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, June 25, 2020

The Last of the Boston Chronicle

On 25 June 1770, 250 years ago today, this announcement appeared in the Boston Chronicle:
The Printers of the Boston Chronicle return thanks to the Gentlemen, who have so long favoured them with their Subscriptions, and now inform them that, as the Chronicle, in the present state of affairs, cannot be carried on, either for their entertainment or the emolument of the Printers, it will be discontinued for some time.
Printer John Mein had left for England the previous fall. His partner John Fleeming had carried on publishing the newspaper, still including documents from the Customs office. Each issue started with a list of the leaders of the non-importation committee, formatted like the Boston Gazette’s accusatory list of the remaining importers. But Fleeming no longer carried political essays from local authors, instead reprinting news from Europe and the letters of Junius.

Financial pressure was mounting on Fleeming. John Hancock was still pursuing his lawsuit against Mein as an agent of London creditors, seizing printing equipment and supplies. The only people still advertising in the Boston Chronicle were friends of the royal government. The 21 June issue contained only two ads: one by John Bernard, the departed governor’s son, announcing that he was leaving Massachusetts, and one for an auction in Nova Scotia.

When most of the Customs Commissioners and their administrators moved to Castle William after the 19 June attack on Henry Hulton’s home, that probably deprived Fleeming of another form of financial support.

Finally, Fleeming faced physical threats. He had been with Mein when angry merchants confronted him back in October. And then there’s this item from the 8 Jan 1770 Newport Mercury, also reprinted in some other American newspapers:
From Boston we hear, that on the Evening of the 29th Ult. [i.e., December 1769] Mr. —— Fleeming, Printer of the Boston Chronicle, was attacked in one of the Streets of that Town, by a Number of Ruffians, who abused him very much; and, ’tis thought, he would have died of his Wounds on the Spot, had not a humane Negro, who knew him, taken him up and helped him to his Home.
Boston 1775 reader John Navin set me on the path to this article through Facebook. As far as I can tell, the news was never printed in Boston, not even in Fleeming’s own paper.

E. J. Witek quoted Fleeming as telling Lord North in 1773 that his “life was threatened and finding the power of Government too weak to protect him against the fury of a lawless mob, he fled to Castle William.” Witek dated the time of Fleeming’s move to the Castle to the end of June 1770, just after closing the Chronicle.

So I might have been wrong when I wrote back in 2011 that, unlike Mein, Fleeming “never had mobs on his tail.” I’m still not certain whether he was actually attacked or merely threatened. The Newport news item came from someone who didn’t even know Fleeming’s given name and thus might not have heard all the facts straight, and his own petition doesn’t appear to have mentioned an actual assault. But he had reason to flee.

Whatever the exact circumstance, Fleeming shut down the Boston Chronicle two and a half centuries ago today, silencing Boston’s most aggressive newspaper support for the royal government.


EJWitek said...

The Saturday October 28th, 1769 incident in which Mein and Fleeming were confronted, first by a group of about 10-12 men including Marshall and the always dangerous William Molineaux, and then by a mob perhaps as large as one thousand, I would construe as being threatened by an angry mob. Both Mein and Fleeming drew their pistols during this confrontation as they backed up King Street trying to escape the mob. Cries of "knock him down" and "kill him" were hurled at them and bits of brick were flying. Mein and Fleeming only managed to keep the mob at bay because they had drawn their pistols. Sometime during this confrontation, a pistol was discharged. Mein and Fleeming escaped because they managed to make it to a British guardhouse. Samuel Adams and William Molineaux went to a Justice of the Peace and obtained a warrant for Mein's arrest for discharging a pistol. They searched the guardhouse but were unable to locate Mein who was hiding in the attic. Mein managed to escape by borrowing a British uniform and making to a British Colonel's home. There is some evidence that it was Fleeming who actually discharged his pistol but, even if he did, it wouldn't have mattered to Adams and Molineaux. Mein, most likely because of his personality, was certainly the more detested of the two printers. There is no information as to how Fleeming made his way out of the guardhouse.
It should be noted that after the mob was thwarted in its attempt to get the two printers, it turned its attention to one George Galer, who was suspected of informing on smugglers to the Customs Board. He was stripped naked, tarred and feathered, and driven through the streets of Boston in a cart. Interestingly, the mob made its way to the offices of the Chronicle where an apprentice pressman fired a gun at the mob from the second floor. Fortunately no one was hit. The mob stormed the Chronicle's offices but, strangely, did very little damage except for throwing some books around and stealing two guns. The Chronicles' presses and type fonts were left untouched.
The Chronicle made no mention of the confrontation with the mob in later editions but did report the incident with Galer.
Just another October day in 1769 Boston.

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote about the merchants’ attack on John Mein and John Fleeming back on its 250th anniversary and afterward. (I don’t think Molineux was part of the initial confrontation, but he definitely tried to hunt down Mein afterward.)

I find it significant that even though Fleeming was Mein’s partner in business and in fending off the merchants, and even though Fleeming might have been the one who shot a pistol, he didn’t have to leave town. He wasn’t hanged in effigy in the next week’s Pope Night processions. Not only did Bostonians detest Mein more, but most of them seem to have left Fleeming alone instead of using him as a substitute for Mein.

(I also discussed the attack on George Gailer back in October 2019 and after. He seems to have had his own enemies watching for him that whole day, preceding the fight with Mein, though the crowd that attacked him may indeed have been riled up by the other event.)

As this posting discussed, Fleeming stayed in Boston, still printing the Chronicle, for months after Mein was driven away. Fleeming complained that he was threatened by the local mob, but only the Newport newspaper reported that he was ever actually attacked. Thus, Fleeming certainly faced a mob in October 1769, but it’s not clear that a mob ever came after him.

EJWitek said...

Perhaps Fleeming wasn't the main object of the mob but if I'm Fleeming and I'm responsible with Mein for publishing the Chronicle and I'm confronted by that mob and I've drawn my pistol and I'm fearful of my life and I only manage to escape by backing into a British guardhouse, I certainly think that a mob came after me.
It could also be that Fleeming, in his letter to Lord North in 1773, was confusing two incidents. In the October 1776 attack, Mein, while in refuge in the guardhouse, sent several messages to Governor Hutchinson demanding that the law come to his aid. Hutchinson did nothing. Fleeming would have been witness to that exchange and that's what he could have been referring to when he said that the power of the Government was too weak to protect him.

J. L. Bell said...

I think we’re saying the same thing—that Fleeming never angered people as much as Mein, but Fleeming still had solid reasons to worry about what people would do to him next.