking of the steel and the flare of the light might attract the attention of some evil prowler, who would in turn visit the box after Zenas’s departure.

But now the first difficult question arises. Did he ride or walk to Roxbury ? I incline to believe he walked only as far as his own stable, and, having saddled his steady, respectable cob, jogged out upon the highway on four legs instead of two. In the first place, no man of standing in a country town could, at that day. be without a horse. In the second place, no man having a horse would start off before daylight to walk twelve miles in such weather, leaving the locality out of the question. In the third place, a man would have walked twelve miles in less than five hours. It takes a careful horse, picking his way in the dark, to travel as slowly as that.

We know that the nag was sober and sedate, as we know that his master was middle-aged, plethoric, and practical, because we read that between the lines of his advertisement. Would a young man, or a lean man, or an imaginative man, have mentioned the widow Richardson’s house ? Would not such a man have written simply, Between my house and the Roxbury post-office,” or, “ Between Abington and Roxbury ” ? Would a married man have mentioned the widow Susanna Richardson’s, or a man who had anything to conceal ? And would a man, staid and honest and stout enough to advertise so frankly, ride anything but a steady-going nag, do you think ? This man had no idea of gossip or scandal, and therefore we infer that he was a bachelor. We have further evidence of his single estate in the fact that he offered an exorbitant reward to the person who should return his money, and because he published that reference to the widow. Even a middle-aged, stout, and unimaginative man would think twice about putting such testimony where his wife could see it.

Now it will be noticed that the fact of such a man having lost his money shows that he was unduly excited, pleasantly or otherwise, so that he became careless. The time consumed on the road was too great for us to imagine that the cob trotted at all, but the wind may have blown the skirts of the sober brown coat till the golden shower fell unnoticed from the ample pocket, as it learned to do when it first shook the chestnuts down ; while Zenas pulled his three-cornered hat closer over his square forehead, and thought — of what ? Of the widow, doubtless. But no one can suppose that it was as a lover he thought. His business must have been of a pressing nature, such as he could not entrust to another, and, though one requiring money to a considerable amount, not a transaction between debtor and creditor, or one involving property directly. He was evidently going as a friend, for he carried hard, tangible proofs of friendship with him (until he lost them), and as a friend whose services were needed at once and urgently, — a trusted and discreet friend. Yet it is possible that I am in error when I say that he did not think as a lover. It is only safe to affirm that his message was not to make love at this time, and we have no business with feelings that have no connection with the text.

That Zenas so promptly attended to this affair, regardless of what the world might say, certainly proves an unusual warmth of devotion on his part, — a devotion which doubtless tempered the March winds as he rode out of his dooryard at Abington.

We surmise what the widow’s trouble may have been, as we read upon another page of the Gazette reference to one Richardson, described as “ infamous,” who “ fired the gun which killed young Snyder ; ” his name being also connected with the assassination of Mr. Otis. The murder of Snyder and the assassination (that is to say, attempted killing) of James Otis took place but a short time before that quarrel between the ropemakers and the Ninth Regiment of British regulars which led to the massacre of Crispus Attucks and his companions, which affair we know as the Boston Massacre. So clear is it that the ride to Roxbury occurred between the time of Richardson’s act and that of the resistance of the Bostonians, that we cannot avoid suspecting that Dame Richardson’s trouble may have been the result of that of her namesake.

If the sympathies of Mr. Smith had been with Richardson and the customhouse party, he would hardly have advertised his loss in the Gazette, which was a mouthpiece for the colonial party, and bitter in its denunciations of the Royalists. As an illustration of the fever of indignation at one side and sympathy with the other, it may be mentioned that, after a full description of the death of Crispus Attucks, who was a negro, and of his burial in the middle cemetery of Boston, the Gazette prints the usual weekly statistics as follows : —

“ Buried in the town of Boston since our last, eight whites, no black.”

The negro who died in such a cause was not black, from the Gazette’s standpoint.

Hardly would the sympathizer with Richardson have advertised in that paper. But it is not at all unlikely that he may have been a ready advancer of funds to his friend the widow.

If Richardson was really the man for whom these funds were ultimately intended. he must have been still alive (though perhaps on trial for his life) ; and if alive, then the son of the widow. — else she was no widow. Or it is very possible that some other form of trouble menaced her ; it may have been foreclosure of a mortgage upon her property. In any case, we may be sure that her sad face lighted as she saw the square chin of Zenas Smith resting on his stock, his ruddy cheeks a little ruddier from his ride, and his benevolent gray eyes full of a kindly purpose, as he tied the sober nag by the door of her house in Roxbury.

