Boston Massacre Trials: 1770

views updated Jun 27 2018

Boston Massacre Trials: 1770

Defendants: Captain Thomas Preston; Corporal William Wemms; Privates Hugh White, John Carroll, William Warren, and Matthew Killroy, William McCauley, James Hartegan, and Hugh Montgomery
Crimes Charged: Murder and accessories to murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Both trials: John Adams, Josiah Quincy, Jr.; First trial: Robert Auchmuty; Second trial: Sampson Salter Blowers
Chief Prosecutors (Attorneys for the Crown): Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine
Judges: John Cushing, Peter Oliver, Benjamin Lynd, and Edmund Trowbridge
Place: Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Dates of Trials: Rex v. Preston: October 24-30, 1770; Rex v. Wemms etal.: November 27-December 5, 1770
Verdicts: First trial: Captain Robert Preston, Not guilty; Second trial: Corporal Wemms, Privates White, Carroll, Warren, McCauley, and Hartegan, Not guilty; Privates Killroy and Montgomery, Not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter
Sentences: Branding on the thumbs for Killroy and Montgomery

SIGNIFICANCE: This case was a landmark on the road to the American Revolution. Despite a politically hostile atmosphere, two reasonably fair trials were conducted and the concept of the right of self-defense was upheld.

On the night of March 5, 1770, three men lay dead and two more were dying, following shots fired by British troops into an angry crowd outside of the Custom House in Boston, Massachusetts. This scene, known as the Boston Massacre, came after months of feuding between Bostonians and the soldiers sent to the city to protect newly appointed Customs commissioners. The British king and his cabinet viewed Boston as a hotbed of dissent in the colonies, where ill will blossomed in the years following the French and Indian War. Quarrels arose over Indian and frontier affairs, over customs regulations, over taxes, and particularly over how extensive was Parliament's right to tax the colonies. Boston, with its unusually stormy Stamp Act riots, seemed to be the focal point of the American political ferment.

Although some British troops had remained in the colonies following the war, the stationing of a large number of troops in a colonial city was a new and unwelcome phenomenon. In the 18th century, British citizens and colonists viewed the maintenance of a standing army in peace time as an abomination, much as Americans would regard a secret police force today. The ever-present troops in Boston seemed proof of the erosion of the colonists' rights as individuals and the usurpation of the powers of their cherished political institutions.

In such an atmosphere, trouble was inevitable. Snubs, shoving matches, loud arguments, and occasional fistfights occurred between Boston residents and the soldiers almost from the day the first contingent landed in the fall of 1768.

Snowballs, then Musket Balls Fly

The series of events that led to the confrontation on March 5, 1770, apparently began with a nasty exchange between Private Patrick Walker of the 29th Regiment and William Green, a local rope-maker.

Soldiers of low rank routinely augmented their meager salaries with odd jobs. As Walker passed Green on March 2, the rope-maker asked the soldier if he wanted work. When Walker said yes, Green replied, "Well, then go and clean my shithouse." Insulted, Walker swore revenge. He walked away and, in'a few minutes, returned with several other soldiers.

A fight ensued between the soldiers and the rope-makers, who had rallied around Green. Clubs and sticks were used, as well as fists. The rope-makers routed the soldiers.

But the lull in the fighting was brief. Skirmishes popped up over the next two days. Rumors flew and tensions mounted. The commander of the 29th Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Carr, wrote to Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson to complain of the abuse his men were forced to endure from the citizens of Boston. On March 5, Hutchinson put the letter before the Governor's Council. The unanimous reply was that the people of the town would not be satisfied until the troops were removed.

The evening of the fifth was cold, and a foot of snow lay on the ground. When a wig-maker's apprentice named Edward Garrick insulted Private Hugh White, who was stationed at a sentry box near the Main Guard, the army's headquarters, White struck Garrick on the head with a musket. Nevertheless, other apprentices continued to bait White and throw snowballs at him.

Periodically, cries of "fire" could be heard in the streets, although no buildings were burning that night. Soldiers passed up and down Brattle Street carrying clubs, bayonets, and other weapons. In Boylston's Alley, a battle of snowballs and insults was quelled by a passing officer, who led the troops to nearby Murray's barracks and told their junior officers to confine them. Outside the barracks, a few more words were exchanged before Richard Palmes, a Boston merchant, persuaded many members of the crowd to go home. But some of the crowd shouted that they should go "away to the Main Guard."

At about the same time, some 200 people gathered in an area called Dock Square. More people joined them as groups flowed in from Boston's North End. Some came carrying cudgels. Others picked up whatever weapons they could find in the square. The crowd eventually gathered around a tall man whose words evidently sent the crowd to the Main Guard.

Meanwhile, Private Hugh White retreated from his sentry box near the Main Guard to the steps of the Custom House. From there, he threatened to fire on the approaching crowd and called for the assistance of other soldiers.

When word of the sentry's predicament reached Captain Thomas Preston, he led a small contingent from the 29th Regiment to White's rescue. With bayonets affixed, two columns of men managed to reach the beleaguered Private White. When the soldiers prepared to retrace their route, the prospect of retreating through the menacing crowd appeared more daunting. The soldiers positioned themselves in a rough semicircle, facing the crowd with their captain just in front of them. Their muskets were loaded. Some in the crowd flung angry words and taunts to fire. Finally, someone hurled a club, knocking down soldier Hugh Montgomery. He got to his feet, and a cry was heard to fire. Montgomery fired one shot. No one seemed to be hit and the crowd pulled away a little from the troops. There was a pause during which Captain Preston might have given an order to cease firing. The pause between the first and the subsequent shots could have been as little as six seconds or as much as two minutes, according to witnesses' accounts.

