Remembering a Revolutionary hero on Mugford Street

Left, an image of Capt. James Mugford’s home when Elm Street was called Back Street. Right, Capt. James Mugford lived at 39 Mugford St. Photo by Peabody Essex Museum Via Digital Commonwealth / Spenser Hasak

There is a debate as to whether Marblehead truly is, as its people claim, the birthplace of the American Navy. What is not up for debate, however, is that Marblehead has one of the most heroic naval stories from the American Revolution– the story of Captain James Mugford.

During the Siege of Boston, the 26- or 27-year-old James Mugford and his crew of the Franklin were captured and held on a British ship in Marblehead Harbor. While confined to the ship, he heard the British talking about a “Powder Ship” that was coming from England, full of ammunition and other supplies. After his release, Mugford contacted the proper officials and made them aware of the soon-to-arrive ship.

That is not the end of Mugford’s story, though. He also asked for permission to try to take the ship. In early May, 1776, Mugford applied to have his merchant vessel, the Franklin, armed and manned. He ended up with about 20 men, four guns, and 50 tons of ammunition. 

Though the siege had ended, some of the British remained in the Harbor. But now, the Franklin took to the water with revolutionary intent. Leading the crew, Mugford soon saw the ship he had heard about while captured. The Hope, carrying 350 tons of ammunition, six guns, and 17 men, had sailed from Cork without knowing the siege had ended– or that Mugford lay in wait.

He boarded the Hope, took control of the ship and its crew at the threat of death, and safely sailed it to Boston. There, the revolutionaries took stock of their spoils: 1,000 carbines, 1,500 barrels of powder, and artillery equipment, among other cargo.

Having successfully derailed the British’s shipment, Mugford went back out to defend the seas further. The next day, various British ships deployed over a dozen “launches” to board Mugford’s vessel. As they drew nearer and tried to board, Mugford and his crew fought them off with everything from cannon fire to cutlasses. Amidst the fighting, Mugford was shot and uttered his final words: “I am a dead man; don’t give up the vessel you will be able to beat them off; if not, cut the cable and run her on shore.”

Mugford was the only casualty on the American side in this battle. He was buried in Marblehead.

Even if you had never heard this story before, you likely have heard the Captain’s name before. From Mugford Street to the monument in his honor, you cannot miss this man’s history if you are taking a walk around town.

Another place where Mugford is memorialized is at his Marblehead home at the corner of Elm and– unsurprisingly– Mugford Street. Unlike its inhabitant, 39 Mugford is a simple, fairly ordinary 18th century house for this area. It was built in the Georgian style, but a very simple version. After all– there must be some balance in the universe.