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John Mein

“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.

“What an unparallel’d Stock of Assurance & Self-Confidence”

In the fall of 1769, Boston’s non-importation controversy heated up. The town’s merchants, supported and pushed by the radical Whigs, had agreed not to order anything but necessities from Britain until Parliament repealed the Townshend duties.

Boston’s merchants had set up a committee of inspection to enforce that boycott, which had the added effect of showing the merchants of other towns that they were serious.

Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette ran on the front of each issue a short list of the merchants who hadn’t signed on. One of those names was the bookseller John Mein.

Mein, who also published the Boston Chronicle newspaper, responded by running documents from the Customs office showing what goods were being imported and by whom. Many of Boston’s most prominent merchants appeared in those documents, and they filled the newspapers with angry denials that they had actually imported anything. Or if they had, they had very good reasons.

Few of those angry denials were as angry and denialist as what Francis Green (1742-1809) published in the Boston Evening-Post on 25 Sept 1769, two hundred fifty years ago today. Mein had published Green’s manifest in late August. Green responded with a denial in the Boston Gazette on 4 September. Mein answered in his Chronicle on 7 September and then, when no reply appeared, again on 18 September.

Green then unleashed this magnificent diatribe:

To the PUBLIC.

A Most thorough Disdain of John Mein, is the true Cause of my not having hitherto given any Attention to his late public impertinent and arrogant Queries and Objections.

What an unparallel’d Stock of Assurance & Self-Confidence must this contemptible Fellow be possessed of, to imagine himself entitled to call, Time after Time, with the most audacious Effrontery, upon one and another of his Superiors, for Answers to the most pert and saucy Questions that ever issued from the conceited, empty Noddle, of a most profound Blockhead!

Who gave this Mushroom Judge, Authority, to summon even a Chimney-Sweeper to his ridiculous Tribunal? or wantonly, presumptuously, and very fallaciously to assume the respectable Title of The Public, in his romantic and indecent Addresses to an affronted Community? From whence does this so late an abject and Cap-in-Hand Beggar of Favours in a strange Country, derive the Shadow of Right, to put on a dictatorial Air, and publickly to insult his Benefactors? Ingratitude, Perverseness, and the most obstinate Self-Sufficiency, with a large Share of egregious Folly, can alone account for such Insolence and Stupidity; to the natural Consequence of which I drop him with ineffable Contempt.—

But lest any Part of the Public should be deceived by his Insinuations respecting my Importation in the Susanna, H. Johnson, Master. I now assure the World, that, (tho’ I hold not myself so cheap as to yield any Account to John Mein) if any Gentleman is yet unsatisfied, and chuses to apply either to the Committee of Merchants or to me, he may and shall be convinced, beyond all Possibility of Doubt, that I did not deviate from the Agreement in any Instance, of Course did not import any Tea.

But as I consider the entering into any kind of Contest with John Mein, as too great a Stoop, and as any Notice being taken of him, even in Opposition, may tend to make him of some little Consequence, and seems to be what he is aiming at, the Public, will, I doubt not, excuse my adding to the general Neglect of him, by never answering any of his future Publications, even though his consummate Impudence, should prompt him to be more vulgarly scurrilous, than he has already repeatedly been to the Committee of Merchants.

Sept. 20, 1769.

Green thus attacked Mein as an upstart mechanic, a recent arrival in Boston, and a purveyor of fake news who didn’t deserve to question a gentleman like himself.

For all his anger, however, Green proved to be a less than staunch supporter of non-importation. He had brought in proscribed goods. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “he was dropped from [the Whigs’] ranks in 1769 for violating the non-importation agreement.” By May 1770 Green was probably arguing to end the boycott, and in early 1774 he was among the Loyalists voting to have the town meeting quash its committee of correspondence.

During the siege of Boston, Green stayed in town with the British military, was an officer in a Loyalist militia company, and evacuated to Halifax. He became just as much of a Loyalist as John Mein.