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, October 30, 2019

“If he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice”

As described yesterday, late in the afternoon of 28 Oct 1769, a group of Boston merchants approached the Boston Chronicle printer John Mein on King Street in Boston.

Mein was an increasingly vocal supporter of the royal government, in turn supported by contracts with the Customs service. The merchants were part of the non-importation movement boycotting British goods—except, as Mein’s newspaper revealed, when men who had signed onto that boycott imported goods anyway. One merchant, Samuel Dashwood, had particular reason to be upset with Mein, who had dubbed him “the Grunting Captain.”

The conversation became a confrontation and quickly turned violent. Mein pulled out a pistol and backed toward the army’s main guard, where he could find redcoat protection. (It was in the building to the left of the Old State House in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s painting above.) As the printer reached the doorstep of that building, a tailor and militia officer named Thomas Marshall swung an iron shovel at his back. That’s when someone fired a shot.

According to Mein, the shot came from a pistol held by his printing partner:
Mr. [John] Fleeming, who was at a little distance, on seeing him [Marshall] coming up, run to us also, but before he came near Marshal had made the blow and was running off; however, Fleeming struck at him with a stick he had in his left hand, which just touched Marshals Back, Fleeming having missed his Blow reeled forwards, and in endeavouring to recover himself, grasping his hand close, a Pistol he had in his right hand accidently went off, but the ball went into ground & did no harm:
However, most people watching from King Street believed the shot came from Mein’s own gun. Even shopkeeper Elizabeth Cumings, who was on the printer’s side politically, wrote that he “fired a pistel he had in his hand, loded only with powder.”

Furthermore, the shot did cause a little damage. Merchant John Rowe wrote that Mein “wounded a Grenadier of the 29th Regiment in the Arm.” A report in the Boston News-Letter said the shot “tore the Sleeve of a Soldier’s Coat; but whether with a Bullet or only a Wad we cannot say.”

For that offense, some of the Boston Whigs rushed to sympathetic magistrate Richard Dana and secured a warrant to arrest Mein “for having put innocent People in Bodily Fear.”

The printer insisted the whole thing had been a set-up, the mob preconcerted:
their plan was to get me into the Custody of the Officer, & it being then dark, to knock on the head; & then their usual sayings might have been repeated again, that it was done by Boys & Negroes, or by Nobody.
Crown informant George Mason also reported hearing talk that once “Mr. Mein…was in Custody of the Civil Officers,…it was intended the Mob should rescue him from their hands, and deal with him as they themselves should think proper.” That was surely wild speculation, but the gunshot gave the Whigs all the legal reason they needed to pursue the man.

Once Justice Dana issued the warrant, Deputy Sheriff Benjamin Cudworth and a constable went into the main guard. Along with them went merchant William Molineux and officeholder Samuel Adams, both top Whig organizers. They spent “above an hour searching” before giving up.

Mein was hiding “above the room in the Garret,” he wrote. “I made my escape in a Soldiers Dress to Col. [William] Dalrymple’s.” From there he slipped “on board of his Majestys Schooner [Hope, commanded by] Lt. [George] Dawson,” later to “the Rose Man of War” under Capt. Benjamin Caldwell. Meanwhile, he wrote, the mob “went to the South End, attacked the House & Printing Office, broke open the great Gate, & our other Doors, and our Ware room:”

Mein had to lie low. Elizabeth Cumings declared, “the people are so exasperated they would sertenly kill him if he appered.” That year’s Pope Night processions on 6 November (because the fifth was a Sunday) featured Mein as the villain hanged in effigy. According to acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, Mein told him
he intended to pursue in the law the persons who had assaulted him; but he was unable to do it, having been threatened that if he appeared abroad he should be made a Sacrifice: And he therefore applied to me for protection and to call in the military power for that purpose.
Hutchinson declined to use military force that way and dissuaded Mein from suing. In a short time witnesses spoke up about the printer defending himself. According to province secretary Andrew Oliver, “Mr. Danas Son it is said was a Witness of the Transaction.” The warrant against Mein was withdrawn.

Nonetheless, the printer didn’t feel safe in Boston. Mein gave Fleeming a power of attorney to continue running the Boston Chronicle and the London Book-Store. He collected letters from Hutchinson to the Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough; from magistrate James Murray to his sister, Elizabeth (Murray Campbell) Smith; and from secretary Oliver to Gov. Francis Bernard. He sailed out of Boston harbor on H.M.S. Hope on 17 November.

Though Mein still had property and legal entanglements in Boston, and he continued to write about Boston politics, he never returned to the town. The merchants had driven away their sharpest critic.

TOMORROW: More violence that same night.

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