Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre, 1770, pre-Revolutionary incident growing out of the resentment against the British troops sent to Boston to maintain order and to enforce the Townshend Acts. The troops, constantly tormented by irresponsible gangs, finally (Mar. 5, 1770) fired into a rioting crowd and killed five men—three on the spot, two of wounds later. The funeral of the victims was the occasion for a great patriot demonstration. The British captain, Thomas Preston, and his men were tried for murder, with Robert Treat Paine as prosecutor, John Adams and Josiah Quincy as lawyers for the defense. Preston and six of his men were acquitted; two others were found guilty of manslaughter, punished, and discharged from the army.

See study by H. B. Zobel (1970).

''This article is about the 1770 incident. The Boston Massacre is also used colloquially to describe portions of a Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.

The Boston Massacre refers to an incident involving the deaths of five civilians at the hands of British troops on March 5, 1770, the legal aftermath of which helped spark the rebellion in some of the British colonies in America, which culminated in the American Revolution. A tense situation because of a heavy British military presence in Boston boiled over to incite brawls between soldiers and civilians, and eventually led to troops discharging their muskets after being attacked by a rioting crowd. Three civilians were killed at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident.


In 1767, with the end of the military threat from France, Britain imposed a series of taxes, culminating with the Townshend Acts, which proved unpopular in the colonies. Boston was a center of the resistance and the British sent troops in 1768 to protect Loyalist interests. General Thomas Gage ordered the 14th West Yorkshire Fusiliers and the 29th Regiment of Foot to Boston; they landed on October 1, 1768. The friction between the troops and the colonists grew from this point with several events most notably including the death of Christopher Seider on February 22, 1770.


The incident started on King Street in the early evening of March 5, in front of Private Hugh White, a British sentry, as he stood duty outside the Custom house. A young wigmaker's apprentice named Edward Gerrish called out to a British officer, Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch, that Goldfinch had not paid the bill of Gerrish's master. Goldfinch had in fact settled his account and ignored the insult. Gerrish departed, but returned a couple of hours later with companions. He continued his complaints, and the civilians began throwing snowballs at Goldfinch. Gerrish also exchanged insults with Private White, who left his post, challenged the boy, and then struck him on the side of the head with a musket. As Gerrish cried in pain, one of his companions, Bartholomew Broaders, began to argue with White. This attracted a larger crowd.

As the evening progressed the crowd grew larger and more boisterous with a momentary lull. The mob grew in size and continued harassing Private White. As bells rang in the surrounding steeples, the crowd of Bostonians grew larger and more threatening. Private White left his sentry box and retreated to the Custom House stairs with his back to a locked door. Nearby, from the Main Guard, the Officer of the Day, Captain Thomas Preston, watched this situation escalate and, according to his account, dispatched a non-commissioned officer and several soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot, with fixed bayonets, to relieve White. He and his subordinate, James Basset, followed soon afterward. Among these soldiers were Corporal William Wemms (apparently the non-commissioned officer mentioned in Preston's report), Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, James Hartigan, William McCauley, William Warren and Matthew Kilroy. As this relief column moved forward to the now empty sentry box, the crowd pressed around them. When they reached this point they loaded their muskets and joined with Private White at the custom house stairs. As the crowd, estimated at 300 to 400, pressed about them, they formed a semicircular perimeter. In the midst of the commotion, Private Hugh Montgomery was struck down onto the ground by a club. When he recovered to his feet, he fired his musket, later admitting to one of his defense attorneys that he had yelled "Damn you, fire!. It is presumed that Captain Preston would not have told the soldiers to fire, as he was standing in front of the guns, between his men and the crowd of protesters. However, the protesters in the crowd were taunting the soldiers by yelling "Fire". There was a pause of indefinite length; the soldiers then fired into the crowd. Their uneven bursts hit eleven men. Three Americans—ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and an African American sailor named Crispus Attucks— died instantly. Seventeen-year-old Samuel Maverick, struck by a ricocheting musket ball at the back of the crowd, died a few hours later, in the early morning of the next day. Thirty-year-old Irish immigrant Patrick Carr died two weeks later. To keep the peace, the next day royal authorities agreed to remove all troops from the centre of town to a fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. On March 27 the soldiers, Captain Preston and four men who were in the Customs House and alleged to have fired shots, were indicted for murder.


A young Bostonian artist, Henry Pelham, half-brother of the celebrated portrait painter John Singleton Copley, depicted the event. Boston silversmith and engraver Paul Revere closely copied Pelham's image, and thus often gets credit for it. Pelham and Revere added several inflammatory details, such as Captain Preston ordering his men to fire and another musket shooting out of the window of the customs office, labeled "Butcher's Hall." Another discrepancy arose because of how artist Christian Remick hand-colored some prints: the bright blue sky does not accord with the quarter moon or dark shadows on the left side of the image. Some copies of the print show a man with two chest wounds and a somewhat darker face, matching descriptions of Attucks; others show no victim as a person of color. The inflammatory, bright red, "lobster backs" and glowing red blood now hung in farmhouses across New England. Revere had accomplished his goal of widely circulating an effective piece of anti-British propaganda.


"The General Court, at the first session after the arrival of the troops, viewed it in this light, and applied to Governor Bernard to cause such a nuisance to be removed; but to no purpose. [Text missing]....the challenging the inhabitants by sentinels posted in all parts of the town before the lodgings of officers, which (for about six months, while it lasted), occasioned many quarrels and uneasiness.

"Capt. Wilson, of the 59th, exciting the negroes of the town to take away their masters' lives and property, and repair to the army for protection, which was fully proved against him. The attack of a party of soldiers on some of the magistrates of the town-the repeated rescues of soldiers from peace officers-the firing of a loaded musket in a public street, to the endangering a great number of peaceable inhabitants-the frequent wounding of persons by their bayonets and cutlasses, and the numerous instances of bad behavior in the soldiery, made us early sensible that the troops were not sent here for any benefit to the town or province, and that we had no good to expect from such conservators of the peace.

