Sunday, September 15, 2019

"Fall Down and Worship Our Sovereign Lord the Mob" - Massachusetts Mob Violence on the Eve of the American Revolution

A couple of weekends ago, the Nerds were at the Newport Historical Society for the reenactment of the 1769 burning of the HMS Liberty. On July 19, 1769, the crew of the Liberty accosted Connecticut ship captain Joseph Packwood, seized two ships and towed the vessels into Newport. In retribution, Captain Packwood and a mob of Rhode Islanders confronted the Liberty’s Captain and then boarded, scuttled, and later burned the Royal Navy sloop on the north end of Goat Island, located in Newport Harbor.

While at the reenactment, we had a lively discussion with several reenactors about the use of mob violence as a method of protesting unpopular political policies and beliefs throughout American history.

Even the most casual student of Revolutionary War history knows that the American colonies had its fair share of violent protests against British governmental policies. 
Of course, Massachusetts mob violence started in the mid 1760s when the Sugar and Stamp acts brought on an explosion of riots, boycotts and protests. 

At first, Massachusetts’ response to the acts were peaceful, with the inhabitants merely boycotting certain goods. However, resistance to the taxes soon became violent. Under the guidance of Samuel Adams, Bostonians began a campaign of terror directed against those who supported the Stamp Act. It began on August 14, 1765 with an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the appointed stamp distributor for Massachusetts, being hung from a “liberty tree” in plain view by the “sons of liberty.” That evening, the Oliver’s luxurious home was burned to the ground. A chastened Oliver quickly resigned his commission. 

The following evening, incited by a rumor that he supported the Stamp Act, the home of Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor of the colony, was surrounded by an unruly mob. When Hutchinson refused to accede to the demand that he come out and explain his position, the crowd broke several windows and then dispersed. Two weeks later, on August 28, 1765, an even larger mob assembled and descended upon the homes of several individuals suspected of favoring the Stamp Act, including again that of the Lieutenant Governor. 

Hutchinson managed to evacuate his family to safety before the mob arrived. Then, as the Lieutenant Governor later described it, “the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of divels and in a moment with axes split down the door and entered. My son heard them cry ‘damn him he is upstairs we’ll have him.’ Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house, others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o’clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors.”

Meanwhile in Newburyport, Newburyport officials declared “the late act of parliament is very grievous, and that this town as much as in them lies endeavour the repeal of the same in all lawful ways, and that it is the desire of the town that no man in it will accept of the office of distributing the stampt papers, as he regards the displeasure of the town and that they will deem the person accepting of such office an enemy to his country.” When an unknown Newburyport resident disregarded the town’s warning and accepted an appointment as a “stamp distributor”, an angry mob quickly mobilized.

According to Newburyport resident Joshua Coffin, the crowd immediately started a campaign of intimidation against the stamp distributor. “In Newburyport, the effigy a Mr. I— B—, who had accepted the office of stamp distributor, was suspended, September twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, from a large elm tree which stood in Mr. Jonathan Greenleaf's yard, at the foot of King street, [now Federal street], a collection of tar barrels set on fire, the rope cut, and the image dropped into the flames. At ten o'clock, P. M., all the bells in town were rung. ‘I am sorry to see that substitute,’ said a distinguished citizen of Newburyport, ‘I wish it had been the original.’”

Not satisfied that their message had been properly conveyed, members of the mob then armed themselves with clubs and patrolled the town questioning strangers and residents alike about their position on the crisis. “Companies of men, armed with clubs, were accustomed to parade the streets of Newbury and Newburyport, at night, and, to every man they met, put the laconic question, “stamp or no stamp”. The consequences of an affirmative reply, were anything but pleasant.”

As Coffin noted, when one stranger was unable to answer the mob’s questions, they beat him severely. “In one instance, a stranger, having arrived in town, was seized by the mob, at the foot of Green street, and, not knowing what answer to make to the question, stood mute. As the mob allow no neutrals, and as silence with them is a crime, he was severely beaten.” A second man fared better when he was able to provide a clever answer. “The same question was put to another stranger, who replied, with a sagacity worthy of a vicar of Bray, or a Talleyrand, ‘I am as you are.’ He was immediately cheered and applauded, as a true son of liberty, and permitted to depart in peace, wondering, no doubt, at his own sudden popularity.”

In Haverhill, Richard Saltonstall fared slightly better. A mob from Haverhill and neighboring Salem, New Hampshire gathered, armed themselves with clubs and descended upon his mansion. Saltonstall quickly came to the door and met the crowd. According to one 19th Century account, he asserted that as Sheriff of Essex County he was bound by an oath of allegiance to the king and was obligated to carry out the duties of the office, including supporting the Stamp Act. Saltonstall allegedly warned the crowd that they were not pursuing a wise or prudent course by threatening him with violence. However, to diffuse the tense situation, Saltonstall then invited the mob to a nearby “tavern and call for entertainment at his expense. They then huzzard to the praise of Colonel Saltonstall."

Three years later, Boston mobs were once again protesting economic policies through the use of violence and the threat of violence. 

