The incident known as the Boston Massacre occurred on the bitterly cold night of March 5, 1770. It was the culmination of eighteen months fraught with tension between British soldiers and angry townspeople. In September 1768, Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the American colonies, ordered the 14th West Yorkshire Fusiliers and the 29th Worcestershire Regiment to Boston to protect the customs collectors from harassment by the townspeople. The soldiers arrived on September 28, 1768, and tumultuous street fights with town boys and rowdies would mark their time in Boston.
The colonists, who had been fighting Parliament for the right to tax themselves, viewed the arrival of the soldiers as coercion. The British troops angered the townspeople with their perceived insolence, as well as for their competition for jobs, as the soldiers often worked in town during their off-duty hours to make extra money. As depicted in this engraving by Paul Revere, nervous redcoats, taunted by unruly colonists in front of Boston's Customs House on May 5, 1770, opened fire on the crowd, killing five.
Patriots publicized the event as the Boston Massacre to stir resentment against British rule. (Library of Congress, LCUSZ62-35522) Tensions reached a fever pitch in early March 1770. On March 2, a Bostonian employed at John Gray's ropewalk insulted a soldier looking for work.
The soldier left, but he later returned with some friends, and a brawl ensued. On March 5, although a foot of snow covered the ground, townsmen and soldiers engaged in another fight near the British military barracks. The soldiers wielded cutlasses and injured some townspeople in the fight before officers ordered them back inside the barracks.
Angry townspeople followed the soldiers to the barracks' gate, verbally abusing them. Shortly before nine o'clock that night, David Garrick, a wigmaker's apprentice, goaded a passing British captain for a delinquent payment of a bill. While the officer walked on, ignoring the taunt, a sentry standing guard at the Customs House on the corner of King Street and Royal Exchange Lane came to the officer's defense.
He exchanged words with Garrick and then hit him in the head with his musket. A crowd gathered, still seething from the earlier actions with the soldiers near the barracks. Soon church bells started ringing in the town (normally a signal for fire), which drew even more townspeople out.
After harassment by the crowd increased, the nervous sentry loaded his gun and called for the main guard. Captain Thomas Preston led the sevenman main guard out and formed a semicircle defensive perimeter, with bayonets fixed, in front of the Customs House. Preston put his men through a brief series of drills, concluding with an order to load their weapons.
A growing mob of between 300 and 400 people baited and taunted the guards. The mob hurled snowballs, chunks of ice, oyster shells, and lumps of coal at the soldiers, accompanied by many abusive insults, all from very close range. In some cases, there were mere inches between the bayonets and the pressing crowd.
Several townspeople wielded clubs or sticks in a threatening manner and belligerently dared the soldiers to fire, believing that they legally could not unless ordered to do so by a civil authority. Many of the projectiles hit the soldiers and their weapons. One knocked Private Hugh Montgomery down.
The beleaguered private got back to his feet and fired his musket into the crowd. In the confusion of shouting and insults, the other anxious and stressed soldiers let out a ragged, disjointed volley into the crowd at point-blank range. The shots killed four, including Crispus Attucks (the first African American to die in the Revolution), mortally wounded one, and slightly wounded six others.
Captain Preston (who had not given the order to fire) immediately ordered his men to cease firing, and the stunned crowd slowly dispersed. Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson rode up and reprimanded Captain Preston and the soldiers for firing on the crowd. He convinced the British officers to have the soldiers withdraw to their barracks.
Nine men, including Captain Preston, were arrested and indicted for murder. The soldiers spent the summer in jail awaiting their trial. With John Adams and Josiah Quincy leading the defense, Preston and six of the soldiers were acquitted, while two privates were found guilty of manslaughter.
The two pleaded benefit of clergy, or exemption for a first felony; they were branded on their left thumbs and released. This incident, dubbed the Boston Massacre by radicals, illustrated the dangers of forcing troops on townspeople against their will. The Massacre, which carried much rhetorical power as propaganda, especially in the skillful hands of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, proved to be a major stepping-stone on the path that led to colonial independence from England.
Judkin Browning See also: Adams, John; Boston; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War; Riots; Document: Newspaper Account of the Boston Massacre (1770). Bibliography Hansen, Harry. The Boston Massacre: An Episode of Dissent and Violence.
New York: Hastings House, 1970. Payne, Samuel B.“Was Crispus Attucks the First to Die? ” New England Journal of History 57: 2 (2000): 1 10.
Zobel, Hiller B.The Boston Massacre. New York: W.
W.Norton, 1970. The Boston Massacre: You be the judge! Symbols and Propaganda from the Boston Massacre – YouTube The Boston Massacre Tutorial Sophia Learning.