Villains and Scapegoats

Here are three of the men who had the dubious honor of being the focus of the Boston gangs’ attention on the 5th of November.

Admiral John Byng (1704-1757) was a British naval commander who lost the first naval battle of the Seven Years’ War on May 20, 1756. He had a wind advantage, but let a French fleet damage some of his ships and sail away. Byng then failed to relieve the British garrison at Fort St. Philip on the Mediterranean island of Minorca.

Byng was widely criticized throughout the British Empire. Even though he was the well-connected son of a viscount, the Admiralty court-martialed him for failing to “do his utmost” against the enemy. Byng was shot by a firing squad on March 14, 1757.

According to an aged Bostonian describing the 5th of November in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1821, “Admiral Byng” was one of the effigies carried in a procession. This probably happened in 1756, when the patriotic resentment of Byng was at its peak.

Charles Paxton (1708-1788) was one of Boston’s least popular Customs officials, lampooned for his exaggerated, old-fashioned manners. According to an anecdote that Bostonians retold for decades, he once greeted a merchant with “Your humble servant,” and the angry man replied, “Everybody’s humble servant, and nobody’s friend.” During the Stamp Act protests of 1765, a crowd was ready to attack Paxton’s home, but held off only because his landlord asked them to for his sake.

In 1767 the South End gang chose Paxton as the man they hung in effigy. On that figure and their wagon they hung signs saying, “EVERYBODY’S HUMBLE SERVANT, & NOBODY’S FRIEND,” and “POOR CHARLES THE BATCHELOR.” Bostonians appear to have felt that Paxton lacked manly qualities. In 1769, the Boston Gazette would make fun of him for supposedly hiding himself in a woman’s cape to escape a mob and being afraid of “unruly Boys” playing football in the streets.

John Mein (dates uncertain) was a Scottish bookseller who arrived in Boston in 1764. Three years later he and printer John Fleeming co-founded the Boston Chronicle, a semi-weekly newspaper. They became the favored printers of the Customs service, and were soon identified with support for the royal government.

When Boston’s merchants protested Parliament’s taxes with a “non-importation” boycott of most goods from Britain in 1769, Mein printed Customs office documents showing that some leaders of that cause were still receiving goods from London. He lampooned the movement’s leaders with names like “Muddlehead” (James Otis, Jr.) and “Johny Dupe, Esq” (John Hancock).

On October 28, 1769, several gentlemen confronted Mein on King Street near the Old State House. The printer pulled out two pistols and escaped into a nearby British army barracks. The town went into a furor. That night an excited waterfront crowd carried out Boston’s first tar-and-feathering, of an unlucky sailor who worked for the Customs service.

A week later, the Pope Night gangs made John Mein the focus of their criticism. One verse painted on a wagon’s lantern spelled out his name as an acrostic poem:

“Mean is the Man, M—n is his Name,
Enough he’s spread his hellish Fame,
Infernal Furies hurl his Soul,
Nine Million Times from Pole to Pole.”

No “Pope-Night” target was more reviled, however, than Gov. Thomas Hutchinson in 1773.

Quotation sources: On Byng’s effigy, see Hezekiah Niles, Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America (Baltimore: William Ogden Niles, 1822), 490. Paxton described in Boston Gazette, 6 Nov and 18 Dec 1769. [John Mein], “A Key to a certain Publication,” New England Papers, 10:3:45-7, Sparks Manuscripts, Houghton Library, Harvard University. “Description of the Pope, 1769,” New-York Historical Society.

Image sources: Thumbnail of Byng portrait in the public domain; original at the National Maritime Museum, U.K. Pierre Eugène du Simitière, Library Company of Philadelphia. Boston Chronicle masthead, 1768.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.