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, December 02, 2020

A Juror’s Notes on the Boston Massacre Trial

Edward Pierce (1735-1818) was a carpenter, farmer, and deacon in Dorchester. He came from the family that built and expanded the Pierce House, erected around 1683 and thus one of the oldest surviving structures in the state.

The Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society’s 1859 local history called Pierce “a prominent man in town, and well remembered by our older people.”

Pierce’s reputation as a builder was so strong that Col. Josiah Quincy hired him to construct a new mansion in Braintree in 1770 (shown above).

Pierce also oversaw the expansion of the Dorchester meetinghouse in 1796 “by dividing it in the middle lengthwise, and removing the north part twelve feet, and the tower six feet.” As compensation, he received “all the new pews, excepting those to be granted to individuals who lost theirs by the alteration”; I assume he then sold the rights to those.

In 1770, the same year Edward Pierce took on the big job for Col. Quincy, he was also seated on the jury for the trial of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. That might seem like a conflict of interest since one of the colonel’s sons was a prosecutor, but another son was a defense attorney, and people didn’t have the same ideas of conflict of interest that our legal profession does today.

Deacon Pierce kept notes during the trial, preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. A transcription was published in The Legal Papers of John Adams, listing each soldier by name and then several witnesses speaking about them:
Hugh Wite. James Baley Saw White. Josiah Simpson Saw White. Thos: Hall Saw White.

William Warren. James Dodge Knew Warren. Nicholas Feriter Saw Warren at the fray. Josiah Simpson Saw Warren Under arms in the Party. Theodore Bliss Saw Warren fire.

William Whems, Josiah Simpson Saw Whems Under arms in the Party. Thos: Hall Saw Whems.

John Carroll. Mr. Austin Saw Carrall and heard Six or Seven Guns. James Baley Saw Carrall fire the Second Gun. John Danbrook Saw Carrall. Thos Hall Saw Carrall.

William McCawley. Mr. Austin Says that he Saw McCawley Load his Piece and Push his Bayonet at him.

Matthew Killroy. Lanksford Saw Killroy Present his Gun and fird and Gray fell at his feat then Pushd his Bayonet at Lanksford and run it through his Cloaths. Francis Archible Saw Killroy. Hemenway heard Killroy Say he would not Miss an opportunity to fire on the Inhabitance. Nicholas firiter Saw Killroy. Joseph Crosswell Saw Killroy. Bayonet Bloodey the next morning. Thos Crawswell Saw Killroy. Jonathan Cary Saw the Same.

James Hartengem. John Danbrook Saw Hartengem. Josiah Simpson Saw Hartengem.

Hugh Montgomery. Test. James Baley Saw Mongomory fire the first Gun. Pointed towards the Molatto he Stood the Third from the Right. Parms Saw Mongomery and Pushd at me With his Bayonet twise. John Danbrook Saw Mongomory fire and Saw two Persons fall Near together. Ted: Bliss Saw Mongom Push his Bayonot and fire he thinks he heard Six Guns fire. Thos Wilkinson Saw Mongomory and heard Seven Guns fire and one Snap.
We can thus see what Pierce thought was important to keep track of. He wanted to have at least one witness placing each accused soldier on King Street. He also wanted to have positive evidence of whether each man fired his gun or otherwise behaved aggressively.

By Pierce’s reckoning, witnesses confirmed that all eight men were on the scene of the shooting. However, witnesses described only William Warren, John Carroll, Mathew Kilroy, and Edward Montgomery as firing their guns. In addition, Montgomery, Kilroy, and William Macauley pushed at people with their bayonets. And witnesses linked Montgomery and Kilroy’s shots with the fall of particular victims.

Edward Pierce’s brother Samuel kept a terse but useful diary through the Revolutionary period, recording, among other things, when Edward broke his leg in 1761. Here’s what Samuel wrote about in the dramatic year of 1770:
Feb. 22. A boy was shot at Boston by an informer.
March 6. Four men killed in Boston by the soldiers.
March 12, The soldiers go from Boston to the Castle.
April 19. Richarsan had his trial for his life.
May 28. I had 18 men to making stone wall in one day.
May 30. There was an ox roasted whole at Boston.
Aug. 11. Mr. Whitfield came to Boston.
Sept. 10, Castle William is resined to Col. Dalrymple.
Oct. 20. Was a violent storm as ever was known in these parts, and did a vast deal of damage.
Dec. 2. Little Sam first wore jacket and bretches.
Samuel Pierce never mentioned his brother’s service in the province’s most closely watched trial nor mentioned the verdict. On 2 Dec 1770, 250 years ago today, he had something more important to record.

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