The Incident of the Boston Massacre

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This booklet refers to the work on the Boston Massacre which was trialed as “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country", describing the incidents and consequences of that period.
1. Handout 1D, page 1
The Boston Massacre
On March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired on a mob of colonists in Boston. This
incident, known as the Boston Massacre, enraged American colonists.
In the years before the American Revolution, the British tried to take firm control over
their American colonies. In the British view, British troops had protected Americans
from the French, Spanish, and Indians. When a long war against the French ended in
1763, the king’s minister announced in Parliament: Great Britain protects America;
America is bound to obey.
Parliament then began passing laws to control trade, stop smuggling, and collect taxes
from the colonies. The Americans considered these laws unjust and began to resist.
Much of the resistance took place in Boston.
One target of American outrage were customs collectors. They collected taxes and tried
to stop smugglers. At the Customs House, officials collected and counted import duties
for the king.
Sometimes customs collectors conducted searches using search warrants, called writs of
assistance. These documents allowed them to search any house for smuggled goods.
When customs officials in 1768 seized John Hancock’s ship on charges of smuggling
wine, Boston mobs attacked them. The British government sent 700 soldiers to occupy
Boston. The troops trained in public and stood guard in front of government offices,
including the Customs House.
The occupying army and the townspeople grew to hate each other. Wearing red coats
and armed with muskets and swords, the soldiers intimidated the people with insults
and threats. Boston workmen, sailors, and teenage apprentices cursed at the redcoats
and challenged them to fistfights. The Sons of Liberty, a radical Patriot group, called for
the troops to leave.
The Boston Massacre
On Friday, March 2, 1770, an off-duty British soldier asked a group of Boston rope
makers if there was any work. One of the rope makers replied there was. “Go clean my
outhouse,” he jeered. A fight broke out. The soldier was knocked about and then fled. A
little while later, the soldier returned with friends and a brawl erupted. One of the
soldiers, Matthew Killroy, and one of the rope makers, Samuel Gray, would meet again
On the evening of Monday, March 5, a lone British soldier guarded the entrance to the
Boston Customs House. The sentry got into an argument with a boy and swung his
musket, hitting him on the head. Other boys gathered, daring the sentry to fight.
“Bloody lobster back!” they yelled, taunting the soldier and his red coat.
© 2012, Constitutional Rights Foundation
History Experience
2. Handout 1D, page 2
By about 9 p.m., adults had joined the growing crowd. Some began to throw snowballs
and chunks of ice at the sentry. He loaded his musket. “Fire, damn you, fire, you dare
not fire!” the crowd taunted.
The sentry called for help when a group of about 25 American sailors arrived, yelling,
whistling, and carrying wooden clubs. A tall, stout man named Crispus Attucks led this
noisy band. Part Indian and black, Attucks pushed his way to the front of the crowd,
club in hand.
Captain Thomas Preston, officer of the guard, responded to the sentry’s call for help. He
led a squad of seven soldiers. In the squad was Private Matthew Killroy, who had been
involved in the rope-maker brawl. The soldiers marched with their muskets and
bayonets to the Customs House. They lined up in a semicircle facing the crowd. A
corporal ordered the soldiers to load their muskets with two lead balls per gun. Capt.
Preston stood by his men.
From 40 to 80 people had now gathered. Many more people crowded nearby streets.
“Lobsters!” “Bloody backs!” “Fire! Why don’t you fire?” many shouted. Some threw
snowballs, ice, oyster shells, and even lumps of coal at the soldiers. Crispus Attucks and
others struck the soldiers’ musket barrels with sticks and clubs. Attucks yelled, “Kill
them! Kill them! Knock them over!”
Then, someone from the back of the mob threw a club. It hit Pvt. Montgomery,
knocking him to the ground. “Damn you, fire!” someone shouted. Enraged, Montgomery
rose to his feet and fired his musket killing Crispus Attucks. Soon, most of the other
soldiers were erratically firing into the mob. When Pvt. Killroy fired, rope-maker Samuel
Gray fell dead. As the men began to reload, Capt. Preston ordered, “Stop firing! Stop
firing!” Five men lay dead or dying in the bloody snow.
Capt. Preston managed to march his men back to their barracks. Acting Governor
Thomas Hutchinson, a strong supporter of Britain, arrived to try to calm the people. “Let
the law have its course,” he pleaded.
The next day, the Sons of Liberty held a huge protest meeting demanding that all British
soldiers be ordered out of Boston. Gov. Hutchinson persuaded the British army
commander to remove the soldiers to an island in Boston Harbor. Boston residents lined
the streets to insult and curse the redcoats as they left the town.
On March 13, the colony’s attorney general charged 13 people with murder. Three trials
took place. Capt. Preston was tried first followed by a separate trial of the eight soldiers.
Four customs officers were accused of shooting into the crowd from the Customs House
windows. They were tried last. (This final trial ended when the jury found out that the
main witness had falsely accused the officers.)
© 2012, Constitutional Rights Foundation
History Experience
3. Handout 1D, page 3
The Trial of Capt. Preston
Before the trials began, both sides tried to influence public opinion. Gov. Hutchinson
sent a report to London. It criticized Boston for its violence. It reported mob actions
against British soldiers. He later wrote, “government is at an end and in the hands of the
The Sons of Liberty took witness statements. They put the statements in their own
document, titled, “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.” But the most
influential piece was Paul Revere’s widely printed cartoon, “The Bloody Massacre.” It
showed British soldiers firing on a peaceful crowd.
The court appointed Samuel Quincy, a strong Tory, as prosecutor. The Sons of Liberty
persuaded the town of Boston to pay for a second prosecutor, Patriot Robert Treat Paine.
