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, July 17, 2007

James Brewer at the Boston Massacre, part 1

On Wednesday, 28 Nov 1770, the Crown called James Brewer, blockmaker, to the witness stand at the trial of soldiers for the shootings on King Street the previous March. The prosecutors were Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and an attorney specially hired by the town of Boston, Robert Treat Paine. Their questioning started like this:

Q: Please to look upon the prisoners, do you know any of them?

Brewer: I think I remember this man. [He pointed to Pvt. Mathew Kilroy.]

Q: Was you in King-street the fifth of March last?

B: Yes, in the evening.

Q: Please to inform the Court and Jury what you saw there?

B: I came up Royal-exchange-lane, and as I got to the head of it, I saw the Sentry [Pvt. Hugh White] on the steps of the Custom-house, with his bayonet breast high, with a number of boys round him: I called to him, and said, I did not think any body was going to do him harm. I saw Capt. [Thomas] Preston and some soldiers come down.

Q: Which of the prisoners was the Sentry?

B: I cannot tell, I was not so nigh him to know his face.

Q: How many boys were there round him?

B: I think about twenty.

Q: How old were those boys?

B: About fourteen or fifteen years old, perhaps some of them older, I saw no men there except one, who came up Royal-exchange-lane with me, thinking it [the alarm bell] was fire. He went back again.

Q: What did you take to be the reason that the Sentry charged his bayonet?

B: I could not tell what the reason was; there was no body troubling him. I was at the corner of Royal-exchange-lane, and a young man went up to the Sentry and spoke to him; what he said I do not know.

Q: Was you there at the time of the firing?

B: Yes, I went toward the Sentry-box, where I saw Capt. Preston. I said to him, Sir, I hope you are not going to fire, for everybody is going to their own homes. He said I hope they are. I saw no more of him. He immediately went in amongst the soldiers.

Q: What number of soldiers were there?

B: I think seven or eight, I did not count them. [There were eight enlisted men, including White.]

Q: Did Capt. Preston lead or follow them down?

B: I think he was upon the right of them. [Preston arrived a short time after his men, who were led by a corporal.] As they came down they had their guns charged breast high. I saw Christopher Monk [a sixteen-year-old shipwright’s apprentice], who was wounded that night, I turned to speak to him, and directly they fired, and he seemed to faulter. I said are you wounded, he said yes. I replied, I do not think it, for I then apprehended they fired only powder [i.e., the soldiers had fired blanks].
NEXT: Brewer’s testimony continues.


Anonymous said...

There was a show on tv awhile back called History Detectives and one of the episodes was about the Boston Massacre. During the show they established with the noise and crowd and the direction of the officer, it wasn't possible for him to yell "fire."

Probably another case in history where someone in the crowd yelled "fire" or a musket flashed by mistake.

Wish they would show it again, pretty interesting.

J. L. Bell said...

I bet you're thinking of History's Mysteries on the History Channel. That show devoted an hour to the Boston Massacre a few years ago. (So far as I know, History Detectives, a PBS show, hasn't tackled that subject.) I thought the History's Mysteries show was awful. Inaccurate, illogical, and damn boring. If they ever do show it again, I'll try to post all my reasons for not trusting it.

In a chaotic and not-fully-documented situation, it would certainly have been possible for Capt. Preston to shout "fire." However, he and his lawyers did a good job at his trial bringing out the evidence that it would have been inconsistent with his other actions, and that for every witness who said he heard the captain give the order others said they hadn't.

By the time James Brewer was on the witness stand, Preston's guilt was no longer a legal matter. He had been acquitted. In fact, to win their case the prosecutors had to establish that Preston didn't give the order because that would have let their current accused, the soldiers, off the hook.

Through the nineteenth century most historians felt that the crowd yelling things like, "Why don't you fire?" caused the soldiers to think they'd heard the order to shoot. But in the 20th century a couple of documents were published that show that Pvt. Edward (a.k.a. Hugh) Montgomery shouted "Fire!" and then pulled his trigger, prompting all the other men but one to fire.

Robert S. Paul said...

Considering the fire bell was going off, and people were shouting to everyone else about a fie or there not being a fire, I'm not sure it's too far out there to see there may have been some mistake. A word misheard by a sentry, setting off a chain reaction (much like Lexington, and even the Bastille in France).

Anonymous said...

You are probably right, considering I can barely even remember the show. I guess looking back I would love to have thought it was a great show, but watching it more closely and actually knowing more about the day I probably would agree with you.

J. L. Bell said...

By the time the soldiers actually pulled their triggers, it was mighty clear on King Street that there was no fire, just a confrontation between soldiers and civilians.

J. L. Bell said...

I had high hopes for the History's Mysteries show when I first heard about it. I thought it might bring out some useful new information about the Massacre. That probably made my disappointment in the final product more acute.

I later heard that the show had been rushed to completion. I was disappointed in some of the questions the producers treated as mysteries, and in how little of the available evidence on those questions they applied.

For instance, there was a great deal of time given to footage of shooting two musket balls into a side of beef. At least two musket balls from the Massacre are preserved today. Were the ones used in the test shooting the same weight as those artifacts? The show doesn't seem to have checked, which means the test was meaningless.

And then there were the inaccuracies, such as the oft-repeated footage of merchant Richard Palmes striking at a soldier and setting off the firing. Palmes's testimony is clear that he swung his cane as an angry response to the shooting. We have a very good idea of what prompted the first soldier to fire, and the show didn't show that.