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, October 14, 2017

“The concourse of spectators was greater than we ever remember”

Earlier in the week I wrote about the funeral of Christopher Seider. The merchant John Rowe stated in his diary, “I am very sure two thousand people attended his Funerall.” That would have been one of every eight people in Boston.

John Adams watched that event with Rowe and wrote:
a vast Number of Boys walked before the Coffin, a vast Number of Women and Men after it, and a Number of Carriages. My Eyes never beheld such a funeral. The Procession extended further than can be well imagined.
But within a couple of weeks came the funeral of the first four victims of the Boston Massacre, and that was even bigger. “Such a Concourse of People I never saw before—I believe Ten or Twelve thousand,” wrote Rowe. That was more than twice the reported capacity of Old South Meeting-house.

A report printed in several newspapers guessed:
It is supposed that there must have been a greater Number of People from Town and Country at the Funeral of those who were massacred by the Soldiers, than were ever together on this Continent on any Occasion.
However, back in 1740 Boston newspapers estimated that on several days the Rev. George Whitefield had preached to crowds of 15,000 to 23,000 people on Boston Common. The siege of Fort Carillion in 1759 also involved more than 20,000 people.

Be that as it may, the grandest if not the most crowded funeral that eighteenth-century Boston ever saw took place on this date in 1793: the send-off for Gov. John Hancock. The Guardian of Freedom, published in Haverhill, stated: “The concourse of spectators was greater than we ever remember to have seen on any occasion.”

The main reason for that turnout was fond feelings for Hancock. Most people in Massachusetts admired their governor. Many authors have written that Hancock accomplished little in his final years, but that assumes he went into politics to make changes. Once independence was achieved, and perhaps even before, I think Hancock’s main aim was to increase and preserve his own popularity by keeping most people happy, and in Massachusetts he achieved that.

Another reason for the big occasion on 14 Oct 1793, I think, arose from the circumstance of Hancock’s death on 8 October.

TOMORROW: How the governor died.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

The official capacity of the Old South today is only 650. A quick look on Google shows it likely has less than 10,000 square feet of useable floor space on its three above grade levels, and that's being generous. A densely packed standing crowd requires 3sf/person. I think the "reported" capacity of 5,000-6,000 is off by ~2x.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for those calculations. The 5,000-person figure comes from reports of the tea meetings in 1773 and seem to have included people gathered outside the listen. Authors who favor that number argue that people then didn't expect so much individual space. Even so, there's a big difference between those reports and your estimate (much less how many people the building can comfortably fit by our modern standards, without the top gallery).

Me, I’m skeptical of all these estimates, including Whitefield's audience and the funerals. But if they were all off by the same factor (which is by no means guaranteed), they're still useful comparisons.