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, November 02, 2020

Capt. Preston at the Castle

The Boston Whigs don’t appear to have been surprised or terribly upset when Capt. Thomas Preston was acquitted of murder for the Boston Massacre in October 1770.

The 5 November Boston Gazette reported the not guilty verdict without comment.

Writing to John Wilkes on behalf of the Whigs, young merchant William Palfrey complained at length about how the jury had been seated and called the trial a “farce,” but he also said:
It must however be confessed that the confusion of that unhappy night was so great that the Witnesses both for the Crown & the prisoner differed materially in some parts of their testimony, and even in my own mind there still remains a doubt whether Capt Preston gave the orders to fire, as the two Witnesses who swore to that point, declared also that Capt Preston had on a Surtout Coat, which he proved was not the case.
Preston and his friends nonetheless still feared a lynching, or at least more harassment. On 31 October, the captain wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage in New York:
They have endeavourd to lodge an Appeal against me, in behalf of one of the relations of the deceasd, but it won’t lie, as there are not any near enough of kin now surviving, but their busy malice has found out another way to distress me, by sueing me for damages on acct. of the wounded, & if taken wou’d involve me in endless lawsuits
The next day, Lt. Col. William Dalrymple added, “I understand there are fresh warrants out against him.” No lawsuit went forward, however.

To be safe, Capt. Preston had headed for Castle William, where the 14th Regiment could protect him against both mobs and constables.

We even have a glimpse of the captain’s departure for that island fort in a document that Christie’s auctioned in 2005. That was a handwritten copy of Preston’s “Case,” including a section not published in the London newspapers.

Bound with that plea for a pardon was a letter from the Rev. Richard Mosley dated 7 November. He recounted the captain’s trial and stated, “After Capn Preston was discharged…I escorted him to a boat” headed to Castle Island. Mosley believed the locals still wanted “Blood for Blood.”

Mosley was then the chaplain of H.M.S. Salisbury, which had arrived in Boston harbor earlier in October carrying Commodore James Gambier, recently appointed naval commander of the North American station. Some Whigs had speculated that the Crown had sent the warship to Boston to ensure the town remained peaceful during the Massacre trials.

As for the Preston/Mosley document, I don’t know where it is now. The selling price was over a quarter-million dollars, so it’s not in the Boston 1775 collection.

TOMORROW: Preston’s own view of his trial.

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