Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre & the Old State House

The tragic event that became to be known as The Boston Massacre took place in front of what is now one of the oldest public buildings standing in the United States. The Old State House is a stately brick structure, currently used as a subway station and museum.

This brick building is a replacement for the original wood structure which burned in 1711. Construction on the State House took place from 1712-1713. It housed the local colonial government, including the Governor’s Council chamber, county and state supreme court, and the Massachusetts Assembly. There was a merchant exchange on the first floor.

It was at this building that the Massachusetts General Court issued what is called a “circular letter” written by Samuel Adams, with an argument presenting the reasoning of the Court that the Townshend Act was unconstitutional based on the British Constitution, as well as based on the natural rights of Colonists. This letter was sent to the colonial governments of other colonies. The British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Hillsborough, sent an order to the Court to revoke, or take back their letter. The court voted in rather a landslide to not do so, and so the Colonial Governor Francis Bernard dissolved the assembly. Lacking any way to address the now dissolved government, angry citizens protested and the city was full of unrest, which was the justification for four additional regiments of the British military to be housed in the city. The State House, since the Court was abolished, became a barracks for some of these soldiers.

This House further are of opinion, that their constituents, considering their local circumstances, cannot, by any possibility, be represented in the Parliament; and that it will forever be impracticable, that they should be equally represented there, and consequently, not at all; being separated by an ocean of a thousand leagues. That his Majesty's royal predecessors, for this reason, were graciously pleased to form a subordinate legislature here, that their subjects might enjoy the unalienable right of a representation: also, that considering the utter impracticability of their ever being fully and equally represented in Parliament, and the great expense that must unavoidably attend even a partial representation there, this House think that a taxation of their constituents, even without their consent, grievous as it is, would be preferable to any representation that could be admitted for them there.

Samuel Adams writing on behalf of the Massachusetts General Court, 1768
Colored reproduction of 1768 engraving by Paul Revere
A view of the Town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768, Boston Public Library

On March 5th of 1770 however, the most notable action that occurred on this site was a quarrel between some British Soldiers and a Bostonian that exploded into a riotous mob and ended up with a number of casualties. Colonists resented British soldiers quartered in the cities for several reasons. One of them involved the military’s use of people’s homes and public buildings to quarter soldiers serving the Crown.

Patriots –including the Sons and Daughters of Liberty responded with boycotts, and sometimes harassed and looted loyalist merchants. Soldiers, also at times caused disturbances, and there was a division between those serving the crown directly and the colonists who had been living there. Tensions in the city were coming to a boil. So on the evening of March 5th, it came about that a lone soldier, Private Hugh White was the only one standing guard over the Crown’s funds at the Custom House that night. Some squabbling started between Hugh and some citizens, and before long, the ruckus drew a crowd. The crowd jeered at the soldier, and threatened him, and in self-defense, he struck a member of the mob with his bayonet. They started hurling snowballs at him – some with rocks or ice inside them – and bells rang summoning crowds of citizens to the scene. Fearing loss of the King’s money or harm to the British soldier, a loyalist called for help, and Captain Thomas Preston arrived with several troops to guard the Custom House.

Accounts of what happened next vary – the scene was chaotic – it was evening, insults went back and forth between the soldiers and citizens, and the soldiers were hit with rocks and clubs. One soldier was heard to have yelled fire and several of the soldiers fired their weapons. Several citizens were wounded and others fell dead at the scene. Four men, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Coldwell and Crispus Attucks, died that evening, and another victim, Patrick Carr, died on March 14th from the injuries he received during the riot.

