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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Thursday, November 14, 2019

David Bradlee: “Windows broke when I got there”

We’ve come to the last of the men George Gailer sued for tarring and feathering him in October 1769, the man his legal filing identified as a “Taylor” named “David Bradley.”

As it happens, David Bradlee was one of the first individuals in Boston I dug into, about twenty years ago. I wrote a short article about him for the Bostonian Society newsletter then.

Bradlee hasn’t made a lot of appearances on Boston 1775, but I may have been saving him for the Sestercentennial of when his political activity started to appear in the historical record.

David Bradlee was born in Dorchester on 24 Nov 1742, according to Samuel Bradlee Doggett’s History of the Bradlee Family (1878). David was the sixth child and third son in the family, and two more boys followed. Most moved into Boston.

Bradlee became a tailor. On 22 Mar 1764 he married Sarah Watts of Chelsea. Doggett said her father was a judge, but Mellen Chamberlin’s Documentary History of Chelsea shows she was a daughter of Richard Watts, Harvard 1739, innkeeper and militia captain. His father was the judge—Samuel Watts, justice of the peace, member of the Massachusetts General Court and the Council. In other words, David Bradlee married up in society.

David and Sarah Bradlee’s first son arrived on 20 October, or seven months after their marriage. That baby received the name David Watts Bradlee. The couple then had Sarah (1766), Samuel and Mary (twins in 1768, but Mary died at nine months), and eventually another Mary (1770).

As I’ve written, it’s not clear why George Gailer named David Bradlee as one of the people who attacked him on 28 Oct 1769. I’m assuming Bradlee really was involved in assaulting the sailor in some way. But Bradlee had the connections to secure John Adams as his attorney. He and his fellow defendants eventually won their case on default, and he paid Adams 19s.4d.

Well before that lawsuit was resolved, however, Bradlee was present at another riot and involved into another court case about it. He was on the scene on 22 Feb 1770 when Customs officer Ebenezer Richardson shot into a crowd of boys and young men mobbing his house, killing little Christopher Seider.

Robert Treat Paine’s notes on the Richardson trial summarize Bradlee’s eyewitness testimony this way:
Windows broke when I got there. I saw 3 or 4 Stones come out of the Window. I saw one or two Men in the Room with Guns in their hands. R put a Gun on edge of Window. I heard the Gun, and run to the back of the house. R clapt the Gun at me.
In this case, the word “clapt” seems to mean that Richardson had fired a load of powder but no shot at Bradlee—in other words, he fired a blank to scare the man off. Even though Bradlee’s testimony was all about the stones and gunshots coming from inside the house, one has to wonder what he was doing so close to that house to provoke Richardson’s action.

TOMORROW: Two weeks later.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

“Pool Spear informs, that last Week he heard one Kilson a Soldier…”

I’ve been looking into Pool Spear, the Boston tailor accused of tarring and feathering sailor George Gailer in October 1769.

A little more than four months after that event, the young apothecary Richard Palmes met Spear near the center of town on the evening of 5 Mar 1770. Palmes had gone out as the alarm bells rang, learned there had been a brawl outside Murray’s barracks instead of a fire, and headed back home. He stated:
I then saw Mr. Pool Spear going towards the Townhouse, he asked me if I was going home, I told him I was; I asked him where he was going that way, he said he was going to his brother David’s. But when I got to the town-pump, we were told there was a rumpus at the Custom-house door; Mr. Spear said to me you had better not go, I told him I would go and try to make peace.
Palmes appears to have had a short temper, so he probably wasn’t the best person to pacify the situation that grew into the Boston Massacre. Indeed, after hearing a shot and seeing a man dead on the ground, Palmes started swinging his walking stick at soldiers and Capt. Thomas Preston.

It looks like Pool Spear took his own advice and didn’t stay to see what happened near the Customs office that night. But the next morning he went to Faneuil Hall, where there was supposed to be a town meeting, to share a story. The town meeting records say:
Mr. Pool Spear informs, that last Week he heard one Kilson a Soldier of Pharras Company say, that he did not know what the Inhabitants were after, for that they had broke an Officers Windows (meaning [landlord] Nathaniel Roger’s Windows) but that they had a scheeme on foot which would soon put a stop to our proceedure—that Parties of Soldiers were ordered with Pistols in their Pockets, and to fire upon those who should assault said House again, and that Ten Pounds Sterling was to be given as a Reward, for their killing one of those Persons, and fifty pounds sterling for a Prisoner—
Spear’s testimony wasn’t used in the town’s report or the trials as Palmes’s was, but it reflects the conviction of many Bostonians that the soldiers were eager to hurt people.

The next glimpse of Pool Spear that I’ve found comes from the siege of Boston. He and his wife Christiana were staying in her home town of Pembroke with six children. In March 1776, the Rhode Island Quaker philanthropist John Brown gave them £2 as charity.

The Spear family moved back into Boston after the British evacuation. Late that year Pool (now spelling his name “Poole”) was among scores of Bostonians who signed a petition on behalf of Hopestill Capen, a Sandemanian Loyalist who had helped to preserve their property during the siege but was locked up in the Boston jail on suspicion of disloyalty.

In 1779, the Boston town meeting elected Pool Spear, then forty-four years old, to be a constable. Often the meeting chose recently married young men for this office as a joke, and those men declined because they wanted to stay home. Spear accepted and was reelected in 1780 and later. The Fleets’ pocket almanac for 1782 lists him as a deputy sheriff of Suffolk County. Those jobs were more about delivering writs than patrolling the town, but it’s still a striking shift from being accused of tarring and feathering a man to working as a law-enforcement officer.

Also in 1779, the Independent Chronicle newspaper reported that the Spears were living in a house that the state was confiscating from the late Loyalist absentee John Borland. Six years later, Spear was in the Boston jail himself because of a debt to Borland’s estate, as brought to court by Richard Cranch. (See this note from the Adams Papers about Cranch’s tangled relationships with the Borland properties.) The court case may have involved that Boston house or Spear’s duties as a sheriff. In any event, the Massachusetts General Court passed a special law freeing Spear.

Pool Spear died in 1787, aged fifty-one. His widow Christiana helped to administer his estate. He didn’t leave her a lot of money, but he didn’t leave her in debt.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Unboxing Pool Spear

Yesterday I noted the difficulty of finding out more information about a sailor with a common name. Luckily, the next person on George Gailer’s list of people who tarred and feathered him in October 1769 has an unusual name: Pool Spear.

Even with the alternative spelling of Poole, it’s easy to track someone who sounds like a toy the Nerf company sends to families posting “unboxing” reviews on YouTube.

In 1864 the New England Historical and Genealogical Register published a confusing “Spear Family Record.” Fortunately, that article offers enough leads to other records that confirm Pool Spear was born 21 Sept 1735 in Hull.

Pool was the younger son of a captain of a packet ship to Philadelphia who died of smallpox in May 1738, when the boy was three. His older brothers included Joseph, a lighterman; Gershom and David, coopers; Nathan, one of the Bostonians who complained about Capt. John Willson in 1768; and Paul. How the parents decided to have successive boys named Paul and Pool is unclear.

