March 5

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Massachusetts Spy (March 5, 1772).

“MATHEMATICAL INSTRUMENTS … At the Head of the Long-Wharf, King-Street, BOSTON.”

Thick black mourning borders enclosed the columns of the March 5, 1772, edition of the Massachusetts Spy.  Isaiah Thomas, one of the most ardent patriots among the printers in Boston, commemorated the second anniversary of the Bloody Massacre, the Massacre in King Street, better known today as the Boston Massacre.  Colonial printers most often used mourning borders when announcing the death of an official (including Francis Fauquier, lieutenant governor of Virginia, in March 1768) or a prominent figure (including George Whitefield, a minister associated with the revivals now known as the Great Awakening, in September 1770), but in the 1760s and 1770s American printers also deployed mourning borders to lament the death of liberty, doing so in response to the Stamp Act and the “HORRID MASSACRE! Perpetrated in King-street.”

On the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Thomas did more than frame the content of the Massachusetts Spywithin mourning borders.  A woodcut depicting a skull and bones, familiar from the Stamp Act protests, appeared near the top of the first column on the front page, just below several lines about massacre that Thomas attributed to Shakespeare.  The printer also inserted a letter written on the occasion of the anniversary of the “fifth of March … to appear with the labours of those able and assiduous patriots, who have rendered the Spy the terror of tyrants, the scourge of traitors, and expositor of the violent and fraudulent usurpations of a set of villains partaking largely the nature of both.”  Thomas also published a memorial to “FIVE of your fellow countrymen, GRAY, MAVERICK, CALDWELL, ATTUCKS and CARR … most inhumanly MURDERED … By a Party of the XXIXth Regiment, Under the command of Capt. Tho. Preston.”  The memorial linked the Boston Massacre to the murder of Christopher Seider, an “innocent youth,” by Ebenezer Richardson, “Informer, And tool to Ministerial hirelings,” on February 22, 1770, just two weeks before the events in King Street.  The memorial expressed dismay that even though Richardson “was found guilty By his Country On Friday April 20th, 1770,” he “Remains UNHANGED” on “This day, MARCH FIFTH! 1772.”  The memorial concluded with a proclamation that “the PRESS” should “Remain FREE” as “a SCOURGE to Tyrannical Rulers.”

The mourning borders did not enclose just the memorial, editorials, and other content related to the Boston Massacre.  Instead, they appeared on all four pages, enclosing even the advertisements for cookbooks, “ENGLISH GOODS,” almanacs, and mathematical instruments.  Even if readers chose to skip over the dense essays that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper, they could not miss the mourning borders when they perused the advertisements.  Merely reading the advertisements on the final page of the Massachusetts Spy required colonizers to engage with the politics of the period.

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