Of the names of those men who died that day, the most famous today is likely that of Crispus Attucks. He is often credited as the first Black man to die in the cause of American liberty, but his story is more complicated than that. Attucks’ father was forcibly enslaved in Africa, and his mother, also enslaved, was Indigenous, likely Wampanoag, or from the Natick “Praying Indian” community. Young Crispus escaped the man who held him in the state of slavery, and not much is known about his life in between his escape (noted in local papers) and his last moments cut short by gunfire. He worked the docks and in ships, and he was said to be at the forefront of the crowd shouting and threatening the soldiers. Over the decades, the story has risen to prominence, despite multiple conflicting stories of Attucks’ life. With the rise of Abolitionist movements he became a symbol of a Patriotic figure in Black history, one in which Black abolitionists like William C. Nell could hold up as an example of the role Black men and women played in the founding of the nation.

By the end of the month, a Grand Jury indicted Captain Preston, eight of his soldiers, and two customs officials who apparently fired from inside the Customs House. The trial, however, took some time to arrange, with the local British officials hoping tensions might die down some. During the trial, Josiah and John Adams, as well as Sampson Salter Blowers, and Robert Auchmuty Jr. defended the British soldiers charged for firing without command of their officer. First they submitted to separate the trial of Captain Preston from his men. Preston’s trial took place in late October, and the Captain had been held in jail that whole time.

 The trial for the eight soldiers was in late November, a month after their captain’s trial. Adams and the defense placed the blame for the riot on Crispus Attucks and other dock workers, prevailing upon British common assumptions of dock workers, sailors, black men, and Irish.

“Bailey “Saw the Molatto seven or eight minutes before the firing, at the head of twenty or thirty sailors in Corn-hill, and he had a large cordwood stick.” So that this Attucks, by this testimony of Bailey compared with that of Andrew, and some others, appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners, to form them in the first place in Dock square, and march them up to King-street, with their clubs; they passed through the mainstreet up to the Main-guard, in order to make the attack. If this was not an unlawful assembly, there never was one in the world. Attucks with his myrmidons comes round Jockson’s [Jackson’s] corner, and down to the party by the Sentry-box; when the soldiers pushed the people off, this man with his party cried, do not be afraid of them, they dare not fire, kill them! kill them! knock them over! And he tried to knock their brains out. It is plain the soldiers did not leave their station, but cried to the people, stand off: now to have this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear? He had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks;-to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed. And it is in this manner, this town has been often treated; a Carr from Ireland, and an Attucks from Framingham, happening to be here, shall sally out upon their thoughtless enterprizes, at the head of such a rabble of Negroes, &c. as they can collect together, and then there are not wanting, persons to ascribe all their doings to the good people of the town.”

He further argued that they attacked so fiercely the soldiers fired only in self defense, and four of the officers were acquitted and two found guilty of manslaughter, and thus were branded upon the thumb in punishment. It seems so odd, why would a Son of Liberty fight so hard to get these soldiers acquitted?

Perhaps some of the outcome will clear up confusion – with a Son of Liberty defending them, and the soldiers not getting punished harshly, the Crown Governor would be unlikely to come down harder on the populace, given the appearance of a fair trial. But the damage had been done: woodcuts copied by Paul Revere showing the soldiers firing into the crowd spread wide, and the sentiment up and down the colonies was sympathy for Boston and continued resentment towards the British. To keep peace, General Gage relocated the two regiments left in Boston to outlying islands, and out of the center of town.

Further Reading

If you find some of these sources harder to read, and the spelling a bit odd, this article may help: Reading old manuscripts – the long s.

The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 12 March 1770

The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 19 March 1770 (includes supplement)

The Boston Evening-Post, 25 June 1770 (includes supplement)

A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston [about this pamphlet]

Appendix: Depositions

The Trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, etc.

Captain Preston’s Account & other depositions:

The Boston Evening-Post, 18 February 1771

The Boston Evening-Post, 18 February 1771

The Massachusetts Gazette: and the Boston Weekly News-Letter, 21 March 1771,_1770-1775._(IA_whatcameafternew00smit).pdf,_perpetrated_in_the_evening_of_the_fifth_day_of_March,_1770_(IA_shortnarrativeof02bost).pdf{}&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1