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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Monday, July 30, 2012

Boston Riots in Memory and Myth

Being in the opposite corner of the country, I’m quite sorry I won’t be able to attend today’s brown-bag-lunch seminar at the Massachusetts Historical Society at noon.

The researcher is Nichole George of the University of Notre Dame, and the society describes her research topic as:
Riots and Remembrance: America’s Idols and the Origins of American Nationalism

This project focuses on popular celebrations and the use of “celebrities” as symbols of the changing dynamics of American nationalism from settlement through the Civil War. Nicole’s research focuses on three main idols: the Pope, Benedict Arnold, and Crispus Attucks, each representing a major transition in American national identity.
As I’ve noted before, processions vilifying Benedict Arnold late in the Revolutionary War and into the early republic bear a startling similarity to New England’s prewar Pope Night festivals. How long did the Arnold parades go on? Was that style of pageantry adapted further to attack other public villains? What was the thinking behind the reenactment of Pope Night in Boston in 1821, as reported in the Boston Daily Advertiser?

I’m not sorry to have missed a talk at the West End Museum last week whose description says:
The famous “Boston Massacre” was not an isolated event, but an outpouring of riots on the ropewalks of a man named John Grey. His brother Samuel was a “Son of Liberty” and also one of the first people gunned down on the Rope walks.
John Gray did own the ropewalks where fights broke out between workers and royal soldiers on 2 March 1770. Samuel Gray did work there, and was killed in the Boston Massacre. However, those two men weren’t brothers. John was a very wealthy manufacturer, brother to the province’s Treasurer Harrison Gray. Samuel was a mechanic, and not even an independent one; if he was any sort of close relative to his genteel employer, that would have been reported at the time. I also don’t know of any evidence outside of these fights for Samuel Gray’s political activity. Finally, the Massacre didn’t occur on or near the ropewalks.

(The image above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, shows an 1865 political cartoon of Arnold, the Devil, and Jefferson Davis. New cartoons linking Arnold and the Devil continued to appear at least through the Bicentennial.)


Jim Padian said...

I recall reading somewhere that several "regulars"were employed at the rope works, and that bad feelings surfaced between them and other workers over what was perceived as the loss of opportunities for civilians to work. More agitation that resulted in the Massacre.

EJWitek said...

There is some evidence that Samuel Gray, who was standing directly next to Crispus Attucks, during the "massacre", was deliberately singled out and shot by a grenadier from the 29th Regiment who had participated in a March 2nd brawl at Gray's ropeworks along with Samuel Gray. Both Attucks and Gray were described as being no more than fifteen feet from the Redcoats when shot.
There is no record of Samuel Gray being involved in any political agitation and, in fact, he probably thought he was getting in on some more "fun' like the March 2nd brawl. When a musketball pierced his head, he was standing peacefully with his hands inside his coat.
How one could confuse the site of the "Boston Massacre" with Gray's ropewalk is totally beyond me.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm not sure that soldiers were employed at Gray's ropewalk, but they could have been. Regulars were allowed to moonlight when not on duty, and because the army took care of their basic needs they could probably underprice local laborers.

The fights at Gray's ropewalk started when ropemaker William Green hailed Pvt. Patrick Walker with what sounded like an offer of work, only to suggest that Walker clean the outhouse. So whether Green resented soldiers like Walker taking jobs or just saw an opportunity to make fun of a poorer man is unclear, but soldiers' freedom to work definitely played a role in bringing on those fights.

Complicating things, we know that a soldier named Pvt. Patrick Dines worked at Piemont's barber shop, and that apprentices at that shop visited him at his barracks over the weekend. So there was an example of a soldier working alongside locals on friendly terms. Nevertheless, those same apprentices were involved in the quarrel with Pvt. Hugh White that led straight into the Massacre.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there was some guessing that Pvt. Matthew Kilroy shot Samuel Gray because he recognized him from the ropewalk fight.

I might think that a stretch except that Benjamin Burdick testified about soldiers staking out his house, where another ropemaker boarded, the day after the ropewalk fight. Burdick headed the watchmen in the center of town, so he was an attentive witness. So some soidiers definitely knew which ropemakers they had been fighting.

Anonymous said...

I was the man that gave the talk at the west end museum, they confused the wording to make john and samuel brothers, i know they were not, i was talking about the massacre as an out pouring of the riots earlier, not that they exsited at the same spot. One led to the other, in a way. The atkinson street walks were not far from the head of long warf where the massacre took place, sorry for the confusion in the shortly worded invite, the talk clarified things. I would have loved to have seen you there john. The focus at the west end museum right now is the history of the rope walks in the west end and through out boston. They do a wonderful job there. One of the little known museums in boston, well worth the trip. I had not been there before i spoke ther

J. L. Bell said...

Good to hear that the errors appeared in the event description, not in the event. I was pleased to see the West End Museum highlighting ropewalks as an important part of Boston's manufacturing past, and featured the exhibit in this posting.

EJWitek said...

The evidence that Kilroy deliberately singled out Samuel Gray is somewhat stronger than you make it to be John. There is a deposition by one Charles Hobb who claimed that one of the grenadiers, at a distance of four or five yards, pointed his musket directly at Gray's head and fired. In testimony at the trial, Edward Gambett Langford identified Gray's shooter as Pvt Kilroy.Langford was sure of his identification of Kilroy but not so sure that Gray was his exclusive target.
It should also be noted that in standing next to Crispus Attucks, who was described as unusally tall, Gray was sure to be noticed.
While hardly dispositive, the evidence does give one pause. This wouldn't be the first time a soldier took advantage of a situation to settle a personal score.

J. L. Bell said...

There's also the testimony that one soldier stuck his bayonet into Gray's head wound, and Kilroy's bayonet was found to be bloody the next morning, which might indicate heightened anger.

Not all the witnesses agreed about which soldier stood where, though. Given that confusion and the absence of any remarks from Kilroy, I hesitate to say he recognized Gray or aimed at him. The jurymen decided Kilroy was more guilty than most of his comrades (he was one of the two soldiers convicted of manslaughter), so perhaps they concluded otherwise.