Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Real Story of the Boston Massacre

1870 copy of Paul Revere's famous engraving
Americans have been led to believe the Boston Massacre was just another example of British oppression, and that it was one of the inciting events of the American Revolution.

What if I told you the Boston Massacre wasn’t really a massacre? Subsequent testimony proved the soldiers fired in self-defense. The King Street Riot was started by a group of four street bullies who got their rocks off by attacking lone British soldiers.

You’d probably say, “That’s not what I was taught in kindergarten.”

Here’s the real story of that fateful day on the Boston Common.

Tension ran high in Boston during the winter of 1770. Nearly 4,000 British soldiers occupied the city, and occasional clashes with the citizenry were inevitable.

One of the biggest rabble rousers in Boston was a gray haired old man with a shaky voice and jittery hands. His name was Sam Adams, and if you caught a glimpse of him, you probably wouldn’t have given him a second glance. Adams was a seedy foul-smelling character who went about in dirt spattered clothing. The best way to describe him would be as a failure at life. He failed at everything he tried. The only thing he was good at was inciting his fellow Bostonites to take up arms against the British.

Adams didn’t much like King George III, he didn’t like having British troops stationed in Boston, and if it was up to him Adams would have called it quits with Britain years before this. He published The Journal of Events, a local paper that described fictional atrocities committed by British Soldiers in Boston. The more outlandish and implausible the story the more likely Adams was to publish it.

His followers were called the Sons of Liberty, and the majority of them were rowdies, street roughs, and other undesirables.

March of 1770 opened with a roar in Boston.

The word around town was the British troops were preparing to attack the populace. On March 4th Bostonians clashed with British troops at John Gray’s Rope Walk in the Fort Hill District. Mobs roamed the street throughout the night, and into the next day.

March 5th was snowy and cold. By evening that day a foot of snow covered the ground on Boston Common.

Hugh White was the lone guard in the sentry box near the Old State House. A group of boys formed across the street and began lobbing snowballs and insults at the soldier. It was nothing new to White. The local boys often taunted the guards stationed there.

Suddenly a young boy named Edward Garrick rushed at White. The sentry slugged the boy with the butt of his musket, and the crowd began chanting “Kill him! Knock him down!”

White screamed for help as the mob closed in on him.

A giant of a man swung a club nearly breaking White’s arm. That was Crispus Attucks. He was the self-proclaimed leader of the mob. Other members of the group included James Caldwell, Samuel Gray, and Patrick Carr. By most accounts they were street toughs and bullies who enjoyed a good tussle, and often amused themselves by terrorizing lone British soldiers.

Another strange coincidence is that when the fighting was done all four of the ringleaders lay dead or dying with their blood dripping across the fresh snow.

Captain Thomas Preston and eight soldiers were the first to hear White’s desperate screams. They raced across the street to help. Testimony from onlookers stated the soldiers “rudely pushed [the crowd] aside, pricking some with their bayonet, and formed in a half circle around the sentry.”

The bells of the Old South Meeting House began to chime, and in no time the street was filled with a mob that numbered nearly 100 persons armed with sticks, snowballs, and clubs.

Captain Preston ordered his men to prime and load their rifles. Then he stepped in front of his men to prevent them from firing. For a moment the guns stayed silent. Voices flared. Snowballs and sticks pelted the soldiers from all directions. Someone cried “fire!” and the soldier’s guns spat fire, smoke, and death.

Pandemonium broke loose on King Street.

Crispus Attucks fell dead. Two bullets struck him in the chest, and his warm blood spilled across the newly fallen snow. Samuel Gray was shot in the head and died instantly. Seventeen year old James Caldwell took two musket balls in the back and fell dead in the snow. Patrick Carr was shot in the hip and part of his back bone was blown away as the bullet escaped his body. He lingered on suffering immense pain for nine more days. The fifth victim was a boy named Samuel Maverick. He was struck and killed by a ricocheting musket ball as he made a dash for the Town House.

Governor Thomas Hutchinson rushed to the scene as soon as he learned about the attack. To prevent further bloodshed he ordered a special investigation and had Captain Preston and his men arrested.

It was uncertain if the soldiers could get a fair trial in Boston. No lawyers wanted to take the case for fear of being labeled a Tory. Eventually John Adams and Josiah Quincy signed on as attorneys for the defense. The prosecutor was Robert Treat Paine, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

The trial was delayed seven months, and in that time disturbing news leaked out.

Patrick Carr’s dying testimony put the kibosh on the massacre theory. Doctor John Jeffries testified about Carr’s dying words. On his deathbed, he told Jeffries that the four of them—Attucks, Caldwell, Gray, and himself “went with a design against the soldiers, that the soldiers were pelted as they were going to their post, that he thought they were abused and that they really would have fired before…he thought that they fired to defend themselves; that he did not blame the man, whoever he was that shot him; that he blamed himself for having gone to the riot, and might have known better.”

Sam Adams was infuriated.

He’d been spreading word about the massacre for months, portraying the soldiers as cold blooded killers who intended to gun down the innocent citizens of Boston. A color engraving by Paul Revere pictured the soldiers as cold blooded killers smiling as they fired into the unarmed crowd.

Captain Preston and six of his soldiers were found innocent and released. Two other soldiers were charged with manslaughter and branded on the thumb.

John Adams would later write, “On that night the formation of American Independence was laid. Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on 5th March, 1770. The death of four or five persons the most obscure and inconsiderable that could have been found upon the continent, has never yet been forgiven by any part of America.”

Daniel Webster said “from that moment we may date the severance of the British empire.”

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History