More than five thousand people waited inside the Old South Meetinghouse, the largest gathering place in Boston. On that evening in the middle of December 1773, they were impatient to hear what Governor Thomas Hutchinson had to say about the three ships bearing East India tea currently tied up to Griffin’s Wharf. After several unsatisfactory meetings, in which they debated about how to respond to the governor’s stubborn insistence that the tea must be landed, many of them, particularly those who had traveled from towns outside Boston, wanted to go home. It was then, just as frustration and exhaustion began to push increasing numbers of people out the door, that the most eloquent lawyer in this town of eloquent lawyers rose from his seat in the east gallery and was given permission to speak.
Josiah Quincy Jr. was only thirty-one years old and dying of tuberculosis. He was cross-eyed and pale and yet burned with a frightening ferocity in the cold air of the unheated meetinghouse. He’d just returned from a tour of the colonies that had taken him from South Carolina to Rhode Island (suggested by his physician, Dr. Joseph Warren, who had hoped the milder temperatures might improve his rapidly deteriorating health). Quincy knew firsthand that a surprising consensus was emerging among the inhabitants of British North America—a consensus that was bound to have astounding and yet frightening consequences.
He began by referring to the way their cumulative breaths rose like smoke toward the ceiling several stories above their heads. He called it “the spirit that vapors within these walls” and warned that it would take more than hot air—“popular resolves, popular harangues, popular acclamations, and popular vapor”—to “vanquish our foes.” Given Great Britain’s military strength, it behooved them all to think carefully about what they were about to do: “Let us weigh and consider before we advance to those measures which must bring on the most trying and terrific struggle this country ever saw.”
If anything, Quincy was calling for caution, but the mere mention of a possible war with the mother country was enough to prompt the staunch loyalist Harrison Gray to warn “the young man in the gallery” that he risked being prosecuted for treason for his “intemperate language.” Quincy, who along with John Adams had successfully defended the British soldiers on trial after the Boston Massacre three years before, responded, “If the old gentleman on the floor intends, by his warning to ‘the young man in the gallery’ to utter only a friendly voice in the spirit of paternal advice, I thank him. If his object be to terrify and intimidate, I despise him. Personally, perhaps, I have less concern than any one present in the crisis which is approaching. The seeds of dissolution are thickly planted in my constitution. They must soon ripen. I feel how short is the day that is allotted to me.”
At that moment, some men disguised as Indians could be seen through the meetinghouse windows heading down Milk Street toward the wharves. The bitter rain that had been falling most of the day had stopped, and a bright moon shone in the darkening sky. The words that followed were so eerily prescient that they were still being repeated almost eighty years later by a Bostonian who’d been there that day in the east gallery. “I see the clouds which now rise thick and fast upon our horizon,” Quincy said, “the thunders roll, and the lightnings play, and to that God who rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm I commit my country.”
The last decade had been a time of growing discord and anxiety. Many looked to the passage of the Stamp Act in the summer of 1765 as the start of all their troubles, but it went back much further than that. From the very first, with the arrival of the original Puritan settlers in 1630, the inhabitants of Boston had seen themselves as an exceptional and essentially independent people. Their projected “city on a hill” was to be a shining example of what could be accomplished when men and women lived according to the true dictates of God beyond the reach of the Stuart kings and their bishops.
There had been complications along the way: internal religious controversies, conflicts with other settlements, a revolution back home in England, and in 1675, the outbreak of a ruinous war with the Indians; but through it all the colonists of Massachusetts had clung to the conviction that they constituted an autonomous enclave. In 1676, in the midst of King Philip’s War, the British agent Edward Randolph traveled to Boston and spoke with Massachusetts governor John Leverett. Even though his colony had been decimated by the ongoing struggle with the Indians, Leverett, whose blood-soaked leather battle jacket still exists, insisted that Massachusetts was, in essence, independent. “He freely declared to me,” Randolph wrote to King Charles II, “that the laws made by your Majesty and your Parliament obligeth them in nothing . . . , that your Majesty ought not to retrench their liberties, but may enlarge them if your Majesty please.” A hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, the governor of Massachusetts boldly insisted that the laws enacted by the colony’s legislature superseded those of even Parliament.
Leverett may have talked as if his colony were free to do whatever it wanted, but the truth proved quite different. It soon became apparent that the two-year war with the Indians had devastated Massachusetts. A third of its towns had been burned to the ground; only after decades would the colony’s median income level approach the prewar level. Having virtually annihilated their closest Indian allies, the New Englanders now lacked a buffer to protect them from the French and their Indian allies to the north. Over the course of the next century, an unrelenting series of brutal wars forced Great Britain to take an active part in the defense of the colony. Within a decade of King Philip’s War, the colony’s original charter had been revoked, and Massachusetts became a royal province ruled by a governor holding office at the pleasure of the king. In the confusion surrounding Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, Bostonians took the opportunity a year later to jail Governor Edmund Andros and his hated customs surveyor Edward Randolph, the same official who thirteen years earlier had complained about Governor Leverett’s audacity. With the eventual arrival of a new charter and a new governor in 1692, an uneasy sense of order was reestablished in Massachusetts, even if the colonists never became reconciled to a governor whose first loyalty lay with Great Britain instead of them.
