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, January 29, 2020

Ships, Fire, and Boston’s George Mason

In January 1770, as I mentioned back here, two sea captains were in Boston from Glasgow, trying to commission four new ships.

But because of the non-importation boycott against the Townshend duties, Boston’s business community wouldn’t let those Scotsmen sell the goods they had brought in to pay for those vessels.

On the morning of 20 January the two captains “set out for Newburyport to contract with the Mechanicks there for building their Ships.” Smaller ports didn’t have such strict non-importation movements.

The next morning brought an ominous discovery outside the building close to the Town House:
On Sunday early in the morning, several People observ’d a quantity of Charcoal lying under the Door of Mr. [William] Jacksons Shop, with some Chips that were partly burnt, the intent no doubt was to set his Shop on Fire, tho’ it very Providentially did not Succeed:

Their own Party say it was done by the Torys with a view to bring a Slur on the Characters of the Sons of Liberty, but I leave you to judge Sir, who are in reallity most capable of such a piece of notorious villainy.
Jackson was one of a handful of small merchants still defying the non-importation boycott. That said, trying to burn down his shop, or even just threatening arson by sticking burnt charcoal under his door, was especially ominous. As we learned from the Saga of the Brazen Head, the Jackson braziery (at a previous location) was where the town’s last huge blaze had started.

We don’t know the identify of the Crown informant whom I quoted about the non-importation meetings and other developments last week. But we do know who reported on the charcoal outside the Brazen Head. That man had arrived from Britain in late 1765 and placed this advertisement in the 18 November Boston Post-Boy:
George Mason, Limner, from LONDON, BEgs leave to inform the Public, That he draws Faces in Crayons, from one to two Guineas each; those Ladies and Gentlemen who are pleas’d to employ him, may depend on having a good Likeness. Specimens of his performance may be seen at Mrs Coffin’s Coffee-House, the bottom of King-street.
Neil Jeffares found Mason had advertised similar portraits plus art lessons in London the previous year (P.D.F. download).

Mason advertised again in the Boston Chronicle of June 7-11, 1768, still working out of Rebecca Coffin’s Crown Coffee-House:
George Mason, Limner, begs leave to inform the public (with a view of more constant employ) he now draws faces in crayon for two guineas each, glass and frame included. As the above mentioned terms are extremely moderate, he flatters himself with meeting some encouragement especially as he professes to let no picture go out of his hands but what is a real likeness. Those who are pleased to employ him are desired to send or leave a line at Mrs. Coffins near Green and Russel’s Printing Office and they shall be immediately waited upon.
In January 1769, a couple of months after the arrival of British army regiments, a South End innkeeper named Richard Silvester gave Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson a deposition accusing Samuel Adams, Dr. Benjamin Church, and other Whig leaders of saying and doing treasonous things. I don’t find Silvester’s stories completely convincing, but he also swore that “George Mason the Painter” could vouch for them.

Sometime that year, Customs Collector Joseph Harrison recruited Mason as a direct source of information. There’s no indication of whether Harrison was paying the painter, appealing to his patriotism as a native Briton, or calling on some other connection. But on 20 October Mason began a letter to the Customs official: “In compliance with your request; I now transmit to you, the proceedings that have happen’d in Boston since your departure…” More letters of that sort followed and are now in the Sparks Collection at Harvard.

It’s easy to understand why Customs officers cultivated informants in waterfront towns—so they could stop smuggling and tariff evasion. But Mason the pastel portraitist wasn’t privy to that sort of information. Instead, he, like Silvester and the unnamed informant, reported on Boston’s political developments. That shows how the Boston Customs office wasn’t just trying to enforce the taxes that Parliament had enacted. It was also tracking the political opposition to those taxes, and its men in London, such as Harrison, were trying to influence the Crown response to that opposition.

As for George Mason, he entered the Boston almshouse on 7 June 1773 and died on 21 June.

TOMORROW: Another public meeting.

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