However long the pause, the troops commenced firing. Confusion ensued. Most people in the crowd believed the soldiers were firing only powder, not bullets. But two men were hit almost immediately. Samuel Gray fell with a hole in his head. A tall, burly sailor known as Michael Johnson (true name Crispus Attucks), variously described as black, mulatto, or Indian, took two bullets in the chest. As some members of the crowd surged forward to prevent further firing, another sailor, James Caldwell, was hit.

A ricocheting bullet struck 17-year-old Samuel Maverick as he ran toward the Town House. He died several hours later at his mother's boarding house. The fifth fatality was Patrick Carr. Struck in the hip by a bullet that "tore away part of the backbone," he lingered until the 14th of March. Carr's dying testimony later helped bolster the defense attorneys' claim that the soldiers fired in self-defense.

Captain Preston yelled at his men, demanding to know why they had fired. The reply was they thought he ordered them to shoot when they had heard the word "fire." As the crowd, which had fallen back, began to help those who had fallen, the troops again raised their muskets. Preston commanded them to cease fire and went down the line pushing up their musket barrels. The crowd dispersed, carrying the wounded, the dying, and the dead. Captain Preston and his men marched back to the Main Guard. The Boston Massacre was over. Although the city did not quiet, there were no more deadly altercations.

Following a brusque interview with Captain Preston, Royal Governor Hutchinson made his way to the council room of the town hall. Addressing the crowd from a balcony, Hutchinson promised a full inquiry and asked the townspeople to go home. He said, "The law shall have its course; I will live and die by the law." Thus, the Crown undertook an investigation into the Boston Massacre.

The Redcoats are Indicted

That very night, two justices of the peace went to the council chamber and spent the next several hours calling witnesses to be examined. By morning, Captain Preston and his eight men had been incarcerated. A week later, a grand jury was sworn in, and, at the request of Attorney General Jonathan Sewall, indictments were promptly handed down.

But Sewall, a loyalist, busied himself with legal affairs out of town, leaving the prosecution of the soldiers to whomever the royal court appointed. The disappointing choice was another loyalist, Samuel Quincy, the colony's solicitor general. To strengthen the prosecution, at a town meeting, radicals led by Samuel Adams, persuaded Boston selectmen and citizens to pay prosecution expenses, bringing in the very successful lawyer Robert Treat Paine.

The choice of loyalist Robert Auchmuty to serve as the senior counsel for Captain Preston was no surprise, but the other two attorneys who agreed to act for the defense were: Josiah Quincy, Jr. (brother of the prosecutor Samuel Quincy), a fiery radical; John Adams, the cousin of Samuel Adams and just as offended as he by the presence of the king's troops in Boston. Both Quincy and Adams had participated in the funeral procession for four of the men the soldiers were accused of killing. For the trial of the soldiers, Auchmuty dropped out, and Adams became senior counsel, with Samuel Salter Blowers as junior counsel.

The trials were delayed more than once, providing a long period for tempers to cool. The radicals, thwarted in their efforts to obtain an immediate trial, tried to convict the troops in the press.

The decision on whether to hold one trial or two was not announced until the last minute. The troops wanted to be tried with Captain Preston. They believed separate trials would lessen their chances of acquittal, particularly if Preston were tried first and found not guilty, which would indicate that his men bore the responsibility for firing without orders.

Additionally, if the Captain and his men were tried together, the prosecution would have a difficult case in proving that a bullet from one specific gun, fired by one specific soldier had hit one specific victim. Furthermore, the troops knew that if the Crown could prove that Preston had given the order to fire, the greater share of responsibility and guilt would be his.

Probably to the disappointment of the troops, it was decided there would be two separate trials: the first for Captain Preston, the second for the troops.

Captain Preston's Trial

If a transcript of the trial of Captain Preston ever existed, it has disappeared. Summaries and notes of the testimony were made by various, sometimes artisan, individuals. The reconstruction from the available evidence is as follows.

The captain's trial began October 24, 1770, and was over October 30, 1770. It was the first criminal trial in Massachusetts to last longer than a day.

Samuel Quincy opened for the prosecution and called as its first witness Edward Garrick, the apprentice wig-maker whose taunts had ended with his being struck by Private Hugh White. After describing this incident, Garrick testified that he had seen soldiers in the streets carrying swords before Preston had led his men to the Custom House. The next witness, Thomas Marshall, supported that statement and added that Preston most certainly did have time to order his men to cease fire between the first and subsequent shots.

Witnesses that followed also gave damning testimony. Peter Cunningham said that Preston had ordered his men to prime and load their muskets. Later, he qualified his statement by saying that the man who had ordered the troops to fire was definitely an officer by reason of the way he was dressed. Witnesses William Wyatt and John Cox both insisted that Preston had given the order to fire.

But on the following day, the Crown's testimony floundered. Witness Theodore Bliss said Preston had been standing in front of the guns. Bliss heard someone shouting "Fire" but did not think it was the captain. Henry Knox testified that the crowd was shouting, "Fire, damn your blood, fire." And Benjamin Burdick said he heard the word "Fire" come from behind the men.

The Crown regained some ground with witness Daniel Calef, who unequivocally stated that he had "looked the officer in the face when he gave the word" to fire. The next witness, Robert Goddard, also stated firmly that Preston, standing behind his men, had given the order to fire.