In late 1755 Spear did three months of militia service at Crown Point, New York, in Capt. Thomas Stoddard’s company. The men chose him to be an ensign. Back home, Pool became a tailor. I’ve seen estimates that about one in seven mechanics made clothing in some way during those pre-industrial times.

In May 1761, at the age of twenty-five, Pool Spear married Christiana Turner from Pembroke. The family listed their children as Joseph, Daniel, Oliver, Paul, Christiana, and Abigail. However, I’ve found no published church records to confirm that.

In February 1768, Spear declared bankruptcy, part of the wave kicked up by Nathaniel Wheelwright’s failure three years earlier. He listed as his trustees his brother David Spear, Edward Blanchard, and John Soren. That episode was the only time Spear’s name appeared in the Boston newspapers before the war.

Pool Spear was aged thirty-four during the attack on Gailer in late 1769. The other men I’ve been able to identify were all in their twenties (assuming Daniel Vaughan was the younger of the two candidates). However, that wasn’t the last political disturbance Spear was present for.

TOMORROW: Pool Spear and the Boston Massacre.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Mysteries of David Province

When George Gailer sued for damages after being tarred and feathered, he named four people from Boston: “David Bradley, Pool Spear, Taylors, and David Provence Infant and Edward Mathews Mariner.”

I’ve come up blank on “Edward Mathews[,] Mariner.” Ordinary sailors don’t leave a lot of records, and this man’s name is too common.

For David Province I have limited information about his childhood. David’s father, John Province, married Sarah Prince in late December 1747. Brattle Street Meetinghouse (shown here) recorded that they had Mary in 1752, Sarah in 1757, and twins Abigail and Elizabeth in 1763. However, there’s no sign of a son named David in those published records.

In 1758 Sarah (Prince) Province’s father, a ship’s captain named John Prince, died. His estate included a house and land on Milk Street, an enslaved man named Jack, and a two-masted, fully rigged boat. But he left only 20s. to his daughter Sarah, saying he had already supported her in life. He left a larger sum—£13.6s.8d.—to her children. That bequest may have been a way to make sure her husband John Province didn’t control much of his estate.

In September 1760 Thomas Hutchinson, in his capacity as a probate judge, assigned John Province to be guardian for his son David Province, who was under the age of twelve. In other words, Province ended up controlling any bequest from his father-in-law to his son anyway, but he had to keep accounts under court supervision.

(I note the possibility that David Province was John Province’s son by another woman, born after his marriage to Sarah Prince. That would be unusual, but could explain the anomalous details. Of course, there might just be gaps in the surviving records.)

The Province family lost their home in the great fire of 1760—the one that had started at the Sign of the Brazen Head. [Whatever happened to that storyline, anyway?] But the Province children were among the fortunate Bostonians who received public support. That September, John Province bought new real estate on Lynde Street.

By 1767 John Province was established securely enough to join the Scots Charitable Society. Later he took in apprentices through the Overseers of the Poor. He died in 1792 at the age of 72, and the Columbian Centinel reported that the funeral would be out of his home in West Boston. His will mentioned two married daughters, one in Nova Scotia and one in Albany, but no son.

Indeed, I found no records of David Province after the 1770 lawsuit, in which he played only a minor [!] part. He was probably the right age to serve in the military during the war, but he’s not listed in Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors… He may have died before 1775.

As to the attack on George Gailer, the most pertinent information about David Province may be that his father was a tailor. That’s stated in both the probate and Overseers records. David may therefore have been an apprentice tailor. Two of the three Boston men in the lawsuit were tailors, the only men not connected with the maritime trade.

Why, I wondered, were tailors so interested in tarring and feathering a sailor for informing on a smuggler? Then I realized that might not be the right question. Out of all the crowd that attacked him, how did Gailer learn the names of two or three tailors? The answer might have something to do with how Gailer “took Shelter in a House” for most of the day before being grabbed. Perhaps workers in a nearby tailor shop kept a watch for him, or something like that.

TOMORROW: Pool Spear and the long arm of the law.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

“Voices from the Boston Massacre” Exhibit at M.H.S.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has opened a new exhibit called “Voices from the Boston Massacre,” displaying documents and artifacts from its collection illuminating that Sestercentennial event of 5 Mar 1770.

The exhibit includes trial notes and letters from the collections of such attorneys as John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel and Josiah Quincy, Jr. There’s a full series of Massacre engravings by Henry Pelham, Paul Revere, and the artists who copied them. We can see the musket balls that Edward Payne dug out of his doorway after he was wounded in the arm. We can read parts of the newspaper reports, orations, and memoirs of the event.

One document new to me is the recently acquired handwritten memoir of Julia Bernard Smith, daughter of Gov. Francis Bernard. He left Massachusetts in August 1769, but his family remained behind until December 1770, in part because the children were still in school.

Later in life, Smith wrote: “Captain [Thomas] Preston had performed at my Father’s Concerts and was well known to us.” I knew Preston was generally well regarded, but I had no idea he was musical.

This exhibit holds personal meaning for me. Twenty years ago, I was drawn into the study of Revolutionary Boston through the figure of Christopher Seider, the young boy killed eleven days before the Massacre by Customs officer Ebenezer Richardson.

As I wrote back here, I spent years looking for a broadside that a newspaper said Christopher had in his pocket when he died, and I finally found it in the M.H.S. catalogue. Now that broadside is in a display case near the beginning of the exhibit, illustrating Christopher’s importance in the events that followed. And the label cites my work identifying its significance.

There are also a couple of video displays in this exhibit. One shows actors reading various witnesses’ accounts of the shooting (or, in the case of Charles Bourgate, what he claimed was his account). Another shows historians speaking about the event from Serena Zabin and Hiller Zobel down to myself.

The M.H.S.’s “Voices from the Massacre” website features online resources about the period for researchers and educators. Folks can visit the exhibit at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston every Monday through Saturday from 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and as late as 7:00 P.M. on Tuesdays. It will be up through the Massacre anniversary until June 2020.

Speaking of the Massacre, I’ll be speaking of the Massacre with Bradley Jay on WBZ radio’s Jay Talking Show—what led up to the confrontation on King Street, how it happened, and why it mattered. That conversation will run from midnight to 1:00 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, 12 November. If our chat is particularly interesting, it will become one of the show’s podcasts.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Road to Concord Leads on to Townsend

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll speak about The Road to Concord to the Townsend Historical Society.

According to Ithamar B. Sawtelle’s History of the Town of Townsend, Middlesex County, Massachusetts (1878), in that town “The alarm to the minute-men was given on the 19th of April, 1775, by the firing of a cannon on the common about three o’clock in the afternoon.”

In that same paragraph Sawtelle went on to quote what Ephraim Warren (1731-1812) reportedly said to his wife as he rode off to Concord, and to describe what he saw there on 20 April: “a few dead bodies and some wounded British soldiers.” That suggests Sawtelle’s information about the cannon came from the Warren family tradition.

If that story is accurate, and there was indeed a cannon on Townsend common in 1775, it was probably left over from the decades when the town was near the frontier of British settlement and vulnerable to raids by French and Indian forces. I didn’t find mentions of Townsend acquiring cannon in 1774 or 1775 while researching The Road to Concord.

