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, March 10, 2012

Henry Knox at the Boston Massacre

Henry Knox was a witness of the Boston Massacre, the first time he came to recorded prominence in Boston. (The youth of the town remembered when he single-handedly shouldered one corner of the South End’s wagon during one Pope Night brawl, but that sort of feat didn’t make the newspapers.)

On 17 March 1770, the twenty-year-old Knox gave the following deposition to magistrates Richard Dana and John Hill, who were collecting testimony for a town report about the shooting on King Street. (This quotation uses the spelling and punctuation of a mid-1800s reprint, with added paragraphing.)
I, Henry Knox, of lawful age, testify and say, that between nine and ten o’clock, P. M., the fifth instant [i.e., of this month], I saw the sentry at the Custom-house charging his musket, and a number of young persons crossing from Royal Exchange to Quaker lane; seeing him load, stopped and asked him what he meant? and told others the sentry was going to fire. They then huzzaed and gathered round him at about ten feet distant.

I then advancing, went up to him, and the sentry snapped his piece upon them, Knox told him if he fired he died. The sentry answered he did not care, or words to that purpose, damning them and saying, if they touched him, he would fire. The boys told him to fire and be damned.

Immediately on this I returned to the rest of the people and endeavored to keep every boy from going up, but finding it ineffectual, went off through the crowd and saw a detachment of about eight or nine men and a corporal, headed by Capt. [Thomas] Preston. I took Capt. Preston by the coat and told him for God’s sake to take his men back again, for if they fired his life must answer for the consequence; he replied he was sensible of it, or knew what he was about, or words to that purpose; and seemed in great haste and much agitated.

While I was talking with Capt. Preston, the soldiers of his detachment had attacked the people with their bayonets. There was not the least provocation given to Capt. Preston or his party, the backs of the people being towards them when they were attacked. During the time of the attack I frequently heard the words, “Damn your blood,” and such like expressions.

When Capt. Preston saw his party engaged he directly left me and went into the crowd, and I departed: the deponent further says that there was not present in King street above seventy or eighty people at the extent, according to his opinion.
Knox’s deposition said nothing about the actual shooting. He described the apprentices’ confrontation with sentry Pvt. Hugh White, and then he described the arrival of the reinforcement soldiers from the perspective of someone at the back of that crowd.

“I stood at the foot of the Town house when the Guns were fired,” Knox later said. That was at the trial of Capt. Preston, when the prosecutors called Knox as a witness. Evidently they wanted his testimony to establish that Preston had been warned not to order his men to fire.

Interestingly, the effect of Knox’s testimony was that in the subsequent trial of the soldiers their attorneys called him as a defense witness. This is how John Hodgson recorded Knox’s words:
I was at the North-end, and heard the bells ring, I thought it was fire; I came up as usual to go to the fire; I heard it was not fire, but the soldiers and inhabitants were fighting; I came by Cornhill, and there were a number of people an hundred and fifty, or two hundred; I asked them what was the matter, they said a number of soldiers had been out with bayonets and cutlasses, and had attacked and cut the people all down Cornhill, and then retreated to their barracks; a fellow said they had been cutting fore and aft. The people fell gradually down to Dock-square. I came up Cornhill, and went down King-street, I saw the Sentinel at the Custom-house steps loading his piece; coming up to the people, they said the Sentinel was going to fire.

Q. How many persons were there at that time round the Sentinel?

A. About fifteen or twenty, he was waving his piece about, and held it in the position that they call charged bayonets. I told him if he fired he must die for it, he said damn them, if they molested him he would fire; the boys were hallowing fire and be damned.

Q. How old were these boys?

A. Seventeen or eighteen years old. I endeavoured to keep one fellow off from the Sentinel, I either struck him or pushed him away.

Q. Did you hear one of the persons say, God damn him, we will knock him down for snapping?

A. Yes, I did hear a young fellow, one Usher, about eighteen years of age say this.

Q. Did you see any thing thrown at the Sentinel?

A. No, nothing at all.

Q. Did you see the party come down?

A. Yes.

Q. What was the manner of their coming down?

A. They came down in a kind of a trot, or a very fast walk.

Q. Did they come down in a threatening posture?

A. Very threatening, at least their countenances looked so, they said make way, damn you make way, and they pricked some of the people.

Q. Did you see the Corporal [William Wemys]?

A. I saw a person with the party, whom I took to be the Corporal.

Q. Had he a surtout on?

A. Yes, he had.
That last detail from cross-examination incriminated Wemys since other witnesses said that a man wearing a surtout had given the order to fire. However, there’s good evidence that Pvt. Edward Montgomery actually shouted, “Fire!” and Wemys most likely never shot his gun at all. Montgomery was one of the two men convicted of manslaughter; Wemys and the other men were acquitted.

Come see the Massacre reenacted tonight at the Old State House in Boston starting at 7:00 P.M.!


Todd Gardner said...

What strikes me is how articulate Henry is at 20 years of age. His father basically abandoned the family when he around 9. Being left in a situation that many of his age would have shrunk, Henry rises to become a bookseller and a self made man. I find it interesting that he tries to negotiate with the sentry and throws back one of the boys as he is doing so. In my opinion, the win for the Colonies is in great jeopardy without Mr. Knox.

pilgrimchick said...

Absolutely fascinating!