Then Zenas put his hand down into his right pocket, into its mate, into each of his pockets successively, and his face grew pale. He tried again, the widow watching him anxiously, till at last he could conceal the sad truth no longer, and blurted out, — .

“ Susanna, I’ve been a fool. This morning I put five Johanneses or Josephuses, or both, loose in my pocket, and I have lost them on the road hither.”

Then, if they were Quakers, as I suspect they were, Susanna answered him,

“ Now don’t thee mind, Zenas. I make no doubt it will all be well in the end, and thee had better come in and get some breakfast, after such a long ride.”

It may be she said that in all the simplicity of affection, and it is just barely possible that she may have had an inkling at the same time of more Johanneses or Josephuses, “ or both,” in the strong-box at Abington.

Of one thing we may be sure : Zenas enjoyed his breakfast with such an appetite as only an early ride can give one ; and if the widow in the end won something even more substantial than a few gold pieces, I am sure that no one will accuse her of setting her cap for any one. For my part, I never see or hear of a person named Susanna Smith without wondering whether I have guessed this riddle aright, and longing to ask her who her great-grandparents were.

My sister Martha worked up the foregoing account, which she calls a pure piece of detective work, with the facts left out. I have frequently told Martha that accuracy is not incompatible with a historian’s work, but she cites, in support of her method, a list of names which begins with Plutarch and does not end with Froude.

Nevertheless, I resolved that I would discover something definite, if only that there were no bottom facts in the case. As a result of my investigations in one quarter, I received one day a chocolatecolored envelope, addressed in green ink, and bearing in the upper left-hand corner this legend in red : —


State House, Boston, July 8, 18—.

It was a note from the very polite Acting Assistant Librarian, assuring me that he could find no trace of public man, author, or criminal who had signalized the name of Zenas Smith in the commonwealth, but that possibly the Recorder’s office might produce deeds or other data that would furnish a clue. So I tried the Recorder’s office ; but so far as the object of my search was concerned its archives were barren. From the Recorder’s Second Assistant Acting Deputy came, however, the consoling hint that people often found in church records information that the public books lacked. I at once turned to the church for consolation; but though a carefully worded note of inquiry was type-written, and copies sent to all the pastors of every probable denomination in Abington, I failed here also. The conclusion was forced upon me that either Zenas was not fond of gathering himself together with the people of Zion, or that the old church records of that town had been badly kept; so there was a fresh discouragement to vex over. But Martha’s mental energy did not flag. “ I am sure,” she observed, after a season of meditation, “ that Zenas must have invented something. No Yankee goes through life without doing so. And don’t you think, if he did invent it, he must have got it patented ? Certainly, I don’t want to advise, but if I were you I should send to the Patent Office ; that is,” with a sudden return of the offended-dignity air that she had forgotten for awhile, “ if you insist upon discrediting my solution.”

Of course I adopted this plan, writing that same evening; but after the letter had been sent I began to question the sanity of such a step, telling my sister that I did not believe the Patent Office had been running so long. Time proved the justice of this doubt. I got a reply stating that I “ must apply to some other department for the information I wanted.” There was a Zebedee Smith who had invented a churn, and a Zebulon Smith who had patented a sewing-machine, — but no Zenas.

I next tried libraries. No obscure corner of history escaped me. I learned more about the war for independence and the causes which led to it than I ever dreamed of knowing. Among the two millions who inhabited America at that time, about the only man who had escaped historical mention was Zenas Smith.

“ I tell you what,” said Martha.

“ Well, my dear ? ”

“ Send a letter to Zenas himself.”

“ But where — his address ” —

“ Send it ” — and her face lighted with a sudden inspiration — “ to the dead-letter office.”

As one sometimes concludes a serious matter with a joke, and thus whimsically acknowledges defeat, I did as advised, and addressed a petition, full of moving pleas that he would drop his incognito, to “ Zenas Smith, Esq., Dead-Letter Office, P. O., Washington, D. C.”

In the course of a week I received a reply. This was signed by Zenas Smith. He wanted to know who I was, any way, and what particular reason I had for writing a humorous letter to him. Did I mean anything personal by it, and if not what did I mean ? He said he was an old man and had been in the department a great many years, but this was the first time he had been the recipient of so much impertinence, — “ gratuitous impertinence,” he wrote.

