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, November 27, 2020

Finding Jurors for the Boston Massacre Trial

On 27 Nov 1770, 250 years ago today, the second trial for the Boston Massacre got under way.

It was supposed to start a week earlier, but the court had trouble finding twelve jurors who were ready to sit on what promised to be an unusually long, unusually charged trial.

The defense team was giving the jurors extra scrutiny. Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage in New York:
My great concern is to obtain an unbiased Jury and for that purpose, principally, I advised Captain [Thomas] Preston to engage one of the Bar, over and above the Council to conduct the Cause in Court, in the character of an Attorney who should make a very diligent inquiry into the characters and principles of all who are returned which he has done and it may be to good purpose, but after all it will be extremely difficult to keep a Jury to the Rules of Law.
That appears to be the reason that the young solicitor Sampson Salter Blowers joined John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr., on the defense team. (Blowers appears above later in life, when he was a judge in Nova Scotia.) Robert Auchmuty, senior counsel for the defense in Preston’s trial, saw his job as done.

The defense lawyers challenged every potential juror from Boston as too close to the case. After all, the town was paying Robert Treat Paine to be a special prosecutor. And the judges accepted those challenges. As a result, the jurors all had to come from other towns in Suffolk County (which at that time included all of present-day Norfolk County as well as Hingham). 

The trial record, which is unusually thick for the eighteenth century and published in volume 3 of The Legal Papers of John Adams and thus on Founders Online, shows the difficulty in seating a jury of twelve. The men called were: 
  • Samuel Williams, Roxbury, challenged for cause.
  • Joseph Curtis, Roxbury, challenged for cause.
  • Nathaniel Davis, Roxbury, sworn.
  • Joseph Mayo, Roxbury, sworn.
  • Abraham Wheeler, Dorchester, sworn.
  • Edward Pierce, Dorchester, sworn.
  • William Glover, Dorchester, challenged peremptorily.
  • Isaiah Thayer, Braintree, sworn.
  • Samuel Bass, Jr., Braintree, challenged peremptorily.
  • James Faxen, Braintree, challenged peremptorily.
  • Benjamin Fisher, Dedham, sworn.
  • John Morse, Dedham, challenged peremptorily.
  • James White, Medway, challenged peremptorily.
  • Nehemiah Davis, Brookline, challenged peremptorily.
  • Samuel Davenport, Milton, sworn.
  • Joseph Houghton, Milton, sworn.
  • James Richardson, Medfield, challenged peremptorily.
  • John Billings, Stoughton, challenged peremptorily.
  • Joseph Richards, Stoughton, challenged for cause.
  • Consider Atherton, Stoughton, sworn.
  • Abner Turner, Walpole, challenged peremptorily.
The clerk then called the Boston men whose names were at the bottom of that list, and the defendants challenged them all.
  • John Brown, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • Joseph Barrell, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • Silas Aitkins, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • Harbottle Dorr, Boston, challenged for cause.
The judges had Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf bring in more men, and the process resumed.
  • Samuel Sheppard, Boston, challenged peremptorily.
  • John Goldsbury, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • Samuel Peck, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • William Gouge, challenged for cause.
  • Joseph Turrell, Boston, challenged for cause.
  • Jacob Cushing, Jr., Hingham, sworn.
  • Josiah Lane, Hingham, sworn.
  • Jonathan Burr, Hingham, sworn.
Finally, the court officers did a little legal maneuvering to ensure the last three men from Hingham were indeed eligible, and the opening arguments began.

Joseph Mayo (1721-1776) of Roxbury was named foreman of the jury. He owned a large farm a little past the intersection of modern Washington Street and South Street in Roslindale. A veteran of the Louisbourg expedition of 1745, he was a captain of his town’s militia company. Mayo had also served on town committees to promote non-importation and to instruct the Massachusetts General Court representatives to stand up for the province’s charter rights. But the defense team felt, based on their inquiry, that he could assess the case fairly.

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