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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Friday, June 19, 2020

Attack on the Hulton House

On 19 June 1770, 250 years ago today, political violence broke out again in greater Boston.

With the 14th Regiment off at Castle William, royal officials were already feeling exposed. Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson had moved the Massachusetts General Court to Cambridge, and he and many Customs officers were staying out of town.

Meanwhile, the non-importation movement was facing its own challenge. Since Parliament had repealed most of the Townshend duties (retaining only the most lucrative, on tea), popular support for their boycott was waning. Why couldn’t the American Whigs accept a partial victory?

One reason was that their ideology said any compromise with oppression would lead to political slavery. Another was that no large town wanted to be seen as the first to return to normal trade. The merchants of New York and Philadelphia held large meetings and issued broadsides. Boston’s Whig leaders kept up the pressure on the few local merchants already identified as importing goods.

On 1 June, Dr. Thomas Young led supporters to the shop of the McMaster brothers, merchants from Scotland doing business in Boston and Portsmouth. On the 19th, a crowd returned and seized Patrick McMaster, threatening to tar and feather him. I wrote about that event back here with help from an article by Prof. Colin Nicholson.

Here’s Customs Commissioner Henry Hulton’s later description of what happened to McMaster, as published by Neil Longley York and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts:
On the 19th June one Mr. McMaster, a Scotch Merchant and Importer, was taken out of his room, placed in a Cart and made to expect the same treatment that [Owen] Richards had experienced; but fainting away from an apprehension of what was to befall him, they spared him this ignimony, and contented themselves with leading him through the town in the Cart to Roxbury, where they turned him out, spiting upon him, and otherwise contemptuously and rudely treating him.
This is a rare documented pre-Revolutionary example of New Englanders tarring and feathering someone not employed by the Customs Service. McMaster was probably also genteel while most early victims of those attacks were working-class. But since he was a newcomer to Boston and a Scotsman besides, the crowd could conceive of tarring him—until he fainted.

Hulton himself had rented an estate in rural Brookline (shown above, courtesy of Digital Commonwealth) for his family, including his sister Ann. On 25 July she wrote to a friend about what the Hultons experienced later that same night, possibly from the same crowd:
I have often thought of what you said, that surely we did not live in a lone House. It’s true we have long been in a dangerous situation, from the State of Government. The want of protection, the perversion of the Laws, and the spirit of the People inflamed by designing men.

Yet our house in the Country has been a place of retreat for many from the disturbances of the Town, and though they were become very alarming, yet we did not apprehend an immediate attack on our House, or that a Mob out of Boston should come so far, before we had notice of it, and were fully persuaded there are Persons more obnoxious than my Brother, that he had no personal Enemy, and confident of the good will of our Neighbours (in the Township we live in) towards him, so that we had no suspicion of what happened the night of June the 19th—we have reason to believe it was not the sudden outrage of a frantic Mob, but a plot artfully contrived to decoy My Brother into the hands of assassins. At Midnight when the Family was asleep, had not a merciful Providence prevented their designs, we had been a distressd Family indeed.

Between 12 and 1 o’Clock he was wakened by a knocking at the Door. He got up, enquired the person’s name and business, who said he had a letter to deliver to him, which came Express from New York. My Brother puts on his Cloaths, takes his drawn Sword in one hand, and opened the Parlor window with the other. The Man asked for a Lodging—said he, I’ll not open my door, but give me the letter. The man then put his hand, attempting to push up the window, upon which my Brother hastily clapped it down.

Instantly with a bludgeon several violent blows were struck which broke the Sash, Glass and frame to pieces. The first blow aimed at my Brother’s Head, he Providentialy escaped, by its resting on the middle frame, being double, at same time (though before then, no noise or appearance of more Persons than one) the lower windows, all round the House (excepting two) were broke in like manner. My Brother stood in amazement for a Minute or 2, and having no doubt that a number of Men had broke in on several sides of the House, he retired Upstairs.

You will believe the whole Family was soon alarmed, but the horrible Noises from without, and the terrible shrieks within the House from Mrs. H. and Servants, which struck my Ears on awaking, I can’t describe, and shall never forget.
Ann Hulton’s letter is also available from the Colonial Society and was first published in 1927 in Letters of a Loyalist Lady.

TOMORROW: Aftermath in Brookline.

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