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, February 05, 2021

“The printed Narratives of the late horred Massacre”

This week I watched an online talk by Robert Darnton about his new book Pirating and Publishing: The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment. He described various stratagems printers and booksellers used to get around two stifling forces in ancien régime France: censorship by the government and monopoly by Paris’s licensed printers and booksellers. 

That topic made me think of another event from 1770 Boston in that I didn’t mention on its Sestercentennial anniversary, in part because it was kept low-key to avoid attracting too much attention.

Compared to France, the late-1700s British Empire had very free publishing laws. But in March 1770 the Boston town meeting imposed a specific bookselling ban: it commissioned Benjamin Edes and John Gill and the Fleet brothers to print the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, but forbade them from selling copies locally.

The town itself dispatched copies of that report to Britain. William Molineux sent a copy to Robert Treat Paine to help him prepare for the trials. Copies were shipped to other colonial ports. But the Boston Whigs wanted to avoid any complaints that the report had prejudiced the Suffolk County jury pool against the Boston Massacre defendants, so they banned local sales.

After copies of the Short Narrative reached London, Whiggish printers there produced their own editions to satisfy public interest. William Bingley approximated the Boston publication’s layout. Edward and Charles Dilly, working with John Almon, commissioned a copy of the engraved image of the shooting made by Henry Pelham and Paul Revere and added that as a frontispiece, as shown above.

By July 1770, copies of those British editions had arrived back in Boston, along with evidence of other responses to the Massacre in London, such as Capt. Thomas Preston’s “Case,” the Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance, and Andrew Oliver’s description of the actions of Massachusetts Council. Those got most of the attention from top local Whigs, but the printers had their own interest.

At a 10 July town meeting, the Short Narrative’s original printers noted that, since the London edition was circulating, the jury pool was already tainted with no local getting any benefit. The town considered “A Motion made that the printed Narratives of the late horred Massacre, which had been retained by order of the Town in the hands of the Committee; may now be sold by the Printers.”

Town clerk William Cooper’s notes say it “Passed in the Narrative”—a slip of the pen for “Negative.” In other words, the printers had to keep sitting on their costly investment in paper and labor.

TOMORROW: Getting to market anyway.

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