The Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd and killed five men.

An anonymous account said, “The horrid massacre in Boston, perpetrated in the evening of the fifth day of March, 1770, by soldiers of the twenty-ninth regiment which with the fourteenth regiment were then quartered there; with some observations on the state of things prior to that catastrophe.”  The account goes on to tell about the climate of the area and the people living there.  He goes on to elaborate the many different occurrences which preclude this event. “The attack of a party of soldiers on some of the magistrates of the town – the repeated rescues of soldiers from peace officers – the firing of a loaded musket in a public street, to the endangering a great number of peaceable inhabitants – the frequent wounding of persons by their bayonets and cutlasses, and the numerous instances of bad behavior in the soldiers” made the colonists realize the soldiers were not there for peaceful reasons but to pressure the colonists to do what the Crown wanted.

In 1768, Britain sent Royal troops to enforce the taxes on the colonists.  The Townshend Acts were the colonists response to these heavy taxes being levied by Britain.

The Boston Massacre is considered by many as the first pivotal event in the American Revolution.  Emotions were heightened on both sides at this point.  Britain had sent soldiers to quell “the rebels” and make them fall back into line. The soldiers were forced into an untenable position – representing their home country and facing people who were clearly upset by policies made by the home country.

According to John Tudor, an eyewitness to the event, “a most horrid murder was committed on King Street.” On this Monday night, around nine o’clock, 8 soldiers fired into a crowd. Captain Thomas Preston, in command of the British soldiers, commanded the men to fire and three men were killed.  Apparently several boys and men were throwing snowballs at a British sentry outside the Customhouse. The other soldiers came to help him and soon a crowd had formed.  Captain Preston ordered the men back to the main guard.

According to the same anonymous person “Mr. Samuel Gray, killed on the spot by a ball entering his head.  Crispus Attucks, a mulatto, killed on the spot, two balls entering his breast. Mr. James Caldwell, killed on the spot, by two balls entering his back. Mr. Samuel Maverick, a youth of seventeen years of age, mortally wounded; he died the next morning. Mr. Patrick Carr mortally wounded; he died the 14th instant. Christopher Monk and John Clark, youths about seventeen years of age, dangerously wounded. It is apprehended they will die. Mr. Edward Payne, merchant, standing at his door, wounded. Messrs. John Green, Robert Patterson, and David Parker; all dangerously wounded.

What follows in the account is a description of what one man saw and heard. Much of it today would be called “hearsay” in a court of law, and unless the people could come before the judge and testify would not be admissible in the court.  The man contends that the argument between the colonists and soldiers actually began several days before that concerning several boxing matches that did not go well for the soldiers.  

Many people were overheard stating “there were a great many that would eat their dinners on Monday next, that should not eat on Tuesday.”  

A lady was overheard stating “the soldiers were in the right and that before Tuesday or Wednesday night they would wet their swords or bayonets in New England people’s blood”. 

These words could not but help enflaming the colonists against the British soldiers.

Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson was summoned and he ordered everyone to go home.  The captain was arrested and sent to jail where he was cross-examined by the magistrate.  By the next day, the 8 soldiers who fired on the crowd were also arrested.

According to Captain Preston (in his court account), threats were made against his soldiers on repeated occasions.  On the night in question, he was informed a crowd was forming.  The bell had been rung, which usually indicates a fire, but was actually summoning people to gather.  The captain was told the people were gathering in order to capture the sentry posted by the custom house and do him bodily harm.  The man declared he heard the mob declaring they would murder the sentry so he sent an officer and 12 men to protect the sentry and the king’s money at the custom house.  He declares his men attempted to push the colonists back and he did not call an order to fire on them. He states the colonists began to strike the bayonets with clubs and sticks and calling foul names at the soldiers “come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels” and more. He continued to state he would never order his men to fire upon the crowd but he could not stop what happened next.  One soldier’s rifle was struck so hard, he stumbled to the side and it fired.  Even as he questioned the man, the captain himself was struck with a club on his arm, making it almost useless.  He swears that he never ordered his men to fire.  He states that the colonists continued to yet at them to fire and probably in the chaos, some men thought the order was called by him and did indeed fire upon the colonists.  He then explains how he yelled repeatedly to stop firing but because of the chaos, his orders were not heard.

Robert Goddard had a different view of the events than Captain Preston.  According to him “The captain was behind the soldiers. The captain told them to fire.  One gun went off.  A sailor to townsman struck the captain.  He thereupon said **** your bloods fire think I’ll be treated in this manner.  This man that struck the captain came from among the people who were seven feet off and were round on one wing. I saw no person speak to him. I was so near I should have seen it. After the captain said **** your bloods fire, they all fired one after another about 7 or 8 in all, and then the officer bid Prime and load again. He stood behind all the time. Mr. Lee went up the officer and called the officer by name Captain Preston.”

As you can see, the accounts are very different.  Imagine being a juror on the case and hearing such different accounts of the same event.  Ah, but the jurors were not from Boston at all. This was done on purpose to give the men a fair trial. The trial itself did not take place for several months to allow emotions to cool down.  Two jurors were from Roxbury, two from Dorchester, one from Braintree, Stoughton, and Dedham, two from Milton, and three from Hingham.

The people of Boston were upset by the situation and lack of action.  More than 3,000 people gathered and ordered the governor to send the troops back to Britain. Colonel Darlrymple agreed this would be the best course of action in order to restore order to the town.  Four of the men who were killed were buried in a single grave.  Those murdered were: Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks.  The town shut down in respect for those who died. A long procession was led through the town.  More than 20,000 people were thought to have gathered for the procession.

The trial lasted 5 days.  The soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre were defended by John Adams. 

Why would John Adams, a very vocal opponent of British occupation take on such a case?  At that time, no one would take on the case.  The people of Boston were too polarized in their opinions of the incident and many were against the British Crown and the soldiers.  Most of the lawyers were certain that if they should take on the case, their careers would be ruined.  Not John Adams.  He felt the men deserved a fair trial and agreed to represent them. This was not an easy decision for him.  He received death threats and many were suspicious of him even though he felt these men deserved a fair trial.  He wrote in his diary, “the part I took in defense of captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against these soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or witches, anciently.

The soldiers were accused of murder, but were acquitted.  Two were found guilty of manslaughter. On October 24, 1770, Captain Preston was found innocent of all charges because it could not be proven that he ordered the soldiers to fire.  Kilroy and Montgomery, the two soldiers found guilty, faced the death penalty.  They attempted to escape execution by reciting Psalm 51, verse 1. Both men were branded with “M” on their right thumbs for “murder”.

Captain Preston left Boston and returned to England.  The other soldiers returned to the 29th Regiment which had left Boston not long after the massacre.

With emotions running high on both sides, propaganda began to circulate to further incite the colonists and Loyalists.

Samuel Adams, John Adams’ cousin, wrote articles in the Boston Gazette that stated the soldiers got away with blood on their hands.  He continued to keep the Boston Massacre alive in people’s minds and even organized yearly gatherings on March 5th to commemorate the event.

If you want to learn more about the Boston Massacre, there is a fabulous site  If you go there, you will be able to read depositions from many people who were there as well as read newspaper accounts of the event. You can also read John Adams’ speech for the men’s defense.  Many people criticized Adams for taking on this case. 

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