Samuel Quincy did not close the Crown's case with a summation of the evidence. Instead, he quoted from a few legal treatises:

Not such killing only as proceeds from premeditated hatred or revenge against the person killed, but also in many other cases, such as is accompanied with those circumstances that shew the heart to be perversely wicked, is adjudged to be of malice prepense, and consequently murder.

The first three witnesses for the defense testified to the threats uttered against the soldiers by those in the street. According to one, Edward Hill, after the firing, he saw Preston push up a musket and say, "Fire no more. You have done mischief enough."

On the following day, a string of witnesses vividly described the confusion and anger that reigned March 5. The first witness for the defense, John Edwards, stated firmly that it was the corporal, William Wemms, who had given the men the order to prime and load their muskets. Another, Joseph Hilyer, said, "The soldiers seemed to act from pure nature, I mean they acted and fired by themselves."

Reasonable Doubt

Richard Palmes testified that he had had his hand on Preston's shoulder just as the order to fire was given. At the time, the two men were in front of the troops. Even at that distance, Palmes could not be sure whether Preston or someone else had given the order. Palmes' testimony, even with its measure of ambiguity, threw a strong element of "reasonable doubt" on the Crown's case.

Another major witness for the defense was Andrew (no last name recorded). He was a slave, but he was always referred to as the "Negro servant" of merchant Oliver Wendell, a Son of Liberty, who testified emphatically to Andrew's integrity. In meticulous, coherent detail, Andrew described the explosive scene on March 5the taunts, the threats, the objects thrown (mostly snowballs), the clash of stick against bayonet. Andrew also testified that the voice that gave the order to fire was different from the other voices calling out and he was sure the voice had come from beyond Preston.

When John Gillespie took the stand, he testified about an event that occurred at least two hours before the Massacre. He spoke of seeing a group of townspeople carrying swords, sticks, and clubs, coming from the South End. The tone of Gillespie's testimony implied a "plot" to expel the troops from Boston. Adams was opposed to such testimony and was angry with Josiah Quincy, who had prepared the witnesses. He feared attacking Boston's reputation would backfire on the defendant, angering a jury to a guilty verdict or inciting a mob to lynching. Adams threatened to withdraw from the case if any further evidence of that nature was introduced.

In making closing arguments, defense attorney Adams spoke first. He said, "Self-defence [sic] is the primary canon of the law of nature," and he explained how a homicide was justifiable under common law when an assaulted man had nowhere to retreat. Carefully reviewing the evidence, Adams ruthlessly demolished the Crown's weakly presented case. Instead of attacking the Crown's witnesses, he deftly wove parts of their testimony into his arguments and dismissed as honest mistakes those that he couldn't use.

In his summation for the prosecution, Paine, in an effort to dismiss the notion of self-defense introduced by Adams, pointed out that defense witness Palmes was standing in front of the soldiers' muskets. "Would he place himself before a party of soldiers and risque his life at the muzzles of their guns," Paine reasoned, "when he thought them under a necessity of firing to defend their life?"

In the judges' charge to the jury, the main points the jurors had to consider were: Whether the soldiers' party constituted an unlawful assembly? Whether that party was assaulted? Whether the crowd constituted an unlawful assembly? Whether Preston ordered the loading of the muskets and, if so, why? Was this a defensive action? And, most important, did Preston give the order to fire? Finally, in a move that favored the defense, the judges reminded the jury that self-defense was a law of nature.

The court adjourned at 5:00 p.m. on Monday. By 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, the jury had reached a verdict. Preston was found not guilty.

The Soldiers' Trial

One month later in the trial of the soldiers, the Crown's first witnesses testified about the behavior of soldierswho may or may not have been among those on trialin the hours before the Massacre. Prosecution witnesses spoke of off-duty officers, armed with cutlasses, running through the streets and randomly assaulting citizens.

Apparently the prosecution wanted to broaden the court's scope of inquiry, a questionable move since testimony about other soldiers was irrelevant. The defense had little objection so long as it could introduce equally irrelevant testimony concerning the actions of citizens prior to the crucial events. The court permitted the lawyers to have their way.

Of the Crown's first witnesses, only one made a major point. The town watchman, Edward Langford, described the death of a citizen, John Gray. According to Langford, Gray had definitely been shot by Private Matthew Killroy.

The following day the Crown's witnesses faltered. James Brewer, who consistently denied that the crowd had uttered any threats against the soldiers, admitted that people all around were calling "Fire." Asked if he had thought the cry referred to a fire or if it was bidding the soldiers to fire, Brewer answered he could not "tell now what I thought then."

Another witness, James Bailey, was quite clear on the fact that boys in the street had pelted the soldiers with pieces of ice large enough to do injury. Bailey also stated that Private Montgomery had been knocked down and that he had seen Crispus Attucks (one of the men killed) carrying "a large cord-wood stick."

One of the prosecution's most effective witnesses was Samuel Hemmingway, who testified that Private Killroy had said, "He would never miss an opportunity, when he had one, to fire on the inhabitants, and that he had wanted to have an opportunity ever since he landed."

In his opening remarks for the defense, Josiah Quincy spoke about the widespread notion "that the life of a soldier was of very little value; of much less value, than others of the community. The law, gentlemen, knows no such distinction. What will justify and mitigate the action of one, will do the same to the other." He dwelt on the bad feeling between the citizens and the soldiers and the fears of citizens that their liberties were threatened.

Like those for the prosecution, the first defense witnesses spoke of extreme behavior throughout the town. A picture emerged of a possible riot in the making. The testimony of William Hunter, an auctioneer who had seen the tall man addressing the crowd in Dock Square, suggested some of the crowd's activities may have been organized rather than spontaneous. But for the same reasons he had cited during the first trial, John Adams put a stop to further testimony of this sort. And again he threatened to withdraw from the case.

