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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Thursday, March 05, 2015

“Snowballs covering stones” at the Massacre

In his 1789 History of the American Revolution, the South Carolina physician and historian David Ramsay (1749-1815, shown here) wrote that the crowd at the Boston Massacre was “armed with clubs, sticks, and snowballs covering stones.”

I believe that’s the first printed statement that Bostonians packed snow around rocks to throw at the soldiers. Earlier I’ve said that the earliest place I’d found that detail stated was in Sgt. Roger Lamb’s Journal, published twenty years later. It appears Lamb picked up the detail from Ramsay.

Or from intervening authors. The “snowballs covering stones” also appeared in Jedidiah Morse’s The American Geography (London: 1794), “History of the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in America” in The Britannic Magazine (1795), and William Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial and Philosophical View of the American United States (London: 1795).

The snowballs with stony cores became a standard detail of descriptions of the Massacre in the nineteenth century. Even though that detail can’t be traced back to anyone who was at the event. Following the standards of his time, Ramsay didn’t specify his source, and the many authors who copied his language (at much greater length) didn’t even cite him.

A lot of eyewitnesses to the Massacre left testimony about it, and none described people packing snow around rocks. Lots of people said there was snow and ice on the ground, and in the air. Thomas Hall and Daniel Cornwall testified to seeing people throw oyster shells at the soldiers. An enslaved man named Andrew testified that people threw “pieces of sea coal” (i.e., coal imported from Cape Breton). So there’s better evidence that the locals didn’t even bother padding their stones with snow.


Don N. Hagist said...

Roger Lamb makes a number of references to Ramsay in his writings, and even includes some passages from Ramsay's 1789 work (and more surprisingly, he cites them to Ramsay instead of simply plagiarizing them). So it's likely that he got this information from Ramsay.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that comment, Don. When I first read Lamb’s description of the Massacre, I thought it was possible that he got information from fellow soldiers who had been there or known the men who were. But the Ramsay link explains everything.

DCC said...

Do we know what the air temperature was the night of the massacre? If it was around freezing we could assume it was "good" packing snow that could have held a stone. However, I'd be surprised if this account, if true, didn't come out in the legal proceedings when John Adams defended the soldiers and Capt. Preston.