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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Friday, March 27, 2020

“The Grand Jury haveing found bills against them”

As I recounted back here, the Suffolk County grand jury inquiring into the Boston Massacre took a lot of testimony about whether people had fired down at the crowd from the Customs House behind the soldiers.

The foreman of that grand jury was William Taylor of Milton. (At the time, Suffolk County included all of present-day Norfolk County, so most of its population was outside Boston.)

According to A. K. Teele’s History of Milton, Taylor was born in Jamaica in 1714. His older brother John became Milton’s minister in 1729, and William went into business as a merchant in Boston, living on Cornhill near the Old Brick Meeting-House.

(It looks like another William Taylor was warden at King’s Chapel early in the century, and another William Taylor was a sea captain sailing in and out of the harbor, and another William Taylor had a mercantile store on Long Wharf and became a Loyalist.)

The Rev. John Taylor died in early 1750, and William advertised many times in the Boston newspapers over the next few years to sell and then rent property in Milton. He described that estate as “suitable for a Gentleman’s Seat, being but 8 Miles from the Town of Boston.” Also in the 1750s he paid Joseph Blackburn to paint his portrait, shown above.

William Taylor was active in Boston’s militia regiment, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in December 1764. He also held offices in the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and served for one year as a fireward.

In late 1765, Col. Taylor remarried, to the widow Sarah (Cheever) Savage. The following summer, the Taylors left Boston, apparently moving to that “Gentleman’s Seat” in Milton. His name then appears mainly in advertisements promoting land in Pownalborough, Maine. Thus, while Taylor was a country gentleman as he led the grand jury in 1770, he had close ties to the Boston elite.

After war broke out in 1775, soldiers broke into Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s uninhabited mansion in Milton and found a trunk of letters, among other things. Col. Taylor took charge of that property. The letters went into the Massachusetts state archives while other goods “were sold at auction, at the barn of Col. Taylor.” This William Taylor died in 1789.

Hutchinson singled out another member of this grand jury as influential: “Mr Sam Austin of Boston.” Samuel Austin was a merchant and active Whig, playing a prominent role in the march on Hutchinson’s home earlier in 1770. In 1773 Austin was elected one of Boston’s selectmen, a position he held until the end of the siege.

One of Samuel Austin’s sons was Jonathan Williams Austin, who graduated from Harvard in 1769 and started clerking for John Adams that August. The younger Austin was also a witness at the Massacre trials, identifying Pvt. William Macauley.

In their deliberations, the grand jury led by Col. Taylor decided to believe the young French servant Charles Bourgate and the people who testified to seeing flashes from the Customs House windows. They therefore rejected the testimony of the men Bourgate accused. According to an anonymous Crown informant:
Notwithstanding [John] Munro & [Edward] Manwarring proveing a perfect Alibi they were this day (27th March) committed to Jail, as was also Green’s son and Thomas the manservant—the Grand Jury haveing found bills against them, as seven people positively swore to guns being fired that night out of the Custom House Windows.
Thus, 250 years ago today, the response of the grand jury to hearing Hammond Green, Thomas Greenwood, and others testify that there was no conspiracy to shoot people from the Customs House was to indict those men as being part of the conspiracy.

TOMORROW: The real villain—or the real target?

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