For two days, the defense presented solid evidence that the soldiers at the Custom House were jeopardized by a dangerous crowd. A stream of 40 witnesses appeared. One of the last witnesses was Dr. John Jeffries, who had cared for Patrick Carr, the fifth victim, as he lay dying. Jeffries said, I asked him if he thought the soldiers would have been hurt, if they had not fired. He said he really thought they would, for he heard many voices cry out, kill them.

I asked him then, meaning to close all, whether he thought they fired in self-defense, or on purpose to destroy the people. He said he really thought they did fire to defend themselves; that he did not blame the man whoever he was, that shot him.

In his closing remarks, Quincy pointed out that even a "moderate" person might impulsively seek to exact vengeance from the soldiers at the Custom House for the actions of soldiers elsewhere in the town that night. But the law did not permit this. The evidence demonstrated that the troops had acted in self-defense.

In his closing summation, a brilliant blend of law and politics, John Adams argued self-defense. He portrayed the wrath of the crowd, while subtly exonerating the city of Boston from blame and placing much of the blame on "Mother England." He pointed out, "At certain critical seasons, even in the mildest government, the people are liable to run into riots and tumults." The possibility of such events "is in direct proportion to the despotism of the government."

Adams turned his attention to a description of the crowd. "And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob? Soldiers quartered in a populous town, will always occasion two mobs, where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace."

After 2 and one-half hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Corporal William Wemms, and Privates White, Warren, Carroll, McCauley, and Hartegan. Privates Killroy and Montgomery were found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. Sufficient evidence had shown that these two men had definitely shot their weapons. There was not enough evidence to prove which of the other soldiers had or had not fired.

On December 14, 1770, Killroy and Montgomery returned to court for sentencing. They pleaded "benefit of clergy." This legal technicality dated back centuries to a time when a member of a religious order could only be tried in an ecclesiastical court. By the 18th century, benefit of clergy had become a legal oddity, extended to those who could read and write, which enabled them to obtain a reduced sentence. The court granted the request to Killroy and Montgomery who were branded on the thumbs and released from custody.

The mystery of who actually gave the order to fire was solved after the trials. Shortly before he left Boston, Private Montgomery admitted to his lawyers that it was he who cried "Fire" after he had been knocked down by a thrown stick.

The massacre and the subsequent trials persuaded the British that troops quartered in Boston were more likely to spark than quench the flames of rebellion. Although British troops were soon withdrawn from Boston, patriots continued to use the massacre as evidence of British perfidy and to goad their fellow colonists toward insurrection.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, John. The Adams Papers: The Legal Papers of John Adams, 3 vols. Edited by L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalists in Revolutionary, America, 17601781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

Fleming, Thomas J. "The Boston Massacre." American Heritage. (December 1969): 6-11, 102-111.

Hansen, Harry. The Boston Massacre: An Episode of Dissent and Violence. New York: Hastings House, 1970.

Kidder, Frederic. History of the Boston Massacre. Albany, N.Y.: Munsell, 1870

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 17631789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Quincy, Josiah, Jr. Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Superior Court of Judicature of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, between 1761 and 1772. Edited by Samuel M. Quincy. Boston: 1885.

Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Boston Massacre

views updated May 18 2018


On the snowy evening of Monday, March 5, 1770, a mob of more than one hundred Bostonians confronted a band of nine British soldiers near a sentry box outside the Boston Custom House. Despite the best efforts of Captain Thomas Preston, commander of the squad, tensions between the civilians and the soldiers quickly escalated. Within the space of a few minutes the soldiers began firing, killing or fatally wounding five civilians. Among those who died in the Massacre are Crispus Attucks, a former slave turned sailor; James Caldwell, another sailor; Patrick Carr, an immigrant Irishman who made leather trousers; Samuel Gray, a rope maker; and Samuel Maverick, the brotherinlaw of mob leader Ebenezer Mackintosh. Six other colonists were wounded, some of them innocent bystanders who had not been part of the mob.

Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his supporters worked through the night to avoid further bloodshed. Tensions were partially relieved by the arrest of Preston and his eight men early the following morning. The event, which became known as the Boston Massacre, helped convince both radical patriots and conservative loyalists that Parliament's efforts to tax the colonists against their will could only end in violence.

The roots of the Boston Massacre lay in the resistance to the Townshend Acts, passed by Parliament in 1767. Parliament's Secretary for American Affairs, Wills Hill, Lord Hillsborough, ordered four British regiments be stationed in Boston after a crowd mobbed customs officers who, on suspicion of smuggling, had seized a merchant ship owned by (radical patriot) John Hancock. On August 1, 1768, the Massachusetts General Court responded. Led by representative Samuel Adams it adopted a Nonimportation Agreement that placed a boycott on imported British goods. The radical patriots hoped that this measure would put economic pressure on Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts. Although the boycott, later adopted by several other colonies, eventually persuaded Parliament to repeal the acts, it also prolonged the hard times many of Boston's poorest citizens were experiencing. The aftermath of the French and Indian War (175463) brought a prolonged economic depression to the colonies. Jobs were especially scarce for unskilled laborers. Many of the colonists who formed part of the Boston mob competed directly with the soldiers for these jobs. Others, such as the sailors Crispus Attucks and James Caldwell, held jobs that were affected by the boycott. They may have been prepared to take their frustrations out on the soldiers who represented the British government.

