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, March 23, 2020

The Superior Court “Overawed”

Even as the royal army and the town of Boston took steps to respond to the Boston Massacre in March 1770, a third institution was moving, albeit more slowly: the Massachusetts court system.

Under the provincial charter, governors appointed the judges in consultation with their Council. Judges served as long as they wanted. That meant the judiciary leaned toward the establishment and the Crown.

In fact, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court was still Thomas Hutchinson, the acting royal governor. He had stopped exercising that judicial role, however, so the acting chief was Benjamin Lynde of Salem (1700-1781, shown here).

The court was scheduled to start sitting in Boston on 20 Mar 1770, but Judge Lynde’s diary shows that he didn’t arrive (with his enslaved servant Primus) until the following afternoon. Then on 22 March, “Two of the Judges being sick, the Court came to a Determination to adjourn to the 2d. Tuesday in June,” according to a report to Crown officials.

The Boston Whigs had anticipated that possibility. As I noted back here, the town meeting had already discussed now judges falling ill would delay the murder trials of Ebenezer Richardson and the soldiers involved in the Massacre. They didn’t want that.

On 22 March or the next day, some of the town’s leading Whigs went to the courthouse. The informant stated:
a committe consisting of Ad[am]s Mol[ineu]x, War[re]n H[ancoc]k & others waited upon them in court, and in a very pathetic Speech, made by Mr. A---s, Represented the necessity of proceeding to the trial of the Criminals this Term, particularly those concerned in the late bloody Massacre. . . .

Numbers even of the Sons of L----y were shocked to see their Sup-----r C---t overawed and insulted in this manner.
The Superior Court remained in session, but it did business slowly, starting with the civil cases.

Also on 23 March, or 250 years ago today, Boston Whigs revived the case against Customs officer Edward Manwaring for shooting at the crowd during the Massacre. As I’ve been tracing, that case rested on the testiomony of Manwaring’s young French servant, Charles Bourgate.

Charles had told his story to a shopkeeper on 6 March, then denied it to a magistrate, then retold it to that magistrate, was then refuted by an alibi witness named John Munro, then accused Munro of being complicit, and was finally refuted by a second alibi witness. Since his first testimony, Charles had been in the Boston jail, either for perjury or for his own protection—the courts would sort out which.

According to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson:
Mr. [Richard] Dana, a Justice zealous for the cause of Liberty, had examined the boy and was so fully convinced of the falsity of his evidence that he would not issue a warrant for apprehending the persons charged. . . . Among other reasons given for the refusal of the Justice to issue his warrant it was said that the facts to which the boy swore were of such a nature that it was impossible they should have escaped the observation of the great number of other persons present
More radical Boston Whigs disagreed. They had a handful of witnesses ready to testify they’d observed shots come from the second floor of the Customs House during the Massacre, just as Charles claimed.

On 23 March, magistrates John Hill and John Ruddock took down the French boy’s sworn story, presumably in the jail. Also present to attest to the boy’s mark were Dr. Elisha Story, Ruddock’s son-in-law, and Edward Crafts, brother of coroner Thomas Crafts. All those men were strong Whigs.

The justices duly recorded that “Edward Manwaring, Esq; and John Munroe…were notified and present; and interrogated the deponent.” But the boy stuck to his tale.

This deposition would go into the town’s Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre report. It would also go to the grand jury, which didn’t need warrants or judges to indict people and put them in jail.

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