And always, it seemed, there was another war—a bloody business at which the New Englanders excelled. In 1690, the colony participated in the first of the assaults that would eventually turn the peninsular portion of French Acadia into British Nova Scotia. In 1745, Massachusetts mounted the New World equivalent of a crusade into Canada when an army of 4,200 provincial soldiers sailed from Boston in a fleet of ninety ships against the French fortress at Louisbourg. Despite receiving just token assistance from the British military, the colonial soldiers triumphed, only to see the fortress returned in subsequent treaty negotiations between Great Britain and France. After the eventual conquest of Canada in 1763, during which the provincials helped retake the fortress they had first won more than a decade before, the New Englanders turned their attention from the enemy to the north to anyone who might meddle in their affairs.
For most of the early eighteenth century the American colonies had enjoyed the benefits of a policy later known as “salutary neglect.” Left to do pretty much as they pleased, the colonies had been free to pursue economic growth unhindered by the onerous taxes paid by most British subjects. But by the end of the French and Indian War in 1763—a war fought, in large part, on the colonies’ behalf that had saddled Great Britain with a debt of about $22.4 billion in today’s U.S. currency—the ministry determined that it was time the colonies began to help pay for their imperial support.
Even the colonists admitted that they must contribute in some way to maintaining the British Empire. The question was how to go about raising the money. Well before the slogan “No taxation without representation” became a battle cry in America, the New Englanders’ Puritan ancestors had used the same logic to object to the early Stuarts’ attempts to increase taxes. But the colonies had more than just a principle behind their reluctance to be dictated to by the British ministry. They had three thousand miles of ocean between them and the mother country, along with seemingly limitless prospects for growth on a continent that stretched another three thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean. Rather than propose a means of raising revenue that they deemed fair, the colonials were more than happy to direct their considerable energies toward opposing whatever plan the British ministry put forward. When the old Puritan sense of certainty was combined with New England’s proven ability to put up a fight, it was not surprising that Massachusetts confronted the taxation question with a pugnacity reminiscent of the backwoods battles of the previous century.
In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a bill that required colonists to purchase special paper embossed with a revenue stamp for legal documents, newspapers, journals, and other printed materials. Whereas the British government saw the act simply as a way for the colonists to begin paying for their keep, the colonists viewed the Stamp Act as a violation of their basic liberties. What surprised almost everyone was the violence the act inspired, particularly in Boston, where a mob ransacked the house of then lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson. Parliament quickly repealed the hated act in 1766, but not without insisting on its future right to tax the colonies. A year later, with the passage of the Townshend Acts, Parliament tried taxing only paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea imported from England. The revenues from these taxes were to be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges, which the colonial legislatures had formerly paid with funds raised through locally administered taxes. Although in this instance the act relieved the province of a financial burden, it increased the likelihood that the officials would act in the best interests of the crown instead of the colonies. Boston merchants responded by refusing to import British goods, and by the spring of 1768 the Massachusetts legislature had sent out a circular letter encouraging the other colonies to support a nonimportation agreement.
Even more significant to relations with Britain was the creation of the American Customs Board to facilitate the collection of customs duties, monies that not only went toward paying the colonies’ collective tab back in Great Britain but also helped pay the salaries of the customs officers. The board’s five commissioners were headquartered in Boston and came to embody the loathsome “innovations” being insisted upon by the British ministry. Armed with what were known as “writs of assistance,” the officers did not have to obtain a warrant before searching ships, shops, and homes for smuggled goods. As early as 1761 the lawyer James Otis had argued that because these writs violated English constitutional rights, they were illegal. Otis lost the case in court, but New Englanders continued to insist upon their rights. In 1768 a riot erupted when officials seized John Hancock’s merchant vessel Liberty—an outbreak of violence that contributed to the decision by the British government to send several regiments of troops, known as the regular army, to Boston.
With the arrival of the regulars, the focus shifted from the issue of taxation to the evils of a military occupation. Patriot leaders began keeping a journalistic diary of the many abuses the townspeople supposedly suffered at the hands of the soldiers. On the night of March 5, 1770, escalating tensions climaxed in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. An angry crowd of sailors, artisans, apprentices, and boys surrounded a small group of regulars, who in the confusion of the moment fired their muskets. When the fusillade ceased, five people lay dead or mortally wounded. Outrage swept through the city’s unlit network of convoluted streets as hundreds and then thousands of Bostonians surged into the center of town. With the people threatening to attack the soldiers, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson appeared on the balcony of the Town House and promised that “the law should have its course.” The crowd reluctantly dispersed. After several rancorous town meetings, the regulars were withdrawn from Boston.
