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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Saturday, March 06, 2010

“Among the mob near the town-house in Boston”

Tonight there will be a reenactment of the Boston Massacre, taking place on the actual site of the shooting on 5 Mar 1770. As preparation, here’s an account of that evening from Edward Hill.

I was among the mob near the town-house in Boston, on Monday the 5th of March instant [i.e., this year], about nine o’clock at night, when the bells were set a ringing by order of the towns men (as I do believe) in order to bring the people together. I saw some of them armed with sticks, and heard some of them say they would go down to the custom-house, where there was a centry placed, and they would take him off his place.

Hearing this, I went to the main-guard, and acquainted the soldiers with what I heard. I heard the serjeant of the guard order a party of men to conduct the officer of the guard to his post; I staid thereabout till I saw Capt. [Thomas] Preston and another officer join the guard; then I saw Capt. Preston with a party of men go towards the custom-house; then, as I went towards the post-office, I heard the report of two muskets, fired as if from the custom-house; upon this I returned and went towards the custom-house with a number of towns-men;

while I was one the way thither, I heard the report of three or four muskets more; when I went down, I saw the people carrying off for dead one or two men; and then I saw a man lying on his back with a gore of blood by him, who, as I afterwards learned, was a Mulatto, upon which I heard the towns-people cry out to the soldiers who stood at the custom-house, “Fire, damn you, we defy you to fire;” whereon one of the soldiers of that party, thus provoked, turned out of the ranks a little, took up his musket, and was going to fire, when Capt. Preston took him by the arm and hindered him from firing.

It was after the firing beforementioned was over, according to the best of my knowledge, that I heard the drum beating to arms. I saw several officers of the 14th regiment running towards their barracks, and some of the towns-people running after them, crying, “Knock them down, sons of bitches.”

As I was running after some of these officers; I had in my hand a small stick, which somebody pursuing the officers asked me to let him have. I refused, saying, I wanted it myself. He took hold of the stick, and endeavoured in vain to take it from me; a crowd of people coming up, and walking faster than I did, threw me down.

As I got up again, some of them asked, “Who son of a bitch was that?” and one of them made a thrust at me with a blade, which I took to be a cut and thrust sword, and by the thrust cut through my jacket on the left breast about six inches; then I run down to the barracks of the 14th regiment, where I remained all night.
This deposition was taken down on 15 Mar 1770 by justice James Murray, a fervent supporter of the royal government. Customs Commissioner John Robinson, who had laid low since his coffee-house brawl with James Otis, Jr., carried it to London, and it was published with others in a pamphlet titled A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England.

Capt. Preston’s defense team, which consisted of John Adams, Robert Auchmuty, and Josiah Quincy, Jr., called Hill as their second defense witness. The notes on his testimony add a few details to this account. Hill was “in a house by Mr. Deblois” before going out. The other officer at the main guard with Preston was “Mr. Bassett”—twenty-year-old Lt. James Bassett, officer of the guard that night. And the soldier whom Preston stopped from shooting had “Attempted to fire at a Boy.” Hill did not clarify exactly why he had been running after army officers with a stick in his hand.

Hill’s deposition identified him as “late servant to Mr. George Spooner, merchant, of Boston.” Usually Bostonians used “servant” to mean “slave,” but that meaning doesn’t seem to fit this context. As for Spooner, he had attended the Sons of Liberty dinner in Dorchester in August 1769, but five years later he was a Loyalist and left town with the British military.

(Photo of the Old State House at night by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

2 comments:

pilgrimchick said...

I had entirely forgotten how close the anniversary of the Boston Massacre is. Wow. I loved reading this description.

John L. Smith said...

I would've LOVED to have been there! (The reenactment...not the original). It was neat reading an account from the OTHER point of view!