The death of James Otis is a strange story, but he died as he wished, and he did so at the Osgood House on Osgood Street in what is now called West Andover.
When I was growing up in town, most us knew the story of this American Revolution patriot, but I'll assume Otis is no longer mentioned in public school textbooks, so here's a quick summary of his life. Former President John Adams stated it best: "I was a young man and now am old, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770."
The reason Adams said Otis suffered so much was because of mental illness believed to have been caused by a Tory custom officer's slamming a cudgel into Otis's head in 1769, although some historians argue that signs of Otis's illness preceded the injury. The reason Adams said Otis was so important and essential to the cause of his country was that, through his writings, speeches, and activities as a lawyer, Otis had been the strongest and most articulate leader for the cause of freedom in the colonies until the Tory's cudgel cracked his head. No one in the colonies was more frequently quoted abroad, particularly by the British press — both favorably and unfavorably — and no one in New England was more respected by his fellow citizens.
Otis was the first in the colonies to exclaim that "Taxation without representation is tyranny."
His illness, although harmless to anyone but Otis, reduced his credibility as a serious thinker to nil; yet, in 1775, he was clear-headed enough to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill alongside his friend, Rev. David Osgood, a volunteer chaplain. Otis had lived with the Osgood family while recuperating from his head injury, and, by 1783, Otis was again living at the Osgood House when the strange event occurred. In the years prior, Otis had seen periodic improvement in his mental impairment, and this improvement continued while in Andover, except for a setback during which he felt that death was imminent, and this setback was six weeks before he died.
He said it often enough that it became folklore-fact: Otis wished his death would be caused instantaneously by a lightning bolt. At the Osgood's house on May 23, 1783, James Otis, 58 years old, stood in a doorway open to the outside, leaning against the door jamb with a cane in hand, telling a story to eight others in the room. A lone, dark cloud appeared above the house, and suddenly, as described by the others in the room, "An explosion occurred which seemed to shake the solid earth" and was accompanied by a flash (Sarah Loring Bailey, "Historical Sketches of Andover" 1880). Otis collapsed immediately without a single utterance, instantly dead with not a change in his expression nor a mark on his body. No one else in the room was a bit harmed, nor were there any further bolts or clouds.
The nation was shocked by their beloved patriot's death, especially coming so soon after the excitement of the Revolutionary War's end a month earlier. Fellow patriot, Thomas Dawes, wrote: "Hark, the deep thunders echo round the skies,/ On wings of flame the eternal errand flies;/ One chosen charitable bolt is sped,/ And Otis mingles with the glorious dead."
The doorway in which Otis stood was destroyed by a fire in 1920, which left the rest of the house intact. The house still stands as does the reputation of James Otis, who is buried alongside the Freedom Trail at the Granary Burial Ground in Boston.
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Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.