On they proceeded through the freezing darkness, the cart’s wheels crunching through the snow. They were now in the heart of the South End, the more affluent side of town, where Marlborough turned into Newbury Street. At the corner of Essex on their left, they stopped at the huge old elm known as the Liberty Tree. A staff rose up out of the topmost portion of the tree’s trunk on which a flag was often flown. This was where the first protests against the Stamp Act had been held back in 1765, and in the years since, the Liberty Tree had become a kind of druidical, distinctly American shrine to the inherent freedoms of man and that Enlightenment sense of “the state of nature” that exists before a people willingly submit to the dictates of a government of their own choosing.
On this cold night, the people of Boston were directing their anger against a man who resolutely, even fanatically insisted that they must defer to a distant king and a legislature that no longer respected their God-given rights, that obedience must be paid not only to their royal sovereign but to a man like John Malcom: a bitter and grasping underling whose world was crumbling beneath him. Malcom stood in the cart below the tree’s bare winter branches and once again refused to curse the governor.
They continued down Newbury to where it became Orange Street. Soon they were approaching the town gate at Boston Neck, more than a mile from the Town House. The old brick fortification dated back to King Philip’s War, when Boston had become a refuge for those attempting to escape the Indians, and once through the gate, they were out onto the thin strand of wave-washed earth that connected Boston to the town of Roxbury. On either side of them, the icy marshes and shallows extended out into darkness. On the left, just past the gate was the gallows.
They placed a rope around Malcom’s neck and threatened to hang him if he would not do as they’d previously ordered. By this time the tar had congealed into a frozen crust; his body’s inner core had probably become so chilled that he no longer had the ability to tremble. Once again, he refused to curse the governor, but this time he asked that they would “put their threats into execution rather than continue their torture.”
They took the rope off Malcom’s neck, pinioned his hands behind his back and tied him to the gallows. Then they began to beat him with ropes and sticks “in a most savage manner.” According to one account they even threatened to cut off his ears. At last, he said he would do “anything they desired.” They untied him and made him curse the governor and the Customs board of commissioners. But his sufferings were not over.
For several more hours they continued to parade Malcom through the streets of Boston. Not everyone shared in the crowd’s pitiless delight; a few people, including the man whose intervention had started this horrifying concatenation of events, the shoemaker George Hewes, were so appalled by Malcom’s treatment that they attempted to cover him with their jackets.
By the time the crowd reached Copp’s Hill near Malcom’s home in the North End, he must have passed out, for he makes no mention of this final stop, which is described in several newspaper accounts. Here, in the cemetery near the summit of the hill, was the grave of Malcom’s younger brother Daniel. Daniel appears to have had the same fiery personality as his brother. Whereas John became a customs agent; Daniel sided with the opposite, more popular camp, famously barricading himself in his house in 1766 to prevent the crown’s agents from finding the smuggled wine he had supposedly hidden in his cellar. When Daniel died in 1769 at the age of 44, he was a patriot hero, and the inscription on his gravestone described him as “a true son of Liberty / a Friend to the Publick / an Enemy to oppression / and one of the foremost / in opposing the Revenue Acts / on America.”
Daniel had been celebrated for breaking the laws of his day. That night in January 1774, his loyalist brother John sat slumped in a chair that someone had placed inside the cart. It was true that he was obnoxious and impulsive, that he’d virtually invited the treatment he’d received. But the fact remained that this “enemy of the people” had been scalded, frozen, and beaten to within an inch of his life not because he’d taken a swipe at a shoemaker but because he upheld the unpopular laws that his brother had scorned. It had been a brutal, even obscene display of violence, but the people of Boston had spoken.
Around midnight, the crowd finally made its way back to Malcom’s house on Cross Street, where he was “rolled out of the cart like a log.” Once he’d been brought back into the house and his frozen body had begun to thaw, his tarred flesh started to peel off in “steaks.” Although he somehow found the strength to make a deposition five days later, it would take another eight weeks before he could leave his bed.
Later that year Malcolm sailed for London with hopes of securing compensation for what he’d suffered at the hands of the Boston mob. In addition to a detailed petition, he brought along a wooden box containing the ultimate trophy: a withered hunk of his own tarred-and-feathered flesh.