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, January 03, 2023

Listen in on Rex v. Wemms: The Boston Massacre Trial

On 28 Feb 2020, I attended a meeting at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum about upcoming commemorations of the Sestercentennial. Evan O’Brien, the museum’s creative director, hosted as chair of the Revolution 250 commemorations committee.

That was one week before the Sestercentennial of the Boston Massacre. As I detailed here, Revolutionary Spaces was about to host an anniversary gathering at Old South and an expanded reenactment in and around the Old State House. Prof. Serena Zabin was coming to town to present The Boston Massacre: A Family History. Exhibits were open at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Old State House.

Our meeting on that February Friday was looking ahead to a subsequent series of events in Revolutionary Boston: the trials of Capt. Thomas Preston and eight British enlisted men for allegedly carrying out the Massacre. Those legal proceedings took place in the late fall of 1770, so we were thinking about how to commemorate them in late 2020.

A reenactment of the soldiers’ trial held promise as a public event; a series of reenactments in different Massachusetts shire towns held even more. We have an unusually full transcript of that proceeding from shorthand writer John Hodgson and printer John Fleeming. Prof. Joseph McEttrick of the Suffolk University Law School had edited that record into a script he produced with students in 1999.

McEttrick, the Suffolk alumni association, and the Bostonian Society mounted a larger production of the trial reenactment at Faneuil Hall in May 2000. That was one of the first historical events I volunteered for, helping to produce the printed program and greeting attendees. The turnout was so big that I didn’t get to see more than a few minutes.

Joe McEttrick was at the meeting in February 2020, offering his script as a basis. But we knew it needed to be adapted. He’d designed that dramatization to maximize the number of university students and alumni who could participate. A Revolution 250 touring production needed a smaller cast and a shorter run time. And even a pared-down version would need significant funding. So there was a lot of work ahead.

At the time of that meeting, we were also hearing about this new coronavirus, eventually called Covid-19. It wasn’t yet clear how that disease spread or how dangerous it would be.

(On top of the natural ignorance about an unstudied virus, there was misinformation coming from the top of our government. The President had told a reporter on 7 February, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. . . . It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. This is deadly stuff. This is deadly stuff.” But publicly he claimed the disease was no worse than seasonal flu and complained about testing programs.)

As I recall that first meeting, we proceeded with the assumption that the epidemic would be resolved by the fall. By the time the Massacre commemorations came a week later, we were doing elbow handshakes and worrying about transmission through the air, though it was unclear what we could do about it. A week after that, I gave a lecture to four people, widely spaced, and then we largely stayed home. For months.

It turned out that my best contribution to those commemoration discussions was a casual remark that the soldiers’ trial could be made into an audio drama and distributed like a podcast. For several years I’ve listened to drama podcasts, from post-war detective shows and westerns to the B.B.C.’s new adaptation of The Dark Is Rising. It struck me that an audio production could sidestep the challenges of finding venues and rehearsing a large cast through long speeches, and it could last longer and reach more classrooms.

For reasons we know all too well, no Massacre trial reenactment came to pass in late 2020. But early the next year, Evan O’Brien shared the news that he was moving ahead with an audio production. He wanted to include female voices, so I sent the testimonies of Jane Whitehouse, a witness at Capt. Preston’s trial, for him to mix in.

Last month, the Revolution 250 podcast debuted its completed production of Rex v. Wemms: The Boston Massacre Trial, directed by Evan O’Brien. It has a full voice cast drawn from local historical interpreters and actors. Logging in at a bit under two hours, the material focuses on the question of whether Pvts. Edward (Hugh) Montgomery and Mathew Kilroy should be convicted of killing Samuel Gray, Crispus Attucks, or others. We hear actual eyewitness testimony and eighteenth-century legal arguments.

This recording debuted around the 252nd anniversary of the soldiers’ trial, not the exact Sestercentennial, but it can be a teaching resource for many years to come. It’s a testament to Evan O’Brien’s creativity and perseverance under challenging conditions. Have a listen.

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