The trial of the British soldiers was delayed until the fall, but several months before that, in late June 1770, a comet appeared in the night sky. John Greenwood, then ten years old, remembered that more than just a comet had blazed over Boston. “Armies of soldiery had been seen fighting in the clouds overhead,” he wrote; “and it was said that the day of judgment was at hand, when the moon would turn into blood and the world be set on fire.” The regiments of soldiers were gone, but the sense of foreboding was stronger than ever. “For my part,” he remembered, “all I wished was that a church which stood by the side of my father’s garden would fall on me at the time these terrible things happened, and crush me to death at once, so as to be out of pain quick.”
Due in large part to the brilliance of Josiah Quincy and John Adams, the accused soldiers were either found not guilty or were convicted of manslaughter, which entailed the comparatively minor punishment of branding on the base of the thumb. With a partial repeal of the Townshend Acts, a period of calm settled across New England. And then, in the summer of 1773, more than three years after the Massacre, Bostonians learned of the passage of the Tea Act.
The British ministry had a problem. The crown-chartered East India Company was burdened with too much tea. To eliminate that surplus, it was decided to offer the tea to the American colonies at the drastically reduced price of two shillings per pound—a third less than the original price. Unfortunately and unwisely, Parliament included in the reduced price a tiny tax of three pence per pound. This gave the patriots ideological grounds on which to object to an act that might otherwise have been viewed as a windfall for the colonial consumer. The ministry made the additional tactical error of allowing only a handful of privileged “consignees” (all of them loyalists) to act as agents for the East India Company. The patriots were able to claim that the legislation was a thinly veiled attempt to impose a London-centered commercial monopoly on the colonies, and Bostonians followed New York and Pennsylvania in strongly opposing the Tea Act.
Other, less noble reasons motivated the patriots. Many Boston merchants sold illegal Dutch tea procured from the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius (known today simply as Statia). Since the low-priced East India tea would undersell the smuggled Dutch tea, the merchants stood to lose significant income. Then there was the grudge that a leading Boston merchant had with the island of Nantucket.
New England, unlike the southern colonies and the British islands of the Caribbean, did not have a staple crop such as tobacco or sugar. It did have, however, whale oil, which accounted for more than half the region’s exports to Great Britain, at least in terms of their value. Since much, if not most, of the whale oil was shipped directly to England from the tiny, largely loyalist island of Nantucket, Boston merchants had been relegated to the margins of this lucrative trade. This had not prevented John Hancock from spending the last decade—and a significant portion of the fortune he had inherited from his uncle—trying to corner the whale oil market by buying up available supplies and controlling their delivery to London. Nantucket’s wily Quaker merchants, however, had managed to frustrate his every move.
Two of the three ships tied up to Griffin’s Wharf in Boston on December 16, 1773, were Nantucket vessels that had taken on East India tea after unloading their shipments of whale oil in London. Hancock, who had emerged as the preeminent public figure associated with the patriot cause, now had at long last a way to make at least one of the islanders defer to his wishes. It was all in the name of patriot ideals, of course, but for Hancock it must have been a form of sweet revenge to watch as one of his hated rivals, the Nantucket merchant prince Francis Rotch (pronounced “Roach”), stood trembling before the gathering at the Old South Meetinghouse.
The chronology of what occurred after Rotch returned from making his desperate appeal to Governor Hutchinson is hazy, but we do know that once he explained to the crowd in the meetinghouse that the governor had refused to allow his ship the Dartmouth to leave Boston Harbor without unloading the tea, shouts erupted that could be heard several blocks away. At some point, people began to pour out into the streets, and soon enough, more than a hundred Bostonians disguised as Indians were dumping chests of tea into the harbor.
Unfortunately, the tide was out. The tea leaves heaped in the shallows surrounding the ships, requiring that boys scamper across the mudflats and try to scatter the clumps with their hands and feet. By the next morning the swirling tide and wind had created an undulant cat’s cradle of tea: crisscrossing lines of brown-flecked spindrift that reached from the docks and shipyards of Boston’s South End toward Castle Island, three miles to the east. It was to here, at what was known simply as the Castle, where a fort and a regiment of British soldiers provided them with protection, that the half-dozen or so tea consignees had fled to escape the angry crowds back in Boston.
If the patriots had their way, that was where they would stay. But as Admiral John Montagu reminded several townspeople soon after what came to be called the Boston Tea Party, some day the piper had to be paid.
Almost a month later, on the morning of January 15, 1774, as a city waited with mounting dread for word of how the British government was going to respond to the outrage committed at Griffin’s Wharf, a mysterious costumed defender of the people’s liberties announced his presence amid the cold, windblown streets of Boston. In tribute to the Puritans’ revolutionary past, he called himself Joyce Junior after Cornet George Joyce, an officer in the parliamentary New Model Army of the English Civil War. Joyce had been credited with capturing King Charles; he had also been present when the British sovereign was beheaded. By adopting the name of a notorious regicide, Joyce Junior was evoking the memory of a time when English subjects had dared to do the unthinkable: overthrow and execute their king.