It was not expected, however, that such an outrage and massacre, as happened here on the evening of the fifth instant, would have been perpetrated....

"The actors in this dreadful tragedy were a party of soldiers commanded by Capt. Preston of the 29th regiment. This party, including the Captain, consisted of eight, who are all committed to jail.

"Benjamin Frizell, on the evening of the 5th of March, having taken his station near the west corner of the Custom-house in King street, before and at the time of the soldiers firing their guns, declares (among other things) that the first discharge was only of one gun, the next of two guns, upon which he the deponent thinks he saw a man stumble; the third discharge was of three guns, upon which he thinks he saw two men fall; and immediately after were discharged five guns, two of which were by soldiers on his right hand; the other three, as appeared to the deponent, were discharged from the balcony, or the chamber window of the Custom-house, the flashes appearing on the right hand, and higher than the left hand flashes appeared to be, and of which the deponent was very sensible, although his eyes were much turned to the soldiers, who were all on his right hand..."

Trial of the soldiers

Captain Preston and the soldiers were arrested and scheduled for trial in a Suffolk County court. The government was determined to give the soldiers a fair trial so there could be no grounds for retaliation from the British and so that moderates would not be alienated from the Patriot cause. A problem was that no lawyers in the Boston area wanted to defend the soldiers, as they believed it would be a huge career mistake. A desperate request was sent to John Adams from Preston, pleading for his work on the case. Adams, who was already a leading Patriot and who was contemplating a run for public office, nevertheless agreed to help, in the interest of ensuring a fair trial. Adams, Josiah Quincy II, and Robert Auchmuty acted as the defense attorneys, with Sampson Salter Blowers helping by investigating the jury pool. It is not known whether Paul Revere was present at the Massacre, though he drew a detailed map of the bodies to be used in the trial of the British soldiers held responsible. Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and private attorney Robert Treat Paine, hired by the town of Boston, handled the prosecution. To let passions settle, the trial was delayed for months, unusual in that period, and the jurymen were all chosen from towns outside Boston. Tried on his own, Preston was acquitted after the jury was not convinced that he had ordered the troops to fire. His trial lasted from October 24, 1770 to October 30, 1770.

In the trial of the soldiers, which opened November 27, 1770, Adams argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob they had the legal right to fight back, and so were innocent. If they were provoked but not endangered, he argued, they were at most guilty of manslaughter. The jury agreed with Adams and acquitted six of the soldiers. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of murder because there was overwhelming evidence that they fired directly into the crowd. However, John Adams used a loophole in British Common Law and by proving to the judge that they could read by having them read from the Bible their crime was reduced to manslaughter (see Benefit of clergy). Two privates were found guilty of manslaughter and punished by branding on their thumbs. The jury's decisions suggest that they believed the soldiers had felt threatened by the crowd. Patrick Carr, the fifth victim, corroborated this with a deathbed testimony delivered to his doctor.

Diary entry of John Adams concerning his involvement in the Boston Massacre trials

March 5, 1773:
(The third anniversary of the Boston Massacre)

"I. . .devoted myself to endless labour and Anxiety if not to infamy and death, and that for nothing, except, what indeed was and ought to be all in all, sense of duty. In the Evening I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my Apprehensions: That excellent Lady, who has always encouraged me, burst into a flood of Tears, but said she was very sensible of all the Danger to her and to our Children as well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought, she was very willing to share in all that was to come and place her trust in Providence.

"Before or after the Tryal, Preston sent me ten Guineas and at the Tryal of the Soldiers afterwards Eight Guineas more, which were. . .all the pecuniary Reward I ever had for fourteen or fifteen days labour, in the most exhausting and fatiguing Causes I ever tried: for hazarding a Popularity very general and very hardly earned: and for incurring a Clamour and popular Suspicions and prejudices, which are not yet worn out and never will be forgotten as long as History of this Period is read...It was immediately bruited abroad that I had engaged for Preston and the Soldiers, and occasioned a great clamour....

"The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

"This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister, who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.


Every year the Boston Massacre is reenacted on March 5, the anniversary of the event. The reenactment is organized by the Bostonian Society and takes place on the actual site of the massacre, directly in front of the Old State House.


The Boston Massacre is one of several events that turned colonial sentiment against British rule. Each of these events followed a pattern of Britain asserting its control, and the colonists chafing under the increased regulation. Events such as the Tea Act and the ensuing Boston Tea Party were examples of the crumbling relationship between Britain and the colonies. While it took five years from the Massacre to outright revolution, it foreshadowed the violent rebellion to come. It also demonstrated how British authority galvanized colonial opposition and protest.


The number of soldiers involved in the incident and the origin of the shots has been controversial. The original indictment issued on March 13 named twelve shooters and Capt. Preston, but only eight were finally tried in November 1770. Several of the witnesses stated that shots came from the Custom House and the number of dying and wounded numbered eleven. The shots were not in unison, which allows the possibility of reloading the muskets, but this was never substantiated.

See also


  • Reid, John Phillip. "A Lawyer Acquitted: John Adams and the Boston Massacre." American Journal of Legal History, 1974 18(3): 189-207. Issn: 0002-9319 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Ritter, Kurt W. "Confrontation as Moral Drama: the Boston Massacre in Rhetorical Perspective." Southern Speech Communication Journal 1977 42(1): 114-136. Issn: 0361-8269
  • Zobel, Hiller B., The Boston Massacre (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970), ISBN 0-393-31483-0.


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