As Carretta writes in a recent blog post at the Oxford University Press website:
Until very recently, all we’ve had to go on were two very brief nineteenth-century accounts of John Peters (1746?–1801). The first depicts him as a failed grocer with an aspiration to gentility, who married Phillis in April 1778, and who abandoned her as she lay dying in desperate poverty 6 years later. He was also said to have been something of a handsome ne’er-do-well con man, who fraudulently posed as a lawyer or physician. We’re left with the image of a Dickensian villain in a tale of the decline and death of a duped sentimental heroine. But how reliable are those accounts?Carretta found much more about Peters in local records that previous authors didn’t dig out because the early picture seemed so clear and unappealing. Carretta writes about John Peters and Phillis Wheatley:
Their marriage was initially prosperous and promising, according to tax and court records. Phillis and John Peters lived in a relatively upscale section of Boston. Peters and his white business partner sold rye, wheat, tea, nails, sugar, and other goods in the counties of western Massachusetts during the spring and summer of 1779. At a time when creditors often had to take debtors to court to collect what was owed them, Peters won one lawsuit against a debtor. But he simultaneously lost a much larger lawsuit by one of his own creditors in 1780. . . .The post-war economy hurt lots of people that year. For John and Phillis Peters, the color line made that the situation more dire. John was jailed in September. Phillis died in December.
Phillis and John were definitely back in Boston by June 1784, when John Peters, “Labourer,” won another lawsuit against the debtor he had first sued in 1776. Winning, however, gained him nothing because his debtor had fled to England.
However, as the economy stabilized, widower Peters began to rise in society once more. In 1791 the town tax records identified him as “Lawyer Physician Gent pintlesmith.” A prosecution for barratry shut down Peters’s practice of taking people to court, but when he died in 1801 the newspaper still referred to him as “Dr John Peters.”
As for “pintlesmith,” Carretta defines that as a skilled craftsman making “the pins or bolts on which other parts, such as rudders or hinges, turn.” However, Francis Grose’s 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue says it was a slang term for a surgeon. More particularly, other references make clear, it meant a surgeon specializing in the effects of venereal diseases on the male member. So that tax identification might have been a way of acknowledging that Peters practiced medicine while giving him low status.