In a handbill that appeared in “the most public spaces” of Boston that Saturday, Joyce Junior vowed to punish any of the tea consignees who tried to leave Castle Island, exhorting his “Brethren and Fellow Citizens” to help him give the consignees “such a reception as such vile ingrates deserve.” What that reception might entail was suggested by the title Joyce Junior ascribed to himself at the bottom of the handbill: “Chairman of the Committee for Tarring and Feathering.”
The appearance of this particular character was a recent phenomenon, but the persona—that of a shadowy enforcer—was nothing new to Boston. Some version of the upstart regicide had been part of the annual celebration known as Pope Night. Every November 5, two rival gangs of boys and apprentices from the city’s North and South Ends (divided by the creek that flowed from Mill Pond to the harbor) marched behind carts that displayed the figures of the pope and the devil. The ultimate object of Pope Night was to seize the opponent’s cart, and the inevitable battle resulted in untold broken bones and in 1764 even a boy’s death. Based on the British tradition of Guy Fawkes Day, which celebrated the foiling of a 1605 plot to blow up Parliament and the king, Pope Night emphasized not the miraculous salvation of royal government but Congregational New England’s long-standing hatred of the Catholic Church. Presiding over the bare-knuckled tumult of Pope Night appears to have been a Joyce Junior–like figure wearing a white wig, red cloak, large boots, a sword, and what was described as a “horrible” mask.
Yet another version of Joyce Junior was spotted during the uproar that preceded the Boston Massacre in 1770. A “tall man in a red cloak and white wig” was seen haranguing the crowd at Dock Square before the townspeople headed toward the center of town for the final encounter with the British soldiers. This may have been the same shadowy figure that at least one witness claimed was standing behind the beleaguered regulars, exhorting them to fire.
Although Joyce Junior wore a mask, many in Boston undoubtedly knew the identity of the man who claimed to be the chairman of the committee of tarring and feathering. He threatened and boasted like a seasoned sailor from the rough-and-tumble world of the Boston waterfront, but Joyce Junior was in actuality the twenty-six-year-old son of Harvard professor John Winthrop, whose great-great-grandfather of the same name had been a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Professor Winthrop’s son (also named John, and thus a junior on two accounts) had been publicly admonished while an undergraduate at Harvard “for making indecent tumultuous noises in the college.” By 1773 he was a merchant with a general store on Treat’s Wharf. Just before the Tea Party, he was part of a group charged with preventing the East India tea from being landed from the ships. Now he was doing everything in his power to make sure the streets were free of tea consignees and other “traitors to their country.”
The appearance of Joyce Junior in January 1774 appears to have been part of an effort by patriot leaders to control the aftermath of the Tea Party. Unwieldy mob eruptions such as the one that provoked the Boston Massacre inevitably made for bad publicity in both America and England. In an effort to depict the destruction of East India tea as an act of principle rather than of rage, the Tea Party had been minutely choreographed from the start. Joyce Junior was continuing this attempt to channel if not contain the violence.
But as all of Boston was about to learn, there were some aspects of this growing insistence on liberty that no one controlled.
Boston had always been a town on tiptoe. Just a square mile in area, with a mere sliver of land connecting it to the mainland to the south, this tadpoleshaped island was dominated by three towering, lightly settled hills and a forest of steeples. From Boston’s highest perch, the 138-foot Beacon Hill, it was possible to see that the town was just one in a huge amphitheater of humped and jagged islands that extended more than eight and a half miles to Point Allerton to the southeast. To the west, the Charles River reached into the interior from the shallows of the Back Bay, linking Boston to nearby Cambridge and Watertown. To the north the Mystic River provided access to the inland town of Medford even as the waterway, with the help of Willis Creek to the west, made almost an island of Charlestown, another whale-backed drumlin just a half mile by ferry from Boston. To the southeast, on the other side of the equally hilly outcropping known as Dorchester, the Neponset River flowed from Milton, where Hutchinson, now governor, had a country home. Whether it was from a hill, a steeple, or a cupola, Bostonians could plainly see that they were surrounded by two deep and endless wildernesses: the ocean to the east and the country to the west.
Boston’s topography contributed to the seemingly nonsensical pattern of its streets. Rather than following any preconceived grid, the settlement’s original trails and cart paths had done their best to negotiate the many hills and hollows, cutting across the slopes at gradual angles to create a concave crescent of settlement within which more than fifty wharves and shipyards extended from the town’s eastern edge.
It was in winter that this city of hills came into its own—at least if you were a boy. Streets normally crowded with people, horses, oxcarts, and carriages became, thanks to a coating of snow and ice, magical coasting trails down which a youngster on his wooden sled could race at startling and wonderful speeds. On January 25, 1774, at least two feet of snow covered Boston. Runner-equipped sleighs glided across roads that carts and chaises had once plodded over, moving so silently across the white drifts that tinkling bells were added to the horses’ halters so that the people of Boston could hear them coming. The boys in their sleds did not have this luxury, however, and that afternoon a child approaching the end of his run down Copp’s Hill in the North End slammed into the fifty-year-old customs officer John Malcom—at least, according to one account. Another version has Malcom falling into an argument with the boy when the child complained that Malcom had ruined the coasting run that passed by his front door by throwing woodchips on the snow.
