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, December 16, 2019

How Newspapers Covered the Fight at the Clarke House

The fight at the Clarke house on School Street on the night of 17 Nov 1773 offers a good test case of colonial Boston’s highly politicized press.

The next morning, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, a Whig newspaper, put all the blame for the violence on the Clarkes:
Last evening a number of people assembled before the house of Richard Clarke, Esq; one of the Tea Commissioners, and huzzaed, upon which a musket was fired from his house among the populace, which so enraged them that they broke his windows, &c.
In contrast, Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter, friendly to the royal government, blamed the crowd and said nothing about a gunshot:
Last Evening a Number of Persons assembled in School-Street, they broke the Windows and did other considerable Damage by throwing large Stones into the House of the late Middlecot Cook, Esq; near King’s Chappel, now belonging to Dr. Saltonstall of Haverhill, and occupied by Richard Clarke, Esq;
Eight days later, the News-Letter published a much longer account, quoted here. That one did mention the pistol shot, but as a response to the violent crowd and in the context of detail about damage to the house. That report clearly came from someone inside the house.

Three newspapers came out on Monday, 22 November. I already quoted the emotional account from the Clarke family that appeared in Mills and Hicks’s Boston Post-Boy.

The Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post, which tried to stick to the political center in the Whig town, stated:
Last Wednesday Evening a number of People assembled before the House of Richard Clarke, Esq; in School-Street, and being irritated by a Musket or Pistol being fired at them out of the House, they broke the Windows, and did other Damage.
And finally there was the Boston Gazette. Its printers, Benjamin Edes and John Gill, worked closely with the town’s government and the radical Whigs. The 22 November Boston Gazette report on the fight at the Clarkes was:
Nothing.
Edes and Gill devoted almost all their space for local news to publishing about the town meetings against the tea that the consignees declined to attend. They wanted to portray the town as united, orderly, and not given to violence.

Only after the Boston News-Letter published its report from inside the Clarke house did the Boston Gazette mention that fight. In the 29 November issue the Whig paper ran one short paragraph at the bottom of a page:
We have not Room this Week to publish the Answer to an Account inserted in Draper’s last Paper respecting the Transactions at Mr. Clarke’s the 17th Instant [i.e., this month]; but we can assure our Readers from a Gentleman of Veracity who was a Spectator, That that Account was false in almost every Sentence, and that Mr. Draper himself knew it to be so.
The next issue of the Gazette contained no such “Answer.” Like other cries of “fake news” presented without any actual evidence of misreporting, this claim couldn’t convince anyone whose mind wasn’t already made up.

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