Some parts of the tale of the so-called Boston Massacre, an iconic moment in pre-Revolutionary Colonial history that used to be familiar to any school child echo in today’s world. All of the ingredients—a rowdy protest boiling spontaneously up from streets where outrage over long-time grievances sparked into violence over a trivial incident and was met by either firm and appropriate action by responsible authorities or was a vicious and violent over reaction depending on the political bias of the observer. And not only was the first victim a Black man who became a symbol of rebellion but his uniformed killers were let off virtually scot free at a trial on the flimsiest and most arcane of grounds. Sounds like the familiar arc of a police slaying of an unarmed youth, the kind of all-to-common occurrence that has fed the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was a miserable night in Boston in 1770. What else would you expect on March 5 in the midst of the Little Ice Age which chilled Europe and the Eastern seaboard of North America for nearly two centuries? A nasty wind whipped across the harbor, a few flakes of snow would sting exposed fresh. Old snow and ice was pushed up against buildings turning gray with the soot from a few thousand hearth fires.The uniform and equipment of a private Grenadier of the British 29th Regiment of Foot in 1768.
A lone English soldier, Private Hugh White of the 29th Regiment of Foot had the bad luck to draw sentry duty outside of the Customs House on King’s Street that night. The building was a symbol of unfair taxation without representation and oppression to the people of the city. Customs collectors had been harassed for attempting to enforce the unpopular Townsend Duties and for seizing ships of leading merchants like John Hancock for smuggling, a mainstay of the local economy. The building needed protection.
The bright red coat of an English private soldier, while colorful, was entirely unsuitable for the harsh New England winter. Private White undoubtedly shivered in misery. His life was made worse by the taunting by local toughs, mostly apprentices and day laborers loitering about. One of them, a wig maker’s apprentice, Edward Garrick mocked a passing British officer, Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch, for not paying a bill due his master. Goldfinch ignored the jeers and in fact had settled his account that very afternoon. But White scolded Garrick for insulting an officer. The two exchanged heated words. White struck Garrick with the butt of his musket. A small crowd gathered and began pelting the soldier with snow and ice balls.19 year old bookseller Henry Knox made his bow in the history books by warning besiged Private White and later Captain Preston of the dangerous consequences of opening fire. In five years he would be General Washington's trusted commander of artillery and the man who hauled the heavy artiller from overland from Ft. Ticonderoga setting the stage for the British evacuation of Boston. He would later be Washington's Secretary of War.
When White leveled his musket against his taunters, Henry Knox, a corpulent 19 year old bookseller warned him not to shoot because, “if he fire, he must die.” White refrained from shooting but the crowd on the street grew as church bells rang in alarm. Someone thought to send to nearby barracks for reinforcements for the now besieged White who had retreated to the steps of the Custom House with the door at his back.
Things were about to go from bad to worse.
Four regiments of troops were sent to Boston in 1768, more than were ever stationed there when its very existence was threatened by possible invasion during the French and Indian Wars, after the Massachusetts House of Representatives petitioned the Crown for relief from the Townsend Duties and circulated letters of other colonial legislatures asking for support in the protest. The Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston officially asked for troops to protect him after some of his officers were manhandled and abused.
Four regiments were dispatched as a show of force. That was about 4,000 men plus the wives and children of many of them, officers and enlisted alike, servants, and the inevitable hangers-on to any army. The city of Boston boasted only 16,000 residents and a few thousand more resided in nearby villages. Such a large force deployed among so few civilians, most of them hostile to their presence, led to inevitable friction.
Although two of the regiments had been withdrawn, soldiers of the remaining two were involved in a number of incidents over that winter. In addition to hostility to the policy that dispatched them, minor personal disputes like the Captain’s late payment to a wig maker, irked the population. So did the inevitable attention to the local girls by the soldiers, which was often returned by lasses enamored of a dashing uniform.
A serious bone of contention was the employment of off-duty soldiers at the rope walk, Boston’s biggest industrial concern and a main employer of unskilled and casual labor. The soldiers were working for less than locals and costing many of them jobs. Wives of several soldiers publicly scolded colonists. That very afternoon one had promised that the troops would wet their bayonets on trouble makers.
Back at the Customs House, White was finally relieved by a corporal and six private soldiers under the personal command of Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the watch who declined to trust a junior lieutenant with the sensitive assignment. As they drew close to the Customs House where the angry crowd had grown to over a hundred, Knox again warned the Captain of the awful consequences if his men fired. Preston reportedly told him, “I am aware of it.”This 19th Century engraving features the death of Crispus Attucks. It also seems to show Captain Preston ordering a disciplined volley.
Once at the Customs House Preston had his men load and prime their muskets and form a semi-circle in front of Private White and the door. They faced a crowd now swollen by further reinforcements, many of them armed with cudgels and brick bats. In the very front of the mob, just feet away from Captain Preston who took up a position in front of his men, was a dark skinned man named Crispus Attucks.
Not much is known about Attucks, not even whether he was a slave, an escaped slave, or a freeman. He worked as a sailor on coastal traders and on the docks. He was described as mulato but was known to have both African and Native American Wampanoag ancestry. Although there were not many Blacks in Boston, their presence was not that unusual. They mixed casually and freely with the lowest classes of White Bostonians—the day laborers, indentured servants, and apprentice boys.
