The Boston Massacre, one of the major events that propelled our country toward seeking its independence from England, plays a major role in my novel, Freedom’s Ring. It occurred in Boston on the night of March 5, 1770. The conflict ended in the death of five colonists at the hands of the British Regulars, but because so many factors played into that night, and because so much was at stake for both the British and the Sons of Liberty from a political standpoint, fact and fiction have blended over the many years since the incident occurred. Here are some things you may not have known about the Boston Massacre.
1) The majority of British soldiers were miserable in Boston.
4,000 British troops came to Boston in October, 1768. They were charged with keeping order as the rebellious town of Boston (about 20,000) grumbled over the substantial taxation imposed upon it by the Townshend Acts.
The soldiers were not only despised by the locals, they were not paid well and were often forced to live in less than ideal circumstances. Many sought side jobs which further angered the colonists who were in need of the work themselves. Many of the soldiers were rude to the citizens and even engaged in street fights with boys of the town.
2) It wasn’t the first fatal incident in colonial Boston at the time of British occupation.
Not two weeks before the Massacre, a school boy of twelve years named Christopher Seider was killed in another dispute. He and some of his friends had been throwing rocks at the shop of a Loyalist merchant. Ebenezer Richardson, an unpopular Customs worker, came to the merchant’s defense. Richardson was hit in the head with a rock and ran to his home. The mob chased after him. Richardson shot his musket into the crowd from a second-story window, killing Seider.
Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty used Seider’s funeral as a display of political sentiment. Adams even called Seider “the first martyr to American liberty.” 5,000 Bostonians attended the memorial. The town was still reeling from this incident on the night of the Massacre.
3) The colonists started it.
The Massacre began when a young apprentice shouted out offensive comments to a sentry on duty at the Customs house on the night of March 5th. Words were exchanged before the sentry hit the boy with the end of his musket. The boy yelled for help and returned with a frenzied crowd of young men.
The sentry called for the main guard, led by Captain Thomas Preston. The crowd grew to 400 men who began throwing snow at the Regulars, pressing in on them with clubs, calling out lewd comments, and daring them to fire. Captain Preston’s trial account tells of a soldier getting hit with a stick, and then firing. Soon after, other soldiers followed suit, without having been given the order to do so.
4) Paul Revere’s Engraving Wasn’t Historically Accurate.
It might be hard to believe, but one of the most famous historical heroes of our country fudged his engraving of the event. In the most well-known image of the American Revolution, Paul Revere creates a piece of political propaganda that shows the most formidable army in the world being given orders to fire on an innocent crowd.
In the engraving, we don’t see the angry, working class colonists with their clubs. We see unarmed, well-dressed, gentlemen colonists on the ground, blood gushing from their wounds, a little puppy in the foreground for good measure.
Another notable fact is the absence of Crispus Attucks in the engraving. The first to fall that night, Attucks was a fugitive mulatto slave. Revere was clearly trying to gain the sympathies of his white, fellow peers across the thirteen colonies.
Not until 1856 (with the Civil War on the horizon) was a lithograph created showing Crispus Attucks at the center of the attack.
5) John Adams (yes, that John Adams) defended the British soldiers at trial.
While the second president of the United States and cousin to Patriot leader Samuel Adams empathized with the Patriots, he put his career and even his safety on the line to defend the Regular soldiers. One can only reflect on his motives, but many historians believe he chose to put the law above his own personal beliefs.
With John Adams and Josiah Quincy’s help, Captain Thomas Preston was found not guilty of murder.
Six of the remaining eight soldiers were also found not guilty of murder. The other two, Privates Kilroy and Montgomery were found guilty of manslaughter. Though the privates could have been sentenced to death for their crimes, they pleaded the “benefit of the clergy” and were spared. Originally used by clergymen, this ordinance allowed a religious member to claim they were outside the authority of the secular courts. It was eventually extended to first-time offenders. Both Privates Kilroy and Montgomery were granted the benefit, and branded with a letter “M” for “manslaughter” with a hot iron on their thumbs. Since offenders could only use the “benefit of the clergy” once, this would ensure they couldn’t claim it again.
So though five colonists lay dead as a result of the Boston Massacre, no real punishment was given to any of the Regulars. This fueled the fires of rebellion that would eventually lead to the Revolutionary War. It’s in these pages of history that the characters in my novel, Freedom’s Ring, find themselves.