A Boy on a Sled Starts a Revolution?

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What event made the American Revolution possible: The Boston Massacre; The Boston Tea Party; the British closure of Boston Harbor? While these events certainly helped solidify patriot resolve against British tyranny, there’s another often overlooked story that led to thousands of Bostonian’s joining forces against British rule. In the winter of 1774, snow-covered the roads and hills of Boston, which made sledding ideal for any thrill seeking boy. Copp’s Hill on Boston’s North End made a perfect sledding spot for a boy with a wooden sled and a desire to go fast down Boston’s streets.

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Boston’s North End and Copp’s (Corps Hill)

One such boy was sledding down Copp’s Hill when his sled ran into a man by the name of John Malcom, knocking him to the ground. Malcom was a customs officer and ardent Loyalist. He was also known to lose his temper and was generally disliked, especially by patriots. Malcom began shouting angrily at the boy who had just struck him with his sled. As he was raising his cane to strike the boy, a neighbor named George Hewes came out into the street and ordered Malcom to put down his cane and leave the defenseless boy alone.

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George Hewes Portrait (Cole 1835)  Hewes lived to the age of 98

George Hewes was a known patriot having participated in the Boston Tea Party just a few months before. Malcom, a former British soldier and now important British official, turned his anger on Hewes who was a simple Boston shoemaker. Malcom bolstered by his claim of social superiority told Hewes to mind his own business. When Hewes refused to withdraw, Maclom stuck Hewes in the head with his cane leaving a bloody gash and knocking Hewes unconscious. By now others had gathered at the scene, at which time Malcom ran back into his home.

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Dr. Joseph Warren (Copley 1765)

With a throbbing head, Hewes went to see Dr. Joseph Warren, a physician and patriot leader. Dr. Warren told Hewes that he should report the attack and seek a warrant for Malcom’s arrest. Before Hewes could ever get a warrant, word had spread quickly about Malcom’s attack. An angry mob had gathered outside Malcom’s house on Cross Street. Malcom arrogantly baited the crowd through an upstairs window, claiming that the British Governor of Massachusetts would pay him twenty pounds sterling for every Yankee he killed. The mob grew violent and grabbed ladders to climb up to Malcom’s window. Men climbed the ladders, punched through glass windows, jumped into the house, took Malcom’s sword, and drug him out into the street. The mob grabbed a barrel of tar from a nearby wharf, heated it over a bonfire, and loaded Malcom into a cart. They took Malcom to the front of the Customs House and Old State House, the same place where the Boston Massacre had occurred four years earlier. In the bitter cold night the mob stripped off Malcom’s clothes and began to pour the scalding hot tar on his body. Once coated in hot sticky tar, they doused him with feathers.

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Malcom was tarred and feathered near this point at the Old State House, also the site of the Boston Massacre

The mob then carted Malcom through the streets of Boston, eventually pulling him in front of Governor Hutchinson’s official residence and ordering Malcom to declare British Governor Hutchinson an enemy to his country. Malcom repeatedly refused. The mob grew even more enraged and took Malcom to the Liberty Tree, a huge Elm that grew near the center of the city. They tied a noose around Malcom’s neck and threatened to hang him if he continued to refuse to denounce the Royal Governor. The mob beat Malcom with sticks. By now Malcom was nearly unconscious. He finally relented stating that he would do or say whatever the mob wanted. The mob then carted Malcom through Boston’s streets back to his home near Copp’s Hill and dumped him out of the cart. Malcom was reportedly stiff as a log and nearly frozen to death. Amazingly, John Malcom survived.  He was reportedly bed-ridden for eight weeks as his flesh peeled off from the tar.

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Some patriots, including George Hewes, denounced the unruly mob that had nearly beaten Malcom to death. Others, like Samuel Adams, used the events as a propaganda tool to instigate further dissent against the British Government. In hindsight and by today’s standards the Boston mob’s violence against John Malcom seems horrible. To colonists living in Boston at the time, John Malcom embodied everything the patriots hated about the British. He was arrogant. He flaunted his higher social standing. He believed that the colonists could be beaten into submission. He thought the King could do no wrong.

It’s hard to say how much influence the boy sledding down Copp’s Hill had on starting a revolution. But it’s plain to see that the seeds of revolution grew in Boston on that cold winter’s night. History is full of the seemingly little things that grow into the movements of entire nations. A boy running his sled into John Malcom is one of them.

For more information about the Copp’s Hill Incident check out Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. 

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