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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Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Violence Beyond King Street on the Fifth of March

By modern standards, the judges overseeing the trial of the soldiers for the Boston Massacre should have limited the testimony to what happened in King Street or specifically involved the defendants.

However, prosecutors Robert Treat Paine and Samuel Quincy wanted to call witnesses to violence and threats from other soldiers that night. Or as acting governor Thomas Hutchinson later wrote: “The Counsel for the Crown urged to be admitted to prove the threats &ct. of the Soldiers preceding the Action.”

The judges were dubious, but defense attorneys John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr., were agreeable as long as they had the same leeway to introduce testimony about violence and threats by civilians.

That tactic actually split the defense team, again according to Hutchinson. Robert Auchmuty, senior attorney for Capt. Thomas Preston and a strong advocate for the Crown in other respects, didn’t like letting people testify about aggressive soldiers, but he wasn’t arguing this case.

Adams himself reportedly didn’t want to put too much testimony about aggressive townspeople on record. Hutchinson stated:
Quincy one of the Counsel for the prisoners was for giving very large Evidence against the Inhabitants to prove a premeditated design to drive out the Soldiers & frequent abuse as well as threats Adams was against it & [Sampson Salter] Blowers who acted as an Attony to prepare the Evidence told me that Adams said if they would go on with such Witnesses who only served to set the Town in a bad light he would leave the cause & not say a word more. So that a stop was put & many witnesses were not brought who otherwise would have been.
Some supporters of the Crown even feared Adams was sabotaging the soldiers’ case, but Hutchinson declined to replace him “as it would have been extremely irregular” and Auchmuty wasn’t ready to step in.

As a result, we have records from the trial of confrontations elsewhere in town that night. For instance, Sgt. William Davis of the 14th Regiment described running into a crowd he estimated as about 200 people near Wentworth’s wharf:
I saw no soldier in the street; I heard them saying damn the dogs knock them down, we will knock down the first officer, or bloody backed rascal we shall meet this night; some of them then said they would go to the southward, and join some of their friends there, and attack the damned scoundrels, and drive them out of the town, for they had no business here.

Apprehending danger if I should be in my regimentals, I went into a house at the North end and changed my dress, and in my return from the North-end, about nine, coming near Dock square, I heard a great noise a whistling and rattling of wood; I came near the Market place, and saw a great number of people there, knocking against the posts, and tearing up the stalls, saying damn the lobsters, where are they now; I heard several voices, some said let us kill that damned scoundrel of a Sentry, and then attack the Main guard; some said, let us go to Smith’s barracks [also called Murray’s barracks], others said let us go to the rope-walks;

they divided: The largest number went up Royal-exchange-lane, and another party up Fitch’s alley, and the rest through the main street, up Cornhill. I passed by the Golden-Ball, I saw no person there but a woman, persuading a man to stay at home; he said he would not, he would go amongst them, if he lost his life by it. . . .

It was past nine, for I heard bells ring before. One of them was loading his piece by Oliver’s dock, he said he would do for some of these scoundrels that night.
John Cox, brick-layer, testified to a different scene in the South End:
I saw three soldiers, two belonging to the Neck, and one to the Main Guard, by Liberty-tree, I was at Mr. [John] Gore [Jr.]’s shop opposite the Tree; one said to the other, bring half your guard, and we will bring half ours, and we will blow up this damned pole; I said, so sure as you offer ye scoundrels to blow up that pole, you will have your brains blown out.
Soldiers in New York had blown up the Liberty Pole there a few weeks earlier, prompting bigger fights.

Gregory Townshend, merchant:
Just after the bell rung nine, hearing the bell ring again, I went out thinking it was fire; I saw numbers of people running from the South-end some had buckets, the principal number had clubs in their hands. I asked where is the fire, I received for answer, at the Rope-walks and in King street. Numbers were coming with buckets, and the rest said Damn your bloods do not bring buckets, bring clubs.
Henry Bass, another merchant—and a member of the Loyall Nine:
I went down the main-street, and coming near Boylston’s alley, I saw a number of boys and children from twelve to fifteen years old, betwixt Mr. [William?] Jackson’s and the alley; some of them had walking canes. A number of soldiers, I think four, sallied out of the alley. . . .

I took the soldiers for grenadiers, all of them had cutlasses drawn. . . . They came out of the alley, and I imagine from the barracks; they fell on these boys, and every body else that came in their way, they struck them; they followed me and almost over took me, I had the advantage of them and run as far as Col. [Joseph] Jackson’s, there I made a stand, they came down as far as the stone shop. . . .

these lads came down, some of them came to the Market square, one got a stave, others pieces of pine, they were very small, I do not know whether any of the lads were cut. I turned and then saw an oyster-man, who said to me, damn it here is what I have got by going up; (showing his shoulder wounded) I put my finger into the wound and blooded it very much.
Each legal team thus tried to portray the other side as needlessly aggressive and their own clients as responding with reasonable force. Of course, that was the problem in the first place.

1 comment:

David Churchill Barrow said...

It is surprising John Adams agreed to allow this usually inadmissible testimony. As you point out, he was opposed to introducing quid pro quo testimony implicating the town at large. I suspect some sort of accord was reached with Sam Adams, though how explicit it was no one knows, that the Sons of Liberty would behave themselves during the trials of the soldiers, provided the town was not generally implicated by defense counsel. Though Sam Adams grumbled about the out-of-town jurors and other matters (sending notes to Paine whining about this and that) none of the bully boy tactics employed during Richardson’s trial occurred. The gallery was on its best behavior.