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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Real Story of Paul Revere and His Midnight Ride

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
“Listen my friends and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Or at least that’s how Longfellow’s poem begins its telling of the legend of the Revolutionary War hero.

The real truth is somewhat different.

Two riders set out from Boston that night, and were eventually joined by a third. The only catch is none of the three men completed their mission, not on horseback anyway..


Paul Revere was a Boston silversmith and sometime spy. He oftentimes carried secret messages between Boston, New York and Philadelphia. So it’s no surprise as the Battles of Lexington and Concord loomed before them that Bostonites recruited Paul Revere to spread word of the British advance.

On April 16th Dr. Joseph Warren dispatched Revere to Lexington to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock that the British would soon be on the move. Everyone surmised the target would be the ammunition depot at Concord.

Revere’s first ride to Lexington went off without a hitch. On the way back he visited Colonel William Conant in Charlestown, and let him know he would spread the warning when the British troops started to move. The signal he arranged was one if by land, and two if by sea. The signal light was to be hung from the steeple of old North Church.

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
Two days later on April 18th some 700 troops under the command of Colonel Francis Smith left Boston Common headed towards Lexington and Concord. Their orders from General Gage were to seize and destroy all the ammunition, small arms, and artillery they found along the way.

General Gage assumed the rebels would turn and run at the sight of the Redcoats.

As soon as it was determined the British were headed for Concord, Revere headed to old North Church. He instructed Robert Newman, the sexton of North Church, to flash two lights (meaning the British were coming by boat).

Once the signal lights were lit Revere set off on his journey.

What most people don’t know is a second rider, William Dawes, a young shoemaker from Boston, was dispatched as a backup in case Revere did not get through. Dawes was sent by the land route where he passed through British troops on the Boston Neck.

Revere rowed across the Charles River where he met Colonel Conant and his waiting troops. After consulting with Conant, Revere borrowed a horse from Deacon John Larkin and began his ride towards Lexington some twelve miles away.

Just after 11:00 PM, Revere passed through a flat marshland known as Charlestown Common. Ahead of him Revere spotted a British patrol and quickly changed his course making his way towards Medford. “In Medford,” Revere wrote, “I awaked the captain of the minute men; and after that, I alarmed every house, till I got to Lexington.”

In Lexington Revere met up with the other rider, William Dawes, at the home of Reverend Jonas Clark. After grabbing food and refreshments, Revere and Dawes set off for Concord. Doctor Samuel Prescott joined them en route.

They stopped at each house they came to and woke the inhabitants shouting “the British are coming.”

From The Paul Revere Album (1903)
Midway to Concord the three riders encountered a British patrol. Prescott and Dawes managed to escape. Revere was captured and held prisoner for a short period of time. In his account of the incident Revere says, “I saw four of them [British soldiers], who rode up to me, with their pistols, in their hands, said [goddamn] you stop if you go an inch further, you are a dead man.”

When questioned, Revere spilled the beans telling the British he had been alerting the countryside to their coming. Hard as it is to believe the British released Revere, a self-confessed spy, less than an hour later.

After his release Revere made his way back through the fields to Reverend Clark’s house in Lexinton.

With the British just a few miles behind him, Revere found Adams and Hancock packed and ready to make their getaway. He helped Hancock’s secretary hide some of his papers, and made his break for it just as the first shots were being fired on Lexington Green.

Thus ends the “midnight ride of Paul Revere.” While he was not entirely successful, the venture was good enough to secure the silversmith his place in history.

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charles Julius Guiteau Assassination, Insanity, and Celebrity

Assassination of President Garfield
Most Americans alive today have never heard of Charles Julius Guiteau.

It’s a sign of our love hate relationship with history. Guiteau was a drifter and failed lawyer from Freeport, Illinois who made his way to Washington, DC with delusions of receiving a public appointment, possibly even of becoming president.

Instead he wound up assassinating President James Garfield, and spawning a trial that enthralled the nation during the hot summer of 1881.

Guiteau testified, “I was in my bed … and I was thinking over the political situation, and the idea flashed through my brain that if the President was out of the way everything would go better … the only way to unite the two factions of the Republican party, and save the Republic from going into the hands of the rebels and Democrats, was to quickly remove the President.”

Later during his trial Guiteau told Judge Cox, “I presume I shall live to be President. Some people think I am as good a man as the President (Chester A. Arthur) now.

“Providence and I saved the nation, and why should I not be a hero and the equal of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant?”
It was a crazy mixed up summer.

A drifter from Illinois made his way to Washington determined to kill the President of the United States. Fate seemed as if it would intervene to keep Guiteau from his task, but on the morning of July 2nd, 1881 the shooter seized his opportunity.

The place was the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station in Washington, DC. According to Guiteau he “was about three or four feet from the door. I stood five or six feet behind him, right in the middle of the room, and as he was walking away from me, I pulled out the revolver and fired. He straightened up and threw his head back and seemed to be perfectly bewildered. He did not seem to know what struck him. I looked at him; he did not drop; I there upon pulled again. He dropped his head, seemed to reel, and fell over.”

White smoke and powder filled the area around the fallen president.

By some miracle Garfield didn’t die on the spot. He lingered on the brink of death throughout the summer of 1881. Several times it appeared as if he would recover, but the president passed away on September 19th, 1881.

Guiteau’s erratic actions during his trial made him a media sensation.

He pled not guilty on three counts.
  1. Insanity
  2. “It was God’s act, not mine.” Garfield’s doctors killed him, not Guiteau. It was a simple case of malpractice.
  3.  Lack of jurisdiction.

The trial lasted over three months.

Garfield just after he was shot
Guiteau’s brother-in-law, Charles J. Scoville, acted as counsel for the defense. He dismissed the last two pleas and focused on the “insanity” defense.

On the witness stand Guiteau testified, “It was on the inspiration of the deity. I never would have shot the president on my own personal account.”

Later he was asked, “You did not succeed in the Divine will?”

He responded, “I think the doctors finished the work.”

Recent studies tend to favor the malpractice defense.  Many doctors at that time were unaware of the need for proper sanitation as a result they moved from patient to patient without washing their hands or sanitizing medical equipment, spreading germs and infections as they went.

According to medical reports doctors believed a bullet was lodged in the president’s chest. Without X-ray machines or other modern diagnostic equipment doctors used the only tools available to them at the time. They jammed their dirty fingers and instruments into the wound probing deeper and deeper in their attempts to find the lost bullet.

Guiteau was like a madman at the trial—pacing, and spouting crazy ideas, that he was a messenger from God, and God inspired him to remove the president.

Reporters ate it up, spreading reports of the trial across the nation.

The questions continued:

“Do you think it was the Will of God that you should kill the president?”

“I believe that it was His will that he should be removed, and I was appointed the agent to do it.”

“Did he give you a commission in writing?”

 “No sir.”

“Did he give it to you audibly?”

“No sir.”

“He did not come to you as a vision in the night?”
Hanging of Charles Julius Guiteau

“I do not get my inspiration in that way.”

The testimony goes on and on. Each side dragged doctors and lawyers before the court. The defense to demonstrate Guiteau was certifiably insane. The prosecution to show it was all an elaborate scam.

In the end the jury returned a guilty verdict after only twenty minutes of deliberation.

When he received his death sentence Guiteau screamed, “My blood will be upon the heads of the jury; don’t you forget it.

“God will avenge this outrage!”

Charles Julius Guiteau was hung by the neck until dead on June 30, 1882. After a half hour of dangling by a rope his body was taken down and placed in a waiting coffin.

Thus ended Guiteau’s fifteen minutes of fame.

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