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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Friday, March 01, 2013

Richard Palmes’s Last Word

As Neil L. York quotes in The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents, Richard Palmes published his own version of his testimony about the Boston Massacre in the 25 Mar 1771 Boston Gazette because “the sentiments of the People seems various concerning the Testimony I gave.”

That apparently meant that neighbors were accusing him of saying things that had helped to acquit Capt. Thomas Preston and most of the soldiers, and caused the last two soldiers to be convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. Specifically, Palmes took issue with the version of his testimony that shorthand expert John Hodgson had published in Boston early that year.

What are the important differences between the two versions of Palmes’s testimony? Aside from details of wording, they appear in these questions about Pvt. Edward Montgomery, the first soldier to fire. Hodgson’s version:

Q. Are you certain that Montgomery was struck and sallied back before he fired?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you know whether it was with a piece of ice or a club?
A. No.
And Palmes’s version:
Q. Are you sure Montgomery was struck and sallied back before he fired?
A. I tho’t he stept back when it hit him.
Q. Do you know whether it was a piece of ice, or a club?
A. It was something resembling ice.
Palmes wanted his neighbors to know that he did not say Montgomery “sallied back,” or staggered, but that he deliberately stepped back. He also said that private was most likely hit by ice rather than wood. In both details, Palmes downplayed the violence Montgomery had suffered.

Or rather, Palmes insisted that Hodgson had made him overstate that violence: “Mr. Hodgson confounds my remembrance in such manner, that I could not determine the difference between a piece of ice and a club, for what purpose this fetch, judge impartial reader!”

After Palmes’s testimony the court recalled another witness, James Bailey, and asked if he still believed that Montgomery fell down after being hit by the object. Bailey reaffirmed that he did. Palmes commented: “I imagine this evidence was bro’t to invalidate my declaration in court; but I assure the world upon the oath I then took, that Montgomery did not fall until he attempted to run his bayonet thro’ my body; which was about the time the last gun went off.”

Which version was accurate? In his earlier testimony Palmes had consistently spoken of “a piece of snow or ice” being thrown. Even someone taking notes for the Crown at the soldiers’ trial recorded that. So Hodgson’s report that Palmes said the object might have been a club seems suspect.

However, that anonymous note-taker also reported that Palmes had remarked about the ice hitting the soldier, “whether it staggered him back or he only stepd back I cant tell”—more doubt about Montgomery stepping back than Palmes himself later acknowledged.

In any event, by publishing his version of his testimony in the Boston Gazette, Palmes got the last word.

TOMORROW: Until the 21st century.

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