Nonetheless, the fact that even a small Massachusetts town had such a weapon, and men trained to use it, is a big part of the book. In my talk I’ll discuss the conflict over provincial artillery and how it led to the fighting in Concord, and thus to that cannon shot in Townsend.

The Townsend Historical Society will meet on the second floor of the Townsend Town Hall, 272 Main Street. This event is free and open to the public. Parking is behind the building. There will be a twenty-minute business meeting at 2:00 P.M., and I’ll speak when that is over. Afterwards I’ll welcome questions, talk about local history, and sell and sign books.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Searching for Daniel Vaughan

The third Rhode Islander that sailor George Gailer sued for tarring and feathering him in October 1769 was “Daniel Vaun[,] Mariner.”

Unfortunately, as this webpage shows, there were a lot of men with that name (surname also spelled Vaughan and Vaughn) documented in eighteenth-century Rhode Island. I think there are a couple of top candidates.

One is the man whom the Newport Mercury and a headstone both reported dying in March 1800 at the age of 56. This Daniel Vaughan was therefore a contemporary of Eleazer and Benjamin Trevett, the brothers from Newport that Gailer also accused. He could have been another sailor on their father’s ship Success.

This man was also the right age to have been the Daniel Vaughan who became one of the first third lieutenants commissioned in the Continental Navy in December 1775. And he could have been the owner of the Daniel Vaughan house in Newport, built after the war and shown above.

Another possibility is an older Daniel Vaughan, born in 1716 or 1722. Such a man appears to have been the right age to have been involved in all of these incidents:
  • A Daniel Vaughan was first lieutenant under Capt. Simeon Potter on the privateer Prince Charles of Lorraine during King George’s War in 1744. Potter and his crew sacked a settlement in French Guiana. A priest’s detailed report suggests Lt. Vaughn took the lead in trying to hunt down slaves and plunder villages. Potter eventually stranded a lot of his men and took their shares of the loot, as Vaughan testified in the ensuing controversy back in Rhode Island.
  • A Daniel Vaughan was first lieutenant on the Tartar under Capt. James Holmes in 1748 when it captured a schooner carrying sugar. There was another inquiry about that capture since the schooner had been flying a flag of truce.
  • In 1764, a Daniel Vaughan was the gunner at Fort George on Goat Island off Newport. The local authorities ordered him to fire cannon at H.M.S. St. John. Ostensibly they were trying to stop the Royal Navy ship from sailing away with sailors suspected of stealing hogs, but the real reason for their animosity was that its captain had clamped down on molasses smugglers. Vaughan’s gun crew reportedly fired thirteen shots, striking the warship’s sails and rigging. This was the first of several examples of Rhode Islanders attacking royal government vessels in the years before the Revolutionary War.
In 1773, a man named Daniel Vaughan—who could have been either of these candidates—testified in the investigation of the burning of H.M.S. Gaspee, the most famous of those Rhode Island attacks. The leader of that assault was almost certainly none other than Simeon Potter, acting with the encouragement of the Browns and the Greenes. Vaughan’s testimony, however, discredited one of the Crown’s only cooperating witnesses. This Vaughan was also involved in salvaging iron out of the destroyed warship.

It’s possible those Daniel Vaughans were related. It’s also possible that another Daniel Vaughan got into the mix. But all in all, I’d say either man’s activities are consistent with helping to tar and feather an unpopular informer in Boston in 1769.

COMING UP: The tailors from Boston.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Tar, Feathers, and the Trevett Brothers

A couple of days ago, I quoted George Gailer’s court filing after he was assaulted with tar and feathers (and other things) on 28 Oct 1769.

That legal document named seven individuals as having taken part in the attack. Those were the people Gailer must have recognized or been told were involved. So, even though he never proved his case against them in court, that’s one of our best indications of exactly who participated in tarring and feathering in Revolutionary America.

And of course I love nothing more than ferreting out info on individuals from Revolutionary New England. So let’s look at those seven names.

Three men were from Newport, whence Gailer had sailed. According to the Boston Gazette, he had arrived on “the Sloop Success from Rhode Island.” Issues of the Newport Mercury from February 1768 show that Eleazer Trevett, Sr., was managing a sloop called Success.

Trevett was a merchant prominent enough to settle other men’s estates and serve on civic committees. He often advertised wine in the Newport Mercury, so it’s notable that the Boston Gazette accused Gailer of informing the Customs office that the Success had “a Cask or two of Wine on board.”

And indeed the first two people on Gailer’s list of attackers—“Eleazar Trevett Junior and Benjamin Trevett, Merchants”—have the same names as two of Eleazer Trevett, Sr.’s sons:
  • Eleazer Trevett, Jr. (1743-1782?), followed his father in becoming a merchant captain. By October 1768 he was commanding a voyage to Tenerife, a wine island off the African coast. In June 1770 he brought a ship into Marblehead, only for him and his father to run into a dispute with locals over non-importation. In May 1773 the younger Trevett was wrecked off Antigua. Later that year, as James Roberts has described in a Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes article (P.D.F. download), Trevett got into a legal dispute over mahogany with Aaron Lopez. That lawsuit pushed the captain into declaring bankruptcy in 1774. In the summer of 1775 Trevett sailed again to Antigua. I can’t find information on what he did when the war finally came to Rhode Island, but at some point Eleazer, Jr., was captured by the British and died at the age of thirty-nine in a prison ship off New York.
  • Benjamin Church Trevett (1748-1826) reached the age of majority in 1769. He appears to have gone inland, served a couple of terms in Continental regiments raised in Massachusetts and Vermont, and settled in western New York, where he drew a pension from the federal government.
They had an intermediate brother, John Trevett (1747-1823), who served in the Continental marines and left a diary.

It looks like Eleazer and Benjamin came to Boston either on the Success or as soon as they learned that the Customs office had seized that sloop. Unable to retrieve the family property, the Trevett brothers directed or led the attack on Gailer.

In much the same way, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., had overseen the attack on the Customs ship Liberty and the rescue of his ship Sally back in July.

TOMORROW: The third Rhode Islander.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

“Description of the POPE, 1769.”

The Fifth of November was a festival of misrule for eighteenth-century colonial Boston, which locals called “Pope Night.” But the celebration actually followed many strict traditions.

One was that when 5 November fell on a Sunday, as it did in 1769, the holiday was put off until the following day. Thus, Boston’s youth remembered the Fifth of November exactly 250 years ago today.

Another tradition was that the Pope Night wagons would feature effigies of the Devil, the Pope, and one or two hanged men whose identities changed from year to year to keep up with the biggest political enemies.

In 1769 the obvious choice was printer and bookseller John Mein. Since August he had been angering the town’s mercantile and political community. On 28 October he had, in a confrontation with some of those merchants, drawn a pistol and reportedly fired it in the center of town. He then went into hiding, refusing to answer a lawful warrant.

The Pope Night wagons rolled out ten days later. The newspapers and this broadside reported that the following text appeared on the big “lanthorn” (basically a small tent with sides of oiled paper, lit from within) of a main wagon:
Toasts on the Front of the large Lanthorn.
Love and Unity. — The American Whig. —
Confusion to the Torries, and a total Banishment to Bribery and Corruption.

