Crowded with soldiers, sailors, and civilians of all sorts and under siege by a large rebel army, security was a major concern in Boston in 1775. Soldiers patrolled the streets at night alert for signs of disorder and sentries were posted at store houses and other places holding goods that might be stolen. On the evening of 11 November, a corporal posted William Shields of the 40th Regiment of Foot as a sentry at Stoddard's store house on Pitt's Wharf. The corporal shook the padlock on each of the store's three doors, and gave explicit instructions to Shields to let no one in two of the doors, and at the third door to admit only a lame man in a red stocking cap. The corporal then marched on with a party of soldiers to be posted at other locations.
An hour or so later, around 6:30PM, a patrol of men belonging to the North British Volunteers, a loyalist corps recently formed of Boston residents, made their rounds past Pitt's wharf. At a place where they knew a sentry was normally posted they were surprised to find only a firelock with fixed bayonet leaning against the wall of a building. Assuming that the sentry had stepped away for a moment, they waited; when no sentry appeared after ten minutes or so, they started to look around in the darkness. They called to the next sentry, posted about a hundred yards away, asking if he knew the whereabouts of the missing man, but he did not. They discovered that the store had no lock on one door but the door seemed to be locked from the inside; nearby a piece of silk and a piece of woolen yard goods were found. Two men remained at the store while the remainder of the patrol took the fabric and firelock to the guard house.
The two North British Volunteers continued to look around when they heard a noise in the store. Suspecting thieves but not knowing how many, they hailed the next sentry who came to them; the three pointed their fixed bayonets towards the unlocked door and waited. Suddenly the door opened and William Shields, wrapped in his watch coat, came out confused and fearful. Accused of breaking into the store, Shields claimed that the lock had fallen open and that the corporal who posted him had said he was allowed to go inside, but he also asked the other sentry why he hadn't been warned of the coming patrol, and looked around for his firelock. Within moments the other members of the patrol returned with the officer, serjeant and corporal of the guard; as they approached, one of them found the missing padlock on the ground. Shields was immediately taken into custody.
A general court martial tried Shields on Monday, just two days after the crime had occurred, charging him with quitting his post, breaking into the store and stealing goods. Testimony was given by the corporal, serjeant and officer of the guard, all of whom corroborated that Shields was posted on the wharf that night with explicit instructions, and that the firelock and bayonet found at his post did indeed belong to him. The members of the patrol described what they had found and Shields' emergence from the store. The keeper of the store did not recognize the specific goods presented as evidence but testified that he had locked the doors securely and that goods such as those were kept there. The evidence and testimony left little room for doubt about Shields' guilt.
Shields gave a defense that sounds almost comical but at least gives a non-malicious explanation for the highly incriminating evidence:
The Prisoner being put upon his defence declared, that as he as walking backwards and forwards before the Warehouse door, he just touch’d the Padlock with his hand and it fell down at his feet, that he thought he heard the foot step of somebody in the upper floor and he went up stairs with his firelock in his hand, and fell over a trunk, the lid of which flew open at the time, and he saw the pieces of Camblet and Taffetta which he brought down, to shew them to the other sentry; and still thinking that he heard somebody in the store, he laid down the goods and his firelock, and went in again, when he heard somebody go by, and hearing them call the other sentry, he suspected that it was the Officer of the Main guard, and was afraid to go out, and therefore held the door to. As to breaking open the lock, he absolutely denied it, and concluded with begging that the Court would treat him with as much mercy as it was in their power.
The court did not treat him with mercy. On Wednesday, 8 November, William Shields was sentenced to be "hanged by the Neck ‘till he is dead." This seems like a harsh punishment for such a crime, but it was important to send a clear message to the rest of the garrison that such disorderly behavior would not be tolerated. Lenience would invite chaos in the crowded, besieged city. Sometimes condemned men were pardoned at the moment of execution, but not always. Shields did not wait around to find out. The Friday after he was sentenced, he somehow managed to escaped from the jail in Boston. An advertisement was placed in the next issue of the Massachusetts Gazette:
Five Guineas Reward!
Broke out of the Provost’s Custody last Evening, William Shields, a private Soldier in the 40th Regt. He is about 21 Years of Age, five Feet five Inches and three Quarters high, brown Complexion, round Visage, grey Eyes, and brown Hair. He was born in Glasgow, in the County of Lenrick, and is by Trade a Butcher. As it is by no means likely that said Person has got out of Town, whoever will secure him so that he may be again restored to the Custody of the Provost, shall have Five Guineas Reward from W. Cunningham, Provost Martial.
N. B. All Persons are hereby cautioned against harbouring or concealing said Shields, as they would be answerable for the Consequences. Boston, November 11, 1775.
The ad gives a good description of the young soldier, and it is the last word that is known of him. There is not indication that he was ever found, and nothing more is known of him after his escape.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!