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 02, 2013

The Distortions of Richard Palmes

As I’ve been describing, the Boston apothecary Richard Palmes was an important witness in the legal proceedings that followed the Boston Massacre. He was up at the front of the crowd, talking to Capt. Thomas Preston, when the soldiers began to fire. He put extra effort into making sure his version of what he saw got into the record.

The last decade hasn’t been kind to Palmes’s memory, however. In 2003, the Discovery Channel program Unsolved History ran a program about the Massacre, which included a reenactment. Just not an accurate one.

While describing the fight on King Street, the show’s narrator said: “The ugly demonstration became lethal when patriot Richard Palmes struck one of the soldiers, Private Hugh [actually Edward] Montgomery, with a stick.” Twice more the narration said Palmes struck that soldier before the first shot. The show replayed the footage several times, in the way that basic-cable documentaries do, filling up the hour.

Palmes’s testimony was very clear: he swung his cane after the first shot. Montgomery was hit by a stick or, Palmes insisted, ice that someone else threw from the crowd. Yet this television program basically blamed him for provoking the soldiers into using fatal force.

The John Adams miniseries from 2008 also included Richard Palmes, played by the actor John Bedford Lloyd (shown above). The character was written not as a genteel apothecary who testified over and over about the Massacre. Rather, he appeared as a lumbering, unshaven ropemaker whom Adams had to cajole into court.

What would the real Richard Palmes say if we showed him those television shows? Probably he’d ask how we got those paintings to move and talk, but that’s another question.

Richard Palmes is one of the characters who will appear at tonight’s annual reenactment of the Boston Massacre, starting at 7:00 outside the Old State House on State Street. And we try to do him right. Look for Palmes to swing his cane after the first shots.


John L Smith Jr said...

I'd LOVE to be there tonight! But I'm sure the Massacre will happen, regardless...

AdamC1776 said...

"Probably he’d ask how we got those paintings to move and talk..."