On the right side of the same. —An Acrostick.
J nsulting Wretch, well him expose,
O ’er the whole World his Deeds disclose,
H ell now gaups wide to take him in,
N ow he is ripe, Oh Lump of Sin.
M ean is the Man, M[ei]N is his Name,
E nough he’s spread his hellish Fame,
I nfernal Furies hurl his Soul,
N ine Million Times from Pole to Pole.

Labels of the Left Side.
Now shake, ye Torries! see the Rogue behind,
Hung up a Scarecrow, to correct Mankind.
Oh had the Villain but receiv’d his Due,
Himself in Person would here swing in View
But let the Traitor mend within the Year,
Or by the next he shall be hanging here.
Ye Slaves! ye Torries who infest the Land,
And scatter num’rous Plagues on ev’ry Hand,
Now we’ll be free, or bathe in honest Blood;
We’ll nobly perish for our Country’s Good,
We’ll purge the Land of the infernal Crew,
And at one Stroke we’ll give the Devil his Due.

Labels on each Side the Small Lanthorn.

See the Informer how he stands, If any one now takes his Part,
An Enemy to all the Land, He’ll go to Hell without a Cart
May Discord cease, in Hell be jam’d,
And factious fellows all be dam’d.
From B------- [Bernard?], the veriest monster on earth,
The fell production of some baneful birth,
These ills proceed,—from him they took their birth,
The Source supreme, and Center of all Hate.
If I forgive him, then forget me Heaven,
Or like a WILKES may I from Right be driven.
Here stands the Devil for a Show,
With the I--p---rs [Importers?] in a row,
All bound to Hell, and that we know.
Go M[ei]n lade deep with Curses on thy head,
To some dark Corner of the World repair,
Where the bright Sun no pleasant beams can shed,
And spend thy Life in Horror and Despair.

Effigies,—M[ei]n, his Servant, &c.—A Bunch of TOM-CODS.
I take “his Servant” to mean the “young Lad (belonging to the Office)” who had fired out of Mein’s print shop at the previous procession. How nice that his fellow teenagers remembered him.

The celebrants also made sure to mention George Gailer (“the Informer”) and the departed royal governor, Francis Bernard.

With this holiday coming so soon after the busy 28th of October, town authorities feared that it would be especially rowdy. But channeling public anger at those vanquished political enemies made the holiday a little more orderly than it had been before the Stamp Act.

TOMORROW: Naming names.

[The picture above is a sketch of the South End’s Pope in 1767 by Pierre Eugène du Simitière, now in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia.]

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

“Grosly threatning to Hoist him up in the Cart”

The 28 Oct 1769 tarring and feathering of sailor George Gailer was a public event in Boston. The mob meant to humiliate Gailer for giving information to the Customs service and to intimidate anyone else who might consider becoming a whistleblower. Today we’d call that obstruction of justice.

We know how much noise the procession made from the way gentlemen wrote about it. Province secretary Andrew Oliver described “a great noise of halloing & huzzaing by people who I could easily perceive shifted their Stations, by the Noise coming from different quarters successively.” He called the event a “tumultuous affair.”

Merchant John Rowe wrote:
In the evening a large Mob Assembled & got hold of one George Greyer an informer who they stript naked & painted him all over with Tar & then covered him with Feathers & put him in a Cart & carried him thro’ all the main Streets of the Town huzzaring &c and at nine dismissed him—this matter occasioned much terror &c in some fearfull People among the Inhabitants—When this happened I was with the Possee.
All that occurred in a town that contained about 800 soldiers who had been sent there specifically to protect the Customs officers. So how did the military react to that disturbance?

We know the army and navy were helpful in hiding printer John Mein from both the mob and the civic authorities who hunted him late that same afternoon. But the army doesn’t appear to have made any move to save Gailer.

Here’s the account of Cpl. Thomas Burgess of the 29th Regiment, taken down by a justice in Amboy, New Jersey, in the summer of 1770:
A numerous Mobb assembled in King Street Boston, who proceeded up to the Main Guard, in pursuit of one Mr. Mein A Printer insisting that said Mein had taken refuge there and wanted to get him out.

That dureing the time of the said Mobb being at the Main Guard the relief was ordered out to go Sentry, the Mobb being very numerous would not fall back in order that said Relief (of which this Deponent was one) might form According to Military Discipline, upon which the Officer of the Guard Lieutinant [James] Basset ordered said relief off to their respective posts and not to Offend any one.

That said Deponant was planted at his Majesties Custom House, and shortly after heard A Mobb in some part of King Street who Directed their way towards the Custom House with an uncommon Noise and stoped at his post, haveing a Naked Man in A Cart who they called an Informer.

That said Mobb left his Post at that time, but soon returned again makeing a full Stop as before, haveing the above mentioned Man in the Cart all over Tared and Feathered.

That the said Mobb gave three Shouts, and kept closeing on this Deponant, whereupon he this Deponent desired them to Desist and keep off his Post, the Mobb then directed their way though Royal Exchange Lane and some of them Broke some Windows in the Custom House where upon this Deponant desired a second time that the[y] would desist upon which the Mobb surrounded said Deponant who thinking himselfe in danger began to load his Firelock thinking to fright the Mobb away but to no Effect for they closed him up and struck at and abused him most grosly threatning to Hoist him up in the Cart and use him as the did the Man they had tared and Feathered
So the presence of armed sentries throughout Boston certainly didn’t deter this mob. Burgess saw the crowd carting Gailer around without his shirt and then saw the procession return after the sailor had been “all over Tared and Feathered.” According to the corporal, people even threatened him with the same treatment.

In 1773 the 29th Regiment listed Lt. James Bassett as twenty-three years old with eleven years of service. That means in 1769 he was as young as nineteen, though he had been in the army (at least nominally) since the age of twelve. Bassett was officer of the day again on 5 Mar 1770, when there was more trouble between the crowd and the sentry at the Custom house.

TOMORROW: Pope Night in 1769.

Monday, November 04, 2019

“An assault, on the Body of the said George Gailer”

George Gailer, the first victim of tarring and feathering in Boston, was an ordinary sailor. He was therefore not the type of person who typically left letters, journals, newspaper essays, or other writings.

However, we do have Gailer’s perspective on that assault through a lawsuit he filed three months later in January 1770.

The sailor’s attorney was Robert Auchmuty (c.1722-1788, shown here as a young man, courtesy of Amherst College), who also had Crown appointments. Since Auchmuty was probably beyond Gailer’s price range, I suspect the Customs office helped pay his fees.

John Adams represented one of the defendants, the Boston tailor David Bradlee. Adams also copied Auchmuty’s initial filing into his “Pleadings Book,” just in case he needed to file a similar motion for another client. We’re lucky he did so because the original court file has been lost.

Gailer’s warrant said:
Attach &c. Eleazar Trevett Junior and Benjamin Trevett, Merchants, Daniel Vaun Mariner, all of Newport in the County of Newport and Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation, and David Bradley, Pool Spear, Taylors, and David Provence Infant and Edward Mathews Mariner all of Boston in our County of Suffolk.

