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The Boston Massacre-Powder Keg of the American Revolution

Updated on January 1, 2023
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Cygnet Brown is a high school and middle school substitute teacher. She is the author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.

Five Men Killed, Six Others Wounded

On March 5, 1770, an incident on King Street in Boston Massachusetts may be just a footnote in British history, but for the Americans, the Boston Massacre became the powder keg that would ignite their revolution. That evening, British Army soldiers shot and killed five male civilians and injured six others. Men like Paul Revere and Samuel Adams used the incident to fuel growing animosity between the citizens of the colonies and British authority.

Contributing Factors Led to the Boston Massacre

In the 1760s, Boston was the capital of the colony of Massachusetts and an important shipping town, and because of this was the center of resistance to unpopular taxation. In 1768, the Parliament enacted the Townshend Acts. These acts subjected many commonly imported items manufactured in Britain to import taxes The colonists objected, stating that the Townshend Acts violated their rights as British subjects. The Massachusetts House of Representatives fought the Townshend Acts and sent a petition to King George III requesting that the Townshend Revenue Act be repealed. The Massachusetts House also sent the Massachusetts Circular Letter to other colonial assemblies requesting they join the resistance by boycotting these products.

Lord Hillsborough, in England, had recently been appointed to the newly created office of Colonial Secretary. He was alarmed by the Massachusetts House’s actions. In April 1768 he ordered colonial governors in America to dissolve the colonial assemblies if they responded to the Massachusetts Circular Letter. He ordered Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard to direct the Massachusetts House to rescind the letter. The house refused.

Boston's chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, wrote to Hillsborough. He requested military support because "the Government is as much in the hands of the people as it was in the time of the Stamp Act." Commodore Samuel Hood sent the fifty-gun warship HMS Romney. The ship arrived in Boston Harbor on May 1768.

Colonel Dalrymple asked that all of his men be quartered in civilian homes to which the Boston counsel declared that civilians should not have to furnish quarters until no barracks space remained. Castle William had plenty of extra beds to house soldiers. Citizens had still not forgotten the surly brutal and greedy soldiers they had seen during the French and Indian War and they did not want their wives and daughters subjected to these men.

Governor Bernard, however, decided that it was in England’s best interest that troops be placed into the homes of the malcontents to keep them honest. However, this occupation of Boston did nothing to relieve the tensions between the government and the people of Boston.

An incident occurred on February 22, 1770, where eleven-year-old Christopher Seider was killed by a customs employee. His funeral was the largest in Boston. The townspeople showed their animosity by harassing soldiers further igniting tensions that would explode from the muskets on King Street on that evening early in March 1770.

Re-enactment of the Boston Massacre

The Incident

Private Huge White had been standing guard duty outside the Customs House on King Street (now State Street). Edward Garrick, a wigmaker and barber’s apprentice, called out to Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch, claiming that Goldfinch had not settled his account. Because Goldfinch knew that he had paid his bill, he ignored the young man. Private White called out to Garrick, insisting that he be more respectful to the officer. Garrick shouted back at White, hence White left his post and struck Garrick on the side of his head with his musket. When Garrick screamed in pain, his companion, Bartholomew Broaders took up the argument for Garrick. This attracted a crowd including a young bookseller by the name of Henry Knox. Knox warned White that if he fired his weapon, he would be hung for his crime.

The crowd grew larger and louder. Church bells rang and brought more citizens out to see what was going on. More than fifty people crowded around White including a runaway slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. The townspeople started throwing things at the sentry and challenged him to fire his weapon. Private White backed against the steps of the Customs House and asked for assistance. Someone reported the incident to a nearby barracks where Captain Thomas Preston, the officer on watch, dispatched a noncommissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot with fixed bayonets to assist White. These soldiers were Corporal William Wemms, Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, William McCauley, William Warren, and Matthew Kilroy.

Later Preston would report that the men pushed their way through the crowd. Henry Knox warned Captain Preston, "For God's sake, take care of your men. If they fire, you must die." Captain Preston allegedly responded, "I am aware of it."

When the soldiers arrived at the custom house stairs, the soldiers loaded their muskets and formed a semicircle. Preston then ordered the crowd which had grown by then to around three or four hundred to return to their homes.

