In May of 1776, 26-year-old Capt. James Mugford and his 12-person crew left the safety of Marblehead Harbor in the 60-ton armed ship, the Franklin.
Earlier, while forced into service aboard a British vessel, Mugford had overheard talk of a powder ship leaving England loaded with arms and ammunition for the British troops stationed in Boston. Now Mugford was on the hunt to intercept that vessel and take the much-needed supplies for the rebel army.
Near Boston Harbor, Mugford came upon the much larger, 300-ton ship, Hope, armed with six guns and several crew. Mugford wasted no time in attacking, even though the British fleet lay not far off in Nantasket Roads, a harbor channel near Hull.
Mugford and his crew came alongside and boarded the Hope and, using pikes and swords, overpowered its crew. The Marbleheaders brought the captured vessel into Boston Harbor to unload its prize. The crew also took mementos of the victory, including two carpenter’s planes and calipers ( measuring tools), now in the Marblehead Museum’s collection.
Then, loading the Franklin with ammunition for Marblehead’s militia, Mugford set off for home. Not long after, the Franklin ran aground. The nearby British fleet, bent on revenge, swiftly descended. Mugford was shot and lay on the deck mortally wounded. Yet he urged on his crew, proclaiming, “I am a dead man — don’t give up the vessel — you will be able to beat them off.” It was Mugford’s 27th birthday.
After a vicious battle, Mugford’s crew managed to beat back the overwhelming British force. The Franklin limped back to Marblehead Harbor. Word of the battle and Mugford’s death preceded them, and throngs of people were at the wharf to meet the returning heroes. Mugford’s body was brought onshore and laid to rest at Old Burial Hill.
For his bravery and selflessness, Mugford became a local hero. Streets, fire engines, militia units and associations have been named after him over the years. In 1876, the centennial of the battle, the town erected the Mugford Monument at the intersection of Pleasant and Essex streets. It was later moved to Old Burial Hill, where it stands today.
Lauren McCormack is the executive director of the Marblehead Museum.