From the time the soliders arrived in Boston, there were bad feelings between the military and the town's citizens. Soldiers broke into private shops and stole goods. Citizens took soldiers' equipment. Others encouraged soldiers to desert their units and seek refuge from their officers in the surrounding countryside. Sometimes the differences between the groups came out in violent confrontations that were made worse by the colonial courts' bias in favor of the citizenry. On July 13, 1769, for instance, a private soldier named John Riley exchanged blows with a grocer named Jonathan Winship. Winship complained to Justice of the Peace Edmund Quincy, obtained a warrant for Riley's arrest, and had the soldier arrested and fined. When Riley did not pay the fine Quincy ordered him to jail. Riley was rescued from the courthouse by several members of his regiment, who fought off the court's constable. In another incident, on October 24, British Ensign John Ness was charged with assaulting a colonial official named Robert Pierpoint and stealing his cargo of wood. On his way to answer the charges before a Justice of the Peace, Ness and his men were mobbed, and several of the soldiers were injured. On February 22, 1770, loyalist sympathizer Ebenezer Richardson was attacked in his home by a mob of stonethrowing radical patriots. One of the stones hit Richardson's wife and, in a rage, he seized a gun and fired into the crowd, killing an eleven-year-old boy named Christopher Seider. All these events increased tensions between the radical patriots and the supporters of the Crown.

Events that led directly to the March 5 confrontation began on Friday, March 2, 1770. Around noon that day, hoping to find work during his offduty hours, Private Patrick Walker approached rope maker John Gray's ropeworks around noon on that day. He was insulted by worker William Green, who invited Walker to "clean out my shithouse." More citizens and soldiers joined the exchange, and it broke out into a fight. The fighting spread on Saturday, resulting in a fractured skull and arm for one of the soliders. Rumors of armed and angry townspeople looking for an excuse to fight spread throughout the town on Sunday and Monday. On the evening of March 5, Private Hugh White was threatened by a crowd made up largely of the working poor of Bostonday laborers, apprentices, and merchant seamen. White called for assistance and was supported by a squad of eight soldiers, including Captain Preston and two soldiers who had been involved in the fight at the ropeworks the previous day. The mob began pelting the soldiers with mud, ice, and snow. Although Preston tried to maintain order, his soldiers panicked and began firing into the crowd.

Preston and his soldiers were arrested and taken into custody. They had to wait until the following October, however, before Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson concluded that they could receive a fair trial. His decision was based in part on a popular (and inaccurate) print of the massacre by silversmith Paul Revere. Most Bostonians believed Preston and his soldiers deliberately fired into the crowd. The nine were threatened with lynching while they awaited their trials. After a three-day trial, defense lawyer John Adams won Preston's acquittal. Of the eight other soldiers, six were found not guilty. Two, however, were convicted of manslaughter and were branded on their thumbs before being returned to their regiments.

Captain Preston's acquittal and the relatively light sentences given to the two soldiers were due in part to the desire of the radical patriot faction to make martyrs out of the victims of the Boston Massacre. However, there was also an economic motive to these events. By the autumn of 1770, the Townshend Acts had largely been repealed and merchants in New York, Boston, and elsewhere were no longer observing the Nonimportation Agreement. As a result, jobs were more plentiful, work for unskilled laborers was easier to find, and the crowds of unemployed urban poor that made up the mobs of citizens melted away. Nonetheless, these very same working poor would return at the outbreak of the American Revolution (177583).

See also: American Revolution, French and Indian War, Paul Revere


Ferling, John. John Adams. New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Hoerder, Dick. Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

Maier, Pauline R. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of Opposition to Britain, 17651776. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Tyler, John W. Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1986.

Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

after all the firing captain preston put up the gun of a soldier who was going to fire and said, "fire no more, you have done mischief enough."

edward hill, witness for the defense of captain thomas preston, 1770

Slave Andrew's Testimony in the Boston Massacre Trial (1770)

views updated May 29 2018


The trials of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 were short ones, lasting no longer than a few days in October and December. The counsel for the defense, John Adams (1735–1826), emphasized the violence of the colonial mob and the instigation of the British soldiers by the sailor and runaway slave Crispus Attucks. In an attempt to play on the prejudices of many of his fellow colonists, Adams, later the second president of the United States, decried the throng of Bostonians as having been incited by a "rabble of Negroes" and Irish. The ploy, in conjunction with the graphic evidence presented here, was successful. Captain Thomas Preston, leader of the British, and four of his men were acquitted outright. Two soldiers were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, branded on the hands with the letter "M," and released.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Boston Massacre .

On the evening of the fifth of March I was at home. I heard the bells ring and went to the gate. I stayed there a little and saw Mr. Lovell coming back with his buckets. I asked him where was the fire. He said it was not fire.

After that, I went into the street and saw one of my acquaintances coming up … holding his arm. I asked him, "What's the matter?"

He said the soldiers were fighting, had got cutlasses, and were killing everybody, and that one of them had struck him on the arm and almost cut it off. He told me I had best not go down. I said a good club was better than a cutlass, and he had better go down and see if he could not cut some too.

I went to the Town House, saw the sentinels. Numbers of boys on the other side of the way were throwing snowballs at them. The sentinels were enraged and swearing at the boys. The boys called them, "Lobsters, bloody backs," and hollered, "Who buys lobsters!"

One of my acquaintance came and told me that the soldiers had been fighting, and the people had drove them to Murray's barracks. I saw a number of people coming from Murray's barracks who went down by Jackson's corner into King Street.

Presently I heard three cheers given in King Street. I said, "We had better go down and see what's the matter." We went down to the whipping post and stood by Waldo's shop. I saw a number of people 'round the sentinel at the Custom House.

