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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Monday, November 25, 2019

The Devil and George Gailer

Here’s a final note on the riotous events of 28 Oct 1769—the merchants’ confrontation with printer John Mein and the tarring and feathering of sailor George Gailer.

In 2011 Dr. Caitlin G. D. Hopkins shared a passage from a letter by Elizabeth Cumings, a shopkeeper who witnessed both events from inside nearby buildings. Cumings, from a Concord family, hadn’t had much formal education, so her spelling offers a fun challenge.

Here’s what Cumings had to say about the attack on Gailer:
it was Dark our house shut up & we alon trimbling lick Courds [“trembling like curds,” I think], when a larg Mob of ful a thousand Man & boys aranged themselves befor our Dorr & on a Kart a Man was Exibited as we thought in a Gore of Blod; & poor meen [John Mein] we was shure was the sufrer but we was happyly mistaken it was an informer they had caught the moment Meen found Shalter, & instintly posted him on a kart tard him all over the town then fathered him all under our windo thin carid him threu the town obliging him to carry the lantren in his hand & calling to all the inhabitince to put Candles in their Windoes
Elizabeth Cumings and her older sister Ame were becoming unpopular for defying the non-importation movement. Hopkins has also shared her analysis of the Cumings sisters’ situation in “Enemies to Their Country”:
After Mein’s escape, the crowd had caught a suspected customs informer, George Gailer, who was beaten, tossed into a cart, and jostled through the streets. At strategic points along the route, men poured buckets of tar over Gailer’s bare skin, scalding his flesh and filling his wounds with hot, gummy resin. When the torturers “aranged themselves befor [the Cumings’] Dorr,” they applied this treatment once more, this time finishing it off with feathers. As they moved away, down Cornhill, someone thrust a lantern into Gailer’s hand, obliging him to stay conscious, lest he drop the flame and set himself afire.
In his legal filing, Gailer didn’t mention the lantern or any fear of being set on fire. Instead, he emphasized how the crowd beat him. And I’m not convinced that the purpose of the lantern was to threaten Gailer with being burned.

Indeed, the crowd could simply have held a flame to the feathers. The Customs officer Owen Richards later testified that in 1770 a mob “put him into a Cart, Tarr’d and Feathered him, then set the Feathers on Fire on his Back.”

Richards’s account was probably the source for the “Recipe” for tar and feathers in Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion including the lines: “Then hold a lighted Candle to the Feathers, & try to set it all on Fire; if it will burn so much the better. But as the Experiment is often made in cold Weather; it will not then succeed.”

My immediate thought of seeing Cumings’s description of Gailer being made to hold a lantern was the Pope Night wagons. In 1767 Pierre Eugène du Simitière sketched three wagons in Boston. In the back of all three was an oversized effigy of the devil, and all three devils held lanterns out in one hand. Du Simitière’s image of the North End gang’s devil appears above, dangling his lantern off the back of the wagon.

Judge Oliver, Isaiah Thomas, and other witnesses also wrote of those devil figures being covered with tar and feathers. In other words, the 29 October mob turned George Gailer into a living preview of one of the effigies that would roll around town on 6 November, a little over a week away.

[Incidentally, this month I got to see Caitlin Hopkins speak about the extended Vassall family and their slaveholding at Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in Cambridge. She has also turned in a report to the Harvard University administration about the college’s links to slavery, which seems like it should be issued as part of the newly announced initiative.]


Benjamin said...

“trembling like cowards” perhaps?

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

perhaps 'cowards'?

J. L. Bell said...

The people have spoken.

mfuhrer said...

That is one amazing letter. (I vote for "cowards" as well, though love the imagery of trembling curds.)