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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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Was Crispus Attucks Really the First Man Shot at the Massacre?

Another question about the Boston Massacre that I saw come up this Sestercentennial season is whether Crispus Attucks was really the first man to be killed in that event.

Attucks is certainly remembered as the “First Martyr of Liberty,” as in the title of Mitch Kachun’s book on the historical memory of the man. That reflects the importance of Attucks’s African ancestry to the abolitionist and civil-rights movements. (Of course, it sets aside young Christopher Seider, killed eleven days earlier.)

But what evidence says that Attucks was the first man shot on King Street? Given the stress and confusion of the moment, how consistent and reliable could the witnesses be?

In fact, a review of the eyewitness testimony finds multiple witnesses describing Attucks as being the first person to fall. There’s a little confusion since the first shot seems to have come from Pvt. Edward Montgomery, but it’s not clear he shot Attucks. He may have fired his musket high and hit no one but spurred another soldier to fire at Attucks soon afterwards. Nonetheless, people saw Attucks fall before anyone else.

Here’s some of eyewitness John Hickling’s deposition:
I instantly leaped within the soldier’s bayonet as I heard him cock his gun, which that moment went off between Mr. [Richard] Palmes and myself. I, thinking there was nothing but powder fired, stood still, till upon the other side of Mr. Palmes and close to him, I saw another gun fired, and the man since called Attucks, fall. I then withdrew about two or three yards, and turning, saw Mr. Palmes upon his knee, and the soldiers pushing at him with their bayonets. During this the rest of the guns were fired, one after another, when I saw two more fall. I ran to one and seeing the blood gush out of his head though just expiring, I felt for the wound and found a hole as big as my hand. This I have since learned was Mr. [Samuel] Gray. I then went to Attucks and found him gasping, pulled his head out of the gutter and left him…
Unlike Hickling, Charles Hobby blamed Capt. Thomas Preston:
The Captain then spoke distinctly, “Fire, Fire!” I was then within four feet of Capt. Preston, and know him well; the soldiers fired as fast as they could one after another. I saw the mulatto fall, and Mr. Samuel Gray went to look at him, one of the soldiers, at the distance of about four or five yards, pointed his piece directly for the said Gray’s head and fired. Mr. Gray, after struggling, turned himself right round upon his heel and fell dead.
Sailor James Bailey had been standing with sentry Hugh White as the crowd built up. According to John Adams’s notes at the soldiers’ trial, he said:
Montgomery fired the first Gun. He was the next Man to me close to me, at the right. Cant Say whether the 1st. Gun killed or hurt any one. I Stoopd down to look under the Smoke and the others went off. 1/2 a Minute between 1st. and 2d. Gun. . . . Montgomery fired, about where the Molatto fell. It was pointing towards the Place where we saw Attucks lie.
All those men were up toward the front of the crowd. John Danbrook was somewhere in the middle, and he also testified that Attucks was the first man shot—but also that another man was hit immediately afterwards. Here’s Danbrook at the soldiers’ trial:
Q. Was you looking at Montgomery when he discharged his piece?

A. Yes.

Q. Did you see any body fall upon his firing?

A. Yes, I saw two fall, one fell at my elbow, another about three feet from me. I did not hear the sound of another gun, before they both fell.

Q. Were they standing before Montgomery?

A. Yes, about twelve or fifteen feet from him, and about five feet apart, one was the Molatto, the other I did not know.

Q. Do you think one gun killed both these men?

A. Yes, for I heard no other gun when they fell.

Q. Are you certain the other person was killed?

A. Yes.

Q. Did you hear any other gun before that man fell?

A. No.
And Adams’s notes on Danbrook’s testimony:
I saw Montgomery there and saw him fire. . . . I saw two fall as he fired, before I heard any other Gun. One fell just vs. my left Elbow, and the other about 3 foot from me about 10 or 15 foot from the Soldier. In a range with me, one was the Molatto. I believe it was with the first Gun that they were. They were 5 foot a sunder. It was not a Minute, after the Molatto fell that the other Man fell. I cant say, I heard another Gun, before I Saw the 2d Man down. 
I couldn’t find any witness identifying another victim as dropping before Attucks.

Thus, while witnesses disagreed on some details, they did provide us with strong support for saying that Crispus Attucks was the first man fatally shot in the Massacre.

TOMORROW: Was Attucks shot twice?


J. L. Bell said...

This posting refers to Mitch Kachun’s book First Martyr of Liberty. Kachun’s talk on that book at the American Antiquarian Society has just been made available on C-SPAN.

Richard Subber said...

Thanks, interesting detail and context for this notorious event.