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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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Secret of Sagittarius’s Letters

Boston’s Whigs drove the printer John Mein out of town in 1770. A bunch of merchants confronted him and his partner, John Fleeming, on the street at the end of October 1769.

The printers pulled out pistols to defend themselves, and one went off harmlessly. Then tailor and militia colonel Thomas Marshall—who hadn’t even been part of the original crowd, just angered by the shot—swung a shovel at Mein close enough to cut his coat.

While Mein went into hiding, John Hancock jumped at a letter from the Longman publishing firm in London asking him to help collect on debts that the printer owed. Hancock went to court and seized Mein’s press and other property.

Mein retreated to London. In 1774 he wrote a series of essays about Boston politics for the Public Ledger under the pseudonym “Sagittarius,” informing British readers about the people who were causing such a crisis in the empire.

Those essays were collected in a book with a title page that reads:
Sagittarius’s Letters and Political Speculations.

Extracted from the Public Ledger;
inscribed to the very loyal and truly pious Dr. Samuel Cooper, pastor of the Congregational Church in Brattle Street. . . .

Printed: By Order of the Select Men, and sold at Donation Hall, for the Benefit of the Distressed Patriots.
Bibliographers appear to accept that information as accurate. However, I haven’t found any reference to the book in the records of the Boston selectmen. And it would be unusual for them to put public money toward printing these letters with no refutation since they’re nothing but bitter and often personal attacks on Boston’s political leaders. For example:
The Selectmen of Boston, who have fomented so many dagerous [sic] and traiterous insurrections, and who have given such continued trouble to our supreme legislature, are after all the most ignorant, assuming, and despicable fellows in the Creation. One of them is a Bankrupt Merchant [John Scollay]; a second a noble Tinman [Timothy Newell]; a third, an old retailer of Wine and Cyder, but who now acts as Shopman to his wife [Samuel Austin?]; a fourth, that poor plucked gawky, Orator [John] Hancock; and a fifth, a redoubtable Taylor…
That last was Mein’s old foe Thomas Marshall.

It strikes me that the whole “Printed: By Order of the Select Men…” line was a joke parodying the Massacre anniversary orations, which the selectmen really did pay to have printed. Mein wrote plenty about how stupid and dangerous that tradition was.

Likewise, the dedication to the Rev. Dr. Cooper drips with sarcasm. And there was no site called “Donation Hall”; that was probably a sneering reference to Faneuil Hall, where a town committee collected donations for the poor after the Boston Port Bill.

So if the printing information is unreliable, was this book really printed in Boston, or was it imported from London, New York, or another city? It’s hard to imagine a market for the material outside of Massachusetts, but perhaps someone connected to the royal government thought it was valuable to spread around. Whoever set the type inserted a lot of errors (which might have annoyed Mein, his Boston Chronicle newspaper being well set).

TOMORROW: Sagittarius’s gossip about John Hancock.

[The photograph above shows Gary Gregory of the Edes & Gill Print Shop in the North End.]

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