BIZARRE BOSTON: Shocking death of James Otis, Jr.

Here’s a morbid question. Do you want to choose the way you die?

Personally, I don’t think I want to. James Otis, Jr. (1725–1783), an important figure in the American Revolution, definitely did. And he exited this mortal life in his preferred way, even though it was a rare and dramatic one.

Otis was born on Cape Cod and was the son of an important British military leader and a well-known lawyer. After graduating from Harvard, Otis followed his father into the legal profession and became an official in the British colonial court system that adjudicated over Massachusetts.

Up until this point he had always been a loyal citizen of the English king, but Otis’s life changed when his father did not get a promised promotion. Otis became outraged and quit his job. Rather than working for the British colonial government, he now decided to defend the Massachusetts patriots who were challenging British power. A political firebrand was born!

Otis is best-known for popularizing the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” but his most famous legal case came in 1751 when he argued in the Massachusetts court against the “writs of assistance,” a set of laws that allowed British troops to search any house without probable cause or suspicion. He lost the case, but his five-hour speech in front of the court became so popular in the American colonies that parts of it were printed in pamphlets.

Otis became a rising star in the movement for independence, but his career was unfortunately cut short. In September 1769, Otis was visiting a Boston coffee house when he became involved in a violent brawl with four British customs officials. Otis was cut with a sword, but perhaps even more significantly, he was hit on the head with a cane. He never fully recovered from the fight, and he began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Tradition ascribes his mental decline to the blow from the cane, but many historians believe his psychological problems began before the injury.

Unable to work, Otis retired from Boston to a friend’s home in Andover. At this point, his life, already an interesting one, possibly took a turn toward the supernatural. Otis was very close to his sister, and when she visited, he often said that when God took him from this world he hoped it would done by a stroke of lightning.

He got his wish on May 23, 1783. While standing outside the Andover house with some family members, Otis was struck by a bolt of lightning. He died instantly. No one else was injured, and Otis’s body was not burned or damaged in any visible way. Witnesses say the corpse had an expression of calm repose.

Otis was buried in the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston. In the 19th century, workers opened his tomb and found that the roots of a nearby elm tree had grown into his skull. Some might find this gruesome, but the 19th century author, John Clark Ridpath, thought the tree was a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to freedom. He wrote, “It was the brain of James Otis which had given itself to the life of the elm and had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal Flow.”

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