J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Edward Payne: genteel shooting victim

On 6 Mar 1770, the day after the Boston Massacre, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote a letter to his superiors in London explaining what they would want to know about the event:

I found two persons killed a third mortally wounded since dead, a fourth dangerously wounded & a fifth, Mr Payne a Merchant of the Town, shot in his arm and the bone splintered as he stood at his door.
Who was “Mr Payne,” and why did he warrant being the only shooting victim the governor named?

Edward Payne (1722-1788) was the only person shot on King Street who came from the genteel class rather than being a craftsman or sailor. That’s why he warranted attention from royal officials. He was also the only man shot on his own property, rather than on the street—though that was apparently a matter of inches.

Benjamin Andrews filed a report for the town on where the soldiers’ musket balls lodged in Payne’s house. He described a “bullet hole in the entry door post..., which grazed the edge of the door before it entered the post where it lodged, two and a half inches deep” and a “hole made by another musket ball through the window shutter of the lower story of the same house, and lodged in the back wall of the shop.” The first ball had gone through Payne’s arm before ending up in that post.

Payne’s testified to the town’s investigating committee about his experience. After describing reports of fights between soldiers and townspeople, he said:
That this deponent then went home, and stood upon the sill of his entry door, which is nearly opposite to the east end of the Customhouse, where he was soon joined by Mr. George Bethune [1720-1785], and Mr. Harrison Gray [Jr.] (c. 1735-1830), that the people round the sentinel were then crying out “Fire, fire, damn you, why don't you fire,” soon after, he perceived a number of soldiers coming down towards the sentinel, with their arms in a horizontal posture, and their bayonets fixed, who turned the people from before the Custom-house, and drew up before the door, the people, who still remained in the street and about the soldiers, continued calling out to them to fire.

In this situation they remained some minutes, when he heard a gun snap, and presently a single gun fired and soon after several others went off, one after another, to the number, of three or four, and then heard the rammers go into the guns as though they were loading; immediately after which, three or four more went off in the same manner; at which time, a ball passed through the deponents right arm, upon which he immediately retired into the house.
The report noted that Payne signed his deposition “with his left hand” because of the injury to his right. Later he testified at the soldiers’ trial, telling much the same story.

William Tudor’s mention of Payne in The Life of James Otis (1823) is probably less accurate, but vivid and amusing:
Among the persons wounded was Edward Payne, Esq. a respectable merchant, who having been attracted by the noise in the street, was standing as a spectator at his own door, at the corner of Congress street when he received two balls through his arm, that afterwards lodged in the door-post.

This gentleman’s mild manner of expressing his vexation, when he found himself wounded, excited a smile among his friends. “I declare,” he said with emphasis, “I think those soldiers ought to be talked to.”
I love the phrase “with emphasis.”

Tudor added, “These balls are now in the possession of his son William Payne, Esquire, and may be considered an interesting relic of the revolution.”

Indeed they are. The two balls now belong to the Massachusetts Historical Society, though this photo of them comes via the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum website. The labels say the one on the right went through Payne’s arm, the one on the left straight into his house.

After my posting on Monday about soldiers probably double-loading their guns, some Boston 1775 readers commented about the importance of the weight and metal content of the musket balls. I don’t know if anyone’s studied these bullets in that regard. I suspect, given where they ended up, that they came from the same gun.

One more anecdote about Edward Payne and the Massacre comes from Peter Oliver, one of the judges who presided over the trials at the end of the year. As a bitter Loyalist in England in 1783, he wrote this anecdote about the gentleman wounded in the shooting (who must be Payne) and the Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncy:
[The minister] had heard that a Gentleman was wounded, on that unhappy Night when the Soldiers had fired. He waited upon the Gentleman, & asked him, whether he did not design to prosecute Capt. [Thomas] Preston in damages [i.e., file a civil suit against him for assault]?

The Gentleman replied, “No Sir! It will be of no Advantage. Capt. Preston is to be tried for his Life. If he should be convicted he will suffer Death, & then I cannot recover any Damages; & if he is acquitted I shall be in the same Circumstances”: to which this hoary headed Divine…said—“if I was to be one of the Jury upon his Trial, I would bring him in guilty; evidence or no Evidence.”
After the siege of Boston, Payne gave up trading goods and started selling insurance. He died on the anniversary of the Massacre in 1788. Payne’s son William took over the house, office, and business at what became 15 State Street. Edward Payne’s daughter Rebecca married Christopher Gore, one of Hutchinson’s successors as governor of Massachusetts.


Pvt.Bill said...

Thank you for posting this additional information ! It seems to add creedance that the soldiers had indeed double-loaded their muskets.I have to wonder though,exactly why? Was it pre-conceived that shooting at civilians would be likely? If so,why do more damage than absolutely necessary? Having more dead would ceretainly inflame the already toxic situation in Boston,and I don't see any benefit to the local government.

J. L. Bell said...

I think some army officers thought the double-loaded muskets were “absolutely necessary” as the only way their soldiers could beat back hostile mobs. In three of the previous four days, there had been fights between Boston workers and soldiers, so the Massacre didn’t explode out of calm.

Throughout the pre-Revolutionary conflict, and indeed the Revolutionary War, the British officials and military had the advantages of traditional authority, technological parity or superiority, and men with full-time training.

But they were at a deep disadvantage in numbers. With two regiments in Boston in 1770, the army was clearly outnumbered by locals, an overwhelming percentage of whom were Whigs. During conflicts like the Neck Guard riot of October 1769, the ropewalk brawl of 2 Mar 1770, and the confrontation on King Street on 5 March, the British soldiers always faced superior numbers, and without firearms they always lost.

I think that made Crown employees and supporters quicker to use deadly force since they had no other way to protect themselves.