In June of 1772, a dramatic event was to demonstrate the severity of the crisis. A Lieutenant William Duddington, of Her Majesty's Ship Gaspee, was charged with patrolling the waters of Narragansett Bay, off Rhode Island. Duddington had earned a reputation as an overzealous enforcer; boarding and detaining vessels and confiscating cargoes, often without charge, and without recourse for merchants whose goods were impounded. Losses were mounting and it was widely believed that these harassments were directed specifically at members of the Sons of Liberty.
On June 9, 1772, a local vessel out of Newport was under way to Providence when its captain baited the HMS Gaspee and led Duddington into shallow waters near Warwick. The Gaspee ran aground at a place that is now known as Gaspee Point. News of the grounding quickly reached Providence and a party of fifty-five, led by a man named John Brown, planned an attack on the ship. The following evening they surrounded and boarded the Gaspee, wounding Duddington and capturing the entire crew. All were hauled ashore and abandoned, to watch as the Gaspee was looted and then burned.
The boldness of this attack was even more remarkable in that none of the attackers made any effort to hide their identities. Duddington and crew were able to point out most of the participants readily. However, this did them little good because the local courts, too, were antagonistic toward the Royal Navy. Rather than attempt to prosecute the attackers, charges were brought against Lt. Duddington for illegally seizing goods. When this news reached Parliament, there was outrage. A special commission, under the authority of the vice-admiralty courts, was sent to apprehend the perpetrators of the Gaspee affair, and to haul them back to England for trial. Though the identities of the perpetrators were widely known, the investigation was fruitless. No arrest was ever made.