Capt. Preston could not get anyone to defend him in court. A Tory merchant finally
persuaded lawyer John Adams to do so. Adams was a Patriot leader in Boston. But the
35-year-old Adams believed that the British soldiers and their captain deserved fair
trials. Adams believed that the cause for self-government would be damaged if the trial
wasn’t fair. Joining Adams on the defense team were a Tory judge, Robert Auchmuty,
and Josiah Quincy. Quincy, a Patriot, was the younger brother of the prosecutor.
In short, Tory Samuel Quincy was prosecuting the king’s soldiers for murder. And
Patriot John Adams was defending them.
Amid continued mob activities and threats of lynching, Capt. Preston’s trial began on
October 24, 1770. It lasted six days, a long time then for a criminal trial. The court also
took the unusual step of sequestering the jury (keeping jury members away from their
families and friends).
Four judges presided at Capt. Preston’s trial. The key question was whether he actually
gave an order to his men to fire at the mob. Preston denied giving the order, but did not
testify. Some witnesses said he gave such a command; most said he did not. Much of
the testimony centered on who was shouting the word “Fire!” when the shooting began.
In the end, the Boston jury found Capt. Preston not guilty.
To the Sons of Liberty, Capt. Preston’s acquittal was disturbing, but not entirely
unexpected. After all, Preston was never accused of shooting at the crowd himself. But
the strong feeling in the town remained that someone would have to pay for the five
men who died.
The Trial of the British Soldiers
The trial of the eight British soldiers began on November 27 with a different jury (again
sequestered). The same four judges presided as in the Preston case. Samuel Quincy and
© 2012, Constitutional Rights Foundation
History Experience
4. Handout 1D, page 4
Robert Treat Paine continued to prosecute. Sampson Blowers joined John Adams and
Josiah Quincy for the defense. This trial lasted seven days. More than 80 witnesses
The prosecutors only had to prove that one of the soldiers fired with malice and the
intent to kill. All the soldiers would then be equally guilty of murder and would hang.
The prosecution tried to show that after months of abuse from the town’s people, all the
soldiers had revenge in their hearts. One witness testified that one or two weeks before
the shooting, Pvt. Killroy had said:
He would never miss an opportunity, if he had one, to fire on the inhabitants,
and that he had wanted to have an opportunity ever since he landed.
After Pvt. Montgomery fired the first shot, the prosecution argued, Killroy had his
chance and shot rope-maker Samuel Gray to death.
The defense team had to overcome a major problem. The previous jury had found that
Capt. Preston did not order his men to fire. Then why did the men fire? The defense
lawyers had to show that the crowd was endangering the soldiers. They would have to
convince jurors who probably disliked the British soldiers.
The defense focused on the mob that threatened Capt. Preston and his men. Witnesses
for the defense told about the insults, curses, threats, and taunts shouted at the soldiers.
They described the physical objects the mob hurled at the men. An important witness
was Dr. John Jeffries. He had treated victim Patrick Carr for 10 days before he finally
died. Dr. Jeffries related what Carr had said on his deathbed. Carr disclosed that he
believed the soldiers fired to defend themselves. He did not blame the man who shot
John Adams made the defense’s closing argument. He explained the law of self-defense
to the jury. He recalled the testimony about the “people crying kill them! kill them!
knock them over! heaving snowballs, oyster shells, clubs, white birch sticks.” Adams
asked the jurors to “consider yourselves, in this situation, and then judge whether a
reasonable man ... would not have concluded they were going to kill him.”
Adams referred to Pvt. Montgomery, the first to fire. “He was knocked down at his
station,” Adams continued. “Had he not reason to think his life in danger?” As for Pvt.
Killroy, Adams pointed out that the evidence showed he had fired into the mob. No one
had testified that he had aimed at Samuel Gray.
John Adams concluded by stating the law at the time: “If an assault was made to
endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had the right to kill in self-defense ....” Adams
conceded, however, that if the assault “was not so severe as to endanger their lives ...
[then] this was a provocation, for which the law reduces the offense of killing down to
© 2012, Constitutional Rights Foundation
History Experience
5. manslaughter.” Handout 1D, page 5
Robert Treat Paine concluded the case for the prosecution. He told the jurors that the
soldiers had unlawfully assembled in front of the Customs House, loading their muskets,
which inflamed the crowd. The soldiers then opened fire without any order from Capt.
Preston. They did this, Paine argued, not to defend themselves, but out of malice. The
redcoats sought revenge for all the insults and harassment they had suffered since
arriving in Boston. He called on the jury to find the soldiers who fired guilty of murder.
After instructions from the judge, the case went to the jury to deliberate on a verdict.
After deliberating for about three hours, the jurors returned to court. They found all the
soldiers innocent of murder, but judged Pvts. Montgomery and Killroy guilty of
manslaughter. Their punishment could have been hanging, but the court permitted them
to make a special plea. Their penalty was reduced to branding on the thumb.
Montgomery later admitted that it was he who had shouted, “Damn you, fire!” just
before he shot his musket.
The Boston Massacre was followed by other events that outraged American colonists. In
1776, America declared its independence from Britain. The Revolutionary War was
fought, and independence was won.
John Adams went on to serve in the Continental Congress and was on the committee to
write the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Congress sent
him to Europe. He eventually helped arrange the peace treaty that ended the war. He
served as vice president under President George Washington. In 1896, he was elected
the second president of the United States.
Late in life, Adams referred to his work on the Boston Massacre trials as “one of the best
pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”
© 2012, Constitutional Rights Foundation
History Experience