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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Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Forgotten Trial for the Boston Massacre

On 12 Dec 1770, 250 years ago today, the third trial for the Boston Massacre began.

This is the trial that later generations of Bostonians preferred to forget. In 1771 the Loyalist printer John Fleeming published a seven-page report including witness testimony as an appendix to the much longer record of the soldiers’ trial. But Harbottle Dorr didn’t buy that expanded edition and keep it with his collection of Whig newspapers.

In 1870, when Frederic Kidder assembled his History of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770; consisting of the narrative of the town, the trial of the soldiers: and a historical introduction, containing unpublished documents of John Adams, and explanatory notes, he reprinted John Hodgson’s transcript of the soldiers’ trial but not the appendix. He replaced those seven pages with a single paragraph on the verdict.

Because John Adams wasn’t involved in the third trial, its record also makes no appearance in his Legal Papers, the most complete source of documents on those proceedings.

When I started my Revolutionary research, the only way I could read about the third trial was to visit a library that owned a first edition, second state of The Trial of William Wemms… from 1771. But now Google has digitized that book, so everyone can find its account of the third trial starting at page 210.

The defendants on 12 December were:
  • Edward Manwaring, a Customs officer assigned to Douglastown on the Gaspé peninsula in Canada, who was in Boston on 5 Mar 1770.
  • John Munro, a notary public and friend of Manwaring who had the bad luck to be socializing with him that evening.
  • Hammond Green, a boat builder whose family worked for the Boston Customs office.
  • Thomas Greenwood, a low-level local Customs officer.
Those men were indicted on the evidence of one person: Charles Bourgate, a fourteen-year-old francophone servant of Manwaring. Earlier this year I traced the French boy’s evolving story starting here. Despite the forensic slipperiness of that account, a Boston grand jury indicted those four defendants for murder.

On 11 December, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson, who was still on leave as Chief Justice, had two other Superior Court justices visit him at the Province House. He urged them to “continue,” or postpone, those men’s trials till the spring session. That would have been a full year since the shooting on King Street. Perhaps he hoped the accusation would just go away. Senior justice Benjamin Lynde declined.

Thus, the third Massacre trial started on 12 December. Massachusetts advocate general Samuel Quincy prosecuted, though he considered the attempt to convict these defendants “another Windmill adventure” with himself as “poor Don Quixot.” The record doesn’t say who served as defense counsel, and legal historian Hiller B. Zobel suggests the defendants didn’t need one.

The first prosecution witness was Samuel Drowne, who said he had seen “two flashes from the Custom-house” behind the soldiers as they fired. Stationer Timothy White testified that he had hosted and employed Drowne for two years and “never observed any thing to impeach his veracity and understanding”—though “Some people thought him foolish.”

Charles Bourgate then told his story of being pulled into the Customs house and forced to fire out at the crowd by a “tall man” with a sword-cane—some suspected Customs Commissioner John Robinson, notorious for cutting James Otis’s scalp with his walking-stick. Charles said he’d seen his master Manwaring shoot a gun, too. The prosecution rested.

Four upper-class defense witnesses then testified that they had watched the confrontation on King Street and seen no shots from the Customs House. One of those gentlemen was Edward Payne, who had actually been wounded in the shooting and had no reason to protect any shooters.

Two women who lived in the Customs House said they had viewed the shooting from the very room that Charles described, and there had been no men with guns there.

Manwaring’s landlady, Elizabeth Hudson, stated that he and Munro had been at her house during the shooting along with the traveling entertainer Michael Angelo Warwell and young Charles.

The court brought the French boy back to the stand. He insisted that he’d told the truth and Hudson (and everyone else) had lied. The judges summoned four men known for speaking French well, including schoolmaster John Lovell and merchant Philip Dumaresque, and asked them to question the boy to make sure there was no language barrier. He stuck to his story.

At that point the defense lowered the boom. James Penny, a debtor who had been in the jail while Charles was housed there as a witness, stated that the teenager had admitted to him:
That what he testified to the Grand Jury and before the Justices…was in every particular false, and that he did swear in that manner by the persuasion of William Molineux, who told him he would take him from his master and provide for him, and that Mr. Molineux frightened him by telling him if he refused to swear against his master and Mr. Munro the mob in Boston would kill him: and farther that Mrs. [Elizabeth] Waldron, the wife of Mr. [Joseph] Waldron a taylor in Back-street, who sells ginger bread and drams, gave him the said Charles gingerbread and cheese, and desired him to swear against his master.
Charles “positively denied that he had ever made any such declaration.” He asked that another debtor, cabinetmaker William Page, be called to the stand. But Page testified that he’d seen the French boy in deep conversation with James Penny, who was taking notes, so that ended up bolstering Penny’s claim.

The case of Rex v. Manwaring et al. went to the jury. The record ends:
The Jury acquitted all the Prisoners, without going from their seats.
The third Boston Massacre trial thus ended within a day, as was usual in that period. But it also set up a fourth Boston Massacre trial: of Charles Bourgate on the charge of perjury.


David Churchill Barrow said...

Ah, William Molineux behind the scenes again stirring things up. It is likely he was also the mysterious man in the white wig and red surtout some witnesses say was egging the mob onward on that bloody night. We’ll never know for sure; John Adams was adamant that none of the Sons of Liberty be directly implicated in the defense of the soldiers.

J. L. Bell said...

An unpublished sentence in John Rowe’s diary (which is much longer and more tedious in manuscript) says he was at a club with Molineux that evening. That doesn’t rule out Molineux speaking to the crowd but makes him a less likely candidate than many other men whose whereabouts are completely unknown.