There were also a number of people who stood where I did and were picking up pieces of sea coal that had been thrown out thereabout and snowballs, and throwing them over at the sentinel. While I was standing there, there were two or three boys run out from among the people and cried, "We have got his gun away and now we will have him!"

Presently I heard three cheers given by the people at the Custom House. I said to my acquaintance I would run up and see whether the guard would turn out. I passed round the guard house and went as far as the west door of the Town House.

I saw a file of men, with an officer with a laced hat on before them. Upon that, we all went to go towards him, and when we had got about half way to them, the officer said something to them, and they filed off down the street.

Upon that, I went in the shadow towards the guard house and followed them down as far as Mr. Peck's corner. I saw them pass through the crowd and plant themselves by the Custom House. As soon as they got there, the people gave three cheers.

I went to cross over to where the soldiers were and as soon as I got a glimpse of them, I heard somebody huzza and say, "Here is old Murray with the riot act"—and they began to pelt snowballs.

A man set out and run, and I followed him as far as Philips's corner, and I do not know where he went. I turned back and went through the people until I got to the head of Royal Exchange Lane right against the soldiers. The first word I heard was a grenadier say to a man by me, "Damn you, stand back."

question. How near was he to him?

answer. He was so near that the grenadier might have run him through if he had stepped one step forward. While I stopped to look at him, a person came to get through betwixt the grenadier and me, and the soldier had like to have pricked him. He turned about and said, "You damned lobster, bloody back, are you going to stab me?"

The soldier said, "By God, will I!"

Presently somebody took hold of me by the shoulder and told me to go home or I should be hurt. At the same time there were a number of people towards the Town House who said, "Come away and let the guard alone. You have nothing at all to do with them."

I turned about and saw the officer standing before the men, and one or two persons engaged in talk with him. A number were jumping on the backs of those that were talking with the officer, to get as near as they could.

question. Did you hear what they said?

answer. No. Upon this, I went to go as close to the officer as I could. One of the persons who was talking with the officer turned about quick to the people and said, "Damn him, he is going to fire!" Upon that, they cried out, "Fire and be damned, who cares! Damn you, you dare not fire," and began to throw snowballs and other things, which then flew pretty thick.

question. Did they hit any of them?

answer. Yes, I saw two or three of them hit. One struck a grenadier on the hat. And the people who were right before them had sticks, and as the soldiers were pushing their guns back and forth, they struck their guns, and one hit a grenadier on the fingers.

At this time, the people up at the Town House called again, "Come away! Come away!" A stout man who stood near me and right before the grenadiers as they pushed with their bayonets the length of their arms, kept striking on their guns.

The people seemed to be leaving the soldiers and to turn from them when there came down a number from Jackson's corner huzzaing and crying, "Damn them, they dare not fire!" "We are not afraid of them!"

One of these people, a stout man with a long cordwood stick, threw himself in and made a blow at the officer. I saw the office try to fend off the stroke. Whether he struck him or not, I do not know. The stout man then turned round and struck the grenadier's gun at the Captain's right hand and immediately fell in with his club and knocked his gun away and struck him over the head. The blow came either on the soldier's cheek or hat.

This stout man held the bayonet with his left hand and twitched it and cried, "Kill the dogs! Knock them over!" This was the general cry. The people then crowded in and, upon that, the grenadier gave a twitch back and relieved his gun, and he up with it and began to pay away on the people. I was then betwixt the officer and this grenadier. I turned to go off. When I had got away about the length of a gun, I turned to look towards the officer, and I heard the word, "Fire!" I thought I heard the report of a gun and, upon hearing the report, I saw the same grenadier swing his gun and immediately he discharged it.

question. Did the soldiers of that party, or any of them, step or move out of the rank in which they stood to push the people?

answer. No, and if they had they might have killed me and many others with their bayonets.

question. Did you, as you passed through the people towards Royal Exchange Lane and the party, see a number of people take up any and everything they could find in the street and throw them at the soldiers?

answer. Yes, I saw ten or fifteen round me do it.

question. Did you yourself.…

answer. Yes, I did.

question. After the gun fired, where did you go?

answer. I run as fast as I could into the first door I saw open … I was very much frightened.

Boston Massacre

views updated May 18 2018

Boston Massacre

BOSTON MASSACRE. 5 March 1770. Increasing friction between British soldiers of the Boston Garrison and local citizens created conditions ripe for confrontation. On Friday, 2 March 1770, an exchange of insults between workmen and an off-duty soldier seeking employment at Grey's ropewalk led to a small riot. Tempers did not cool over the weekend, and by Monday evening, 5 March, bands of soldiers and civilians roamed the moonlit streets looking for trouble. About 9 p.m. a sentry of the Twenty-nineth Regiment at the Customs House in King Street was so taunted and menaced by a crowd of about sixty young men and boys that, fearing for his life, he loaded his musket and called for help from the nearby Main Guard. Captain Thomas Preston, the officer of the day, led a corporal and seven soldiers to rescue the sentry. Although the soldiers had fixed bayonets and eventually also loaded their muskets, the crowd continued to taunt and press in on them, apparently led by Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and native American descent. Finally, one nervous soldier pulled his trigger and the rest followed. The British gunshots killed three men, including Attucks, and wounded eight others, two mortally. With the crowd stunned and the soldiers reloading and preparing to fire again, Preston ordered his men back to the Main Guard. No one in the crowd made any attempt to retaliate or to follow the soldiers.