As Attucks and the crowd pressed forward, Preston had his men level their muskets but ordered them to hold their fire. He ordered the mob to disperse. They responded with taunts of “go ahead and fire.” Preston said that the troops would not fire “except on his order” and made the point of standing in front of his men’s guns.
From out of the crowd someone hit Private Hugh Montgomery in the arm with a clump of ice or in other accounts he was struck by a cudgel. Montgomery fell to the ground, although he may simply have lost his footing on the ice, and lost his musket. He grabbed the gun and scrambled to his feet. Enraged, he leveled his gun at the nearest man, Atticus and fired yelling “Damn you, fire!” to his fellow soldiers.
Attkus crumpled to the ground mortally wounded. There was a pause of a few seconds and then a ragged, un-coordinated volley went off from the troops. The only command Preston gave was a desperate order to cease fire.
Eleven men were hit by fire indicating that some may have been injured by the same round or that some soldiers had time to re-load and fire. In addition to Attkus rope maker Samuel Gray and mariner James Caldwel died on the cobblestones. Seventeen year old ivory turner apprentice Samuel Maverick standing near the rear of the crowd was struck by a ricocheting fragment and died a few hours later. Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant died of his wounds two weeks later.
The crowd retreated to near-by streets but continued to grow. Preston called out the entire regiment for protection and withdrew his squad to the barracks.Massachusetts born Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson tried to calm the angry mob that surrounded the State House.
An angry mob descended on the near-by State House which was ringed with troops for protection. Massachusetts born Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson tried to calm the crowd by addressing them from the relative safety of a balcony. He promised a through and prompt investigation. After a few hours the crowd drifted away.
Local malcontents, becoming known loosely as Patriots, were quick to use the slaughter to raise a hue and cry against the Townsend Duties and to the onerous virtual military occupation of their city. Two virtually identical engravings purporting to accurately portray the shooting were rushed to publication. The most famous, engraved by Paul Revere, the master silver and coppersmith, iron foundry man, bell caster, and master of all trades, after a drawing by Henry Pelham was published in the Boston Gazette and then re-issued in sometimes hand colored prints which made Revere and the printer a good deal of money.A hand tinted copy of Paul Revere's famous broadside of the affair on King's Street. The image was actually cribbed from an earlier version by Henry Pelham that appeared in the Boston Gazzette.
With public opinion inflamed, the two regiments in the city were withdrawn to Castle William on an island in the harbor. Had they not been, “they would probably be destroyed by the people—should it be called rebellion, should it incur the loss of our charter, or be the consequence what it would,” according to Secretary of State Andrew Oliver. By May General Thomas Gage, in command of all troops in the colonies, decided that the presence of the 29th Regiment was counterproductive to good order, had the regiment removed from Massachusetts entirely.
Meanwhile at the end of March Captain Preston, the men in his rescue squad, Pvt. White and four civilian employees of the Customs House, who some had fired out the windows of the building were indicted for murder and manslaughter.
Gov. Hutchinson managed by hook or by crook to delay the start of the trial for nearly a year to let inflamed passions died down. Patriots took that time to organize the publication of an account of the event, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, which although banned from circulation in the city, inflamed passions across the Colonies, and even earned sympathy when it was reprinted in London.
Patriot lawyer John Adams successfully took up the defense of Captain Preston, the accused soldiers, and civilian employees of the Customs House.
Despite the delay, it looked like it would be very difficult for Captain Preston and the soldiers to get a fair trial in Massachusetts. All of the leading local lawyers had refused to take their cases. John Adams, a leading Patriot, a man with boundless political ambition, and first cousin to rabble-rouser-in-chief Samuel Adams, agreed to take on the case, despite howls of protest from his political allies.
It was a great choice. Assisted by his cousin Josiah Quincy, another Patriot, and Loyalist Robert Auchmuty he quickly obtained a not guilty verdict in the first trial. Captain Preston was shown by the testimony of multiple witnesses to have never ordered the troops to fire and to have tried to get them under control. That was in October.
In November the cases of the enlisted soldiers proved dicer. They had, after all, fired lethal rounds without orders. Adam’s pled straight up self-defense. He told the jury that the men were under attack by the mob, “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars.” Appealing to the class prejudice of the land-owning pool of eligible jurors, Adams won acquittal on murder charges for all of the defendants, and only two were convicted of manslaughter.
Privates Montgomery and Kilroy still faced the death penalty at the sentencing on December 14, they “prayed the benefit of clergy”, a remnant of Medieval law in which the essentially claimed exemption from punishment on the grounds that they were “clergy” who could read a Bible verse. The two were branded on the thumb and released.
By the time the civilians were up for trial in December, enthusiasm for continuing the case against them, which was weak and based on the testimony of one servant easily proven to be false, was waning.
Whatever the outcome of the trials, the events of March 5 helped set the stage for the American Revolution.
By the way the term Boston Massacre was not applied to the bloody ruckus until long after the fact. Like another iconic event, the so-called Boston Tea Party it got its name during the brief national enthusiasm generated by the 50th anniversaries of important Revolutionary and pre-revolutionary events. And like the Tea Party it was soon imbued with a lot of romantic myth and nonsense.