The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre was a riot that began when a group of 50 citizens gathered outside of the State house on the night of March 5, 1770 to protest the large presence of British soldiers in the city.

The soldiers had been sent to Boston to protect customs commissioners as they enforced the recent, and highly unpopular, Townshend acts, which placed an import tax on goods such as tea, glass, paper and other products from England.

Boston_Massacre_John_Bufford_Lithography_1856

Lithograph of the Boston Massacre by John Bufford, circa 1856

The massacre began when the group started to hassle the lone sentry, Private White, standing on guard outside of the State house. When a citizen named Edward Garrick insulted the soldier’s commanding officer, White left his sentry box and hit Garrick in the face with his rifle, enraging the crowd even further. As the crowd swelled, Captain Thomas Preston arrived with 13 more soldiers to reinforce Private White but could not control crowd or persuade them to leave.

The citizens began to throw snowballs, rocks and sticks at the soldiers. Witnesses say when a sentry named Private Montgomery was struck in the face with a stick, he fired his gun into the crowd. More objects were thrown and more shots were fired. When the skirmish was over, three people lay dead: an escaped slave, named Crispus Attucks, who worked as a sailor on a whaling ship, a rope maker named Samuel Gray and a mariner named James Caldwell, and eight others were wounded. Two of the wounded, Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr, later died of their injuries. Samuel Adams held funerals for the victims who were then buried in Granary Burying Ground where they remain today.

Boston_Massacre_Obituary_Patrick_Carr_1770

Obituary for Boston Massacre Victim Patrick Carr

Within a few hours of the massacre, Captain Preston and the soldiers were jailed. Knowing the danger they faced, Captain Preston prepared his account of the events, which was published in a London newspaper called the Public Advertiser the following month and then republished in newspapers throughout Boston:

“…The mob still increased, and were more outrageous, striking their clubs or blud-geons one against another, and calling out, ‘come on, you rascals, you bloody backs, you Lobster Scoundrels; fire if you dare, G-d damn you, fire and be damn’d ; we know you dare not ;’ and much more such language was used….While I was thus speaking, one of the soldiers, having received a severe blow with a stick, stept a little on one side, and instantly fired, on which turning to and asking him why he fired without orders, I was struck with a club on my Arm, which for some-time deprived my of the use of it ; which blow, had it been placed on my head, most probably would have destroyed me. On this general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs, and snow-balls being thrown at them, by which all our lives were in imminent danger ; some persons at the same time from behind calling out, ‘Damn your Bloods, why don’t you fire?’ Instantly three or four of the soldiers fired, one after another, and directly after three more in the same confusion and hurry….The whole of this melancholy affair was transacted in almost 20 minutes. On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word “Fire,” and supposed it came from me. This might be the case, as many of the mob called out “Fire, fire,” but I assured the men that I gave no such order, that my words were, ‘Don’t fire, stop your Firing!'”

Boston_Massacre_victims_grave_Granary_Burying_Ground

Marker for the Boston Massacre victims in Granary Burying Ground

Fearing the soldiers would not get a fair trial, Governor Hutchinson delayed the trial until the fall in order to give the citizens of Boston time to calm down. John Adams, Robert Auchmuty Jr., and Josiah Quincy Jr. served as the soldier’s lawyers while Robert Treat Paine and Samuel Quincy served as the prosecution. Preston’s trial began in October and within a few days he was found, surprisingly, not guilty. The remaining soldiers were tried in November. Six of the soldiers are found not guilty and two were convicted of manslaughter. The soldiers narrowly escaped the death penalty through a legal loophole that exempted clergymen, including men with the ability to read or recite biblical passages, from secular courts, and their thumbs were branded with the letter “M”, for manslaughter, to prevent them from using the loophole again.

Tension between British soldiers and colonists settled in Boston after the trails, at least temporarily. Samuel Adams successfully campaigned to turn March 5th into a day of mourning marked with commemorative speeches each year, which continued until 1784. In 1887, a marker dedicated to the victims of the massacre was placed on the exact spot where Crispus Attucks fell. Due to construction and urban renewal projects, the Boston Massacre marker was moved many times over the years but still remains in the general area where the massacre occurred.

Boston_massacre_Captain_Preston_account_of_Boston_Massacre

Captain Preston’s account of the Boston Massacre

Old_State_House_1_MA

The Old State House today

Old State House circa 1898

The Old State House in 1898

Old State House circa 1860

The Old State House in 1860

Old State House 1801 oil painting by James Brown Marston circa 1801

“State Street, 1801″ oil painting by James Brown Marston, circa 1801

Sources:

The Freedom Trail: The Boston Massacre: http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/visitor/boston-massacre.html

The Massachusetts Historical Society: The Boston Massacre: http://www.masshist.org/revolution/massacre.php

U.S. History: The Boston Massacre: http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/massacre.htm