The Boston Massacre

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Podcast Transcript

On March 5, 1770, one of the major events leading up to the American Revolution occurred. 

A confrontation between Boston civilians and British soldiers resulted in the deaths of five Americans. 

While the events of that day helped spur the cause of American independence, the events which happened after helped determine what kind of country it was to be.

Learn more about the Boston Massacre, its causes, and its aftermath on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand how and why the Boston Massacre happened, you have to understand the climate in Boston in 1770. 

The years leading up to 1770 were ones of increasing consternation amongst the American colonists. The British government passed a series of laws, such as the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, and the Townshend Acts, which increased taxes and placed impositions on the colonists without their consent.

Boston became the hotbed of anti-British activity in the Americas. To try and control the situation, the British stationed 2,000 soldiers in Boston, which at the time only had a population of 16,000 people. 

These soldiers were quartered in the homes of Bostonians without their consent. If you ever wanted to know the reason for the third amendment in the constitution, this is it.

Skirmishes, fights, and vandalism became common occurrences between patriot colonists and the British, as well as between patriot colonists and loyalist colonists. 

In the weeks leading up to March 5, things had gotten particularly tense. 

On February 22, a mob of patriots began throwing rocks at the store of a loyalist named ??Theophilus Lillie. His neighbor, a customs official by the name of Ebenezer Richardson, fired his gun through his window at the crowd, killing an 11-year-old boy named Christopher Seider.

The death of the young boy outraged the people of Boston. His murder was covered extensively in the local newspapers, and an estimated 2,000 people attended his funeral. The largest crowd ever assembled in Boston at that time. 

A few days later, a major fight broke out between colonists and British soldiers, but no one was killed, and there were no major injuries. 

So, heading into the evening of March 5, 1770, the city of Boston was on edge. 

March 5 in Boston was cold and snowing. 

The events took place on King Street in front of the Boston Customs House. Today King Street is known as State Street. The customs house is where the money was held in the royal treasury.

The customs house was guarded outside by a soldier by the name of Private Hugh White and his commanding officer, Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch.

A 13 years old boy by the name of Edward Garrick walked up to the customs house and began berating Captain-Lieutenant Goldfinch about not paying a bill from his employer. 

Private White then told Garrick to respect an officer. White and Garrick began arguing, which escalated until White hit Garrick in the head with the butt of his gun. 

The crowd began to grow around Private White and became belligerent. They started pelting him with snowballs. 

As the evening continued, the crowd grew larger, church bells all around Boston rang out, resulting in men all over the city flooding into the streets.

As the crowd began to press on Private White, with as many as fifty people, he fell down and eventually called for reinforcements. 

Captain Thomas Preston arrived with six more soldiers to protect the customs house. Their concern was that the crowd was going to burst inside and steal the money inside. 

The informal leader of the crowd was a former slave by the name of Crispus Attucks. 

Attucks was a 47 year half African, half-Wampanoag Indian who worked as a dockworker at Boston Harbor.

The crowd kept escalating their provocation of the British soldiers. Some in the crowd were pleading with them not to shoot, and others were daring them to fire on the crowd.

What happened next is unclear, and there were several different versions of the story. 

Either someone threw an object which hit one of the soldiers, Private Hugh Montgomery, which caused him to accidentally discharge his gun, or someone said “fire,” which was misunderstood to be a command. 

Or perhaps, he fired on purpose because he was hit by an object. 

To this day, there is no consensus on what really happened.

After the first shot was fired, there was a gap of five to thirty seconds before the rest of the soldiers fired their weapons. 

The volley killed three men in the crowd instantly: a rope maker named Samuel Gray, a mariner named James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks. 

Because of his role as a leader and being one of the first people killed, Crispus Attucks is considered to be the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. 

In addition to the three killed instantly, two others died from their wounds later on. 17-year-old Samuel Maverick was struck in the back of the head by a ricochet and died hours later. A recent immigrant from Ireland, Patrick Carr, was shot in the abdomen and died two weeks later. 

In addition to the five dead, six others were wounded. 

While this might be the climax of the story, it is far from its end. 

The crowd around the customs house dispersed, but people kept flooding into the streets all over Boston as the news spread like wildfire throughout the city.

The governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, Thomas Hutchinson, arrived on the scene and promised everyone that if they dispersed and went back to their homes, there would be an inquiry into the shootings. 

All of the soldiers involved in the incident were arrested within hours. 

Patriot and loyalist forces both began issuing propaganda to support their side. 

Captain Preston wrote his side of the story from jail for publication in loyalist newspapers. 

Patriots such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams kept urging the people of Boston to continue to put pressure on the British. 

