This tale is excerpted from Nathaniel Philbrick's upcoming book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, available for pre-order now and in stores on April 30, 2013.
From This Story
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 tadpole-shaped island was dominated by three towering, lightly settled hills and a virtual 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 amphitheatre of humped and jagged islands that extended more than eight and a half miles to Point Allerton to the southeast. 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 follow 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, ox carts, 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, there were at least two feet of snow covering 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 theirs 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 50-year-old customs officer John Malcom—that is, at least, according to one account. Another account 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 as a customs agent 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; he was worried that Malcom might injure the defenseless boy and told him 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 Tyrone in brutally suppressing an uprising of citizens who objected to the taxation system then prevalent in this portion 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 30-man crew under the slimmest of pretexts. His pompous and overbearing manner had so angered the sailors that they’d disarmed 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 and 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 that it was in his best interests to beat a hasty retreat to his home on Cross Street.