Malcom, as his vocation might suggest, was a loyalist; he also had a reputation for losing his temper. Raising his cane in the air as if to strike the boy, he shouted, “Do you talk to me in that style, you rascal!” It was then that George Hewes, a shoemaker, came upon them standing at the mouth of Cross Street.
Hewes had recently participated in the Tea Party and was known to be a patriot. But at this point, political beliefs were of little concern to him; worried that Malcom might injure the defenseless boy, he told the customs agent to leave the child alone.
Malcom turned to Hewes and accused him of being a “vagabond” who should not presume to speak to a gentleman such as himself. Besides commanding a host of coasting vessels, Malcom had served as an officer in several campaigns during the French and Indian War; he’d also fought more recently in what was known as the War of Regulation in North Carolina, where he’d assisted royal governor William Tryon in brutally suppressing an uprising of citizens who objected to the taxation system then prevalent in this section of the South. Malcom claimed to have had two horses shot out from underneath him in North Carolina and later wrote in a petition to the king that “none could go further in the field of battle when the bullets flew thickest, he was then in his element.”
Malcom’s love of combat had recently gotten him into some serious professional trouble. Earlier that fall, while serving in the customs office in Falmouth (now Portland, Maine), he’d seized a ship and her thirty-man crew under the slimmest of pretexts. His pompous and overbearing manner had so angered the sailors that they’d relieved him of his sword and provided him with a “genteel” coat of tar and feathers—genteel in that they’d left his clothes on to protect his skin from the hot tar. Malcom had been humiliated but apparently not hurt, and even his superior officer at the customs office had had little sympathy for him. By that snowy day in January, Malcom was back home in Boston arguing with not only a surly boy with a sled but this prying shoemaker as well.
Hewes was unimpressed by Malcom’s claims of social superiority, especially given what had happened to the customs agent in Maine, a story that had been repeated with great relish in Boston’s many newspapers. “Be that as it will,” Hewes replied to Malcom’s rebuke, “I never was tarred and feathered anyhow.”
This was too much for Malcom, who took up his cane and smashed Hewes in the head, ripping a two-inch gash in his hat and knocking him unconscious. When Hewes came to his senses, a Captain Godfrey was admonishing Malcom, who soon decided to beat a hasty retreat to his home on Cross Street.
All that afternoon word of the incident circulated through the streets of Boston. By eight o’clock in the evening, an angry crowd had assembled outside Malcom’s house. By that time Hewes had visited Dr. Joseph Warren, just across the Mill Bridge on nearby Hanover Street. Both a physician and a distant relative, Warren had told him that if it weren’t for his extraordinarily thick skull, Hewes would be a dead man. On Warren’s advice, Hewes applied to a town official for a warrant for Malcom’s arrest, but it now seemed that a different kind of justice was about to be served.
Earlier in the evening, Malcom had taken a manic delight in baiting the crowd, bragging that Governor Hutchinson would pay him a bounty of twenty pounds sterling for every “yankee” that he killed. His undoubtedly long-suffering wife, the mother of five children (two of whom were deaf), opened a window and pleaded with the townspeople to leave them alone. Whatever sympathy she had managed to gain soon vanished when Malcom pushed his unsheathed sword through the window and stabbed a man in the breastbone.
The crowd swarmed around the house, breaking windows and trying to get at the customs official, who soon fled up the stairs to the second story. Many Bostonians served as volunteer firemen, and men equipped with ladders and axes were soon rushing toward the besieged house on Cross Street. Even Malcom appears to have realized that matters had taken a serious turn, and he prepared “to make what defense he could.”
Nine years before, this section of the city had been the scene of one of the most notorious acts of violence ever directed against an official in colonial America. On August 26, 1765, as outrage over the Stamp Act swept across the colonies, a mob of several hundred Bostonians attacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, breaking windows, beating down doors, and destroying the house’s elaborate furnishings. Hutchinson was also a historian, and countless manuscript pages were found scattered in the street—a fact that moved the lawyer Daniel Leonard to suggest that the crowd had acted not out of anger over the Stamp Act but to prevent the publication of yet another ponderously written volume of Hutchinson’s history of Massachusetts.
Collective violence had been a long-standing part of colonial New England, a trait the English settlers had brought from the mother country. Crowds tended to intervene when government officials acted against the interests of the people. In 1747 a riot had broken out in Boston when a naval press gang seized several local sailors. Twenty-three years later, anger over the depredations of yet another press gang contributed to the Liberty Riot of 1768, triggered by the seizure of John Hancock’s ship of the same name by Boston customs officials. In that the crowds were attempting to address unpunished wrongs committed against the community, they were a recognized institution that all Bostonians—no matter how wealthy and influential they might be—ignored at their peril. But as John Malcom was about to find out on that frigid night in January 1774, and as Thomas Hutchison had learned almost a decade before him, the divide between a civic-minded crowd and an unruly and vindictive mob was frighteningly thin.
