On the fifth of March, 1770, a patriot mob began to harass a British sentry outside the Custom House on King Street in Boston, Massachusetts. As the harassment escalated, Captain Thomas Preston was called for backup. During the confrontation, among the shouts and yelling, there were cries for the squad to “fire!”.
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The squad responded to this command and ended up killing several colonists. A black sailor names Crispus Attucks, ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell were instantly killed. Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr were mortally wounded and would die later. The “Massacre”, as it was named later, led to a concerted effort by resistance leaders to inspire the “ire of citizenry”. Speeches, demonstrations, and propagandistic images fueled the growing flames of discontent towards the monarchy. In the end, this “massacre” and the anger resulting from it were integral in the march towards the eventual Revolutionary war.
Tensions in Boston, 1770, were high. During this time, over two thousand British soldiers were occupying the city of Boston, which was populated by by over sixteen thousand colonists. The soldiers were present in order to enforce Britain’s laws, which the colonists were rebelling against. They found the taxes repressive and rallied over the slogan “no taxation without representation”. Skirmishes, a fight between small bodies of troops, especially advanced or outlying detachments of opposing armies, between British and soldiers became very common. They also became popular between patriots, who were loyal to the colonies, and loyalists, who were loyal to Britain. In order to protest these taxes, patriots vandalized stores that sold British goods and intimidated their customers.
On February 22, a group of protesters of patriots attacked a store owned by loyalists. A customs officer, Ebenezer Richardson, made an attempt to break up the riot. He fired out his window and onto the crowd below. His gunfire struck and killed Christopher Seider, an eleven year-old boy, who was in the crowd. This attack further enrage patriots and protesters, and helped escalate their protests. Shortly after this event, another fight broke out between local workers and British soldiers. No serious injuries resulted from it, but it helped set up the violence that was yet to come.
On the fifth of March, 1770, Private Hugh White was guarding the Custom House on King Street. The Custom House was containing the King’s money. Shortly after White was stationed at his post, a group of colonists joined him, and threatened violence. The violence was much more aggravated than previous encounters, due to recent events leading up to the riot. After a short amount of violent barating from the colonists, White fought back and struck one of the colonists with his bayonet. In response to this, protesters threw snowballs, ice, and stones at him. Bells rung through the street, and sent a rush of male colonists to the streets. The bells were usually a warning for fire, so the men naturally responded to it.
As the assault on White continued, he fell and was forced to call for backup. In response to White’s panic, Captain Thomas Preston arrived at the scene with several British soldiers. The Captain feared mass riots and was afraid that they would lose the King’s money, which was being stored in the Custom House. Both the colonists and the soldiers feared that bloodshed was inevitable.
During the confrontation, colonists were reported to have dared the soldiers to fire, and other to have begged them to hold their fire. Captain Thomas Preston later revealed that he was told the colonists had a plan to “carry White off his post and murder him”. The violence soon escalated, and the protesters attacked the soldiers with stick and clubs. As this ensued, someone supposedly yelled “fire!”. The reports were mixed on which side ordered the command, or if the shot was intentional or not. After the first shot, other soldiers opened fire on the crowd. The gunfire struck and killed five colonists were killed, and six were wounded. The dead colonists included; Crispus Attucks, Patrick Carr, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, and James Caldwell. Crispus Attucks was one the first to die, and was of African and Native American descent. These deaths are commonly believed as the first deaths of the American Revolution.
From the colonist’s point of view, the violence seemed to be caused by the soldiers (Appendix), but Captain Thomas Preston’s account tells a different story. He claims that there was never any intention to ensue violence of any form. He also makes the claim that he never order his men to “fire”. The Captain claims that the colonists threatened and instigated the soldiers with phrases like; “lobster scoundrels” or “come on, you rascals”. He then stated that he attempted to persuade the men to retire peacefully, but clearly failed. Captain Preston was then asked by his men is the guns were loaded, he replied yes, and he was also asked if they should fire, to which he replied no. He claimed to have witnessed a soldier to receive a serious blow from one of the protesters, which caused the soldier to veer a bit to the side and fire into the crowd. The Captain questioned this, but was then, too, hit with a club.
