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 06, 2020

EXTRA: Collecting “information respecting the Massacre”

As I described earlier, the first order of business at Boston’s town meeting on 6 Mar 1770, 250 years ago today, was to collect “information respecting the Massacre of the last night.” This produced the earliest surviving eyewitness testimony related to that event.

The first man in line with such info was the painter John Singleton Copley, who reported:
that Mr. Pelham and his Wife and some Person of Mr. Samuel Wenthrops Family, heard a Soldier to say after the firing on the last Night, that the Devil might give quarters he should give them none—  
In other words, this soldier would use deadly force in any fight. [The published town records say “fixing” instead of “firing.”]

I interpret “Mr. Pelham and his Wife” to mean Copley’s half-brother Henry Pelham and his own wife Susanna (though conceivably the artist’s other half-brother Charles Pelham and his wife Mary had come in from Newton that night). Hearing this threat might explain why Pelham drew the accusatory picture of the shooting that Paul Revere later copied.

Samuel Winthrop was clerk of the Massachusetts Superior Court, where the soldiers would be tried. Copley painted him in his court robe around this time.

At the same town meeting, John Scott volunteered that “a Lad of Mr Peirpoints said at Mr. [Peter?] Cherdons, that a Soldier was heard to say that his Officer had acquainted them, that if they went abroad at Nights, they should go armed and in Companies.” This may have been the same John Scott chosen for jury duty that fall.

Robert Pierpont himself said: “before the firing on the last Night he had disarmed a Soldier who had struck down one of the Inhabitants.” Pierpont was an active Whig from the South End who had prompted his own riot the previous October. Cpl. Hugh McCann later complained that Pierpont had attacked him soon after the shooting, probably the same incident. Within days, Pierpont was overseeing inquests of the shooting victims as one of the town coroners.

The tailor Pool Spear reported: “last Week he heard one Kilson a Soldier of Pharras Company say…Inhabitants…had broke an Officers Windows [and]…that Parties of Soldiers were ordered with Pistols in their Pockets, and to fire upon those who should assault said House again, and that Ten Pounds Sterling was to be given as a Reward, for their killing one of those Persons, and fifty pounds sterling for a Prisoner.” Spear was then being sued for tarring and feathering the Customs service sailor George Gailer. Apothecary Robert Palmes reported that Spear had been near King Street the night before but went home, sensing trouble.

In such a small town, it seems, almost everyone had a link to the disputes that led to the shooting and a link to the legal system that would adjudicate it.

Another early witness was the shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes. His testimony wasn’t entered into the town records appended to more testimony published later, showing his determination to get this story out. Hewes said:
last night, about one o’clock, as he was returning alone from his house to the town-house, he met Sergeant Chambers of the 29th, with eight or nine soldiers, all with very large clubs and cutlasses, when Dobson, a soldier, spoke to him and ask’d him how he far’d, he told him very badly, to see his townsmen shot in such a manner, and asked him if he did not think it was a dreadful thing, said Dobson swore by God it was a fine thing, and said you shall see more of it; and on perceiving I had a cane, he informed Sergeant Chambers of it, who seized and forced it from me, saying I had no right to carry it; I told him I had as good a right to carry a cane as they had to carry clubs, but they hurried off with it into the main guard.
Was this Sgt. Chambers the same who had spent Sunday in a “house of pleasure”? I asked Don Hagist, editor of the Journal of the American Revolution. He said a Sgt. Charles Chambers is listed on the muster rolls of the 29th Regiment in October 1769 and June 1770. A Sgt. Joseph Chambers pops up on the latter roll, never having appeared in the record of the regiment before. So it’s not certain which sergeants were where.

(I was pleased Don could confirm that Matthew Chambers, who serves as an example of a redcoat with a wife and small children through much of Serena Zabin’s The Boston Massacre: A Family History, was a private and thus not the man who visited the brothel.)

It’s striking how none of this testimony that survives from that 6 March meeting directly related to the shooting on King Street, even though people like Hewes had been present. Instead, citizens were warning town officials about the ongoing threat that all the soldiers—not just those already in custody—posed to the people of Boston.

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