To answer unto George Gailer of Boston aforesaid Mariner, in a Plea of Trespass, for that the said Eleazar Trevett Jnr., Benjamin Trevet, Daniel Vaun, David Bradley, Pool Spear, David Provence, and Edward Mathews, at said Boston in the Evening of the twenty Eighth Day of October last, together with diverse other Persons to the said George Gailer unknown, with Force and Arms, an assault, on the Body of the said George Gailer did make, and then and there with Force as aforesaid did strip the said George Gailer naked, tar and feather his Skin, and carry the said George Gailer naked, tarred and feathered, as aforesaid in a Cart about said Boston for the space of Three Hours, and with Clubbs, Staves, and a hand saw did then and there strike him the said George Gailer, sundry heavy and grievous Blows, upon the said George Gailers naked Body, and greatly bruise, and wound him and hit him the said George Gailer diverse grievous Blows, with Stones:

By Reason of all which the said George Gailers Life was put into great Hazard and Danger, and greatly despaired of, and many other Enormities, and Cruelties, the said Eleazer Trevett Jnr., Benja. Trevett, Daniel Vaun, David Bradley, Pool Spear, David Provence, and Edward Mathews, with others unknown to the said George Gailer did then and there commit, on the said George Galer, against the Peace of our Lord the King and to the Damage &c. £2000.
This description of the assault differed in some details from what was in the newspapers. The warrant said the crowd “did strip the said George Gailer naked.” However, the Boston Post-Boy said “his Cloaths except his Breeches [were] pulled or torn off,” and other papers agreed. So this is an example of the period usage of “naked” not being stark naked.

On the other hand, the warrant described more violence than the newspapers, saying the crowd hit Gailer “with Clubbs, Staves, and a hand saw” and “Stones.” The press, particularly the Whig press, might have suppressed those blows, or decided they were few and exceptional and didn’t deserve mention. It’s also possible Gailer and Auchmuty pumped up those details because they were fighting a perception that a tar-and-feathering wasn’t a real assault. Yet that “hand saw” doesn’t seem like the sort of detail one could make up.

According to The Adams Legal Papers, Gailer’s case was initially “decided in the defendants’ favor on demurrer,” meaning the defendants didn’t address the truth of the allegation but argued that those actions weren’t enough to justify a legal judgment. Adams received 19s.4d. from Bradlee. Auchmuty filed an appeal in March 1770. None of the parties appeared when the case came up in the August 1771 term, and the case was dropped. I’ve never come across any other mention of George Gailer.

TOMORROW: An eyewitness account from a soldier.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Story Behind “a familiar anecdote”

This past week, historian Zara Anishanslin published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post headlined “What we get wrong about Ben Franklin’s ‘a republic, if you can keep it’.”

It begins:
Last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, she used a familiar anecdote to back her arguments. As Pelosi told it, “On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”

Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it” line is as memorable as it is catchy. It is a story that appeals across partisan lines. The same month Pelosi referenced it, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch released a book titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a recognizable national origin story with broad appeal; Pelosi was savvy to use it.

But she got the story wrong. So did Gorsuch.
Pelosi did something many other people telling this story don’t, correctly quoting the question that political hostess Elizabeth Powel asked Franklin about “a republic or a monarchy.” After all, we’re facing that choice today. However, Pelosi didn’t give Powel individual credit for the question.

As Anishanslin acknowledged by link and tweet, she based her analysis on the series of Boston 1775 posts about the original exchange between Franklin and Powel, and about how James McHenry recorded and used that anecdote. You can read the whole twisting story, from 1787 to today, starting here.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Adelman on “Revolutionary Networks”

If you’re intrigued by the stories of John Mein, Edes and Gill, Mills and Hicks, and other Boston printers behaving badly, check out Joseph M. Adelman’s new book Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789, recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Here’s an extract from the publisher’s description:
Adelman argues that printers—artisans who mingled with the elite but labored in a manual trade—used their commercial and political connections to directly shape Revolutionary political ideology and mass mobilization. Going into the printing offices of colonial America to explore how these documents were produced, Adelman shows how printers balanced their own political beliefs and interests alongside the commercial interests of their businesses, the customs of the printing trade, and the prevailing mood of their communities.

Adelman describes how these laborers repackaged oral and manuscript compositions into printed works through which political news and opinion circulated. Drawing on a database of 756 printers active during the Revolutionary era, along with a rich collection of archival and printed sources, Adelman surveys printers’ editorial strategies. Moving chronologically through the era of the American Revolution and to the war’s aftermath, he details the development of the networks of printers and explains how they contributed to the process of creating first a revolution and then the new nation.

By underscoring the important and intertwined roles of commercial and political interests in the development of revolutionary rhetoric, this book essentially reframes our understanding of the American Revolution. Printers, Adelman argues, played a major role as mediators who determined what rhetoric to amplify and where to circulate it.
Adelman is a professor at Framingham State University and Assistant Editor for Digital Initiatives at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. He’ll be speaking about how the Revolution was reported, amplified, and commodified in the newspapers of the day at multiple venues around Boston, starting today:

Saturday, 2 November, 3:00 P.M.
Arlington Historical Society
Smith Museum, 7 Jason Street, Arlington

Thursday, 7 November, 7:00 P.M.
Lexington Historical Society
Buckman Tavern, 3 Bedford Street, Lexington

Monday, 2 December, 5:30 P.M.
Massachusetts Historical Society
1154 Boylston Street, Boston

Friday, November 01, 2019

“A young Lad (belonging to the Office) fir’d a Gun”

The report of someone inside John Mein and John Fleeming’s print shop firing a gun at Boston’s first tar-and-feathers procession on 28 Oct 1769 raises a number of questions.

First is the matter of how many guns were involved. Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette reported “a Gun was fired from thence and two others snap’d at them [i.e., someone fired blank shots] just as they got by.” However, the pro-governor Boston News-Letter stated simply that “a Gun was fired from one of the Windows.” So was there one shot or three?

A Crown informant named George Mason reported this version of events:

As soon as the Mob had got as far as Mr. Meins Printing Office and dwelling House (which is near Liberty Tree) they made a Halt, and as I’m very credibly informed endeavour’d to force the Door (I’m certain of this they broke the Windows) upon which a young Lad (belonging to the Office) fir’d a Gun loaded with nothing but Powder with a view to intimidate them from any further violence, this had not the desired effect, for immediately after they recover’d from their fright, they burst the Door open in earnest, and likewise forc’d the Locks and Doors of the inner appartments in search of Mein. Some mischief was done to his Books &c and two Guns were taken away by Persons in the Neighborhood who are well known to Mr. Meins Servants
The Boston Gazette stated: “they bro’t off three Guns, two of them well charg’d, as Evidence.” So it looks like both sides agree that at least one shot was fired, the crowd confiscated at least two guns, and no one was injured.

The next question is who fired that shot. Mason identified the shooter as “a young Lad (belonging to the Office)”—i.e., a printer’s apprentice or devil. The newspapers said the crowd found no one inside the house, so Mason apparently had inside information.

Isaiah Thomas wrote later that Nathaniel Mills was an apprentice to John Fleeming. He was a week shy of twenty years old during this riot, however, and therefore probably not still considered a “young Lad.”

Another possibility, though I’ve found no direct evidence, was John Howe (1754-1835). He had just turned fifteen in October 1769, still too young for militia service. I can’t show that he worked for Fleeming, but he did become a Sandemanian, and Fleeming was the only Boston printer of that faith. If I were writing a historical novel, I’d put young Howe into that building.

