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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Monday, December 14, 2020

Sentenced and Punished for the Boston Massacre

The 17 Dec 1770 Boston Gazette reported on the third trial for the Boston Massacre by naming all the defendants and concluding, “After a few Hours Trial, they were acquitted.”

Unlike that same day’s Boston Evening-Post, the Gazette said nothing about how the jury had declared those men innocent without even leaving their seats.

Instead, the town’s leading Whig newspaper turned to insisting that there wasn’t “a single Instance of Indecency either in or out of Court” even after eleven of the thirteen men charged with multiple murders were acquitted. Edes and Gill gave much more space to making the case that Boston was a peaceful, law-abiding town than to the embarrassing trial.

Now to do that, the newspaper had to explain away a handbill complaining about the verdict, which I’ll discuss soon. After that, the same issue of the Boston Gazette got to the latest development:
Friday last [i.e., 14 December, 250 years ago today] Kilroy and Montgomery, who were convicted of Manslaughter, at the late Superior Court held here, were branded in the Hand in open Court, and discharged.
The published trial record didn’t specify the date of the sentencing and punishment, so this is a valuable source.

We have a description of the sentencing from one of the presiding judges, Peter Oliver. In 1783 he wrote out a memoir/anslysis of the coming of the Revolution in Massachusetts, which was eventually published as Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion.

Oliver had a lot of acidic comments about the Boston radicals, which makes for fun reading. He told this particular story to complain about the lingering Puritan attitude toward the Anglican church. Since Oliver created a privately shared manuscript, there was no chance for Bostonians or others who had witnessed the scene to object that he was fictionalizing. Nonetheless, I think there’s a good chance this anecdote is accurate.
At the Conclusion of the Trial of Capt. [Thomas] Preston’s Soldiers in Boston; one of them, who was brought in guilty of Manslaughter, standing at the Bar, was asked by the chief Justice, what Objection he had to offer why sentence of Death should not be passed upon him? The simple Fellow did not know what to say. A Bystander whispered to him, to pray the Benefit of the Clergy. The Man not understanding the whole of the Direction, bawled out with an audible Voice, “may it please your Honors! I pray the Death of the Clergy”—& many present nodded their Amen.
The defendant who seems most likely to have made this mistake was Pvt. Mathew Kilroy. We know from a previous filing in the case that Kilroy couldn’t sign his own name, so he probably hadn’t been educated in the details of the common law. Ironically, in pleading benefit of clergy, Kilroy would have been making a nominal claim to literacy, as explained here.

We also have John Adams’s comment on the punishment as collected by his colleague Josiah Quincy’s family and published in their Memoir of the Life of Josiah Quincy, Junior, of Massachusetts Bay, 1744-1775. That book quoted a conversation with Adams in 1822:
I never pitied any men more than the two soldiers who were sentenced to be branded in the hand for manslaughter. They were noble, fine-looking men; protested they had done nothing contrary to their duty as soldiers; and, when the sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] approached to perform his office, they burst into tears.
Peter Oliver’s manuscript preserves another post-trial development in the story of the Massacre. The judge wrote of the shooting:
…a Stout Fellow, of the Mob [Crispus Attucks], knocked down one of the Soldiers; & endeavoring to wrest his Gun from him, the Soldier cried, “D——n you fire,” pulled Trigger & killed his Man. The other Soldiers, in the midst of the Noise, supposing it was ye. Captain who gave the Order, discharged their Pieces, & five Persons were killed. Let me here observe, that upon the Trial great Stress was laid upon the Captain’s giving the Order to fire, but there was no Proof of it; & the Doubt was not cleared up for many Months after; when the Soldier who gave the Word of Command, as mentioned above, solved the Doubt.
We have a complementary version of that same story from acting governor Thomas Hutchinson. In a handwritten addition to his history of Massachusetts, eventually published in the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings, Hutchinson said:
[Pvt. Edward] Montgomery afterwards acknowledged to one of his counsel that he was the man who gave the word fire which was supposed by some of the witnesses to come from the Captain; that being knocked down & rising again, in the agony from the blow he said Damn you, fire and immediately he fired himself & the rest followed him.
With two sources (albeit not independent of each other), I’m convinced that Pvt. Montgomery made such an admission. Having been been tried and sentenced, he was safe from further prosecution. His remark clears up one of the mysteries from King Street.

There’s no evidence in the papers of John Adams or Josiah Quincy, Jr., that those men ever heard this story from Montgomery. It certainly wasn’t bruited about by Samuel Adams or other local Whigs writing about the case. Montgomery therefore probably spoken in private to his third attorney, Sampson Salter Blowers, who passed it on to fellow supporters of the Crown.

TOMORROW: Whatever happened to the defendants?

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