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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Sunday, January 21, 2018

“At my trial for caning Gill”

In April 1768 John Mein went on trial for assaulting rival printer John Gill. In fact, he faced two trials—in criminal and civil court.

On 19 April the local magistrates cited Mein for criminal assault and fined him 40 shillings, or £2. Not a huge amount, but a judgment that he had disturbed the peace of Boston.

At the same time, Gill sued Mein for £200 in damages. John Adams represented Gill. The case was tried on 28 April, and the 2 May Boston Post-Boy reported the verdict:

after a long Hearing the Jury found a Verdict in favour of the former [Gill], for one Hundred and thirty Pounds Lawful Money Damages, and Costs of Court. From which Judgment we hear both Parties appealed to the next Superiour Court. 
I’m skipping further ahead of the Sestercentennial anniversaries to finish this story. The appealed case came up in the March 1769 session of Massachusetts’s highest court. Benjamin Kent and Robert Auchmuty were Mein’s attorneys. On Gill’s side, Adams was joined by James Otis, Jr.

Kent was a Whig with many Loyalist relatives; though he stayed in Massachusetts through the Revolutionary War, in 1785 he went to spend his last years with them in Nova Scotia. Auchmuty was one of Boston’s leading attorneys supporting the royal government. Otis and Adams were of course active opponents of that government.

The John Adams Papers contain his notes from the trial, but those don’t provide a useful summary, with disconnected phrases like “Kick upon the A—se” and “Distinction between Bump and Tumour.”

The facts of the assault don’t seem to have been in doubt, or even the question of whether Mein was in the wrong. Rather, the question was how much was he in the wrong. Had he planned the attack for days? Had the Gazette provoked Mein, so Gill was partially at fault? How big was the stick, and how big was Gill?

In the end, the jury found for Gill but awarded him £75 and costs—a smaller award than before, but still a “Large Sum,” as Harbottle Dorr wrote. At some point Mein wrote that his decision to cane Edes or Gill had “cost me about £100 St[erling].” He filed for a new trial but later withdrew that motion. By November 1769 Mein had worse to worry about.

Mein later wrote, “Otis at my trial for caning Gill, bandied about this Liberty of the Press as the Salvation of America, and said, that in beating him I had endeavoured to shutt up that great Source of freedom.” Seeing Otis in court must have particularly irked Mein because he was convinced that “Americus,” the anonymous newspaper writer who had called him disloyal and set off the whole affair, was Otis himself.

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