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John Fleeming

“A young Lad (belonging to the Office) fir’d a Gun”

The report of someone inside John Mein and John Fleeming’s print shop firing a gun at Boston’s first tar-and-feathers procession on 28 Oct 1769 raises a number of questions.

First is the matter of how many guns were involved. Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette reported “a Gun was fired from thence and two others snap’d at them [i.e., someone fired blank shots] just as they got by.” However, the pro-governor Boston News-Letter stated simply that “a Gun was fired from one of the Windows.” So was there one shot or three?

A Crown informant named George Mason reported this version of events:

As soon as the Mob had got as far as Mr. Meins Printing Office and dwelling House (which is near Liberty Tree) they made a Halt, and as I’m very credibly informed endeavour’d to force the Door (I’m certain of this they broke the Windows) upon which a young Lad (belonging to the Office) fir’d a Gun loaded with nothing but Powder with a view to intimidate them from any further violence, this had not the desired effect, for immediately after they recover’d from their fright, they burst the Door open in earnest, and likewise forc’d the Locks and Doors of the inner appartments in search of Mein. Some mischief was done to his Books &c and two Guns were taken away by Persons in the Neighborhood who are well known to Mr. Meins Servants

The Boston Gazette stated: “they bro’t off three Guns, two of them well charg’d, as Evidence.” So it looks like both sides agree that at least one shot was fired, the crowd confiscated at least two guns, and no one was injured.

The next question is who fired that shot. Mason identified the shooter as “a young Lad (belonging to the Office)”—i.e., a printer’s apprentice or devil. The newspapers said the crowd found no one inside the house, so Mason apparently had inside information.

Isaiah Thomas wrote later that Nathaniel Mills was an apprentice to John Fleeming. He was a week shy of twenty years old during this riot, however, and therefore probably not still considered a “young Lad.”

Another possibility, though I’ve found no direct evidence, was John Howe (1754-1835). He had just turned fifteen in October 1769, still too young for militia service. I can’t show that he worked for Fleeming, but he did become a Sandemanian, and Fleeming was the only Boston printer of that faith. If I were writing a historical novel, I’d put young Howe into that building.

The Boston Gazette report is clear that the shot from the print shop caused people in the procession to break in. Mason’s account says the opposite: when members of the crowd “endeavour’d to force the Door,” a frightened boy inside fired the gun. Both sides had every reason to present themselves as the party under threat, indeed many incentives to think of themselves as the party under threat, so I don’t see any way to work that out.

It’s notable that the Boston Gazette made no mention at all of the merchants’ confrontation with John Mein earlier in the day. That makes that paper’s claim that someone fired a gun “for what Reason we know not, as no injury seemed designed them,” more than a little disingenuous. When the whole town was buzzing that your boss, already unpopular, had fired a pistol recklessly in public and was being hunted by the authorities, you could reasonably worry about being injured.

The Boston Post-Boy also declined to report in detail on the confrontation with Mein in its 30 October issue, saying, “as we are informed a Warrant has been issued upon the Occasion, we do not think it proper at present to give a particular relation of the Circumstances of that Affair.” That looks like a cop-out, but at least those printers gave a legal reason.

One last observation about the gunshot from the printing office: this was the third instance of gunfire in Boston in one week of October 1769. There would be more, most memorably in late February and early March of 1770. In all those cases, the shots were fired by employees or supporters of the Crown. Not until late 1774, as the Massachusetts Government Act provoked violence against mandamus Councilors, did any Whig or Patriot fire at a supporter of the royal government. (It’s not clear what James Otis, Jr., was shooting at when he fired out his windows in April 1770.)

That pattern reflects how the Crown supporters were heavily outnumbered. The soldiers marching home from the Neck on 24 October were under assault from a crowd, albeit one trying to enforce a writ. Four days later, John Mein was surrounded by a crowd. The young lad inside Mein’s office apparently felt threatened by a crowd. Months later, Ebenezer Richardson saw his house being attacked, and Pvt. Edward Montgomery had just been knocked down by something thrown from a mob when he shouted to his fellow soldiers to shoot on 5 Mar 1770.

Firing a single-shot musket without a bayonet was a desperate move. It raised the level of violence and the anger of the other side while leaving the shooter essentially defenseless for the next minute at least. Those gunshots show how desperate some Bostonians were feeling.

COMING UP: George Gailer’s experience.