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 13, 2020

The Boston Town Meeting Takes Action

On Tuesday, 13 Mar 1770, 250 years ago today, Boston took a couple of major steps in its official response to the Boston Massacre.

The town had started its annual meeting the day before, reelecting the seven selectmen and then moving on to overseers of the poor, wardens, and such specialized offices as surveyors of boards and sealers of leather. But there were a lot of agenda items specific to that month.

Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf warned about possible jailbreaks. The town agreed to cover the cost of more watchmen in case the court system didn’t. This may well have been an oblique way of pointing to the number of soldiers in jail after the shooting on King Street. In fact, those prisoners might have been even more nervous than the townspeople, worried that as soon as there were no regiments in town they might be lynched.

The 29th Regiment had already moved to Castle William, but the 14th was still in town. The meeting appointed a high-level committee led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams to urge Col. William Dalrymple to remove his regiment immediately. Dalrymple assured those gentlemen “that between Thursday Night and Fryday Morning [i.e., by 16 March] not one of the 14th. Regiment, except himself, would remain.”

On Monday the meeting appointed Thomas Cushing, John Adams, and Josiah Quincy to write to the town’s agents and major contacts in London about the Massacre.

Resuming on Tuesday, the town appointed a committee of small businessmen to “draw up an Agreement for the Shopkeepers that have or do deal in Tea, not to dispose of any more of that Article untill the Revenue Acts are repealed.” It formed another committee of major merchants to discuss how to strengthen non-importation.

Finally the meeting reached this item:
What steps may be further necessary for obtaining a particular Account of all proceedings relative to the Massacre in King Street on Monday Night last, that a full and Just representation may be made thereof
The meeting approved these actions:
  • Commissioning James Bowdoin, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton to write a thorough report on the event and who was responsible for it, which became A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre.
  • Asking the selectmen “to employ one or more Council to offer to the Kings Attorney as Assistance to him in the tryal of the Murtherers”—a special prosecutor paid by the town in the name of the victims.
  • Referring the question of whether “a public Monument may be Erected on the spot where the late Tragical Scene was acted” to the Massachusetts General Court, presumably because it had more funds.
The Boston town meeting wanted strong measures, but it was still chary about spending money.

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