5 March 1770
The anniversary is commemorated every year with an annual reenactment in Boston, Massachusetts, but is virtually forgotten in Britain. During the early evening of Monday 5 March 1770, several Redcoats had been seen ‘parading the streets (of the colonial port) with their drawn cutlasses and bayonets, abusing and wounding numbers of the inhabitants.’1 Tensions escalated further after a soldier on guard outside the barracks struck a young wigmaker’s apprentice on the head with his musket, after the youth had allegedly insulted a British officer.2
Angry onlookers gathered. For years, Bostonians had been forced to endure checkpoints, forced searches and the payment of taxes for a faraway king enforced by British troops, while they also had to suffer the drunkenness, violence and sexual assaults from off duty recruits. Soon, a crowd of perhaps two hundred surrounded the soldier and seven grenadiers who had hurried to the scene. They hurled abuse and snowballs at the hated Redcoats. Suddenly shots rang out. According to the Boston Gazette, the volley was at the command of Captain Thomas Preston, who screamed out ‘Damn you, Fire. be the consequence what it will !’3
Three men died instantly and eleven were wounded, two fatally. For several moments the firing continued, even against ‘persons who undertook to remove the slain and the injured.’ The victims included Crispus Attucks, a freed slave, ‘two balls entering his breast, one… goring the right lobe of the lungs, and a great part of the liver most horribly; Samuel Gray, a rope maker, a ‘ball entering his head, and beating off a large part of his skull;’ James Caldwell, a ship’s mate, ‘two balls entering his back;’ Samuel Maverick, a seventeen year old youth, a ‘ball entering through his belly,’ dying the next morning and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, ‘a ball entering near his hip’, who died two weeks later.4
Captain Preston and the eight soldiers were arrested, but Boston’s governor, Thomas Hutchinson, managed to delay the trial until November. He feared harsh repercussions from London should any of the soldiers hang. In court they were ably defended by the future American president, John Adams, who argued that they had been provoked by a ‘motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktarrs (sailors).’5 Only two soldiers were convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter. They escaped the gallows and were allowed to walk free after suffering a branding of the thumb in open court. A fairly minor punishment by the brutal standards of the time.
- The Boston Gazette of 12 March 1770cited in the Kentish Gazette, 24 April 1770, p. 2.
- The Boston Gazette, op. cit. and Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, Crown, New York, 2017, p. 4.
- The Boston Gazette, op. cit..
- The Boston Gazette, op. cit.
- John Adams cited in David McCullough, John Adams, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001, p. 67.
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