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, March 05, 2007

King Street on the 5th of March 1770

As night fell on the 5th of March, 1770, small groups of British soldiers and Boston workers resumed the fights of the previous week. These confrontations coalesced into a big brawl around “Murray’s barracks,” named for the man who had rented his widowed sister’s idle distillery to the army to house much of the 29th Regiment.

King Street in the center of town was still peaceful, though. Teenaged apprentice Edward Garrick was standing there, near the shop where he worked for wigmaker John Piemont. Capt. John Goldfinch of the 14th Regiment passed by. Edward yelled out that the officer had not paid his barber’s bill.

Capt. Goldfinch showed young Edward the receipt he had in his pocket and— No, of course he didn’t. The captain did have a receipt in his pocket, but he was a British officer and gentleman, and he didn’t deign to reply to a greasy barber’s boy yelling in the street. (Grease was a necessary ingredient in shaping and styling wigs.) Especially with all the insults that Bostonians had yelled at the army since 1768.

Nearby, at the mansion rented by the Customs Service for its office, stood Pvt. Hugh White of the 29th Regiment. He was thirty years old and had served in the British army for eleven years. [Thanks to Don Hagist for alerting me to the British National Archives online record that contained that info.] Though Capt. Goldfinch ignored the barber’s boy, Pvt. White didn’t. He told the teenager that the officer “is a gentleman, and if he owes you any thing he will pay it.” Edward, who had visited with other soldiers of the 29th the night before, replied that there were no gentlemen in the 14th regiment.

Then Edward’s fellow apprentice Bartholomew Broaders arrived with a young woman on each arm. Those women, probably teenagers as well, were servants in the Customs House. The father of one of them had asked Bartholomew to escort the girls to the apothecary. Edward joined the party, and all four young people went into the mansion’s kitchen for a visit.

Meanwhile, Capt. Goldfinch arrived at Murray’s barracks. As the senior officer on the scene, Goldfinch broke up the brawl, shoving and ordering soldiers indoors. Merchant Richard Palmes and Dr. Thomas Young, the most radical of Boston’s Whig leaders, told locals to go home.

Back at the Customs House, one young woman’s brother came into the kitchen and told the barber’s boys that it was getting late. Having spent about an hour inside, Bartholomew and Edward went back out onto King Street. They headed home quietly and— No, that would be too sensible. Edward Garrick started complaining about Capt. Goldfinch’s bill again.

But Pvt. White ignored him and— No, of course he couldn’t let that go. The sentry called Edward over. “I’m not afraid to show my face,” said the apprentice, and walked up. White clonked the boy on the side of the head with the butt of his musket.

Edward staggered back and burst into tears. Bartholomew yelled at White, demanding “what he meant by thus abusing the people”—elevating an individual attack into tyranny. A sergeant chased the apprentices away with his sword, but they found another young wigmaker, Richard Ward. Soon several teenagers were running around the center of town, telling people about the sentry’s assault. One witness recalled them yelling, “you Centinel, damned rascally Scoundrel Lobster Son of a Bitch”!

It had been only a week since Boston’s huge funeral for Christopher Seider, a boy about eleven years old shot dead by a Customs officer. Now folks heard about the man guarding the Customs office abusing another boy. Naturally, this upset people. While some passersby told the boys to disperse, others joined them or at least stopped to watch. (Among the men who eventually joined the throng was Robert Paterson, a sailor whose trousers had been cut by the same shot that killed Seider.)

A town watchman named Edward Langford arrived. He told the apprentices “to let the Sentry alone” and told that soldier “not to be afraid, they were only boys, and would not hurt him.” But around the same time, some of the boys had gotten into the First Meeting and started ringing its bell—the town’s fire alarm.

The crowd swelled quickly as people arrived with their fire buckets. Some private fire companies rolled their engines toward the center of town. It soon became clear that there was no fire, but people spread the news about the big fight at Murray’s barracks, about the sentry at the Customs House. The crowd grew larger and angrier—at least 200 people.