Malcom and his family huddled in their home’s second floor. A locked door stood between them and the angry crowd down below. They heard the thud of the ladders against the sides of the house and the cries of the men and boys as they climbed up to the second-story windows and punched through the glass. It was then that “a Mr. Russell,” perhaps William Russell, an usher (or teaching assistant) at a school on Hanover Street, appeared inside the house. Smiling broadly, he assured Malcom that he came in friendship and shook the customs officer’s hand. He then asked if he could see Malcom’s sword. Desperate for whatever assistance he could find, Malcom reluctantly handed over the weapon, only to watch as Russell (who, if he indeed was William Russell, had participated in the Tea Party) called out to the others in the house that Malcom was now unarmed. “They immediately rushed in,” Malcom wrote, “and by violence forced your memorialist out of the house and beating him with sticks then placed him on a sled they had prepared.” One can only wonder what Mrs. Malcom and her sons and daughters were thinking as they watched him disappear into the unlit streets.
After a stop at a nearby wharf to pick up a barrel of tar (at some point, down-filled pillows, perhaps taken from Malcom’s own house, were also collected), the crowd, which now numbered more than a thousand people, hauled Malcom through the snowy streets to the center of town, where after three “Huzzas,” they loaded him into a cart parked in front of the Customs House. Almost four years before, this had been the site of the Boston Massacre, and as a consequence the building was now referred to as Butchers’ Hall. Bonfires were common in this portion of King Street, a sixty-foot-wide plazalike space in front of Town House paved with seashells and gravel where the stocks and whipping post were also located. One of these fires may have been used to heat the stiff and sludgy pine tar (a distillation of the bituminous substance that bubbled from a smoldering pine tree) into a pourable black paste.
It was one of the bitterest evenings of the year. Boston Harbor had frozen over two nights before. Malcom was undoubtedly trembling with cold and fear, but this did not prevent the crowd from tearing off his clothes (dislocating his arm in the process) and daubing his skin with steaming tar that would have effectively parboiled his flesh. Once the feathers had been added, Malcom was clothed in what was known at the time as a “modern jacket”: a painful and mortifying announcement to the world that he had sinned against the collective mores of the community. Tarring and feathering went back centuries to the time of the crusades, and was also applied to the effigies used during Pope Night; a few Boston loyalists before him had been tarred and feathered, but none could claim the level of suffering that Malcom was about to endure.
Soon the crowd began pushing Malcom’s cart up King Street toward the Town House, the cupola-topped brick building emblazoned with the king’s seal that was the home of the colony’s legislature. Once past the Town House, they turned left onto Boston’s main thoroughfare, known in this portion of the city as Cornhill. With the three-story brick edifice of Boston’s first Congregational meeting, referred to as the Old Meeting, on their right, they made their way through a gauntlet of tightly packed buildings of varying heights. Lights flared in the windows as they passed, the crowd’s shouts and whistles washing across the brick and clapboard facings and echoing up into the hills to the right, where the almshouse, the asylum for the “disorderly and insane,” the workhouse, and the granary overlooked the rolling forty-five-acre sweep of the common.
Cornhill had become Marlborough Street by the time they reached the block containing the governor’s official residence, Province House. On the cupola of this stately three-story brick structure was a copper weathervane depicting an Indian with an arrow in his bow. When the wind was from the east, the Province House Indian seemed to be aiming at the even higher weathercock on the spire of the Old South Meetinghouse, just across the street. The crowd stopped between these two soaring buildings and ordered Malcom to curse Governor Hutchinson (who was safely ensconced at his country house ten miles away in Milton that night) and “say he was an enemy to his country.” Malcom steadfastly refused.
On they proceeded through the freezing darkness, the cart’s wheels crunching through the snow. They were now in the heart of the South End, the more affluent side of town, where Marlborough turned into Newbury Street. At the corner of Essex on their left, they stopped at the huge old elm known as the Liberty Tree. A staff rose above the topmost portion of the tree, on which a flag was often flown. This was where the first protests against the Stamp Act had been held back in 1765, and in the years since, the Liberty Tree had become a kind of druidical, distinctly American shrine to the inherent freedoms of man and that Enlightenment sense of “the state of nature” that exists before a people willingly submit to the dictates of a government of their own choosing. On this cold night, the people of Boston were directing their anger against a man who resolutely, even fanatically, insisted that they must defer to a distant king and a legislature that no longer respected their God-given rights, that obedience must be paid not only to their royal sovereign but to a man like John Malcom: a bitter and grasping underling whose world was crumbling beneath him. Malcom stood in the cart below the tree’s bare winter branches and once again refused to curse the governor.
They continued down Newbury to where it became Orange Street. Soon they were approaching the town gate at Boston Neck, more than a mile from the Town House. The old brick fortification dated back to King Philip’s War, when Boston had become a refuge for those attempting to escape the Indians, and once through the gate, they were out onto the thin strand of wavewashed earth that connected Boston to the town of Roxbury. On either side of them, the icy marshes and shallows extended out into darkness. On the left, just past the gate, was the gallows.
