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The cannonball theft


A century-old fifth-grade lesson

When I was a lad of 13 years, my father removed to Boston. Nothing of all its sights produced upon me such an impression as the ships.

The Navy Yard in the adjoining town of Charlestown was my especial wonder and glory. One day I visited some ill-constructed vaults where shot had been stored. The 6- and 12-pound balls were extremely tempting. I am to this day puzzled to know why I desired them. There was no chance to roll them in the house and as little in the street. For baseball or shinny they were too substantial.

But I was seized with the strongest desire to possess one. As I had been well brought up, of course the first objection arose on the score of stealing. I disposed of that on the plea that it was no sin to steal from the government.

Next, how should I carry the shot from the naval yard without being caught? I tried my jacket pocket, but the sag and shape of that aroused my fears. I tried my breeches pocket, but the big lump was worst of all. A thought struck me wrap a handkerchief about it and put it in your hat.

The iron ball was accordingly swaddled with the handkerchief and mounted on my head and the hat shut over it. I began my march toward the gate. Every step seemed a mile; every man I met looked unusually hard at me. The sailors evidently suspected my hat. Some mariners lurching and rolling toward the ships seemed to look me through. The perspiration stood out over my face as an officer came toward me. I wished the ball in the bottom of the sea; but no it was on top of my head.

By this time it had grown very heavy. I meant to take a 6-pounder, but I was sure that this ball was a 12-pounder; and before I got out of the yard, it weighed 24 pounds! I began to fear that the stiffness with which I carried my neck would excite suspicion so I tried to limber up a little, which nearly ruined me, for the shot took a roll around my crown in a manner which came near bringing me and my hat to the ground.

When, at length, my scalp well rolled, I got to the gate, all my terror reached its height as the sentinel stopped his marching, drew himself up, and looking at me, smiled. I expected him to say, “Oh, you thievish little imp! Do you think that I do not see through you?” But, bless his heart! He only said, “Pass.” I walked a few steps farther; and then, having great faith in the bravery of my feet, I pulled my hat off and carrying it before me, I whipped around the first corner, and made the bridge with the speed of a racehorse.

When I reached home, I had nothing to do with my shot. I dared not show it or tell where I got it, and I gave it away the same day.

But after all, that 6-pounder rolled a good deal of sense into my skull. It was the last thing I ever stole, and it gave me a notion of the great folly of wanting more than we can enjoy.

In my study of men I often think, “There is a man with a cannon ball under his hat. I know it by the way he walks.” Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87)

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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