Pvt. White sent two messengers from the Customs House to the Main Guard on the other side of the Town House, asking for reinforcements. Eventually the senior officer there, forty-year-old Capt. Thomas Preston, sent a squad of seven privates under Cpl. William Wemms. After a few more minutes, Preston followed.

All those reinforcements were grenadiers of the 29th. Two of the privates—Edward Montgomery and James Hartigan—had wives in Boston. Three—Mathew Kilroy, William Warren, and John Carroll—had been involved in the fights between soldiers and ropemakers at the end of the previous week. They pushed through the crowd to White’s side, poking men with their bayonets and shouting, “Damn your blood, stand out of the way.”

The soldiers ranged themselves in an arc around the Customs House door. By this time the barber’s boys all seem to have gone home. Among the people toward the front of the crowd were Samuel Gray, one of the brawling ropemakers, watching happily. Bookseller Henry Knox, young and burly, buttonholed Capt. Preston and warned him, “For God’s sake, take care of your men.” Richard Palmes and other gentlemen reminded Preston that without a magistrate he had no legal authority to order his men to fire.

Then twenty or thirty sailors and dock workers arrived from Dock Square. A gentleman had told them that the Customs service was behind all of Boston’s troubles—a common political position. On their way from the docks these men had picked up stout sticks from a pile of firewood. They moved through the crowd to the front, close enough for one sailor, a man of African and Native American ancestry over six feet tall, to grab a bayonet and jerk it back and forth. Benjamin Burdick, Constable of the Town House Watch, arrived, carrying a broadsword at his wife’s insistence. He yelled at the locals to stand back for their own good. Some civilians were throwing snowballs, ice, and lumps of coal.

Someone in the crowd threw a stick. It hit Pvt. Montgomery, on the right side of the line of soldiers, and knocked him down. He scrambled back to his feet, fired his musket, and yelled, “Fire!” His comrades responded by shooting, not together but in a ragged sequence. One man didn’t fire—probably Cpl. William Wemms, on the far side of the line.

At first many in the crowd didn’t believe the soldiers’ guns were loaded. But the tall sailor collapsed in the gutter, two balls through his chest. Samuel Gray fell dead on watchman Langford’s foot. Other men and teenagers were also struck, some in the front of the crowd, some in the back, one on his doorstep across the street. Each musket had probably contained two balls, so the seven shots produced a dozen wounds.

The crowd fell back. Constable Burdick tried to take charge for the town, fetching a doctor and another man to carry away the bodies and then trying to memorize the soldiers’ faces. People carried dead and wounded men to taverns, doctors’ offices, or their homes. Capt. Preston swatted up his men’s muskets to stop them from firing again, then marched them back to the Main Guard. Hearing the shots from blocks away, Capt. Goldfinch said, “I thought it would come to this.” His wigmaker’s receipt was still in his pocket.


Robert S. Paul said...

I doubt this was unavoidable. Had it not been a wig receipt, it would have been something else.

However, wouldn't it be fair to say that the term "massacre" was a propaganda tool? I mean, a dozen wounds and a few dead, tragic as it may be, is hardly a massacre.

J. L. Bell said...

We can't know about how things might have been different, of course, since we don't get "do-overs" in real life. But I think that different actions by Goldfinch, Garrick, and White might have avoided a fatal confrontation that night.

Would there soon have been another fatal conflict on another night? Soldiers and locals had been fighting off and on since late 1768. A soldier's gun had gone off (probably by accident) during one riot the previous fall. But no one had died in those battles. The British authorities had perceived the situation improving enough for them to remove two of the four regiments initially sent to Boston.

So it's conceivable that the situation would have continued at that lower level of conflict for a while: arguments, brawls, but no deaths. The Whigs would have focused all their energies on the trial of Ebenezer Richardson and the nonimportation boycott.

How many more months could that have lasted? By coincidence, just a few hours before the Massacre, the government in London had introduced legislation to repeal the Townshend duties on all but tea. Tea was still the most important of the taxed commodities, but that concession might have led to a calmer political climate.

