Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mein Wars - Part Three

   While Mein was skirmishing with the Boston merchants, his old nemesis, James Otis became involved in an altercation with John Robinson, one of the Customs Commissioners. Otis had become more and more mentally unstable and became very agitated when letters that the Customs Commissioners had sent to England during the Liberty episode in 1768 surfaced. The letters had painted a picture of a Boston consumed by riots and bordering on insurrection, reinforced the impression that misrepresentation had prompted the sending of troops and fueled rumors that that some of the Whig leaders may be tried as rebels. Otis became desperate to find out what was in the letters and had a series of confrontations with members of the Board of Customs Commissioners. On September 2, 1769, Otis had a confrontation with Robinson in a coffee house. Over a cup of coffee, Otis tried to determine from Robinson what the commissioners had written about him. Robinson didn't believe that Otis had been mentioned in the letters but did not want to divulge the contents of what was private government correspondence. Otis complained that his character had been impugned and demanded justice. Robinson, a rather haughty individual, replied that he was "ready to give you the satisfaction you have a right to expect from a gentleman." They then parted.
  During the next few days Otis became even more agitated and the more he thought about the letters the angrier he got. He lashed out in the Boston Gazette writing that the Commissioners were "superlative blockheads" and attacking Robinson stating "I have a natural right if I can get no other satisfaction to break his head." Reading this, Robinson determined to achieve his own satisfaction.
   The next evening Otis and Robinson met at the British Coffee House, a favorite haunt of British army and navy officers, and their friends and allies, to include John Mein. (Historians, I feel, have mischaracterized the nature of coffee houses and taverns in colonial Boston, fostering the impression that individual taverns catered to certain factions and that attendance at one or another of them implied certain political leanings. My view, and I think a more historically accurate one, is that Boston society was very fluid and that individuals moved back and forth between the various coffee houses and taverns without much thought to "political affiliation.") Otis was already in the coffee house, when, sometime between 7 and 8 PM, Robinson entered. Robinson and Otis had identical walking sticks, Otis having purchased one identical to Robinson's, and both demanded satisfaction. Otis suggested that they go outside to fight, but Robinson grabbed him by the nose, an incredible indignity that had to be responded to. Immediately they struck each other with their sticks and continued to flail at each other until bystanders grabbed their sticks and encouraged them to fight with their fists. Patrons of the coffee house then encircled the two combatants and a general melee broke out. John Gridley, a young friend of Otis, came to his rescue when Robinson's friends began to push and pull Otis, thus aiding Robinson in striking Otis. Gridley grabbed Robinson's coat but he was hit in the head with sticks and someone hit him above the wrist, breaking his arm. Robinson's allies threw Gridley out of the coffee house but he returned only to be thrown out again. Gridley, not to be thrawted, entered the British Coffee House through a side door and found a stunned Otis. He got Otis to the front room and sat him down in a chair for a few minutes, after which, with the aid of some of Otis' friends who had arrived in the meantime, took Otis for medical care. Robinson, fearing prosecution or, even worse, the wrath of the Boston mob went into hiding. Despite Gridley's broken arm and a gash on Otis' forehead, neither man had been severely injured but that didn't stop the word being spread that they had survived an assassination attempt.
   William Browne, who reportedly struck Gridley and Otis, was the only one of Robinson's associates who was identified as taking part in the brawl and became a scapegoat. He was detained a day after the brawl and brought before two magistrates and two thousand angry Bostonians at Faneuil Hall that evening. Browne was bound over for trial. When he was unable to post bail, John Murray, a prominent Scottish merchant and friend of the Crown, along with John Mein, posted the surety.
   That same night, the Boston mob visited Mein's bookshop and printing office and smeared the signs on them with excrement, wine and dirt so badly that they had to be taken down.


  1. This fight really shows the intense atmosphere in Colonial Boston.

  2. Was the Scottish merchant James Murray? I think of John Murray as the early Universalist minister.

  3. James Murray it was. A typo on my part. Thanks for catching it.

    James Murray was a staunch Tory and, in fact, owned one of the warehouses in which British troops were quartered. He had recently been made a Justice of the Peace. Upon entering the assembly and being recognized, some of the audience sympathetic to Otis and the Patriot cause tried to force him out but a Selectman prevented it. Murray was then greeted with hisses to which he replied with a saracastic bow.
    Upon leaving, Murray's wig was snatched from his head revealing his baldness; He then was immediately surrounded by some Patriots to prevent further abuse. As this party left Faneuil Hall, some "Whig" placed Murray's wig on the tip of his walking stick, held it above his head, and disdainfully trailed Murray out into the street.