The Boston Gazette report is clear that the shot from the print shop caused people in the procession to break in. Mason’s account says the opposite: when members of the crowd “endeavour’d to force the Door,” a frightened boy inside fired the gun. Both sides had every reason to present themselves as the party under threat, indeed many incentives to think of themselves as the party under threat, so I don’t see any way to work that out.

It’s notable that the Boston Gazette made no mention at all of the merchants’ confrontation with John Mein earlier in the day. That makes that paper’s claim that someone fired a gun “for what Reason we know not, as no injury seemed designed them,” more than a little disingenuous. When the whole town was buzzing that your boss, already unpopular, had fired a pistol recklessly in public and was being hunted by the authorities, you could reasonably worry about being injured.

The Boston Post-Boy also declined to report in detail on the confrontation with Mein in its 30 October issue, saying, “as we are informed a Warrant has been issued upon the Occasion, we do not think it proper at present to give a particular relation of the Circumstances of that Affair.” That looks like a cop-out, but at least those printers gave a legal reason.

One last observation about the gunshot from the printing office: this was the third instance of gunfire in Boston in one week of October 1769. There would be more, most memorably in late February and early March of 1770. In all those cases, the shots were fired by employees or supporters of the Crown. Not until late 1774, as the Massachusetts Government Act provoked violence against mandamus Councilors, did any Whig or Patriot fire at a supporter of the royal government. (It’s not clear what James Otis, Jr., was shooting at when he fired out his windows in April 1770.)

That pattern reflects how the Crown supporters were heavily outnumbered. The soldiers marching home from the Neck on 24 October were under assault from a crowd, albeit one trying to enforce a writ. Four days later, John Mein was surrounded by a crowd. The young lad inside Mein’s office apparently felt threatened by a crowd. Months later, Ebenezer Richardson saw his house being attacked, and Pvt. Edward Montgomery had just been knocked down by something thrown from a mob when he shouted to his fellow soldiers to shoot on 5 Mar 1770.

Firing a single-shot musket without a bayonet was a desperate move. It raised the level of violence and the anger of the other side while leaving the shooter essentially defenseless for the next minute at least. Those gunshots show how desperate some Bostonians were feeling.

COMING UP: George Gailer’s experience.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

“Carting the feather’d Informer thro’ the principal Streets in Town”

John Mein going under cover didn’t end the violence in Boston on Saturday, 28 Oct 1769. In fact, that date saw the town’s first tarring and feathering.

Though Boston became notorious in the British Empire for tar-and-feathers attacks in the 1770s, the town adopted that form of public punishment late. The first documented example took place in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1766.

A couple of years later, crowds used tar and feathers three times in Salem and once in Newburyport. (With typical Massachusetts chauvinism, Judge Peter Oliver later wrote that the ritual was invented in Salem.) In his 2003 article for the New England Quarterly, Ben Irvin then listed incidents in New Haven, New York, and Philadelphia.

In all those attacks, the victims were men who worked at a low level for the Customs service or were thought to have given Customs officers information about smuggling. Several were identified simply as “informers.” The attackers were usually sailors and waterfront workers directly affected by Customs seizures. The 16 Oct 1769 Boston Gazette and Boston Evening-Post reprinted a favorable report on the New York attack. (Irvin lists two attacks in that city, based on reports with differing details, but an item in the 5 Oct 1769 New-York Journal shows they were the same event.)

Many histories of pre-Revolutionary Boston depict the tar-and-feathers attack as an outgrowth of the uproar over Mein. Indeed, witnesses of the time had to sort them out. Province secretary Andrew Oliver wrote on 11 November:
Just before Sunset I heard that Mr. Mein had fired a pistol upon some people in the street & had betaken himself to the Main guard for protection. Soon after this there was a great noise of halloing & huzzaing by people who I could easily perceive shifted their Stations, by the Noise coming from different quarters successively: upon which I concluded that the populace had got Mr. Mein & were carrying him about the Town in an abusive manner; but I was afterwards told that it was an informer whom they were serving in this manner. It was thought a lucky incident for Mr. Mein that his Man fell in their way, as it diverted the Attention of the People from Mr. Mein.
However, the Boston Gazette’s sympathetic report on the tarring and feathering says that during the day, before the merchants confronted John Mein, people were already preparing to attack sailor George Gailer. The crowd may have grown larger and more worked up because of the excitement over Mein, but it looks like the two incidents developed independently and in parallel. The upper-class merchants confronted the printer while working-class sailors lay in wait for one of their own. We historians might have been tempted by the longer paper trail and political roots of the Mein attack to treat the other event as subordinate.

Here’s the Boston Gazette report from 30 Oct 1769, which also appeared in the Boston Evening-Post:
Saturday Afternoon, a Person who lately belonged to the Sloop Liberty, and came round to this Place in the Sloop Success from Rhode Island, and soon after his Arrival informed of her having a Cask or two of Wine on board, which occasioned the Vessel’s being seiz’d, was discovered and pursued, but took Shelter in a House where he secreted himself till the beginning of the Evening, when thinking the Coast clear he ventured out, but, the Avenues to the House being strictly watched the whole of the Time, he was immediately seized upon by the Populace, and soon placed in a Cart, his Jacket and Shirt taken off, and his naked Skin well tarr’d and feather’d; they oblig’d him to hold a large Glass Lanthorn in his Hand that People might see the doleful Condition he was in, and deter others from such infamous Practices:—

He was then carted from the Town-House thro’ the main Street up to Liberty Tree, amidst a vast Concourse of People, where he was made to swear never to be guilty of the like Crime for the future; but in their going thither, as they pass’d Mein and Fleming’s Printing-Office a Gun was fired from thence and two others snap’d at them just as they got by, upon which some of the Company rushed into the Office in order to secure the Offenders, but they had fled; however they bro’t off three Guns, two of them well charg’d, as Evidence against them whenever they can be taken:—

This imprudent Conduct of those in the Printing Office (for what Reason we know not, as no injury seemed designed them) did not interrupt the Carting the feather’d Informer thro’ the principal Streets in Town for about three Hours, when they bro’t him back to Kingstreet, and after renewing his Obligation of behaving better for time to come, and asking Pardon for his past Offence, he was dismissed without further Damage, after having his Cloaths returned him again, and then all peaceably dispersed about Nine o’Clock.
A few more observations about this article. First, historians often report Gailer’s service on the Customs sloop Liberty, which would make this yet another Liberty riot tied to North America’s resistance to the Townshend duties. It looks like his more recent informing about the “Cask or two of Wine” (the same issue as in the New York attack) was the bigger reason.

Second, in a letter Mein complained that after threatening him the Boston crowd “attacked the House & Printing Office, broke open the great Gate, & our other Doors, and our Ware room.” Was he referring to the same forcible search this article described? If so, that’s another example of an event pegged to Mein that had at least a mix of motives. The crowd didn’t go the print shop immediately after the confrontation on King Street. They went by during their procession that night, perhaps even making a special stop to jeer the people inside. Gunfire from inside prompted people to break in and seize weapons.

