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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Saturday, September 15, 2018

“To cause the barrel to be forthwith removed”

What about that turpentine barrel on top of the pole on top of Beacon Hill?

The beacon pole had been standing since the 1630s. It got blown down sometime in the 1760s, and in late 1767 Boston’s selectmen put it back up. (Gov. Francis Bernard grumbled that he hadn’t been consulted.)

Then on the night of 10 Sept 1768, as the town digested news that army regiments were on their way, someone placed a barrel in the platform atop the beacon. People recognized that barrel as holding sometime flammable, turpentine or tar. They knew that a flaming beacon was a signal for the country militia to arm and march to fight off invaders. So that barrel provoked thought.

On Sunday, 11 September, the Council and the selectmen both had emergency meetings about the barrel. The selectmen decided to do nothing. The Council decided to do nothing besides asking the selectmen to take down the barrel. The selectmen received that message and again decided to do nothing. On Monday, Boston started a town meeting, received the Council’s message as forwarded from the selectmen, and decided to do nothing on a larger scale.

According to Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, someone finally took action on Thursday, 15 September:
The council, thereupon, advised the governor to direct the sheriff to cause the barrel to be forthwith removed. The sheriff, in the most private manner he could, executed his order, taking six or seven men with him just at dinner time, and in about ten minutes, luckily as he thought, effected his purpose.
Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf was a royal appointee, so he owed his position to the governor. He was Anglican, another common indicator of support for Crown policy. But when Greenleaf carried out the governors’ orders in this tumultuous period, he usually acted slowly or gently enough to avoid the wrath of the crowd.

The date of the sheriff’s action isn’t clear from Hutchinson’s account. As I wrote earlier, the newspaper printers didn’t touch the story. Historians John Miller and Hiller B. Zobel, the latter appearing to cite the diary of Capt. John Corner of the Royal Navy, state that Greenleaf acted on the 15th—250 years ago today.

One more thing—the barrel had been empty all along.

TOMORROW: Other news.

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