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, June 22, 2020

“Enraged upon reading Capt. Preston’s Narrative”

The publication of Capt. Thomas Preston’s “Case” in Boston in June 1770 heightened the danger that had prompted the captain to write to the British government in the first place: the possibility that he would be killed for the Boston Massacre.

One threat was that a Massachusetts jury would convict Preston of murder and the local authorities would quickly carry out a death sentence. The 21 June Boston News-Letter reported that the government in London had anticipated that possibility:
The Ministers expect, That if Captain Preston, and the soldiers, who committed the late murders at Boston, are condemned, That the Lieutenant Governor (Hutchinson) will respite them during the King’s pleasure [i.e., put off executions until the London government had a chance to pardon them], which may occasion another Porteu’s affair)
John Porteous was a captain of the Edinburgh City Guard in 1736. After he and soldiers under his command killed people while putting down a riot, he was convicted of murder. Rumors said he might be reprieved, so on the night before his scheduled execution a crowd took him out of the jail (shown above) and hanged him themselves.

Thus, the second danger that Preston and the ministry feared was that Bostonians would lynch him.

On 22 June, 250 years ago today, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage in New York:
I ever supposed it would be necessary for me, at all events if Capt. Preston & the Soldiers should be found Guilty and Sentence be passed to grant a Reprieve until His Majesty’s pleasure should be known. I am now under stronger Obligation to do it than before having received His Majestys express commands so to do.

I am much less concerned from an apprehension of the rage of the people against me than I am from the danger in our present dissolute state of Government, of the people’s taking upon themselves to put the Sentence into execution. I do not believe I have one Magistrate who would be willing to run any risque in endeavouring to prevent it. If Troops were in the Town I don’t know that a Magistrate would employ them on such an occasion but I think they might notwithstanding be the means of preventing it.
Hutchinson sent that letter from Boston and then went to his country house in Milton. As evening approached, he received a message from Lt. Col. William Dalrymple, commander of the 14th Regiment stationed on Castle William. Dalrymple enclosed “a Letter he had received from Capt. Preston expressing his great fears that the people were so enraged as to force the Gaol that night and make him a sacrifice, several of his friends having informed him this was their intention.”

The acting governor dashed off a note for Preston which said in its entirety:
Dear Sir

I will take every precaution which is in my power which I wish was greater than it is and am Yours sincerely

Hutchinson told Gage the next day what other steps he took:
I sent immediately proper Orders to the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] & I directed to every precaution I could think of but, being extremely uneasy, I went to Town. I found the people were enraged upon reading Capt. Preston’s Narrative which I wish had not been published in England.

I sat up until midnight and until the Scouts which had been sent to different quarters made return that all was quiet and I find that where Capt. Prestons fears have come to the knowledge of the Liberty People they have generally remarked that what ever danger there may be after Trial it would be the heighth of madness to think of any such thing before.

I shall however continue all the caution I have in my power.
Hutchinson thought Preston’s trial for murder would come in “ten or twelve weeks,” or sometime in September. Both the royal authorities and Boston’s political leaders had to keep him and the soldiers alive until then.

1 comment:

Dag said...

As a fairly regular reader of your blog I found the reference to your 2007 writing on this matter interesting. Although I may be thirteen years late let me say good job.