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 21, 2020

Robert Patterson’s Memory of the Massacre

On 20 Mar 1770, 250 years ago yesterday, a sailor named Robert Patterson testified to his memory of the Boston Massacre.

Patterson was one of the men wounded in that shooting—badly wounded in one arm. Furthermore, he had also been at the Christopher Seider shooting eleven days earlier, so close that pellets from Ebenezer Richardson’s musket had cut through his baggy sailor pants.

Patterson was unable to sign his testimony, possibly because of the injury to his right hand. (He was disabled from his wound.) Dr. Elisha Story, perhaps the sailor’s physician, attested to his mark.

Here is Robert Patterson’s story, as published in Boston’s Short Narrative report:
…on Monday night, the 5th current, being at Capt. [Hector] McNeill’s at the North End, heard the bells ring and “Fire!” cried. I immediately ran till I got into Royal Exchange lane, it being about a quarter after 9 o’clock. I saw a number of people in the lane. I asked what was the matter? They told me that the soldiers were going to kill all the inhabitants.

I immediately went through the lane, and stood in the middle of King street about ten or eleven minutes (the sentinel then standing leaning against his box), when I saw an officer with seven or eight soldiers coming from the main-guard, clearing the way with their guns and bayonets, go below the sentinel box, and turn up and place themselves around it, facing the people standing opposite Royal Exchange lane; when I saw a man with a light colored surtout at the Custom-house door, the door being wide open, there standing with his shoulder against the side; then I heard the officer order the soldiers to load, which they did.

After that I heard the people say, ”Damn you, why don’t you fire?” In about a minute after I heard the word “Fire!” (but from whom I cannot say) which the soldiers did. Looking round I saw three men lay dead on the snow; the snow being at that time near a foot deep. Immediately they loaded again.

The people then gave three cheers, and cried out, “Let’s go in upon them, and prevent their firing again;” upon which they put on their hats and advanced towards them. My hand being raised to put on my hat, still advancing towards the soldiers, the sentinel up with his gun and fired, the balls going through my lower right arm, my hand immediately falling; and finding myself wounded, made the best of my way home with help.
Patterson’s oath was certified by Justice John Hill and Justice John Ruddock, one of the more confrontational Whigs and Dr. Story’s father-in-law.

The Whigs assembling the Short Narrative inserted Patterson’s testimony in the midst of the three witnesses I quoted back here, all supporting the idea of people shooting down from the Customs House. That might have been because of the figure Patterson described in the Customs House door, who might even have given the order to “Fire!”

What really stands out in Patterson’s testimony, however, is his description of the final shot coming after significant activity: three men falling dead, the soldiers all reloading, the crowd cheering and moving toward the soldiers, and the sentinel—Pvt. Hugh White—shooting Patterson in the arm. (It’s not clear what the crowd did after that point, but Patterson wisely left to find help.)

Patterson thus described the shooting as more than a panicked chain reaction—all the soldiers got ready to shoot again, and one did. He also described the crowd as more determined in that same moment, moving toward the troops instead of panicking. However, no one else on King Street described that sequence of events.

Other witnesses mentioned Patterson in their testimony. Josiah Simpson, joiner, said:
The deponent then standing by Warden and Vernon’s shop on the south side of King street, with his back to the soldiers; immediately after heard the word present, at which word he stooped down. A little space of time ensued, and then he heard the words, “Damn you, fire;” the sound of which words seemed to proceed from the left of all the soldiers, and very near to the sentry box; upon this order, he judged two guns were discharged, and immediately three more, and then two more—one of the two last guns went about five or six inches over the deponent’s back—after which he stood up, and another gun was discharged which wounded one Robert Patterson in the arm, and the blood was sprinkled upon the deponent’s hand and waistcoat. After the firing the deponent saw four persons drop; then looking towards the soldiers, the deponent saw them making towards the inhabitants with their fixed bayonets; upon which he retired down Quaker lane…
John Wilson stated:
Some small boys coming up made a noise to the soldiers, on which the officer said to them, “Why don’t you fire? Damn you, fire!” They hereupon fired, and two men fell dead in my sight. I then left the place, and went over the street and assisted Patterson the wounded man in getting home.
It’s notable that neither of those witnesses describe the same series of events as Patterson. Simpson did agree that there were several shots, a pause, and then a final shot that hit the sailor’s arm. But no reloading, no three cheers. If in fact the crowd gave three cheers, if all the soldiers reloaded, other people must have participated in, heard, and seen those actions—but no one else testified to them.

One witness mentioned seeing a soldier working with his gun before firing the last shot. That was William Wyatt, captain of a coasting vessel based in Salem, whom Donna Seger just profiled at the Streets of Salem. Wyatt told the magistrates:
…the second man on the left wing fired off his gun, then, after a very short pause, they fired one after another as quick as possible, beginning on the right wing; the last man’s gun on the left wing flashed in the pan, then he primed again, and the people being withdrawn from before the soldiers, most of them further down the street, he turned his gun toward them and fired upon them.
So here’s how I reconcile Patterson’s testimony with the rest of the witnesses. There was a burst of shots, starting with Pvt. Edward Montgomery. Then a couple of seconds with no firing. Patterson, Simpson, and others stood up, thinking the danger was over. Patterson may have even thought about moving forward to disarm the troops.

But then one soldier primed his firelock again and fired the ball that hit Patterson’s arm. In his anger and confusion, Patterson enlarged people straightening up into the whole crowd giving three cheers and advancing, and that one soldier fixing his musket into the whole line reloading.

Of course, the Massacre was a sudden, chaotic, confusing event involving scores of people in a heightened emotional state. There are a lot of discrepancies between different witnesses’ testimony, and at times even between the records of a single witness’s testimony. (Patterson, unlike Simpson and Wyatt, wasn’t called to testify at the trials, so we have only one account from him.) This is how I piece together the overall evidence about the shot that hit Robert Patterson.

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