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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Sunday, September 16, 2018

The News from 250 Years Ago

While looking at the newspaper coverage from 250 years ago this month, I was struck by some of the stories that Bostonians were reading at the same time they digested news of the imminent arrival of army regiments.

For example, the Boston Evening-Post of 12 September contained several reports of lightning strikes on the evening of Wednesday the 7th. One bolt in Wrentham “tore to pieces” a “very large white Oak Tree, which was more than two Feet Diameter,” and threw some pieces ten rods away. Another hit Daniel Mann’s inn, causing lots of miscellaneous damage but not hurting any of the thirty-odd people inside. Unfortunately, that same night lightning killed a ten-year-old boy in Rehoboth. The next evening, lightning set fire to a barn belonging to Joseph Palmer of Braintree, causing £200 worth of damage.

In other news from the 12 September Evening-Post:
Last Wednesday sailed from this Port his Majesty’s Sloop of War the Senegal, as also the armed Schooners, supposed to be bound to Halifax: There now remains in this Harbour with their Pendants flying, his Majesty’s Ship Romney, of 50 Guns, and the Sloop Liberty.

The above Sloop Liberty was sold at public Auction last Tuesday, and was struck off to the Collector of his Majesty’s Customs for this Port, and its said is now to be improved [i.e., used] as a Cruiser for the Protection of Trade.
The Customs service, having confiscated John Hancock’s ship Liberty for alleged smuggling and other legal violations, had bought that ship and planned to hunt down other smugglers with it. I don’t think the Customs service had had its own patrol ship before.

The 12 September Boston Chronicle:
We hear from Salem, that a person there, having given information of a vessel that arrived there with molasses, the populace were so enraged, that they stript him, then wrapped him in a tarred sheet, and rolled him in feathers; having done this, they carried him about the streets in a cart, and then banished him the town for six weeks.
This was the first documented example of tarring and feathering in New England. It established the pattern for such attacks: a crowd publicly punishing a working-class man believed to have helped the Customs service capture smugglers.

The 19 September Boston Chronicle:
Captain [James] Scott brought the account of the arrival of Benjamin Hallowell, jun. Esq; after a passage of twenty-nine days.

Letters brought by Captain [James] Bruce mentioned, that Mr. Hallowell, since his arrival, has had frequent conferences with the ministry…
Hallowell was the Comptroller of Customs in Boston, as well as the son and namesake of a well known merchant captain. He was one of the officers that carried out the confiscation of the Liberty and was then attacked by the crowd. Hallowell had gone to London to complain to the government on behalf of all the Customs officers and to see what compensation he could receive. Eventually he was promoted to be one of the Commissioners of Customs.

More from the 19 September Chronicle:
The Rev. Mather Byles [Jr.]. who went home last May with Capt. Davis, met with a favourable reception from the Bishop of London, was ordained, and is appointed missionary for Christ’s Church in this town, with a salary, it is said, of 40 l. sterling, per annum, and is expected to return with Capt. Davis.
Byles (shown above) was another son and namesake of a well known figure in town—in his case, the learned, punning minister of the Hollis Street Meetinghouse near the Neck. For the younger Byles, a descendant of the Puritan Mathers, to take orders within the Church of England was a big deal. It presaged the family’s long-lasting Loyalism.

From the 19 September Boston Gazette:
Monday in the Night [i.e., on 12 September] the Post contiguous to Liberty Tree was sawed off, the Damage was inconsiderable, but discovers the evil Disposition of the Perpetrators of such a base Action.
The 19 September Gazette:
We hear that last Saturday se’nnight [i.e., 10 September] two Informers, an Englishman and Frenchman, were taken up by the Populace at Newbury-Port, who tarred them; but being late they were handcuffed and put into custody until the Sabbath was over:—Accordingly on Monday Morning they were again tarred and rolled in Feathers, then fixed in a Cart with Halters, and carried through the principal Streets of the Town, to the View of the Gallows, but what further we know not.
The practice of tarring-and-feathering spread rapidly in Essex County.

Finally, from the 19 September Gazette:
We are credibly informed, that the Selectmen of a neighbouring Town have taken Care that their Town be supply’d with a sufficient Quantity of Gun-Powder, as the Law directs; and that the Col. of the Militia there, has declared his Intention to order a strict Enquiry into the State of his Regiment, respecting Arms, Ammunition, &c. . . .

Thursday next there will be a general Muster of the Regiment in this Town, and we hear a critical View of the Arms of the Soldiers.
These actions reflected Boston’s discussion of strengthening the militia ahead of the troops’ arrival.

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