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, May 18, 2020

When Hancock Moved on Mein

John Mein arrived in Boston from Scotland in 1764. He first set up a shop with Robert Sandeman, though he wasn’t a member of the Sandemanian sect.

The next year, Mein took over the London Book Store on King Street, formerly co-owned by James Rivington. Later he became partners with printer John Fleeming, another Scotsman, to publish books.

Finally, in 1767 Mein and Fleeming launched a new newspaper, the Boston Chronicle. It soon became the voice of the royal government in Massachusetts. The Customs office gave Mein and Fleeming its printing business, providing them with financial support.

At the same time, Mein owed a lot of money to his London suppliers, the publisher and book dealer Thomas Longman (d. 1797) and the stationery firm Wright & Gill. He ordered more than £2,000 worth of books and paid off only £419. In that respect, Mein was a lot like other North American merchants.

Then came the non-importation controversy of 1768 and 1769. The Boston Chronicle published Customs documents showing that many of the town’s merchants, including several involved in enforcing the boycott, were still having goods shipped to them from Britain. Mein added some choice insults.

Meanwhile, in July 1769 Thomas Longman wrote to John Hancock, asking if he was willing to be the firm’s Boston agent in collecting the money Mein owed. To sue John Mein for debt? To seize his goods? To potentially send him to debtors’ prison? Why yes, Hancock was happy to.

It took a while for Hancock and Longman finalize their arrangement. Other Boston merchants acted more directly, threatening Mein and Fleeming in the middle of town on 28 Oct 1769, as described here. Mein went into hiding on Castle Island and sailed for home the next month.

Once in London, Mein called on Longman and told him how he’d had to shut down his Boston business. He promised to pay off his debt, no doubt asking for more time. But Longman was already moving against him.

On 1 Mar 1770, Hancock received legal powers of attorney from Longman and Wright & Gill. That same day, Hancock’s lawyer John Adams filed the paperwork to have deputy sheriffs seize Mein’s property in Boston—his stock of books and his printing equipment.

The Loyalist magistrate James Murray negotiated with Hancock and Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf. He appears to have wanted the suit to be handled in London courts, far from Boston juries. Those discussions were going on in the same week as the Boston Massacre.

Murray’s action allowed Fleeming to continue the Boston Chronicle, “much to the Surprize and Disappointment of Mr. H—— and his party,” he wrote.

But Hancock took all he could. On 18 May, 250 years ago today, he wrote to Longman:
Your favours of Dec. 2d. 1769, & Jany 3d. 1770 are now before me, & duly note the Contents. In Consequence of the Rect. of the former, as Mr. Mein was absent, I immediately attached everything I could find of his Effects for the benefit of you & Wright & Gill & the matter is now in the Law.

The Effects are in the Hands of the Sheriff, and as soon as it has gone thro’ the Law, & the Effects turn’d into money, the neat proceeds shall be remitted you, and you will determine the settlement between you and Messrs. Wright & Gill. Tho’ I fear even the Whole of his Effects will fall vastly short of the Debts, but I have got all & could have no more.

You will please, as I am now greatly hurried, to present my respects to Mess Wright & Gill & acquaint them. I will render them every service in my power & will write them by next opportunity. Cannot You get further Security of Mr. Mein in London. You may rely I will do all in my power for your Interest in this or any other matter.
Around the same time, across the Atlantic, Longman had Mein arrested.

COMING UP: Wending through the courts.

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