Patriot propaganda began to call the event the “Boston Massacre.” They positioned the victims as upstanding citizens and the soldiers as bloodthirsty thugs. 

Loyalist propaganda did just the opposite. They painted the soldiers as being the victims of an ambush and that the crowd in Boston was unruly and didn’t respect the law. 

Perhaps the most compelling piece of propaganda was an etching of the event, which was created by Henry Pelham. The image spread throughout the colonies due to reproductions by Paul Revere, and it became an 18th-century equivalent of a viral video.

It took several months, but eventually, the soldiers were placed on trial. 

The Massachusetts government wanted to make sure that the trial was fair and above board. The soldiers were brought up on charges of murder, and if convicted, they would face the death penalty. 

If it appeared that they were railroaded and found guilty, it would invite more reprisals from the British. If they appeared to have been let off the hook, it would inflame patriots in Boston. 

The most surprising move of the entire trial came when Captain Preston asked a 35-year-old Boston attorney named John Adams to represent him. Preston had asked several other loyalist attorneys to defend him, but none of them would take the case. 

Adams was a well-known supporter of the patriot cause. Most of you know him as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a future US president. 

While he didn’t want the British in Boston, he also was a firm believer that everyone deserved a fair trial. 

Adams made the decision to defend Preston and the other soldiers, knowing that it could cause him and his family a great deal of harm. He also recruited patriot attorney Josiah Quincy II to assist him.

The prosecutor was another signer of the Declaration of Independence, local private attorney Robert Treat Paine. 

There were two separate trials that took place. One in October, where Captain Preston was on trial, and another in November, where the other eight soldiers would be tried.

The trial of Captain Preston was relatively straightforward. The prosecution had to prove that he had given the order to fire on the crowd.

Adams brought forward multiple witnesses who gave multiple conflicting accounts of the events that night. 

As there was no consistent story that could be determined by eyewitness accounts, Adams was able to easily establish reasonable doubt, and Captain Preston was acquitted. This was the first time in American judicial history that reasonable doubt was used as a standard to adjudicate a case.

The next trial of the eight soldiers was more tricky. 

Adams used every advantage he could in the selection of the jury. For starters, he felt that people in Boston were too invested in the outcome, so he had a jury selected of people from outside of Boston.

He selectively challenged individual jurors and wound up with a jury that was heavily loyalist. 

Also, for the first time in American history, a jury was sequestered. 

Adams actually did believe that he had a strong case and that the eight men were not guilty of murder. 

His argument was that the mob on March 5 was, in fact….a mob. They were violent and unruly, and, based on pretty much all eyewitness testimony, they provoked the soldiers.  

It also helped that Patrick Carr, the immigrant from Ireland who died two weeks after being shot, had given a deathbed testimony that the soldiers were defending themselves and forgave those who shot him. 

The soldiers, Adams argued, were legally required to defend their post and were ordered to do so even with the use of lethal force.

His closing arguments have gone down in history and have been used by lawyers ever since. He said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence….It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.” 

Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted, and two were found guilty of manslaughter. 

Despite the fact that none of the accused were found guilty of murder, the Boston Massacre only served to harden the patriot cause and to sour relations with Britain. It was one of the biggest events leading up to the Revolution. 

The reputation of John Adams skyrocketed. He was considered a principled man by both patriots and loyalists, and his legal business took off. 

His defense of the British soldiers who took part in the Boston Massacre became the landmark court case in colonial America and a foundational case for American jurisprudence. 

The fame he found from the case allowed him to be later elected to the Continental Congress.

Crispus Attucks, the black man considered to be the first casualty of the revolution, was upheld as an inspirational example by abolitionist groups in the 19th century and civil rights groups in the 20th century to support their causes. 

Today you can visit the site of the Boston Massacre in Boston. There is a memorial in the ground right next to the Old State House at the corner of State and Devonshire streets. However, the actual location is a few feet away where there is heavy traffic.. 

The Boston Massacre is one most important events in American colonial history. It set a path for the future of American independence and of the American legal system. In the words of John Adams, on March 5, 1770, “(the) foundation of American independence was laid.” 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener sooty chat over on Apple Podcasts in the United States They write

Great General Knowledge topics …

Discovered this podcast just a couple of months back. I look forward to catching up with the back catalog. The narration is somewhat rushed for an informational genre, making it an aural sprint for average listeners like me.

Thanks, Sooty Chat! Just a reminder that you can adjust the playback speed on most podcast apps. I know of people who listen to this podcast at half-speed, and I know people who listen at double-speed. Whatever works best for you is fine with me.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.