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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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Tragedy Acted in Colonial Boston?

The Boston Chronicle, published by Scottish immigrants John Mein and John Fleeming, was the only Massachusetts newspaper that strongly supported the royal government in 1769-70, when Boston’s Whig politicians were promoting a “non-importation” boycott of goods from Britain. Speaking up for Customs enforcement wasn’t easy. Mein was run out of town in October after he published a pamphlet insulting some Whig merchants and offered evidence that they’d imported goods themselves.

In early 1770, Mein was thought to be lying low in the barracks at Castle William while Fleeming and his apprentices, probably including John Howe, kept putting out the newspaper. The Chronicle appeared on Thursdays, which was also a day when the town’s schools let out early. In January, many boys started to use that free afternoon to picket the shops of people who had refused to sign the non-importation agreement.

On 1 Feb 1770, this curious notice appeared in the Chronicle:

Intended speedily to be acted
By a Company of young Tragedians,
A TRAGEDY
(Not acted here these seventy-eight years,)
called the
W I T C H E S,
With many Alterations and Improvements.

The scenery, decorations, &c. for the exhibition to be entirely new, and supplied by Messieurs J——n, L——, B——d and Company.

N.B. Notice will be given for the Rehersal, by ringing of the Town bells, when the Actors are desired to meet at FUNNY-HALL.—But as the young Gentlemen have lately been interrupted at some of their Rehearsals by the intrusion of Improper persons, it is desired that NONE but such as are to be REAL Actors will attend, and that NO ONE will presume to go behind the scenes without a TICKET from the Managers.

The names of the Managers, to whom Gentlemen may apply, with the Dramatis Personae, will be in a future Advertisement.
This advertisement used the phrasing that gentlemen would have recognized from theatrical advertisements in other newspapers—papers from outside New England. Boston had no theater, and still barred any type of theatrical entertainment. Therefore, that language would have immediately caught people’s attention. And I think this is how they decoded it.

The “company of young Tragedians” referred to the schoolboy picketers. The reference to a tragedy called “The Witches” acted out in 1692 was a clear allusion to the Salem witch trials, implying that the boys were engaging in the same behavior as the witch-hunters.

“Messieurs J——n, L——, B——d and Company” were William Jackson, Theophilus Lillie, and John Bernard, merchants who had continued to sell imported goods. Bernard was also the eldest son of Sir Francis Bernard, the recently departed royal governor. In January, the Boston town meeting had condemned those three men and others, as shown in the ad above from the Boston Gazette. Boys had begun picketing Jackson’s brass shop that month, and would move on to Lillie’s dry-goods shop in February.

Bostonians rang the “Town bells” when they wanted to draw a crowd—either to fight a fire or, as this item hints, start a riot. “Funny Hall” is clearly Faneuil Hall, seat of the town government.

And in the sarcastic rhetoric of the ad, “Improper persons” had earlier tried to break up the boys’ picket lines while “the Managers” had supported and—by implication—directed them. In the final line, the Chronicle’s printers threatened to name those managers.

TOMORROW: What Revolutionary Bostonians thoughts about “the witches.”

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