“ An old man ! ” said Martha. “ Well, I should think so.”

“ Can you recall what I wrote to him ? ” I asked sadly; realizing that the stone I threw just for fun had smashed somebody’s window.

“ Why, yes. You asked him how he managed to ‘ cover his tracks,’ — that was the rather slangy way you expressed it; and then you wanted to know whether he had ever done anything in the world but lose gold Johannes’s. Besides that, you could n’t leave out that threadbare joke about the climate where he had been living last, and — oh, you asked him what part he took in the battle of Lexington.”

“ Of course I did. If there had been any other utterly absurd thing to do or say, I should have added just that much to my folly. And now what am I to say to this gentleman ? ”

“ This — gentleman ? ”

“Certainly. We have by accident found some one of the same name as the man who inserted that advertisement.”

“ Then you may be sure he is a relative. No one but a relative would ever have thought of having such a name. I would write to him again, if I were you, and get all the information possible. He may not really be as cross as — as he sounds.”

“ I shall undoubtedly write again,” I answered, perhaps a little tartly, “ because it will be necessary to apologize and explain ; otherwise I would let Zenas Smith and all his relations go to Jericho.”

My letter to the old gentleman (who, I could not but feel, was distinguishing himself by the use of a name he had no business with) was one of long explanation and almost abject apology ; at least, so Martha told me. She also informed me that my dragging her name into my explanation had a biblical analogy : the woman tempted me, and I did write. But I let it stand. I did not wish Mr. Smith to misunderstand anything.

I sent the letter this time to the address printed at the head of Mr. Smith’s letter, which was No. 1, 2⅞ Street. He must have got it very soon, for his answer came during the next evening.

DEAR SIR, — Apology accepted. Very natural mistake. Have an old letter somewhere. Will communicate further. If a historical account, will be glad to furnish anything in power.

Yr. obdt. Servt.,


There ! ” said Martha. “ Did n’t I say so ?

“ No, my dear, not that I heard ; and if you will observe, this letter tells us absolutely nothing.”

“ Nothing ? Read between the lines, as we did with the advertisement : does n’t it say that he is a relative and rather eager to have his ancestor written up ? ”

Astute Martha !

In course of time a rather bulky package came from Washington, and on being opened revealed three inclosures. One was a letter from Mr. Smith, putting at our disposal and commending to our care a second paper written by Zenas Smith the earlier. The third sheet was one of memoranda. From this last we learned that Zenas was the great-grandfather of his namesake, and that he had been a soldier of the revolutionary war.

“ There ! ” exclaimed Martha, in vexation. ‘'We never thought of the Pension Department; though of course,” she added, “ it makes no real difference, as we have got all we want.” As she spoke she unfolded Zenas’s letter very reverently, and spread it out on the table before us. The paper was yellow with age, and the ink dim but legible. Here is a copy of the letter : —

BOSTON, 3/3, ’99.

DEAR SON, - You ask an explanation of the old cask found by you in the cellar of the Abington house. I think I can satisfy you on that head. You already know how the committee, of which Samuel Adams and Dr. Warren were the soul, used the time before matters came to a head with Great Britain in preparing for a conflict felt by all of us to be inevitable. We had recruits on every hand, and, so far as possible, stores hidden on all the principal roads, and the members of the committee, of whom I was one, pledged themselves to keep their forces in readiness for an outbreak. We communicated by means of a sort of cipher, generally using the public press for our enigmatical notices to each other, and found at that time the friendly attitude of the Boston Gazette of incalculable service to us. Among the stores which I had caused to be secreted near the highway to Roxbury were five barrels of gunpowder, of several grades, but a very heavy storm on the morning of the 3d of March (just twenty-nine years ago to - day) flooded the cellar where the ammunition was, and so damaged it that we could not save above an eighth of the entire quantity. This was removed by night to my house as being a safer and drier place, and buried there in the cellar in a substantial cask. I notified the committee of the loss through the usual channel, and there the matter ended, for after the battle of Breed’s (or, as you now call it, Bunker’s hill) I was absent on service elsewhere and the gunpowder was forgotten. That is, in brief, the history of the cask you inquire about. . . .

From your aff. father, ZENAS SMITH.

I looked at Martha to see how she took it.

“ That quite upsets your little romance,” I said.

She was silent for a few moments, and then, with apparent irrelevancy, replied, “ How much Mr. Z. Smith of Washington writes like his great - grandfather! ”

Edgar Mayhew Bacon.