The crowd ignored Preston. They continued to taunt the soldiers by yelling “Fire!”, spitting at them, and throwing snowballs and other objects at them. Local innkeeper Richard Palmes boldly carried a club and spoke to Preston asking him if the muskets were loaded. Preston said they were, but the soldiers not would fire unless he ordered it and that he did not intend to do. An object struck Private Montgomery in the head and Montgomery dropped his musket. As he stood back up, he picked up his musket and shouted angrily, “Damn you, fire!” He fired his musket into the crowd. Palmes swung his club at Montgomery and struck him in the arm, then struck Preston in the arm, narrowly missing his head.

In the confusion, the soldiers fired into the crowd. A series of shots were fired and injured or killed eleven men. Three Americans died instantly—Samuel Gray-a ropemaker, James Caldwell-sailor, and Crispus Attucks. Seventeen-year-old Samuel Maverick-an apprentice ivory turner died a few hours later early the next morning. Another man, Patrick Carr died two weeks later. Christopher Monk, another apprentice, was seriously wounded in the attack. He recovered to some extent though he remained crippled. When he eventually died in 1780, Bostonians, who were then in the middle of the American Revolution renewed the vigor of their cause.

The crowd moved away from the Custom House but congregated in the nearby streets. Captain Preston ordered out most of the 29th Regiment to defensive positions around the state house. Governor Thomas Hutchinson was summoned into the council chamber of the state house. From its balcony, he was able to restore some order when he promised a fair inquiry into the shootings.

The Aftermath

In the morning, Preston and the eight soldiers were arrested. A town meeting was held. After much discussion, British troops were relocated to Castle Island for their protection. During the next two weeks, the five victims of the Boston Massacre were buried without further incidents.

On March 27, the soldiers and Captain Preston along with four civilians were charged with firing shots and murdering civilians on King Street that evening on March 5. The people of Boston remained hostile to the troops and their families. In May, the 29th regiment was ordered out of Massachusetts because their presence did more harm than good. The trial was held in late autumn after tensions subsided.

American Propaganda

After the incident, the propaganda began in earnest. Boston's radicals and supporters of the government both published pamphlets telling vastly different viewpoints of what happened. The Boston Gazette characterized the massacre as part of the conspiracy to "quell a Spirit of Liberty", and used it as evidence as to why quartering troops in the city caused the negative consequences.

A young Boston artist Henry Pelham Singleton Cople created an image of the event. Silversmith and engraver Paul Revere copied Pelham's image. The engraving contained several leading details. For instance, the drawing shows Captain Preston ordering his men to fire. A musket could be seen firing out of the window of the customs office. In addition, the Customs Office is labeled “Butcher's Hall.”

Christian Remick then hand-colored some prints. Some copies show one dark-skinned man with two chest wounds matching descriptions of Attucks. Other prints did not. The Boston Gazette published the drawing and circulated it throughout the colonies.

American Patriots Help Conduct Fair Trial

The government officials decided it was in their best interest to give the soldiers a fair trial. When several Loyalist attorneys refused to defend Preston, John Adams accepted Preston’s request to defend him. Adams, a leading Patriot was contemplating a run for public office so he agreed to help. Josiah Quincy II joined Adams in this defense when the Sons of Liberty agreed not to oppose his appointment, and by Robert Auchmuty, a Loyalist. Sampson Salter Blowers assisted them. His primary duty was to investigate the jury pool. Paul Revere also helped by drawing a detailed map of the bodies. Boston hired Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and private attorney Robert Treat Paine to handle the prosecution. Preston was tried separately in October 1770. He was acquitted. The jury determined he did not order the troops to fire.

The eight soldiers’ trial began on November 27, 1770. Adams told the jury not to view the men as British soldiers. He argued that the soldiers were protecting themselves against a mob and that at most they were guilty of manslaughter. Testimony was delivered to his doctor when Patrick Carr was on his deathbed that the soldiers were provoked.

After two hours of jury deliberation, six soldiers were acquitted while two were found guilty of manslaughter because they had fired directly into the crowd. Their sentences were reduced by invoking the benefit of clergy. Their punishment was reduced from a death sentence to thumb branding in open court.

