Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: HOLLIS 9339426

Henry Phillips papers


Papers relating to the 1728 sword duel in which Phillips killed Benjamin Woodbridge on Boston Common, Phillips' flight to England and France, his indictment and conviction in absentia for murder, his subsequent death intestate, and the longstanding dispute over his estate.


  • 1728-1738

Conditions Governing Access

Access to these papers is governed by the rules and regulations of the Harvard Law School Library. This collection is open to the public, but is housed off-site at Harvard Depository and requires 2 business-day advance notice for retrieval. Consult the Special Collections staff for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Law School Library holds copyright on some, but not all, of the material in our collections. Requests for permission to publish material from this collection should be directed to the Special Collections staff. Researchers who obtain permission to publish from the Harvard Law School Library are also responsible for identifying and contacting the persons or organizations who hold copyright.


1 boxes
The 17 documents that make up the Phillips Papers span the years 1728-1738 and were likely assembled by Gillam Phillips himself for his extended lawsuit in which he tried to become sole inheritor of his brother, Henry's, estate. The papers fall into three groups: legal papers that relate to Henry Phillips' duel with Benjamin Woodbridge and Phillips' subsequent flight from Boston; an inventory of Henry Phillips' estate; and legal documents and letters from Gillam Phillips' unsucessful litigation.

Historical/Biographical Information

Henry Phillips was born in 1704, the younger son of the Boston bookseller and publisher, Samuel Phillips (active 1681-1720). Henry's grandfather (and namesake) was also a publisher, and his brother Gillam carried on the business until at least 1732.

Henry Phillips graduated with an M.A. from Harvard in 1724 and joined his brother Gillam in the book business, with some trading in lumber and fish on the side. He was said to be mild and studious, but he freqented Luke Vardy's Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street, where gambling was rife. It was at this tavern that Henry had a falling out with Benjamin Woodbridge, the son of a Barbadian Admiralty judge. On 3 July 1728 the two met on Boston Common, after dark, to duel with swords. Phillips suffered wounds to his belly and hands and abandoned Woodbridge with a chest wound. Phillips fled, leaving word to provide a surgeon for Woodbridge, but rescuers could not find the victim where directed. Woodbridge was found dead at 3am the following morning. After Henry Phillips fled the duel, his brother, Gillam, and friends attempted to dress Henry's wounds and then sucessfully smuggled him onto the British man-of-war, "Sheerness," which was about to depart Boston Harbor.

On August 13, 1728, Henry Phillips was indicted for murder. Phillips' friends remained loyal and by July 29 they had assembled a formidable petition, signed by ninety leading inhabitants, headed by the Governor himself, asking for grant of a pre-emptive royal pardon, which would quash the indictment and permit the exile to return.

Meanwhile, Phillips reached London and went on to La Rochelle, where his brother's brother-in-law, Peter Faneuil, had an uncle who took him in. Depressed and ill, Phillips died only four months later, having failed to sign his will.

Henry left an unsigned will, provoking a law suit, in which brother Gillam challenged the Massachusetts statute which awarded a good portion of Henry's estate to his mother and sister, Faith Savage. Under English common law Gillam would have inherited the whole of Henry's estate, but colonial Massachusetts statute law awarded a large portion to their mother and sister. Gillam challenged this award (Phillips v. Savage). The Province of Mass. helped Faith Savage contest the suit in London, reimbursing her legal expenses after her victory over Gillam.

Physical Location

Harvard Depository

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased by the Harvard Law School Library.

Existence and Location of Copies

The Henry Phillips Papers have been digitized and can be viewed here.

Processing Information

Inventoried by Arthur Freeman; edited by Sally Vermaaten April 2004
Link to catalog
Henry Phillips. Papers, 1728-1738: Finding Aid
Harvard Law School Library, Cambridge, MA 02138

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard Law School Library, Historical & Special Collections Repository

Harvard Law School Library's Historical & Special Collections (HSC) collects, preserves, and makes available research materials for the study of the law and legal history. HSC holds over 8,000 linear feet of manuscripts, over 100,000 rare books, and more than 70,000 visual images.

1545 Massachusetts Avenue
Langdell Hall
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-4550