“Mark Hung in Chains:” Slavery & Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

Jul 24, 2021

By: Nina Rodwin

When visitors to the Paul Revere House learn about the Midnight Ride, they are often surprised that Revere was not celebrated for that mission during his lifetime. Although Revere did not become famous overnight, he did have a sense that his contributions would be important to record for the future. In 1798, twenty-three years after the Midnight Ride, Paul Revere responded to a request from Jeremy Belknap, the corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and provided a more polished recounting of his Ride than two previous versions written in 1775. Revere’s 1798 account illustrates how dangerous and risky his mission was, in fascinating detail. One of the most interesting aspects of Revere’s account is his brief mention of slavery. Despite the brevity of his reference, his comments shed light not only on what Revere thought about slavery, but also how Boston remembered and memorialized the violent death of an enslaved man named Mark.

While modern audiences might be confused by the connection between the Midnight Ride and slavery, Revere was probably confident that Jeremy Belknap and most local readers would be aware of who Mark was. After all, Mark’s trial and execution was a dramatic and well-publicized event. In 1755, Mark, an enslaved man, was charged with petty treason after poisoning his owner, John Codman. Mark (sometimes referred to as Mark Codman, with the application of his owner’s last name) was hanged and his body was suspended in chains (also known as a gibbet) on a public road.

In Revere’s final account of his ride he describes his journey out to Lexington and uses the execution spot as a reference point: “After I passed charlestown nek [sic] and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on horseback under a Tree.” While it is impossible to know all of Revere’s opinions and beliefs around slavery, the fact that he references Mark illustrates both the fact and normalcy of enslavement in colonial Massachusetts. Mark’s decomposing body was undoubtedly a gruesome sight for some time, but Revere’s dispassionate reference may have been a common reaction. Many people at the time may have believed that Mark’s punishment for killing his owner was justified. After all, since enslaved people were considered property by law, their owners had the legal right to treat them as they pleased. Mark’s sentence of petty treason illustrates how the legal system viewed enslaved people as loyal subjects to their owners. While Mark’s life came to a violent end, his trial offers fascinating details about his life and the circumstances that led him to murder.

John Codman was a retired ship captain living with Mark and two other enslaved people, Phillis and Phoebe. While it is unknown when Mark was first purchased by Codman, records indicate he lived with him by the 1740s. Although Codman lived in Charlestown, Mark was allowed to live in Boston with his wife and child as long as he hired himself out for work. This was a common occurrence, where enslaved people were allowed to work for various individuals, as long as any wages would be given to their legal owner. However, in February of 1748, Boston city officials “warned out” Mark, meaning that he was forced to return to Charlestown without his family. Around this same time, John Codman sold one of Mark’s children to another slave owner, further separating the family.

Mark asked Codman if he could be sold to a new owner, but Codman refused. It is possible that Mark also asked for his freedom, but likely knew that such a request was even more unlikely than a sale. At that time, slave owners were required to pay a 50 pound bond for each enslaved person they freed, a hefty sum when the average person made approximately 40 pounds a year. Mark’s next attempt to be freed from his owner was a significant escalation in danger and desperation. In 1749, Mark and other enslaved people owned by Codman burned down his blacksmith shop and workhouse in the hopes that this costly destruction would force him to sell Mark to other owners. Their plan failed, but violent actions continued on both sides of the matter.

Three years later, when fellow co-conspirator Phillis was on trial for participating in Codman’s murder, she testified that Mark poisoned Codman not only because he “wanted to have another master” but also because he was “concerned” and “uneasy” about Phillis’s and Phoebe’s well-being. Perhaps Mark worried because Codman had violent tendencies. Records show that in 1752 John Codman struck an enslaved man named Tom, seriously injuring his eyes. It seems that one of the eyes never healed, as Mark mentions in his testimony that Phoebe, another enslaved woman and co-conspirator, had come by early one morning to “dress Tom’s eye.” According to Mark’s testimony, Tom sought revenge, as he hoped that Codman would “never get up again for his Eye’s sake.”

Eventually, the saga took a fatal turn, as those held in bondage by Codman resorted to murder. In the well-documented court case that occurred in the summer of 1755, each individual involved had their say on the incident, knowing that the outcome would likely be fatal for any enslaved person found guilty of murdering their owner. Trial records describe how Mark, Phillis, and Phoebe each played different roles in the murder. It seems that while Phillis obtained the poison, she did not place the poison in her owner’s food. Phillis explained that Phoebe had put “a white powder” into Codman’s chocolate and his “watergruel” [sic].  Interestingly, Phillis notes that she tried to place some poison into Codman’s barley drink, but immediately felt “ugly,” and quickly poured out the contaminated barley and replaced it with “clean water.” It seems that it took about a week for Codman to feel the effects of the poison, as Phillis notes that the Wednesday “before [her] master died,” she overheard Phoebe telling Mark the powder was “all used up.”

