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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Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fleets Get N.S.F.W.

I’ve been writing about the Fleet family, enslaved to Thomas Fleet and trained in the printing business. Isaiah Thomas recalled that in the 1750s a black man named Peter Fleet carved woodcuts for ballads, and the initials “P.F” appear in a small book called The Prodigal Daughter.

On 7 Jan 1751, Thomas Fleet’s Boston Evening-Post featured a woodcut with what looks like Peter Fleet’s typical hatching as its very first item—a rare example of new art in a colonial newspaper. That image illustrated a poem titled “To Mr. CLIO, at North-Hampton, In Defence of MASONRY.”

Though nominally written in the voice of a Freemason, that poem wasn’t much of a defense. It suggested that the organization was just a cover for sodomy. Referring to treenails, or wooden pegs, instead of masons’ trowels, the verse said:

I’m sure our TRUNNELS look’d as clean
As if they ne’re up A–se had been;
For when we use ’em, we take care
To wash ’em well, and give ’em Air,
Then lock ’em up in our own Chamber,
Ready to TRUNNEL the next Member.
And lest anyone miss the sexual reference, the picture made it very clear. (Click on the image below if you want a closer look.)
In addition to the two well-dressed but half-dressed Masons, the woodcut also showed an ass braying, “Trunil Him well brother,” echoing the several references to asses in the poem.

It took work to create a woodcut with this level of detail, and it’s not an image that Thomas Fleet could have used again on broadsides. Someone probably paid the Fleet print shop a hefty sum to create this block and print it and the poem. Again, this explicit bit of gay-baiting was on the front page of a weekly newspaper.

Ironically, Peter Fleet’s younger son Caesar became a Freemason in Boston’s African Lodge in 1779.

TOMORROW: Who was behind that attack?

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