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, March 07, 2017

Watchman Langford “in King-street that evening the 5th March”

Yesterday we saw rookie town watchman Edward G. Langford dealing with the influx of British soldiers—and, more troublesome, British army officers—into Boston in 1768.

On 5 Mar 1770, Langford saw the conflict between the local population and the army come to a head in front of the Customs house on King Street, a short walk from the watch-house that was the base for his nightly patrols.

Langford was called to testify at the trials of Capt. Thomas Preston and the enlisted men. Here’s the record of his testimony from the latter trial, as taken down by John Hodgson:

Q. Was you in King-street that evening the 5th March?

A. Yes. The bells began to ring, and the people cryed fire: I run with the rest, and went into King-street; I asked where the fire was; I was told there was no fire, but that the soldiers at [James] Murray’s barracks had got out, and had been fighting with the inhabitants, but that they had drove them back again. I went to the barracks, and found the affair was over there.

I came back, and just as I got to the Town pump, I saw twenty or five and twenty boys going into King-street. I went into King-street myself, and saw several boys and young men about the Sentry box at the Custom-house. I asked them what was the matter. They said the Sentry [Pvt. Hugh White] had knocked down a boy [Edward Garrick]. They crowded in over the gutter; I told them to let the Sentry alone. He went up the steps of the Custom-house, and knocked at the door, but could not get in. I told him not to be afraid, they were only boys, and would not hurt him. . . . The boys were swearing and speaking bad words, but they threw nothing.

Q. Were they pressing on him?

A. They were as far as the gutter, and he went up the steps and called out, but what he said I do not remember.

Q. Did he call loud?

A. Yes, pretty loud.

Q. To whom did he call?

A. I do not know; when he went up the steps he levelled his piece with his bayonet fixed. As I was talking with the Sentry, and telling him not to be afraid, the soldiers came down, and when they came, I drew back from the Sentry towards Royal-exchange lane, and there I stood. I did not see them load, but somebody said, are you loaded; and Samuel Gray…came and struck me on the shoulder, and said, Langford, what’s here to pay.

Q. What said you to Gray then?

A. I said I did not know what was to pay, but I believed something would come of it by and bye. He made no reply. Immediately a gun went off. I was within reach of their guns and bayonets; one of them thrust at me with his bayonet, and run it through my jacket and great coat.

Q. Where was you then?

A. Within three or four feet of the gutter, on the outside. . . .

Q. How many people were there before the soldiers at that time?

A. About forty or fifty, but there were numbers in the lane.

Q. Were they nigh the soldiers?

A. They were not in the inside of the gutter.

Q. Had any of the inhabitants sticks or clubs?

A. I do not know. I had one myself, because I was going to the watch, for I belong to the watch.

Q. How many soldiers were there?

A. I did not count the number of them, about seven or eight I think.

Q. Who was it fired the first gun?

A. I do not know.

Q. Where about did he stand that fired?

A. He stood on my right, as I stood facing them: I stood about half way betwixt the box and Royal-exchange lane. I looked this man (pointing to [Pvt. Mathew] Killroy) in the face, and bid him not fire; but he immediately fired, and Samuel Gray fell at my feet. Killroy thrust his bayonet immediately through my coat and jacket; I ran towards the watch-house, and stood there.

Q. Where did Killroy stand?

A. He stood on the right of the party.

Q. Was he the right hand man?

A. I cannot tell: I believe there were two or three on his right, but I do not know. . . .

Q. Did you see any thing hit the soldiers?

A. No, I saw nothing thrown. I heard the rattling of their guns, and took it to be one gun against another. This rattling was at the time Killroy fired, and at my right, I had a fair view of them; I saw nobody strike a blow nor offer a blow.

Q. Have you any doubt in your own mind, that it was that gun of Killroy’s that killed Gray?

A. No manner of doubt; it must have been it, for there was no other gun discharged at that time.

Q. Did you know the Indian that was killed?

A. No.

Q. Did you see any body press on the soldiers with a large cord wood stick?

A. No.

Q. After Gray fell, did he (Killroy) thrust at him with his bayonet?

A. No, it was at me he pushed.

Q. Did Gray say any thing to Killroy, or Killroy to him?

A. No, not to my knowledge, and I stood close by him.

Q. Did you perceive Killroy take aim at Gray?

A. I did not: he was as liable to kill me as him.
Langford’s testimony was important in positively identifying Pvt. Mathew Kilroy as the soldier who had fatally shot ropemaker Samuel Gray. Kilroy was one of the only two defendants convicted of manslaughter and branded as a felon.

Edward G. Langford remained on the town watch payroll until November 1772. The last record I found of him showed that he died on 26 Mar 1777, aged thirty-eight. He was buried out of Trinity Church. Five years later a Mary Langford, perhaps his widow or his sister, was licensed to retail alcohol to support herself.

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