When Paul Revere wrote in his account of his midnight ride, “After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains,” he was referring to a well-known local landmark along his route through Charlestown (present-day Somerville). On this site twenty years earlier a slave named Mark Codman had been hanged and his body gibbeted (suspended in chains) for murder and petit treason for killing his master, John Codman. A former ship’s captain, John Codman was a wealthy fifty-eight year old slave master and landowner in Charlestown when he was murdered by his three slaves, Phillis, Phoebe, and Mark Codman in 1755.* This celebrated case has become well-known as one of the few times in American history when a woman was sentenced to be burned to death; it is also of interest to legal scholars for the unusual charge of petit treason brought against the defendants; perhaps most important, however, the story of Mark, Phillis, and the other slaves involved in the plot serves as a window through which the modern observer may view a topic many would like to forget — the functioning of the chattel slave system in the northern colonies in all its inhumanity and brutality. Although the nature of slavery in the North differed somewhat from the slavery of the South due to the relative scarcity of large plantations, there were slaves living in Boston, and in other Massachusetts towns, until 1783, when slavery was legally abolished in Massachusetts. Most wealthy people, and even many “middling” families owned slaves. At least one slave, and possibly as many as five were owned by Robert Howard, the first owner of the house now known as the Paul Revere House. Howard, who bought the Revere house at a time when it was considered a mansion, had made much of his wealth as a merchant trading goods produced through the toil and forced labor of African slaves in the Caribbean and West Indies. The bulk of the sugar imported into North America in the eighteenth century, including the sugar Howard brought back on his ships to be sold to shopkeepers and distillers of rum, came from Caribbean plantations worked by slaves. Although Paul Revere’s maternal grandmother partly owned a slaved named Nulgar at the time of her death, Revere himself never owned slaves. Many of his wealthier patrons, however, were merchants who had become rich from their ties to shipping and industries like rum-distilling that were inextricably linked to the institution of slavery. "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop". From Billie Holiday's 1938 song Strange Fruit.
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