They placed a rope around Malcom’s neck and threatened to hang him if he would not do as they’d previously ordered. By this time the tar had congealed into a frozen crust; his body’s inner core had probably become so chilled that he no longer had the ability to tremble. Once again, he refused to curse the governor, but this time he asked that they would “put their threats into execution rather than continue their torture.”
They took the rope off Malcom’s neck, pinioned his hands behind his back, and tied him to the gallows. Then they began to beat him with ropes and sticks “in a most savage manner.” According to one account they even threatened to cut off his ears. At last, he said he would do “anything they desired.” They untied him and made him curse the governor and the customs board of commissioners. But his sufferings were not over.
For several more hours they continued to parade Malcom through the streets of Boston. Not everyone shared in the crowd’s pitiless delight; a few people, including the man whose intervention had started this horrifying concatenation of events, the shoemaker George Hewes, were so appalled by Malcom’s treatment that they attempted to cover him with their jackets.
By the time the crowd reached Copp’s Hill near Malcom’s home in the North End, he must have passed out, for he makes no mention of this final stop, which is described in several newspaper accounts. Here, in the cemetery near the summit of the hill, was the grave of Malcom’s younger brother Daniel. Daniel appears to have had the same fiery personality as his brother. Whereas John became a customs agent, Daniel sided with the opposite, more popular camp, famously barricading himself in his house in 1766 to prevent the crown’s agents from finding the smuggled wine he had supposedly hidden in his cellar. When Daniel died in 1769 at the age of forty-four, he was a patriot hero, and the inscription on his gravestone described him as “a true son of Liberty / a Friend to the Publick / an Enemy to oppression / and one of the foremost / in opposing the Revenue Acts / on America.”
Daniel had been celebrated for breaking the laws of his day. That night in January 1774, his loyalist brother John sat slumped in a chair that someone had placed inside the cart. It was true that he was obnoxious and impulsive, that he’d virtually invited the treatment he’d received. But the fact remained that this “enemy of the people” had been scalded, frozen, and beaten to within an inch of his life not because he’d taken a swipe at a shoemaker but because he upheld the unpopular laws that his brother had scorned. It had been a brutal, even obscene display of violence, but the people of Boston had spoken.
Around midnight, the crowd finally made its way back to Malcom’s house on Cross Street, where he was “rolled out of the cart like a log.” Once he’d been brought back into the house and his frozen body had begun to thaw, his tarred flesh started to peel off in “steaks.” Although he somehow found the strength to make a deposition five days later, it would be another eight weeks before he could leave his bed.
The John Malcom incident had created a problem for Joyce Junior. Despite having declared himself to be the chairman of the committee of tarring and feathering, he had had nothing to do with what had happened to Malcom. In fact, he and other patriot leaders disapproved of this spontaneous and entirely unscripted outbreak of violence. In an attempt to clarify this potentially embarrassing situation, he issued yet another proclamation, this one disavowing any association with the incident. “Brethren and fellow citizens!” the handbill read. “This is to certify, that the modern punishment lately inflicted on the ignoble John Malcom was not done by our order—We reserve that method for bringing villains of greater consequence to a sense of guilt and infamy.”
Over the course of the next few months, Joyce Junior posted more announcements (one of which appeared in the Boston Gazette over John Winthrop Junior’s advertisement for a new shipment of flour) in which Winthrop’s alter ego continued to issue threats against the tea consignees and their associates. One night in April, the painter John Singleton Copley awoke to discover that his house on Beacon Hill (just down the street from the Hancock mansion) was surrounded by a raucous mob that wanted to know if a Mr. Watson from Plymouth was staying with him. At thirty-five, Copley had long since established himself as the foremost painter not only in New England but all America. A largely self-taught genius and purposefully apolitical, Copley had painted the portraits of many loyalists and of many patriots. He had an unmatched ability when it came to creating a sense of his subject’s presence. When you looked at a Copley portrait, you felt as if the subject was there for all time, frozen in an eternal now. If there was anyone of whom all of Boston should have been proud, it was Copley. But as far as the patriots were concerned he could not be trusted since he was married to the daughter of a tea consignee.
George Watson, a merchant from Plymouth, was part of the extended loyalist family into which Copley had married. Copley explained to those gathered outside his house that it was true that Watson had visited him earlier in the day, but he had long since departed. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Isaac Winslow Clarke, still marooned on Castle Island, he recounted how the mob threatened that “my blood would be on my own head if I had deceived them; [that] if I entertained him or any such villain for the future [I] must expect the resentment of Joyce.”
Copley had long since decided that he owed it to his talent to cross the Atlantic and see for himself the masters of Europe, and by the middle of June, he would be on his way to London, never to return. The irony was that Copley privately expressed his sympathies for the patriot cause. In years to come, his paintings of the 1760s and 1770s became the visual icons with which future generations of Americans celebrated Boston’s revolutionary past. But in April 1774 Copley, a self-made artist who stared into the eyes of his subjects and somehow found a way to convey their imperishable essence, was being threatened by the thuggish minions of an overeducated trader who was the great-great-great-grandson of the colony’s Puritan founder.
