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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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Joseph Green, John Hamock, and the Freemasons

Yesterday I shared a bit of a scatological attack on Freemasonry published on the front page of the Boston Evening-Post on 7 Jan 1751. That attack included not only a poem but a woodcut illustration obviously commissioned for that poem. Who went to all that trouble?

By that time, Boston’s first Freemasons lodge had been established for nearly two decades. I’ve read conflicting reports of whether they had had public marches, but clearly they had one on St. John’s Day near the end of 1749.

The next year, a local wit named Joseph Green (1706-1780, shown here in a 1767 Copley portrait) published two editions of a pseudonymous pamphlet titled Entertainment for a Winter’s Evening…, satirizing the very notion of Freemasons going to church and poking fun at individual members. Those lines closed with a scene of the Freemasons entering their temple, out of public view. The author, invoking the muse Clio, promised to “tell the rest another time.”

Therefore, it was logical for people to read the Boston Evening-Post poem as the next installment of that series, describing the Freemasons’ secret rituals in scatological terms while professing to be a “Defence of MASONRY.” A merchant named Benjamin Hallowell (father of the highly unpopular Customs official with the same name) said the new poem definitely came from Green. According to Steven Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood, the Freemasons met, threatened a boycott of the Evening-Post, and asked Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips, the province’s highest royal official, for permission to sue.

Then on 21 January the Evening-Post published Green’s denial that he’d written the “Defence of MASONRY” poem, criticizing Hallowell for spreading a “scandalous and malicious lie.” To be fair, the “Defence” wasn’t up to Green’s standard. He really was a good poet, and his allusions far more subtle—his pamphlets included helpful footnotes so readers could see how clever he was. Furthermore, the “Defence” was addressed “To Mr. CLIO,” or Green, rather than by him.

So who did write the “Defence”? David S. Shields’s Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America points to a wine merchant named John Hamock (or Hammock). He was in business from 1735 to his death in 1769. He was a warden of Christ Church, raising money for its bells in 1744, and in 1758 he rented the space under the Town House as his wine cellar.

In the 15 Jan 1750 Boston Post-Boy Hamock had advertised his wines by implying that other merchants’ wares were unhealthy and signing himself “John Hamock, V.D.” Other ads showed that meant “Vini Doctor,” a claim for special authority, though more often a joke appellation college students bestowed on each other. Hamock didn’t have a college education, but he seemed to have pretensions—and for the snobbish Green that was a provocation.

A poetic critique titled “To V.D.” appeared in the 30 July Post-Boy. The author took the opportunity to swipe at another of Green’s frequent targets, the Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr.:
Whist---softly---for fear
Doughty B**** should hear;
If he does, with his pen he’ll chastise you.
I know you will cry,
Scar’d by B****! Not I,
Do your worst, Sir, for H****k defies you.
Thus, “To V.D.” was both addressed to Hamock and put words in his mouth.

Hamock might then have published the “Defence of MASONRY” poem in early 1751 to get Green in trouble. And it did: for the only time in his career Green had to publicly discuss his writing, if only to deny he’d written this item. Hamock might also have been trying to show “Mr. CLIO” that he could satirize the Freemasons in verse, too.

It looks like Boston’s Freemasons just happened to be caught in the crossfire between two men feuding for their own reasons. The movement and many local members had ties to Europe instead of old Puritan families, so they made an easy target in Boston. In fact, Green went back to satirizing the Freemasons four years later with a pamphlet titled The Grand Arcanum, Detected.

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