TOMORROW: More on the shots from the printing office.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

“If he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice”

As described yesterday, late in the afternoon of 28 Oct 1769, a group of Boston merchants approached the Boston Chronicle printer John Mein on King Street in Boston.

Mein was an increasingly vocal supporter of the royal government, in turn supported by contracts with the Customs service. The merchants were part of the non-importation movement boycotting British goods—except, as Mein’s newspaper revealed, when men who had signed onto that boycott imported goods anyway. One merchant, Samuel Dashwood, had particular reason to be upset with Mein, who had dubbed him “the Grunting Captain.”

The conversation became a confrontation and quickly turned violent. Mein pulled out a pistol and backed toward the army’s main guard, where he could find redcoat protection. (It was in the building to the left of the Old State House in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s painting above.) As the printer reached the doorstep of that building, a tailor and militia officer named Thomas Marshall swung an iron shovel at his back. That’s when someone fired a shot.

According to Mein, the shot came from a pistol held by his printing partner:
Mr. [John] Fleeming, who was at a little distance, on seeing him [Marshall] coming up, run to us also, but before he came near Marshal had made the blow and was running off; however, Fleeming struck at him with a stick he had in his left hand, which just touched Marshals Back, Fleeming having missed his Blow reeled forwards, and in endeavouring to recover himself, grasping his hand close, a Pistol he had in his right hand accidently went off, but the ball went into ground & did no harm:
However, most people watching from King Street believed the shot came from Mein’s own gun. Even shopkeeper Elizabeth Cumings, who was on the printer’s side politically, wrote that he “fired a pistel he had in his hand, loded only with powder.”

Furthermore, the shot did cause a little damage. Merchant John Rowe wrote that Mein “wounded a Grenadier of the 29th Regiment in the Arm.” A report in the Boston News-Letter said the shot “tore the Sleeve of a Soldier’s Coat; but whether with a Bullet or only a Wad we cannot say.”

For that offense, some of the Boston Whigs rushed to sympathetic magistrate Richard Dana and secured a warrant to arrest Mein “for having put innocent People in Bodily Fear.”

The printer insisted the whole thing had been a set-up, the mob preconcerted:
their plan was to get me into the Custody of the Officer, & it being then dark, to knock on the head; & then their usual sayings might have been repeated again, that it was done by Boys & Negroes, or by Nobody.
Crown informant George Mason also reported hearing talk that once “Mr. Mein…was in Custody of the Civil Officers,…it was intended the Mob should rescue him from their hands, and deal with him as they themselves should think proper.” That was surely wild speculation, but the gunshot gave the Whigs all the legal reason they needed to pursue the man.

Once Justice Dana issued the warrant, Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Cudworth and a constable went into the main guard. Along with them went merchant William Molineux and officeholder Samuel Adams, both top Whig organizers. They spent “above an hour searching” before giving up.

Mein was hiding “above the room in the Garret,” he wrote. “I made my escape in a Soldiers Dress to Col. [William] Dalrymple’s.” From there he slipped “on board of his Majestys Schooner [Hope, commanded by] Lt. [George] Dawson,” later to “the Rose Man of War” under Capt. Benjamin Caldwell. Meanwhile, he wrote, the mob “went to the South End, attacked the House & Printing Office, broke open the great Gate, & our other Doors, and our Ware room:”

Mein had to lie low. Elizabeth Cumings declared, “the people are so exasperated they would sertenly kill him if he appered.” That year’s Pope Night processions on 6 November (because the fifth was a Sunday) featured Mein as the villain hanged in effigy. According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, Mein told him
he intended to pursue in the law the persons who had assaulted him; but he was unable to do it, having been threatened that if he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice: And he therefore applied to me for protection and to call in the military power for that purpose.
Hutchinson declined to use military force that way and dissuaded Mein from suing. In a short time witnesses spoke up about the printer defending himself. According to province secretary Andrew Oliver, “Mr. Danas Son it is said was a Witness of the Transaction.” The warrant against Mein was withdrawn.

Nonetheless, the printer didn’t feel safe in Boston. Mein gave Fleeming a power of attorney to continue running the Boston Chronicle and the London Book-Store. He collected letters from Hutchinson to the Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough; from magistrate James Murray to his sister, Elizabeth (Murray Campbell) Smith; and from secretary Oliver to Gov. Francis Bernard. He sailed out of Boston harbor on H.M.S. Hope on 17 November.

Though Mein still had property and legal entanglements in Boston, and he continued to write about Boston politics, he never returned to the town. The merchants had driven away their sharpest critic.

TOMORROW: More violence that same night.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Sestercentennial Stand-Off on King Street

By publishing Customs house documents that embarrassed the Whig merchants of Boston, John Mein knew that he made himself unpopular.

In fact, a confidential informant, the painter George Mason, told Customs Collector Joseph Harrison on 20 Oct 1769 that Mein was “oblig’d to go Arm’d, and ’tis but a few Nights since that two Persons who resembled him pretty much were attack’d in a narrow Alley with Clubs, and would in all probability have lost their Lives if the Mistakes had not been timely discover’d.”

Mein’s insulting “Characters” of top Whigs, published in his Boston Chronicle newspaper on 26 October and republished in a pamphlet two days later, pushed some of those enemies over the edge. Toward the end of the day on Saturday, 28 October, Mein and his printing partner John Fleeming, were walking along King Street.

Merchant captain Samuel Dashwood (1729?-1792) confronted Mein, angry at being called “the Grunting Captain.” With him were other Whig merchants, such as William Molineux (1713?-1774), Edward Davis (1718-1784), and Duncan Ingraham (1726-1811). Two of those men were in their forties, the other two in their fifties, but they were about to behave like the twenty- and thirtysomething gentlemen who had thrust themselves into the Otis-Robinson fight the month before.

According to Mein, writing on 5 November:
Davis first made a push at me with his Cane which struck me on the left side of the belly, and has left a Bloody Contussion, which now, 8 days after, still remains with great hardness all round; on being struck I immediately took a Pistol out of my Pocket, cocked, and presented it; instantly a large Circle was formed
As one would expect.

Mein, pointing his pistol, backed toward the main guard near the Town House (now the Old State House). “I often told them I would shoot the first Man who touched me,” he declared. Fleeming followed. The crowd, still at a distance, grew larger. Shopkeeper and importer Elizabeth Cumings, visiting a friend on King Street, heard “a violent skreeming Kill him, kill him” outside. Mein said people were throwing things. He spotted selectman Jonathan Mason within the crowd.

The main guard was the building where the army organized its sentries and patrols, where soldiers on duty that night were gathered. As the printer approached, an officer recognized him and “desired the Centries to keep their Posts clear” of people. Those soldiers probably stepped forward and presented their bayonets. Mein began “cooly stepping up the Guardroom steps.”

Thomas Marshall (1719-1800, shown above) didn’t want to see Mein get away. He was a tailor with a shop on King Street, but he was better known in Boston as the colonel in charge of the town’s militia regiment. Mein listed Marshall among the men who had first confronted him, but it seems just as likely that he came out of his store after he heard the commotion.

The colonel grabbed “a large Iron Shovel” from the hardware shop of Daniel and Joseph Waldo, the sign of the Elephant. He slipped around the sentries and came at Mein from the rear, swinging the shovel. Mein stated, “the Blow cut thro’ my Coat & Waistcoat, and made a Wound of about two Inches long in my left Shoulder.”

