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The Boston Massacre: tempers flared and so did muskets!

Updated on March 4, 2015


Tensions were mounting within the colonies, especially in Boston. When searching for a catalyst of this "Massacre", it's important to follow the paper trail and arrive at a better understanding of the social and political climate of the mid-late 1700's in colonial America. The heavy tax burdens levied against the colonies engendered mounting resentment of British Parliament. The popular phrase, "No Taxation without Representation", comes to mind. It was abundantly clear, that things were eventually going to come to a head if at least some of these legislations weren't repealed. Let's take a quick look at incidents that likely incited "The Boston Massacre".

Inciting Incidents

  • The substantial debt Great Britain had incurred following "The Seven Years War" (1756-1763)
  • The Sugar Act of 1764
  • The Stamp Act of 1765
  • The Declaratory Act of 1766
  • The Townshend Acts of 1767
  • Overwhelming and Unjust taxation^
  • The 'Impressment' of local sailors
  • The heavy presence of British troops to quell civil unrest
  • The shooting death of Christopher Seider

Arrival of British Regulars

The arrival of British troops in October of 1768 did nothing to ease the overwhelming irascibility of the city of Boston. Already fed up with the unlawful and incomprehensible tax levies, a physical show of force twisted the proverbial knife of injustice further, in the eyes of many. This wasn't the first instance of the British military's bullying and patronizing tactics to keep colonials under their thumb. Boston's chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, realized that the shift of power was erring on the side of the people and wrote a letter to Parliament describing the scene in Boston as such. The Commodore Samuel Hood of the Royal British Navy responded by sending the fifty-gun warship HMS Romney directly to Boston Harbor in May of 1768. Then, on June 10th, The Romney seized a sloop(single-mast sailboat) owned by John Hancock on "allegations" that the ship "may have" been involved in smuggling. This caused an actual riot because of the fact that the captain of The Romney had already been 'impressing' local sailors or forcing them into joining his Royal Naval fleet. So, before the British troops had even arrived on a larger scale, they had already overstayed their welcome!

Palpable Tension

Tensions were at an all-time high after the death of Christopher Seider, "a young lad of about eleven years of age", who was shot by a customs service employee named Ebenezer Richardson. Richardson, who attempted to disperse a crowd protesting outside of a loyalist merchant's shop, became the target of the crowd's ire and a group of protestors now formed outside of his home and began hurling rocks with one striking his wife. In an effort to disperse and scare the crowd, he let out a shot that ended up striking and killing Seider who had joined the angry mob. Seider's killing and large public funeral fueled public outrage that reached a peak in the Boston Massacre eleven days later. Richardson was convicted of murder that spring, but then received a royal pardon and a new job within the customs service, on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense. The propaganda surrounding the incident stoked the revolutionary fire even more and gangs of colonists were now parading around Boston harassing soldiers and looking for a fight. They eventually got one in the form of the 'Massacre' just eleven days later. I find it interesting that many who are aware of The Boston Massacre are also ignorant to the Seider incident (myself included). Also given the fact that an eleven year old boy was shot and killed, I'm surprised more emphasis isn't placed on this important incident that was a precursor to the event shortly after. Perhaps, because it didn't directly involve British soldiers, it didn't make much sense (propaganda-wise) to put as much yeast on this killing?

What Started It?

The stage was now set. Boston was a powder-keg waiting to explode and it did just that on the 5th of March, 1770. Believe it or not, this entire incident started over a wig! Obviously we know the social climate/tension had reached a zenith and something was bound to happen; but the argument that set things in motion that day was over the perceived lack of payment for a wig. What we do know is this: A young wigmaker's apprentice named Edward Garrick called out to a British officer, John Goldfinch, that Goldfinch had not paid a bill due to Garrick's master. A private named Hugh White standing guard outside the Custom House on King St.(modern-day State St.) overheard the exchange and interjected. White called out to Garrick that he should be more respectful of the officer. Garrick exchanged insults with Private White, who then left his post, challenged the boy, and struck him on the side of the head with the butt of his musket. As Garrick cried in pain, one of his companions, Bartholomew Broaders, began to argue with White and a large crowd began to loom.

Picking a Fight

As the day grew longer, the crowd around White grew larger and louder. Over 50 Bostonians now surrounded White, led by a mixed race slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. The angry crowd began throwing snowballs, rocks, and other small objects at White who at that point had received backup in the form of six other privates with fixed bayonets. They were constantly cajoling the soldiers by yelling, "Fire!" and "Go ahead and Fire". When a small object hit one of the privates named Hugh Montgomery, knocking his musket to the ground, he was reported to have shouted angrily, "Damn you, Fire!", then discharged it into the crowd although no command was given. Shortly after the first shot, a ragged series of shots followed, which hit eleven men. Three Americans--Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks all died instantly. Samuel Maverick was struck by a ricocheting musket ball at the back of the crowd, and died a few hours later. An Irish immigrant, Patrick Carr, also died two weeks later from injuries sustained by a gunshot wound during the fracas. Captain Thomas Preston, who had arrived and taken charge of the scene, affirmed (in his own deposition) that he had promised the crowd that the privates would not fire unless he ordered it and in fact never gave such a command. The people of Boston as well as the remaining colonies were furious and demanded a trial for justice.

The Trial

The trial is intriguing for two reason: The outcome and the man charged with defending the accused. The man in charge of the defense of the eight soldiers was an unlikely candidate. John Adams, a Sons of Liberty member and staunch patriot, undertook the responsibility of the men arrested and charged with killing fellow Bostonians. Confused? Me too. Apparently, Adams took the job in interest of a fair trial but beyond that I can't find any ulterior motives or any form of public outcry behind his decision, in any parts of my research. I digress.The trial of the eight soldiers began on November 27, 1770. Adams pleaded with the jury to look past the fact that they were British; he even vilified the crowd with an acerbic and caustic verbal attack in regards to the race and make-up of the rioters. "A motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars", was how he described them. He argued that they had the legal right to fight back and were thus innocent and at the most guilty of manslaughter.The jury agreed with Adams and acquitted six of the soldiers after two and one-half hours of deliberation. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter because they were found to have fired directly at the crowd. Different times we live in now for sure...


The legacy of The Boston Massacre is of utmost importance in America's fight for independence from the British Empire. The famous engraving of the incident that was completed by Paul Revere, was distributed throughout the colonies and served as the most popular piece of anti-British propaganda circulated by the patriots (however inaccurate). It showed a soldier giving the orders to fire upon a huddled and defenseless crowd, which you now know wasn't the case. The story travelled fast and served as a reminder of the tyrannical leadership that would go as far as to kill its own people to ensure submission to rule. When describing the incident's importance, John Adams wrote that, "the foundation of American Independence was laid that day".

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