The incident created an uproar in Boston, and it was only with great difficulty that imperial officials, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson, managed to quiet the town. Preston and his men were arrested and charged with murder, the Twenty-nineth Regiment was withdrawn to Castle William, and the Fourteenth Regiment was confined to barracks. The radicals claimed that the "massacre" was the inevitable result of having British troops garrisoned in a town of peace-loving citizens, and used the incident to demonstrate to other colonies the evils of increased imperial control. They turned the incident into a propaganda victory, greatly aided by Paul Revere's engraving, which depicted the soldiers as a group of leering, blood-thirsty killers firing into an innocent gathering of Boston citizens. Allegations that Samuel Adams provoked the entire incident to inflame the people and animate the resistance cannot be proven.

Because of fears that Captain Preston and his men could not get a fair trial in Boston, King George III expressed his willingness to pardon the men if they were convicted. But the trial (in late October 1770) turned into a shrewdly orchestrated demonstration of the rectitude of the radical cause. With the approbation of the radical leaders, three leading Boston attorneys (Robert Auchmuty, John Adams, and Josiah Quincy, Jr.) carefully picked a jury, emphasized the uncertainties in eyewitness testimony, and claimed the soldiers had fired in self-defense. They managed to get Preston and six soldiers acquitted of all charges. Two soldiers whom everyone agreed had fired their muskets were convicted of man-slaughter, but they were released after pleading the benefit of clergy and being branded on the hand.

Patriot propaganda in 1770 viewed the five men killed in the "massacre" as martyrs to the cause of American liberty. Opinions in subsequent years have varied. When the Massachusetts General Assembly voted in 1887 to erect a memorial to the victims, members of the Massachusetts Historical Society protested, resolving that "nothing but a misapprehension of the event styled the 'Boston massacre' can lead to classifying these persons with those entitled to grateful recognition at the public expense" (Alden, p. 184). Whether the members objected more to memorializing riotous behavior or to the social standing of the victims is not known.

SEE ALSO Adams, John; Adams, Samuel; Attucks, Crispus; Boston Garrison.


Alden, John Richard. General Gage in America, being Principally a History of His Role in the American Revolution. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1948.

Wroth, L. Kinvin, and Hiller B. Zobel, eds. The Legal Papers of John Adams. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965.

Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1970.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

Boston Massacre Soldiers

views updated May 11 2018


The Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770, was an event that exemplified the growing tension between the American colonies and England which would subsequently result in the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

In 1767 the English Parliament had levied an import tax on tea, glass, paper, and lead. The duties were labeled the Townshend Acts—part of a series of unpopular taxes directed at the colonists without their representation. The colonists retaliated with attacks on English representatives and officials, and troops were dispatched to America to restore order. The agitation between the colonists and the English soldiers increased, reaching a climax on the evening of March 5.

An apprentice antagonized an English soldier on guard duty and the soldier cuffed the boy on the ear with his firearm. The incident drew a gathering of hostile colonists, and the guard, alarmed at the size of the mob, called for help. The chief officer of the unit, Captain Thomas Preston, arrived with seven men. In an instant several shots were fired into the crowd of colonists: three men were killed at once; two more died later.

The city of Boston braced itself for more violence; Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson calmed the crowd by promising the incarceration of the guilty soldiers to be followed by a trial for murder.

Political leader Samuel Adams was influential in building a public case against the soldiers through his bombastic speeches and newspaper articles. He published a pamphlet that related the events of the violent evening as told by eyewitnesses; all the reports were decidedly in support of the colonists. The pamphlet, however, was not distributed in Boston, due to the belief that it might interfere with the fairness of the trial.

The trial became a controversial issue with political aspects. In addition to the murder charge, the legal action intensified the struggle between the King's men, who desired a verdict in their favor to counteract the tactics of Samuel Adams, and the colonists, who wanted the trial to be an example to Parliament against

further use of the militia to restrain their freedom.

Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson believed that an immediate court hearing would be detrimental and unfair to the King's men; he advocated a series of postponements and the trial finally began in the fall of 1770. robert treat paine served as prosecutor, and john adams (cousin to Samuel Adams) and Josiah Quincy were the defense counselors.

The trial progressed and arguments were presented for both sides. The defense was determined to prove that the soldiers were acting in self-defense. The prosecution attempted to show that the soldiers were guilty of malice with intent to kill.

Captain Preston was tried separately (there is evidence that the jury was packed in his favor). He was acquitted and he hastily left Boston.

Eight soldiers were next brought to trial and six were acquitted. The remaining two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter (as opposed to murder). The method of punishment was branding on the thumb. The two soldiers, Matthew Killroy and Hugh Montgomery, received their penalty and were discharged from the military.

The irony of the Boston tragedy is that it need never have occurred. Shortly before the night of the bloodshed Parliament had decided to repeal the townshend acts that had so greatly agitated the colonists. Word of this decision did not reach Boston until later.

The acts were revoked later in 1770, after the Boston Massacre; one tax remained, however, and that was a minimal tax on tea. This tea tax would later precipitate the Boston Tea Party.

Boston Massacre

views updated Jun 08 2018

Boston Massacre

On the evening of March 5, 1770, tensions between English soldiers and the civilians of Boston, Massachusetts , erupted into a violent encounter now known as the Boston Massacre. An incident that began with the harassment of one English soldier ended with the deaths of five colonists and injuries to six others. The incident was an indication of colonial dissatisfaction with English rule. Later it would be depicted as a fight in the battle for colonial liberty.

Tensions rising

The roots of the Boston massacre lay in the deep colonial resentment of measures taken by the English Parliament. The Townshend Acts of 1767, in particular, had imposed taxes that affected businesses employing the working poor. As colonial resistance to the acts increased, England sent soldiers to America in 1768 to maintain order.

