J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

John Gill: "printing sedition treason and rebellion"

In his journal of the siege of Boston, Boston selectman Timothy Newell wrote this about 4 Aug 1775:

John Gill imprisoned, charged with printing sedition treason and rebellion.
Young Peter Edes wrote the same phrase in the diary he was keeping inside Boston’s jail:
Mr. John Gill, printer, was brought to prison and put in our room. He is charged with printing sedition, treason and rebellion.
Gill was the business partner of Peter’s father, Benjamin Edes, and thus had supervised Peter when he worked in the press room. The elder Edes had escaped to Watertown at the start of the war.

What did Gill do to warrant the serious charges against him? Basically, he printed sedition, treason, and rebellion—at least in the eyes of royal officials. Even before the start of the town’s long conflict with the Crown, Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette was the most radical, confrontational news outlet in town. Yet those men were also Boston’s official printers; the name “Gazette” signaled that their newspaper had the contract to publish the town’s business. The town and royal governments were at odds on many things, and the Boston Gazette championed the town’s causes.

In his diary for 3 Sept 1769, John Adams revealed how close the relationship between Whig leaders and the Gazette was:
Spent the Remainder of the Evening and supped with Mr. [James] Otis, in Company with Mr. [Samuel] Adams, Mr. Wm. Davis, and Mr. Jno. Gill. The Evening spent in preparing for the Next Days Newspaper—a curious Employment. Cooking up Paragraphs, Articles, Occurences, &c.—working the political Engine!
One anonymous article the Gazette carried in January 1768 so enraged rival printer John Mein that he came to the Edes and Gill shop, demanding to know who had written it. When Gill refused to tell, Mein hit him over the head with a stick. Gill sued for assault, using Otis as his attorney, and won a judgment of £75. (It’s possible that Otis himself was the anonymous author.)

On 19 March 1770, two weeks after the Boston Massacre, Gen. Thomas Gage wrote from his headquarters in New York to the Massachusetts governor:
The Diabolical Account given of the late unhappy Affair in the Boston Papers, particularly that of Edes and Gill, is too preposterous and absurd to gain credit with any that are not prejudiced, and I am glad you are preparing a true and impartial Narrative of the Affair.
Edes and Gill sold Paul Revere’s engraving of the Massacre and, after the young artist complained, Henry Pelham’s earlier image as well.

As Boston’s preferred printers, Edes and Gill issued the town’s official report on the shootings, called A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. The town meeting voted to send copies of that report to England, but to keep it out of circulation locally so as not to prejudice a jury. When an English press reprinted it and shipped some copies back, Edes and Gill asked if they could start selling their stock after all. The town said no. It looks like the printers then created a facsimile of the London title page, bound it with their sheets, and sold those copies as if they had been imported.

But the partners didn’t just confine themselve to printing the news. They also helped to organize events. The Edes and Gill’s print shop became a regular meeting-place for Boston’s leading Whigs, and the Green Dragon Tavern was next door. Edes was part of the Loyall Nine who organized the first Stamp Act protests in 1765. During the nonimportation movement of 1769-70, Edes and Gill printed the notices to call mass meetings of “the Body”—the whole citizenry of Boston. In late 1773, they collected names of citizens who wished to patrol Griffin’s Wharf to keep the East India Company tea from being loaded, and Peter Edes remembered men gathering at his father’s shop on the evening of the Boston Tea Party.

In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that the military authorities hadn’t locked up John Gill before. According to Peter Edes, on 23 June:
[Customs Commissioner] Benjamin Hallowell came into the yard and asked the provost [i.e., jailer] if he had not one Gill in prison, the provost told him no; but that he had Edes’s son, upon which he came into my room, and said I was a damned rascal, and ought to have been hanged long ago.
As of 4 Aug 1775, John Gill was finally in jail.

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