The real problem for the Crown was that the presence of troops in central Boston inflamed people who ordinarily wouldn't have been politically active. In the wake of the Massacre, the army moved to Castle Island. That left the Customs service less protection, and Whig crowds ruled the streets for several months. But by 1771, the town had calmed down. The Whigs' tea boycott was tepid. Imports zoomed up. There were no riots. Gov. Hutchinson even thought he was enticing John Hancock away from Samuel Adams. So if the Crown had been willing to remove the troops before fatal violence, the town might have calmed down even more quickly. But, as I said above, we'll never know.

As for the term "massacre," that was undoubtedly chosen for its incendiary effect. Similarly, a British pamphlet on the event called in "the late unhappy disturbance"—propaganda from the opposite direction. I discuss what the Massacre meant to locals further in Boston Massacre: really a "massacre"?.

Anonymous said...

As to the idea that this wasn't a massacre, if you were to have a similar number of people killed in Boston today, given relative population sizes, the death toll would be close to 200 hundred people.

Jeff Rutsch said...

I always enjoy this blog's method of discussing history, and I think these last few updates have been the best yet.

Anonymous said...

However, wouldn't it be fair to say that the term "massacre" was a propaganda tool? I mean, a dozen wounds and a few dead, tragic as it may be, is hardly a massacre.

Well, how does US history view other such situations where civil unrest ends with soldiers shooting civilians? Kent State? Others?

Jeff Rutsch said...

I don't go along with the percentage of population arguments I've seen recently, that 5 people then was equivalent to 180 now, or that England had the equivalent to 50,000 troops barracked in Boston.

You could similarly extrapolate to say even 1 person being killed was a massacre, it's the equivalent to 40 people dying in modern Boston! Or in modern cities, that one person in Lynchburg, Tennessee is equivalent to 1,500 people in New York City.

Also, I'm guessing Boston was largely the trading center for farmers and fishermen who lived elsewhere; the population distribution doesn't compare.

J. L. Bell said...

For me, the question of proportionality is not a matter of justifying the label of "massacre" but understanding why people then felt that term was appropriate.

Boston was a small community by modern standards, and thus reacted as small communities do. Five people meeting sudden violent deaths in a town of 15,000 people felt huge. Everyone was likely to know the victims, or their families, or someone who'd seen the event. Similarly, when there was suddenly one soldier in town for every two adult men, that felt like an awful lot of soldiers.

Of course, the epidemics that killed scores of people then were even more huge. And Boston, though it was the third largest town/city in North America, was a smaller fraction of the Massachusetts population than it is today.

Boston wasn't just a trading center for farmers and fishermen. It also had a large community of craftsmen, merchants, and professionals. People could make a good living there without having to work the land or go to sea. Indeed, it's thought that Samuel Adams may never have spent a night outside Boston between earning his master's degree from Harvard and going to the First Continental Congress.

J. L. Bell said...

The comparison to Kent State is a resonant one, especially since the events occurred 200 years apart. The death tolls were similar, and both shootings followed a series of larger political confrontations.

At Kent State, however, the soldiers (National Guardsmen) were well out of harm's way when they shot at the crowd, many yards away. Only a minority of those men fired their weapons, but since there were many more of them that produced many more shots (67).

In Boston, the soldiers were tried by the end of the year—an unusually long process for that time. Two were convicted of manslaughter, the rest acquitted. In Ohio, eight guardsmen were indicted, but a judge dismissed the criminal case against them four years later.

Anonymous said...

J.L. hits my point: in a small community, 5 people killed, especially given the circumstances, would feel like a massacre. The idea that this can be dismissed as something small because there were a score of wounds and five dead seems to be bringing a 21st century perspective to the Boston Massacre.

Fred Gooltz said...

Who do you think was the man with the red cloak and white wig in Dock Square? If you had to guess which SoL it was, who would you say?

J. L. Bell said...

Samuel Adams was probably at the same club that John Adams attended that night. William Molineux was definitely at John Rowe’s club for at least part of the night. Dr. Thomas Young was recognized elsewhere.

What that man reportedly told the crowd was rather unexceptional for Boston Whigs, so there’s a wide range of possibilities.