Captain Thomas Preston claimed that the soldiers’ lives were in imminent danger and pressured into firing by the protesting crowd of colonists. The colonists yelled phrases like; “damn your bloods- why don’t you fire?”. Shortly after this confusion, three or four soldiers fired into the crowd. He claimed to have yelled “hold your fire” and “stop firing”, but it was too late. Following this riot, four to five thousand people gathered on the street next to the “massacre”. They claimed to have wanted the deaths of the Captain and his men. After hearing this, the soldiers dispersed out of fear.
On October 24, 1770, about seven months after the “massacre”, the trial of the soldiers accused of murdering the colonists was taken place. One of the people questioned was Samuel Hemmingway, who decided to testify against the British soldiers, specifically Matthew Kilroy. Kilroy shot and killed Samuel Gray, the owner of a ropemaking shop. In Hemingway’s testimony to the crown, he stated that one evening, about a week before the “massacre”, he overheard Killroy say that “he would never miss an opportunity to fire on the inhabitants” and that he had wanted to ever since he landed”.
A contrasting testimony to this is that of Dr John Jeffries for the Defense. Dr Jeffries was Patrick Carr’s surgeon, and operated on him after he was shot, and died four days later. Jeffries testifies that Patrick was new to this kind of violence, since he was originally from Ireland. He testifies that during his last conversation with Carr, he forgave the man who shot him, and understood that the man was just defending himself against the protesters. For this reason, Carr was denounced by Samuel Adams and other patriots, who were angry that they could not use him to stir up more anti-british sentiments.
In the depositions of John Wilme and Jeffrey Richards, they claimed that the soldiers were making threatening claims and actions against the colonists. Wilme claimed that about ten days before the “massacre”, Christopher Rumbly of the 14th regiment talk very much against Boston. Wilme claimed that he heard Rumbly say that “blood will run in the streets of Boston”. Jeffrey Richardson made a somewhat similar statement, and he claimed that on the Friday before the violent protest, eight to ten armed soldiers came to Mr. John Gray’s ropemaking shop. They challenged the soldiers to fight them, and tried to instigate violence.
The deposition of Ebenezer Bridgham and argument of Josiah Quincy for the defense, found the colonists to be at fault. Bridgham testified that the soldiers were defending themselves against the colonists, as they were striking their guns with sticks. He claimed the patriot group were calling them cowards for bringing arms against unarmed men, and daring them to fire as they hit them. Josiah Quincy made a similar argument for the defense, claiming that the words the colonists used to berate the British sentry were so demeaning and disrespectful helped to provoke the soldiers into such violence. He also claimed that the soldiers tried to procure peace by saying things such as “if they molest me upon my post, I will fire!” and “stand off! I am upon my station!”. Quincy suggest that these words served as a warning to colonists, and the soldiers were only trying to do their jobs.
The verdict was announced nine months after the “massacre”, the fifth of December, 1770. The jury that decided the verdict did not contain a single Boston citizen. Matthew Kilroy and Hugh Montgomery were found guilty of manslaughter while the other six soldiers, James Hartigan, William McCauley, Hugh White, William Warren, and John Carroll, were acquitted. Kilroy and Montgomery were able to avoid the death penalty through “benefit of the clergy”, which was used a loophole for first-time offenders. It was an early English law which held that non-religious courts did not have any legal power over clergymen. After the soldiers had “prayed the clergy”, each one was branded on the thumb with and “M”, for manslaughter. This would be visible for any future oaths or handshakes, marking them as killer for the rest of their lives. Yet for many colonists, the branding was still not enough to bring justice to the victims of the “massacre” and the town of Boston.
The violence of the riot and the treatment of the soldiers both increased the feelings of turmoil in Boston, and the colonies in general. The new laws and taxes enforced by Parliament onto the colonies already brought anger to the colonies, but the violence by the British soldiers helped increase this hatred towards the crown. The anger and feelings of injustice fueled by the “Boston Massacre”and the trial that followed helped add fuel to the growing fire that was the American Revolution.
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