The four civilians who were tried on December 13 also were acquitted when the accusations against them were rebutted by defense witnesses. The principal prosecution witness was a servant of one of the accused. He was eventually convicted of perjury, whipped, and banished from Massachusetts.

Fifth Year Anniversary of the Boston Massacre

Each year a featured speaker delivered an oration to commemorate the massacre. The speech was then printed and shared. James Lovell delivered the first speech in 1771. Dr. Joseph Warren delivered the Massacre Day oration in 1772 and then again in 1775. Benjamin Church spoke in 1773, followed the next year by John Hancock. In emotional language, the early speeches reminded listeners how British soldiers killed civilians in Boston. They touched on themes including the dangers of standing armies in peacetime and opposition to British Parliament policies that many Bostonians believed violated colonial rights.

The fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre was a memorable one for the then-residents of Boston. The soldiers again had taken up residence in the city. They had talked about possibly not having the memorial that year, but decided they were not going to let Britain dictate their activities so they decided to have the meeting as planned.

The meeting was at the Old South Church of Boston. Samuel Adams greeted the attendees as they came into the church.

British officers sat in the front pews of the church with the intent to nab the instigators while they were all gathered at the church. They were not, however going to take them while everyone was in the church. They didn’t need a repeat of what happened five years earlier. The selectmen, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Dr. Benjamin Church among others, the objects of the officer’s interest, were sitting in the deacons’ seats.

Gage had instructed his men that if once the word “bloody massacre” was used, an egg would be thrown at Joseph Warren’s head and they were to take in the entire lot of them. The ensign who was to bring the egg never made it to the church that day. On his way in, several young men from the docks roughed him up preventing him from joining the festivities.

The church was so crowded that day that Joseph Warren was not able to enter the church through the main entrance, but had to climb in through the window at the back of the speaking platform. He was dressed in a Roman toga.

Warren began his speech by acknowledging the officers on the front row and then his fellow patriots. Captain Chapman sat on the front row holding several bullets in his hands. Warren, as he spoke, dropped a handkerchief over the man’s hands.

Warren began his speech with a historical account of America’s earliest settlement. He gave the Whig interpretation of colonial history, portraying a Manichean worldview in which the tools of power in every age” confronted the benign power of liberty, embodied in his case by the Puritan ancestors. In addition to the historical account, Warren provided a philosophical and ideological argument in defense of the colonial position.

At the end of his speech, Dr. Warren steps away from the podium and was greeted with thunderous applause.

Sam Adams stepped behind the podium and spoke the fated words of “bloody massacre”. He immediately turned pale. The soldiers at the front of the church started shouting, “fie, fie!”

Someone on the balcony thought they shouted fire and so they began to shout, “Fire!” Everyone bolted toward the door. To add to the confusion, at that moment, Colonel Nesbit marched his men with their drums and flutes in front of the Old South Church. The select men scampered out the window using the ladder that Joseph Warren had provided. In the confusion and without the sign of the egg thrown at Warren’s head, the soldiers missed their opportunity.

Boston Massacre Monument

The Legacy of the Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre remained the powder keg that American Patriots stood on to voice their dissent against King George III and British Parliamentary authority. Samuel Adams and other Patriots used annual an commemoration called Massacre Day rid themselves of British rule. Christopher Monk, who was wounded in the attack, died in 1780, His body was paraded before the crowds to remind them of British hostility A few years later, the Boston Tea Party, would serve as the fuse of the revolution and the Battles of Lexington and Concord would serve as the lighting of that fuse.

The final observance of Massacre Day occurred in 1783. With the end of the American Revolutionary War and the securing of American independence, the Boston Board of Selectmen thought it was appropriate to replace the holiday with Independence Day, held on July 4 in honor of the Declaration of Independence. The final oration was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Welch and focused on the dangers of armies garrisoned in cities.

The massacre is not forgotten, however. It is reenacted annually on March 5 in the same location where the actual event occurred.

The Boston Massacre would further support the cause of liberty when in 1858, African American abolitionist William Cooper Nell, an African American abolitionist organized a celebration as an opportunity to demonstrate the role of African Americans’ role in the American Revolution through the death of Crispus Attucks. To go along with the prominent grave in the Granary Burying Ground where all of the victims of the massacre were buried, in 1888 Bostonians erected a monument on the Boston Common to these men.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Cygnet Brown


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