Although the testimony implicates Phoebe as the poisoner, Phillis’s testimony makes it clear that Mark first came up with the plan to murder Codman. Phillis testified that Mark could read, and after reading the Bible determined that “it was no Sin to kill him if they did not lay violent Hands on him.” Mark traveled back by ferry to Boston and obtained additional poison from Robin, an enslaved man owned by Dr. Clark. However, he also admonished Phillis, telling her she was a “Damn’d fool,” for not giving Codman “the first Powder at two Doses, for it wou’d [sic] have killed him and no Body would have known who hurt him.” When Phillis asked Mark how he could be sure, he explained that he knew “Mr. Salmon’s Negros” had poisoned their master and were never caught. As he explained to Phoebe, the men now had “good masters & so might we.”

Phillis explained that she and Phoebe were initially opposed to the idea, but that Phoebe changed her mind once Codman forced Mark to leave his wife in Boston and return to Charlestown. Although it’s clear that Phillis was apprehensive about Mark and Phoebe’s plan, she told the judges that she “did not know why” she didn’t warn the family. Although Phillis implicates Mark as the instigator, he never admitted in his testimony that he planned to kill Codman. In fact, Mark claimed that he initially obtained the poison to kill some pigs. It is impossible to know if Mark truly was unaware of the plan or if he was hoping for a milder sentence. Although both Phillis and Mark pled not guilty, the jury ultimately brought down a guilty verdict. Phillis received a harsher sentence than Mark, as she was ordered to be burned to death.

According to the records, sometime between one and five in the afternoon, on September 18, 1755, Mark and Phillis were taken from the prison, brought over to Cambridge and executed. While it is unknown how many people witnessed the execution, it was likely a well-attended event. Mark’s sentence did not specifically order his body to be placed in a gibbet, the Boston Evening Post noted that after the execution, his body was immediately brought to Charlestown Common and “hanged in chains.” This was a decision likely made by the sheriff, possibly as a gruesome warning to other enslaved people who would have passed by Mark’s gibbeted body on a daily basis for years.

As the Revolution began, Mark’s body was a highly visible reminder that enslaved people in Boston did not have the same chances at freedom and the pursuit of happiness. At the same time, revolutionary ideals inspired some enslaved people to fight for their freedom. In the 1780s, Quock Walker and Elizabeth Freeman sued their respective owners and successfully gained their freedom. As their lawyers argued, since the newly formed Massachusetts Constitution claimed that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights,” slavery could no longer be considered legal. Although slavery was technically illegal, the law did not automatically free every enslaved person. In fact, many enslaved people were still required to complete years of indenture before being set free. Probate inventories and wills prove that some families in Boston owned enslaved people into the 1800s. Once freed, African Americans were still not treated as equal to white people. Black Bostonians could not vote, participate in a jury, or send their children to public schools. In addition, they were under the constant fear that they could be captured and forced into enslavement in a different state.

Paul Revere was 21 years old when Mark was executed and had lived his life immersed in a world where slavery was normal. Although Revere never owned any enslaved people, records indicate his grandmother, Deborah Hitchborn, owned an enslaved man named Nulgar. When his grandmother died, her will indicates that she gave Nulgar to her son, Thomas Hitchbourn, Revere’s uncle. Revere was eight when his grandmother died, and possibly had memories of Nulgar. As a child, Revere lived nearby Dr. Clark’s Wharf and would have likely known Robin, as the enslaved man, and later co-conspirator who provided the poison and was known to perform errands for his owner. From the half-source we have in a letter from Thomas Wadsworth to Revere, there is a suggestion of Revere’s personal anti-slavery sentiments, but the trail otherwise runs dry on Revere’s specific thoughts on the institution. When Paul Revere died on May 10, 1818, only 11 states had officially outlawed slavery. It would take another 47 years before slavery ended across the U.S., and another century after that before all black men and women had the right to vote in all elections. In reflecting on Revere’s ride, we also remember and memorialize Mark Codman, and all the other enslaved men and women who lived in Boston. In part thanks to Paul Revere’s legacy and the small notation he made in reflection on his famous ride, Mark’s life and death will not be forgotten.

Nina Rodwin is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House