Tensions rose as the colonists began to suspect that the English soldiers were permanently stationed within the colonies. Soldiers began to bear the brunt of the citizens’ anger and frustrations and were subjected to harassment and acts of violence. The culmination of this tension was the Boston Massacre.

The incident

On March 2, an English soldier approached a rope maker in hopes of finding extra work during his off-duty hours. The rope maker insulted the soldier. Eventually the argument turned into a fight that involved other citizens and soldiers and lasted into the next day.

On March 5, angry townspeople confronted another soldier who was on duty and began to harass him. Several other soldiers came to his defense. Captain Thomas Preston ordered them not to fire, but the crowd began pelting the soldiers with mud, ice, and snow. Although Preston attempted to maintain order, the soldiers fired. One soldier later claimed he had received an order to do so. Three colonists died immediately, two others died later, and six others were injured.

Preston and his soldiers were arrested and taken into custody. Most Bostonians believed that the soldiers deliberately fired into the crowd. A trial did not come until October 1770. John Adams (1735–1826), who later became the second president of the United States, served as the defense lawyer for the accused. Preston and six of his men were acquitted (found not guilty). Two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter, but they received the small punishment of branding on their thumbs before returning to their regiments. The Boston Massacre added to growing colonial resentment of England, which resulted in the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

Boston Massacre

views updated May 21 2018


BOSTON MASSACRE. As discontent over Britain's taxation policies mounted in the 1760s, violence in the seaport cities escalated. In June 1768, British customs officials in Boston attempting to seize John Hancock's sloop Liberty for tax violations were attacked by a mob and beaten. To subdue the spreading revolt, British regulars arrived to take control of the city on 1 October 1768. Many Bostonians resented the British practice of billeting troops in private homes. Skirmishes between troops and civilians ensued. On the evening of 5 March 1770, a grenadier of the Twenty-ninth Regiment was on duty at the customhouse when he was beset by a taunting crowd of civilians. Captain Thomas Preston, with seven men, marched to the customhouse. Unable to quell the crowd, Preston loudly ordered his men, "Don't fire!" while the mob was shouting, "Fire and be damned!" The soldiers fired, killing three men instantly; two died later. Patriot leaders promptly decried the "massacre" and aroused mass meetings in protest. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, fearing an even bloodier reprisal, pulled his troops back to an island in the Boston harbor. The repeal of most of the offending import duties further demonstrated the weakness of imperial power when faced with a well-organized local resistance movement.

In October 1770 Preston, defended by John Adams and Robert Auchmuty, assisted by Josiah Quincy Jr., was tried for murder and acquitted by a Boston jury. The soldiers—defended by Adams, Quincy, and Sampson Salter Blowers—won acquittals a month later. Four civilians, accused of firing from the customhouse windows, were tried in December 1770; all were acquitted.


Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Abridged ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. The original edition was published in 1979.

Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: Norton, 1970.

Hiller B.Zobel/a. r.

See alsoBilleting ; Colonial Policy, British ; andvol. 9:Eyewitness Account of the Boston Massacre ; Slave Andrew's Testimony in the Boston Massacre Trial ; andpicture (overleaf).

Boston Massacre

views updated May 23 2018

Boston Massacre (1770).The Boston Massacre, a pivotal event of the Revolutionary era, emerged from Britain's attempts to assert greater control over its North American colonies after the French and Indian War. When customs officials complained about abusive Bostonians, the British government assigned four regiments to garrison the town.

The troops' arrival in October 1768 heightened political conflict and exacerbated local economic pressures, as off‐duty soldiers competed for jobs on the docks; but the situation eventually stabilized sufficiently that two regiments could be withdrawn. Soldiers and civilians maintained a strained but generally peaceful relationship until 5 March 1770, when nervous redcoats fired into a crowd taunting them and throwing iceballs at them. Five townspeople died, instantly becoming martyrs to British “tyranny.” Even though Gen. Thomas Gage removed the troops from Boston and a local jury acquitted all but two redcoats involved, the consequences were significant.

The so‐called massacre embarrassed the British ministry and fed anti‐British sentiment in the American colonies. It also, more than any other event, galvanized a growing anti–standing army sentiment among Americans.
[See also Adams, John; Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Revolutionary War: Causes.]


John Shy , Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution, 1965.
Hiller Zober , The Boston Massacre, 1970.

J. Mark Thompson

Boston ‘massacre’

views updated Jun 08 2018

Boston ‘massacre’, 1770. The ‘massacre’ resulted from the clash, probably engineered by radical elements, between British troops, who fired without orders, and an urban crowd, on 5 March 1770 in Boston (Mass.). Three persons were killed and two later died from wounds. Its propaganda value was quickly utilized, notably by Paul Revere, the engraver; radical patriots, who controlled the Boston town meeting, used traditional arguments against redcoats and ‘standing armies’ to force the withdrawal of troops to an island fort. In an ensuing trial, the soldiers and their officer were acquitted of manslaughter. The incident alarmed moderate colonial opponents of British measures as well as the British government.

Richard C. Simmons

Boston Massacre

views updated May 23 2018

Boston Massacre (1770) Riot by American colonists, angered over the quartering of troops in private homes. Starting with some snowballing, it was put down by British soldiers and resulted in the death of five civilians, including Crispus Attucks. The riot was exploited for anti-British propaganda by Samuel Adams and the Boston radicals. The soldiers were tried for murder, defended by John Adams, and acquitted.

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