For people living in North America's British colonies, the news wasn't something you read about at home—it was something you picked up in the street. During most of the colonial period, there were no newspapers as we know them today and no other mass media to bring the larger world into people's homes. Instead, people learned about current events from broadsides—cheap, quickly printed single sheets of news, poetry, song, or commentary that were handed out in public squares or pasted onto coffeehouse walls.
Broadsides were a free-for-all of public opinion: they could be bawdy, gory, sensationalistic, serious, irreverent, insightful, or packed with outright lies. Since they could be published anonymously and posted in the dead of night, they were often the forum for venting unpopular—or illegal—political views, including early calls for independence from Great Britain.
When any major public event took place, it was usually followed by a flurry of broadsides, with each writer violently disagreeing with the others and promoting his or her own point of view. This poem provides commentary on the public execution of a burglar in Boston and draws some very pointed lessons on the consequences of crime. As you read it, you might imagine what some other broadside publishers might say in response.
For more background information on this period, and for more broadsides, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (Colonial Settlement)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Colonial America)
- An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera