Celebrity came late in life for a poor shoemaker with a big family, an odd name, and a place in the tumultuous history of Boston before War of Independence.
Decades into the 1800s, Americans rediscovered some aging participants of the unrest in Boston just before the start of the American Revolution. One old revolutionary found and celebrated was George Robert Twelves Hewes, a poor shoemaker who witnessed the 1770 Boston Massacre and took part in the 1773 Tea Party. In 1833, a writer found Hewes living in obscurity in New York state. The writer interviewed the old shoemaker and wrote his memoir. In this way, the people of Boston learned of his whereabouts and, in 1835, invited him to town and made him a guest of honor on Independence Day. More interviews were conducted and a second memoir produced.
Son of a Tanner, Too Short for Military
Historians, especially Alfred F. Young, used these memoirs and other information to piece together the story of this poor man’s long life of struggle. Hewes was born in 1742, the sixth of nine children. Hewes’s father was a tanner rich enough to buy a slave and pay fees for his children’s education but not frugal enough to put away savings. When George was about seven, his father died and the family was soon receiving charity. By the time George was fourteen, his mother was dead and he was an orphan. Too small to enter a trade where muscle was needed, and too poor for a lucrative trade that required an indenture fee, George, at age 14, became apprenticed to a shoemaker, near the the bottom rung of the trades in Boston. Typically, shoemakers were poor.
Among the stories he told in old age was about a time he was receiving variolation treatment to acquire immunity from smallpox. As part of the treatment, the doctor had told him not to eat meat. But he secretly stole and gobbled down some roast veal dipped in butter, which produced an upset stomach. The doctor was called in and suspected the boy had eaten in defiance of orders. George admitted nothing. The doctor warned him that, if he didn’t tell the truth, he’d be “cold coffee”—dead—in twelve hours and “remember ‘tis no fault of mine.”
Figuring he was doomed anyway, Hewes decided to die happy. He asked for a mug of flip, a concoction of beer and eggs, “sweet, hot and good.” The doctor surrendered. The boy got his flip. In the morning the doctor returned to find George not cold coffee at all but feeling better.
Unhappy as an apprentice, he tried to enlist in the military but was rejected because he was too short. He eventually completed his apprenticeship and opened a shop, taking time off to go on fishing voyages with his brother to Newfoundland. In 1769, at age twenty-six he married a seventeen-year old daughter of a church sexton and washerwoman. He had a hard time making a living at his trade because two years later he found himself in debtors prison apparently because he was unable to pay for the suit he bought when he was courting. He got out of prison but remained poor.
Blackened Face, Borrowed Blanket
He was among dozens of men, some thinly disguised as Indians, who helped dump tea into Boston Harbor on a December night in 1770. Parliament responded to the Tea Party with measures to punish Boston, leading to American outrage and the War of Independence. On his way to the Tea Party, he stepped into a blacksmith’s shop for soot to blacken his face, then borrowed a blanket to wrap around himself. That was the extent of his disguise. During the Tea Party he was stationed where he could use his famous whistling skills to signal other Tea Partiers.
In 1773, he and his wife and three children were apparently living with an uncle in Boston’s South End. After Lexington and Concord, his wife and children slipped out of Boston, occupied by British troops. Hewes stayed behind for a while. When he did get away, he was brought to George Washington who interviewed him about conditions in Boston.
By the fall of 1776, he and his family were in Wrentham, Massachusetts. During the war he served at least nine months in the militia—his rank was never higher than a private—and over ten months at sea as a privateer—legalized piracy against British shipping—sailing as far as the West Indies. Late in the war, he avoided the military draft by hiring a substitute.
Acquaintance of James Fenimore Cooper
After the war, he stayed in Wrentham and then moved to Otsego County, New York, after the War of 1812. There he struggled on, apparently as a shoemaker. A comical and unflattering poem—perhaps by James Fenimore Cooper, who knew Hewes—survives:
Old Father Hewes, he makes good shoes,
And sews them well together
It has no heels but those he steals
And begs his upper leather.
Historians think George and his wife Sarah, who died in 1828, had fifteen children. Of those, one was named Eleven and the last was named George Robert Twelves Fifteen. But, despite the large family, when the writer in 1833 found Hewes, he wasn’t living with his children or his fifty or so grandchildren, but with “a worthy gentleman.”
The writer thought Hewes was approaching his 100th birthday. Actually, Hewes was closer to 93 at the time. He lived on to about 98, dying in 1840 in Richfield Springs, New York.
Where did odd name “Twelves” come from? Apparently, it was the maiden name of one of his grandmothers.