The Library of Congress > Chronicling America > The Massachusetts spy.

Search America's historic newspaper pages from 1756-1963 or use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present. Chronicling America is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities external link and the Library of Congress. Learn more

The Massachusetts spy. [volume] : (Boston [Mass.]) 1770-1772
Place of publication:
Boston [Mass.]
Geographic coverage:
  • Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts  |  View more titles from this: City County, State
Zechariah Fowle, Isaiah Thomas
Dates of publication:
  • No. 1 (July 17, 1770)-v. 2, no. 85 (Oct. 1, 1772).
Weekly Mar. 7, 1771-1772
  • English
  • Boston (Mass.)--Newspapers.
  • Massachusetts--Boston.--fast--(OCoLC)fst01205012
  • Massachusetts--Suffolk County.--fast--(OCoLC)fst01206189
  • Suffolk County (Mass.)--Newspapers.
  • "A Weekly, Political and Commercial Paper--Open to all Parties, but Influenced by None."
  • Also issued in microopaque and microfilm from Readex Microprint Corp.
  • Published by Isaiah Thomas, <Oct. 30, 1770>-Oct. 1, 1772.
  • Suspended Feb. 2-Mar. 6, 1771.
  • Volume numbering begins with Vol. 1, no. 2 (Aug. 7, 1770).
sn 83021193
Succeeding Titles:
View complete holdings information
First Issue Last Issue

The Massachusetts spy. [volume] August 23, 1770 , Image 1


Calendar View

All front pages

First Issue  |  Last Issue

Massachusetts Spy

In 1754, six-year-old Isaiah Thomas was apprenticed to Boston printer Zechariah Fowle when Zechariah's brother Daniel was unjustly arrested and held for several days for printing a satirical pamphlet that criticized the Province of Massachusetts Bay's Great and General Court. "Living in the family of Daniel Fowle's brother, I early became minutely acquainted with the whole transaction, and deep impressions were then made upon my mind in favor of the liberty of the press," he later wrote in the History of Printing in America, published in 1810.

Due to this incident, Daniel moved to New Hampshire and in 1756 started the New Hampshire Gazette, with Zechariah taking over his Boston printing establishment. Isaiah eventually became Zechariah's partner, and on July 17, 1770, they began publishing the Massachusetts Spy, which would become one of the most important newspapers of the American Revolution.

The paper—named after earlier English papers dubbed "spye"—initially started with a thrice weekly schedule to appeal to the working class, who it was thought might prefer smaller but more frequent doses of news, and it was available on days when no other Boston paper was being published. However, publication moved to twice weekly after Fowle dropped out of the enterprise at the end of October. After a break at the six-month mark in February, the new weekly Thursday schedule commenced with a decorative masthead and the subtitle, "open to all parties, but influenced by none" (March 7, 1771).

That same issue also featured articles on the one-year anniversary of the Boston Massacre, and the next issue displayed an image of the Goddess of Liberty, revealing the paper's true leaning. The November 22, 1771 issue continued to profess neutrality, yet included the lines from Joseph Addison's Cato, "Do thou great Liberty inspire our Souls,—And make our lives in thy Possession happy,—Or, our Deaths glorious in thy just Defence." The July 7, 1774 issue of the Spy finally dropped the veneer of impartiality toward the rising tensions with Great Britain, featuring Paul Revere's design of a disjointed snake representing the separate colonies and adding the exhortation "Join or die."

The Sons of Liberty were said to meet in the office of the Spy, and it became the most popular newspaper, surpassing its rival patriot paper the Boston Gazette, with subscriptions throughout the colonies. Governor Thomas Hutchinson attempted to prosecute Thomas in 1771, but a grand jury failed to find cause for indictment. Thomas's rhetorical combat promoted the cause of freedom, but with every article critical of the British or their loyalists, threats to his person and property increased. He was on a list of twelve people—including John Hancock and Samuel Adams—who were to be summarily executed when captured.

Due to the escalating pressure, the April 6, 1775 issue was the last published in Boston as Thomas was induced to remove his press and types in a nighttime escape. The next Wednesday morning issue of May 3, 1775 was the first newspaper published in the central Massachusetts town of Worcester. In that issue was printed his most famous article, the coverage of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which was the most influential and widely copied version due to it clearly being a detailed eye-witness account. This article has been deemed the first instance of American war correspondence.

When the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, Thomas considered moving the paper back to Boston, but ultimately remained in Worcester. On July 14, 1776, Thomas is said to have held the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in New England. He then leased the paper out for several years until he resumed control in 1778. Thomas went on to become the foremost printer and publisher in America, operating over twenty bookstores in the greater Boston area, and he founded the American Antiquarian Society in 1812.

After settling in Worcester, the paper was suspended from 1786 to 1788 due to the stamp tax, and the Worcester Magazine replaced it. In 1799, Thomas started publishing it with his son, Isaiah Thomas Jr., who took over in 1801. The paper continued for the next century with a succession of editors, locations, name changes and owners as its fortunes gradually declined, especially after the Worcester Daily Spy began in 1845. The last weekly edition was printed on December 31, 1897.

Provided by: Boston Public Library