The Boston Massacre

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“The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King-Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt.” Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

On a cold dark day in March 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd of Bostonians, killing five people and injuring six others. While the historical record cannot reveal exactly what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre, we do know that it was the result of rising tensions between Great Britain and its North American colonies. The events of that evening would become a key source of tension that would erupt into a war for independence in 1775.

WHAT EVENTS LED TO THE BOSTON MASSACRE?

A series of global events led to a local tragedy for Boston in 1770. Bostonians reacted to Parliament’s Stamp Act of 1765 and Townshend Acts of 1767 with anger, and sometimes with violence. After the Stamp Act was enacted, Bostonians rioted, destroyed property and intimidated appointed tax collectors. At the news of the Townshend Acts in 1767, Boston merchants collectively agreed to stop importing goods from Great Britain in protest. British officials feared that more resistance and violent tactics would come and sent four regiments of the British army to help enforce tax collection. This decision would have the opposite effect.

By 1768, more than 1,000 British soldiers were stationed in Boston. The soldiers lived in warehouses, or rented houses or rooms for themselves and their families in private homes. For a town of 16,000 residents, the addition of 1,000 uniformed men among them was noticeable. Over the next year and a half, soldiers did guard duty in the town, took small jobs, married Bostonian women, broke laws, got drunk and disorderly, and even deserted the British army. The relationship between Bostonians and soldiers was often tense, especially as poorly paid soldiers competed for jobs with Boston’s laborers.

“A view of the Town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768,” Engraved by Paul Revere, ca. 1768. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

A year and a half after the soldiers arrived, tensions in Boston had risen exponentially. Two weeks before the Boston Massacre, tension between Bostonians over the non-importation agreements led to a protest that turned violent and ended in the death of an 11-year-old boy. Conflict between soldiers and Boston’s workers escalated into a series of brawls.

WHAT HAPPENED ON THE NIGHT OF THE BOSTON MASSACRE?

For all of the tension in town, the square in front of the Custom House was calm on the night of March 5, 1770. Hugh White, a private in the British army, stood guard outside the building while various Bostonians passed through the square, at least one asking after White and his family.

But the mood in front of the Custom House changed quickly. Disturbances in nearby areas of Boston meant that Hugh White could hear distant yelling. Edward Gerrick, an apprentice walking past the Custom House with friends, taunted Hugh White. White then struck Gerrick in the head with his musket. Gerrick loudly cried out in pain, drawing the attention of other Bostonians. Around that time, bells started ringing. In colonial Boston, church bells were a signal that a fire had started and Bostonians’ collective efforts were needed to contain it. The church bells brought more people into the streets, some good Bostonians with buckets looking for the source of the inferno, and others with weapons, who interpreted the bells as a sign of trouble. The area in front of the Custom House had become the focal point of conflict in town.

“Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770” chromolithography by J. H. Bufford (after W. Champney), circa 1856. Courtesy of the National Archives.

As more swarmed the streets, the number of people in the square in front of Hugh White grew. White called for help, which came in the form of Captain Thomas Preston and six of his men. The soldiers wove their way through the crowd to join White and formed a semi-circle in front of the Custom House. While accounts of what happened next vary wildly, evidence shows that the soldiers attempted to keep the growing crowd back. Preston reportedly assured at least one townsperson that he did not plan to order the soldiers to fire. Meanwhile, the crowd threw objects at the soldiers, yelled profanity and threats, and dared them to fire. As the minutes ticked on, the crowd grew, the confusion grew, and the soldiers’ fear grew.

Then, a shot rang out. It hit Crispus Attucks, a sailor and laborer of African and Native American ancestry. It is unclear why that first shot was fired. One likely scenario that several witnesses attested to is that one of the soldiers, Edward Montgomery, was hit with a projectile, fell over, stood back up angrily and fired into the crowd. Some witnesses swore they heard Captain Thomas Preston order his men to fire. One witness claimed they saw a mysterious cloaked man behind the soldiers order them to fire. Others were adamant that they were standing right by Preston and knew he didn’t give the order. Was one of the dares to “fire” or were questions of “where is the fire” misunderstood as coming from Preston? Whatever the truth is, more shots followed, killing five and injuring six more.

Paul Revere’s plan of the scene of the Boston Massacre: used at the trial of Capt. Preston and soldiers. Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE SOLDIER’S TRIAL?

Immediately after the shooting, Bostonians secured a promise that the British soldiers would leave Boston. Over the next two weeks, most of the troops in the town were moved to Castle Island. While it’s difficult to piece together a full picture of what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre from contradictory witness accounts, we do know the results of the ensuing trial.

Captain Thomas Preston’s trial came first, where he was found not guilty of ordering his men to fire. The trial of the soldiers under Preston’s command came next and their lawyers, including John Adams, argued they had fired in self-defense. The jury’s decision centered around the need to prove if any individual soldier had killed a specific victim, and the two soldiers that met that criteria were found guilty of manslaughter and branded on the thumb as punishment. The other five soldiers were found not guilty.

HOW DID COLONISTS REACT TO THE BOSTON MASSACRE?

The Boston Massacre trial didn’t take place until nine months after the event. In the meantime, Bostonians took their case to the court of public opinion. While an earlier engraving framed the event as “fruits of arbitrary power, or the bloody massacre,” two weeks after the event Paul Revere cut straight to the point and engraved what would become the most famous image of what he titled the “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated on King Street” – depicting a line of soldiers firing on peaceful inhabitants of Boston. The Patriots’ framing of the event spread throughout the colonies, turning this powerful image into an effective piece of propaganda. To many, the Boston Massacre was an inexcusable example of British abuse of power, which helped break the ties that bound Americans to their British identity.


INTERACTIVE

Click the image below to access an interactive version of Paul Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre.


SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING

Neil L. York, The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Serena Zabin, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).

Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970).