And then a gun went off.

TOMORROW: Manhunt.

Monday, October 28, 2019

John Mein and the “Well Disposed”

Since 17 Aug 1769, John Mein had been publishing manifests of vessels arriving in the port of Boston in his Boston Chronicle newspaper.

I’ve called those leaks from the Customs service, but it’s possible all Mein had to do was go to the office on King Street and copy down what incoming captains had officially declared.

Such information may seem politically innocuous, but publishing it caused a lot of trouble. Those manifests suggested that many Boston merchants, including some at the forefront of the non-importation movement against the Townshend duties, were actually importing goods. That raised resentment in Boston and suspicion in other ports.

The Whig press responded by increasing its attacks on Mein. Eventually Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette listed him on the top left of the front page among “those who have AUDACIOUSLY counteracted the UNITED SENTIMENTS of the BODY of Merchants throughout NORTH-AMERICA; by importing British Goods contrary to the Agreement.”

Mein retaliated by using the corresponding corner of the Chronicle to list the six Boston gentlemen on the committee to enforce the boycott, and by directing a series of pointed questions to them. “Do the ‘well disposed’ think the public is ignorant, that one of their number, and a Committee-man too, has been a great transgressor, though the signs of grace, which he shewed on a late occasion, entituled him to some mercy”? “Well disposed” was a label the merchants’ committee had adopted early on, and Mein proceeded to overuse it sarcastically.

On Thursday, 26 October, Mein went further, filling the front page of the Boston Chronicle with “Outlines of the Characters of some who are thought to be ‘WELL DISPOSED.’” This item took the form of a series of descriptions of books he was supposedly going to publish, hinting at the men’s embarrassing or criminal deeds.

Here are the nicknames Mein printed and the names of the men being lampooned, taken from a manuscript Mein himself wrote which is now at Harvard. The first six were the boycott committee, the rest their supporters.
On 28 October, 250 years ago today, Mein reprinted all his shipping reports since August plus the pointed questions and an edited version of these character sketches in a pamphlet titled A State of the Importations from Great-Britain into the Port of Boston. You can read the text here.

As Mein must have expected, that ticked off some of the merchants involved. Especially the merchant captains, who were used to being masters of their little worlds. John Rowe wrote in his diary (giving no sign that he himself had nearly been named and shamed), “Mr. M—— Publication that appeared to Day has Given Great uneasiness & this evening he was spoke to by Capt. Dashwood.”

That conversation quickly turned violent.

TOMORROW: More gunshots.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Riot against the Neck Guard

I have still more to share about the Otis-Robinson brawl, but sestercentennial anniversaries are catching up, so I’ll have to get back to that story. That fight was just the start of an uptick of violence in the fall of 1769.

The next confrontation started on the night of 23 October, when a housewright and Whig activist named Robert Pierpont (also spelled “Peirpoint”) went to the British army guardhouse on Boston Neck. Pierpont owned land nearby, and he had already complained about soldiers stealing his firewood.

Under the Quartering Act of 1765, when the British government stationed soldiers in a town, the local government was supposed to supply housing and firewood. Boston had already balked at the housing back in 1768, and I don’t doubt they resisted supplying firewood as well. As the nights grew cooler, soldiers might not have worried about the such legalities.

The officers of the Neck guard sent Peirpoint away. Sgt. James Hickman and four men of the 14th Regiment later testified that the local man warned “he would go home where he had a brace of Pistols, would Load them and Fire at the first Soldier that came in his way belonging to the Guard.”

The next morning, a little before 10:00 A.M., a constable came to the guardhouse and asked for the officer in charge, Ens. John Ness. He brought a warrant from justice of the peace Richard Dana for “Stealing wood, assaulting, and knocking down one Robt Peirpoint,” in the ensign’s words.

Ens. Ness refused to leave his post until his shift was done. In other words, he placed the authority of the army over the authority of the local legal system. Instead, the young officer promised to obey the summons after he went off duty. The constable was satisfied with that. And really he didn’t have the force to make an army officer protected by armed soldiers do anything.

But there was force in numbers. Ness recalled: “Some minutes after, Peirpoint with a Number of People, came to the Front of the Guard room abusing, and pressing in upon the Centinels.” Ness assembled his whole guard with their bayonets fixed. For fifteen minutes there was a stand-off, during which “the Mob increased, keeping a little distance from us, throwing dirt, and Giveing a great deal of abuse.”

Then another squad of soldiers arrived to take over the post on the Neck. Ness formed his troops into lines to march them back to their barracks. The crowd, seeing no sign of the officer obeying the legal summons, grew angry. They started “Throwing Stones” at the soldiers. One man was hit “in the Face which made the Blood flow from his mouth and nose,” comrades recalled.

Ens. Ness declared:
In forming the Guard again, which by the Crowding in of the People had been divided, a Firelock, which had been loaded unknown to me went off, on hearing the report I turned about to the Guard, and gave positive orders for no Soldier to Load or Strike any of the Mob.
But that shot had hit the doorway of a forge where a young blacksmith named Obadiah Whiston was working. This was, as far as I can tell, the first gunshot in Boston’s Revolutionary history.

Enraged, Whiston ran after the squad to attack the soldier who had fired, Pvt. William Fowler. Ness said the blacksmith caught up opposite “the Officers Barracks of the 14th Regiment,” coming up on the right side of the troops. Fowler said Whiston “Struck him with a piece of a brick, which Cutt his head in a desperate manner, and for some time deprived him of his Sences.”

Whiston charged up a second time. Sgt. Hickman testified that he “placed the Butt end of my Halbred before him to hinder him from passing, but without striking or doing the said Whiston the least Violence.” Ens. Ness kept his soldiers moving, Fowler now staggering. He got the men “into the Barrack yard” and reported to the regimental commander, Col. William Dalrymple. Despite the crowd throwing rocks, despite Fowler’s musket firing, despite Whiston’s counterattacks, no one had been killed.

The conflict then moved to the courts. Ens. Ness reported to Justice Dana to answer Pierpont’s warrant. Meanwhile, Whiston hurried to a magistrate to swear out a complaint against Sgt. Hickman for assaulting him. The next day, Pvt. Fowler tried to start an action against Whiston, and Ness received a second summons, issued by Dana, John Ruddock, and Samuel Pemberton, for having his men fire on the people.

The proceedings that followed over the next few days showed how biased those Whig magistrates were against the soldiers. They tried to put off Fowler’s complaint. They ignored Pierpont shaking his fist and threatening Ness during the proceedings. They refused to hear testimony from soldiers. They declined to accept bail from a British officer and a Customs solicitor. When Sgt. Hickman was finally released, the crowd yelled, “Bail him with a Rope!” Soldiers said the hatter Thomas Handysyd Peck was particularly abusive. After officers complained about that behavior, Justice Dana declared “that he was deaf and could not hear…any abuse.

Eventually all those court cases fizzled out. But the Neck guard riot raised tensions in Boston in late October 1769, 250 years ago.

(The map above shows the British fortifications on the Neck during the siege of 1775-76. Back in 1769, there was just a gate and a guardhouse. And a pile of firewood.)