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, March 24, 2015

The Limits on Fatal Violence in Boston, 1765-1774

Though Boston earned a reputation as a riotous town in the ten years after the first public Stamp Act protests of 1765, those Boston rioters never killed anyone.

A mob did ruin Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s North End mansion in 1765, and damaged several other royal officials’ houses in the same months. In 1768, the Customs service’s seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty prompted another crowd to manhandle three Customs officials.

The next year, Bostonians learned the ritual of tarring and feathering, which they inflicted on several lower-level Customs employees over the next few years. But those actions all stopped short of killing people.

There are examples from elsewhere in New England of fatal, or nearly fatal, resistance to the Crown. In April 1769, as detailed here, sailors out of Marblehead resisting impressment into the Royal Navy killed Lt. Henry Panton at sea.

During the Gaspée seizure of 1772, the Rhode Islanders storming that Royal Navy vessel shot its commander, Lt. William Dudingston, in the chest—which sure sounds like he could have been killed. But he survived with medical care. Guns were also fired, though not hitting anyone, during some rural demonstrations against mandamus Council members in the fall of 1774.

One might argue that the lack of fatalities in Boston riots was only a matter of luck. There were some close calls:
  • After Ebenezer Richardson shot Christopher Seider on 22 Feb 1770, he was nearly lynched by an angry crowd. The Whig leader William Molineux insisted on taking the unpopular Customs employee to a magistrate for indictment.
  • Later that year, a crowd frightened importer Patrick McMaster with tar and feathers so badly he collapsed.
  • In 1774, a mob attacked John Malcolm, yet another Customs employee, after he clubbed George Robert Twelves Hewes. That attack lasted for hours, and involved choking Malcolm with a noose as well as beating, whipping, and tarring and feathering him. But he survived.
In addition, Hutchinson felt that his nephew Nathaniel Rogers was hounded to an untimely death in 1770.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that during those tumultuous years no Crown official, soldier, or supporter was killed in political violence in Boston. In contrast, during a month-long stretch of early 1770 employees of the royal government shot dead four men and two boys, and wounded several more. A big reason for that difference was that Bostonians didn’t use guns in their conflicts, preferring to intimidate their opponents through numbers.

On 18 Oct 1774, an angry sailor named Samuel Dyer broke that pattern. He attacked two Royal Artillery officers at noon on Boston’s main street, firing pistols at their heads. Both his guns misfired, but the army naturally saw Dyer’s actions as an escalation.

I’ll talk about Dyer, his claims of mistreatment, what the record actually shows, and how his assault with deadly weapons might have started the American War off quite differently at this Saturday’s History Camp.


Stephen Barker said...

How do you remove tar and feathers? and how much injury does it cause its victim?

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote about the painful but non-fatal realities of tarring and feathering in this article at the Journal of the American Revolution website.