Copley wasn’t the only artist in Boston who had an uneasy relationship with the city’s patriots. Boston’s most widely known poet was a twenty-oneyear-old African enslaved woman named Phillis Wheatley, whose first volume of poems had been published in England just the year before and was now being sold in the city’s many bookshops. Not only a precocious literary talent, Wheatley had used her growing fame during a recent trip to London to gain access to some of the foremost cultural and political figures of the day, including the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Dartmouth (for whom the college in New Hampshire had been named), and Benjamin Franklin. She’d also used that fame to leverage a promise from her master, Daniel Wheatley, to grant her freedom.
For the citizens of Boston, whose love of liberty did not prevent one in five families from owning slaves, Wheatley’s celebrity caused difficulties. In a letter that was reprinted in the Boston press that March, she wrote to the Mohegan preacher Samson Occom about the patriot cause’s inherent duplicity. “For in every human breast,” Wheatley wrote, “God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom; it is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance. . . . God grant deliverance in his own way and time, and . . . [punish] all those whose avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the calamities of their fellow creatures. This I desire not for their hurt, but to convince them of the strange absurdity of their conduct whose words and actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for liberty, and the reverse disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine.”
On the road from Cambridge to the ferry landing in Charlestown was a landmark that spoke to the legacy of slavery in New England. In 1755 the slave Mark had been executed for conspiring to poison his abusive master. Whereas his female accomplice had been burned to death, Mark had been hanged; his body was then stuffed into an iron cage that was suspended from a chain at the edge of the Charlestown Common, where the corpse was left to rot and be picked apart by birds. Long after the physical remains of the executed slave had disappeared, the place where “Mark was hung in chains” continued to be a much commented-on part of the landscape surrounding Boston. Slavery was more than a rhetorical construct for the city’s white residents; it was an impossible-to-ignore reality in a community where African men, women, and children were regularly bought and sold and where anyone taking the road into or out of nearby Charlestown had no choice but to remember what had happened in 1755 when a black man threatened to overthrow his oppressor.
One of Boston’s great collective fears during the recent occupation by British regulars in the year and a half leading up to the Boston Massacre was that the soldiers might foment the city’s slaves into a rebellion against their patriot owners. A 1768 petition signed by the merchants John Hancock and John Rowe accused a captain of His Majesty’s Fifty-Ninth Regiment of having encouraged “certain Negro slaves in Boston . . . to cut their master’s throats, and to beat, insult, and otherwise ill treat their said masters, asserting that now the soldiers are come, the Negroes shall be free, and the Liberty Boys slaves—to the great terror and danger of the peaceable inhabitants of said town.”
For years, members of Boston’s black community had been signing petitions requesting that the province’s General Court find a peaceable way to address their plight. In the spring of 1774 legislators voted on yet another unsuccessful petition presented by “a great number of blacks of this province who by divine permission are held in a state of slavery within the bowels of a free and Christian country.” As these petitioners knew all too well, what Phillis Wheatley called the “strange absurdity” of American slavery was not limited to the South.
The truth was that the righteous and coercive certainty of patriots such as John Winthrop Jr., aka Joyce Junior, had more in common with the increasingly autocratic and shortsighted policies promulgated by British prime minister Frederick North than either side would have cared to admit. They had drastically different agendas, but they went about achieving those agendas in essentially the same way. Both shared an indignant refusal to compromise. Neither had much to do with a democratic or popular will.
As it turned out, Joyce Junior’s ominous and blustering announcements in the local press did more than even the tarring and feathering of John Malcom to create the impression in England that a brutish vigilantism reigned in the streets of Boston. In early March, as Parliament debated what to do in response to the Boston Tea Party, Joyce Junior’s January 15 broadside was reprinted in the London papers. With the words of the “chairman of the committee for tarring and feathering” having come to the public’s attention, even America’s friends in Parliament felt that they must account in some way for this disturbing practice. On March 28, one member of the House of Commons acknowledged that “the Americans were a strange set of people, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them; that instead of making their claim by argument, they always chose to decide the matter by tarring and feathering.” With the examples of both Joyce Junior and John Malcom before them, an almost unanimous consensus emerged in Parliament: Boston must suffer the worst of all punishments for its collective and apparently ongoing sins.
But if Joyce Junior and other patriot leaders regretted the tarring and feathering of John Malcom, the object of all this furor appears to have taken a different view. Malcom was proud of his sufferings. Later that year he sailed for London with a wooden box containing the ultimate trophy: a withered hunk of his own tarred-and-feathered flesh.
On January 12, 1775, Malcom attended the levee at St. James’s, where he knelt before King George III and handed His Majesty a petition. What Malcom wanted more than anything else, he informed the king, was to return to Boston and resume his duties as a customs official—but not as just any customs official. He wanted to be made “a single Knight of the Tar . . . for I like the smell of it.”
Copyright (c) 2013 by Nathaniel Philbrick