In March, 1768 rioters went to “Commissioner Burch’s home and with clubs assembled before his door a great part of the evening, and he was obliged to send away his wife and children by a back door.” Inspector William Woolton returned home one evening to find “4 men passing him, one with a stick or bludgeon in his hand accosted him saying, ‘Damn your Blood we will be at you to Morrow night.’ ”
In Salem, Massachusetts, a government informant who assisted in the enforcement of the Townshend Acts was discovered and quickly seized by an angry mob. Afterwards, "his Head, Body and Limbs were covered with warm Tar and then a large quantity of Feathers were applied to all Parts, which by closely adhering to the Tar, Exhibited an odd figure, the Drollery of which can easily be imagined." He was set in a cart with the placard "Informer on his breast and back and escorted out of town" by the mob, who warned him of worse treatment if he returned.

On September 10, 1768 a large Newburyport mob armed themselves with clubs and began to search for the two men they believed were local informants. According to the September 27th edition of the Essex Gazette, one Joshua Vickery was quickly found and "in a riotous manner asaulted in the Kings Highway in Newbury-Port, seized and carried by Force to the public stocks in the said Town, where he sat from three to five o'clock, in the afternoon, most of the Time on the sharpest stone that could be found, which put him to extreme Pain, so that he once fainted."

When he regained consciousness, Vickery was "taken out of the Stocks, put into a cart and carried thro' the Town with a Rope about his Neck, his Hands tied behind him until the Dusk of the Evening, during which time he was severely pelted with Eggs, Gravel and Stones, and was much wounded thereby; he was then taken out of the Cart, carried into a dark Ware-houfe, and hand-cuffed with Irons, without Bed or Cloathing, and in a Room where he could not lay strait, but made the Edge of a Tar Pot serve for a Pillow, so that when he arofe the Hair was tore from his Head."

Vickery spent the next day (Sunday) under guard in the warehouse. Several of his friends attempted to visit the carpenter, only to be rebuffed by the mob. Only his wife, "who with Difficulty obtained Liberty to speak to him" was granted access.

On Monday, September 12th, Vickery was dragged out of the warehouse and subjected to intense questioning. Surprisingly, he was able to convince mob leaders "that he never did, directly or indirectly, make or give Information to any Officer of the Customs, nor to any other Person, either against Cap' John Emmery or any other man whomsoever."

A second suspected informant "was stripped naked, tarred and then Committed to Gaol for Breach of the Peace” by the Newburyport mob.

On March 5, 1770, the violent protests culminated with the Boston Massacre. As loyalist James Chalmers later noted “March 5, 1770 is a day when the rebellious citizens of the Boston Colony demonstrated their commitment to mob violence, and their willingness to be led down the path to destruction by a few evil men . . . Soldiers, at their duty posts, minding their own business and acting non-confrontational, were verbally assaulted by Bostonian men with epitaphs of ‘bloody back’, ‘lousy rascal’, ‘dammed rascally scoundrel’, and ‘lobster son of a b----’. Physical violence was done to the soldiers, unprovoked, by the mob pelting the soldiers with snowballs, icicles, and pieces of wood . . . It is clear to us that this whole series of events could have been prevented if the small band of inciters did not lure the unsuspecting civilians to perform the aggressive acts perpetrated.”

That evening, Bostonians began to badger and taunt a lone British sentry on guard duty in front of the Royal Custom House. When the crowd began to pelt him with snowballs and ice, he called for help and was reinforced by a squad of soldiers from the 29th Regiment of Foot. When the crowd pressed closer, the nervous regulars opened fire. Five men in the crowd were killed and a number of others were wounded.

For the next two years, tensions seemed to lessen in the colonies, particularly Massachusetts. However, when Parliament attempted to control provincial judges in 1772 by directly controlling their salaries, Massachusetts once again responded in opposition and protest.
Of course, mob violence of the 1760s and 1770s had a dual result. On the one hand, the riots and violence did contribute in some part to government officials abandoning or limiting unpopular laws in the American colonies. On the other hand, the mob violence drove many of those colonists who wished to remain neutral squarely into what would become the loyalist camp. 

As mob violence continued in pre Revolutionary War Massachusetts, many colonists attempted to remain neutral. However, such a political stance became impossible. Dr. William Paine of Worcester gave up his neutrality and declared himself a loyalist after he experienced "too many abuses" and "insults" from Patriots. Samuel Curwen, Judge of the Admiralty, complained Whig “tempers get more and more soured and malevolent against all moderate men, whom they see fit to reproach as enemies of their country by the name of Tories, among whom I am unhappily (although unjustly) ranked.” One minister lashed out at the patriot mobs who routinely and illegally entered and searched the homes of their political opponents. “Do as you please: If you like it better, choose your Committee, or suffer it to be Chosen by half a dozen Fools in your neighborhood – open your doors to them let them examine your tea canisters, and molasses-jugs, and your wives and daughters pettycoats – bow and cringe and tremble and quake – fall down and worship our sovereign Lord the Mob.”