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Verdicts Of History I: The Boston Massacre
Even the worst offender, even the most unpopular cause, deserves a good lawyer. Our example is a passionate moment in Boston on the eve of the Revolution, when John Adams undertook to defend the hatred British soldiers who had fired into a Boston mob and created some “martyrs.” There are echoes of our own times in the trial that followed
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Through late March and April, Samuel Adams kept his town meeting in almost continuous session by endlessly delaying matters of business. This gave him a perfectly legal device to maintain a relentless pressure on Governor Hutchinson and the judges.
The beleaguered Hutchinson decided that he would have to offer his enemies a sacrifice to allay their ferocity. Two weeks before the Massacre, a Custom House employee, Ebenezer Richardson, had gotten into a brawl with some boys who chased him home with a barrage of icy snowballs, stones, and brickbats. They continued the bombardment on his house, smashing most of the windows. The enraged Tory suddenly thrust a musket loaded with birdshot from an upstairs window. “By God,” he shouted, “I’ll make a lane through you.” The gun boomed and most of the charge struck a twelve-year-old boy, who died that night. For Samuel Adams, Richardson was, of course, a very small fish. But his case did, in sequence of time, come first. Adams was therefore helpless to object when the judges moved to put Richardson in the dock.
Richardson had even more trouble procuring legal aid than Preston and his soldiers. Not a single attorney volunteered, and when the court appointed Samuel Fitch, he agreed to serve under violent protestations of duress, then became conveniently ill when the case went to trial. The court then appointed Josiah Quincy, Jr., an equally reluctant if more idealistic advocate. Only recently have we learned that the man who directed Richardson’s defense was John Adams. The notes and documents pertaining to the case were discovered in John’s legal files by the editors of the Adams Papers. With Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine handling the prosecution, Richardson’s case became almost a rehearsal for the Massacre trial.
“A vast concourse of rabble,” as one Tory described his fellow Bostonians, packed the courtroom. They growled their disapproval when the three judges unanimously agreed that from the testimony of witnesses on both sides, the charge against Richardson could amount to no more than manslaughter. Justice Peter Oliver went even further and declared to the jury that in his opinion the case was justifiable homicide. Whereupon an improper Bostonian shouted from the crowd: “Damn that judge. If I was nigh him I would give it to him.” When Oliver finished speaking, someone in the crowd roared out: “Remember, Jury, you are on oath. Blood requires blood.”
The jury found Richardson guilty of first-degree murder, and only vigorous exertion by the sheriff and town constables prevented the mob from taking him outside and hanging him on the spot.
The judges, aghast at the jury’s complete disregard of their charge, refused to sentence Richardson. He was remanded to jail, where he was to languish for another two years. His case, however, made it look certain that trying Preston and the soldiers right away would result in their conviction. “Procrastination is our only course as thi.igs are now situated,” wrote Colonel Dalrymple to General Gage.
Samuel Adams and his friends continued to agitate for instant justice. Once more they appeared in the courtroom and harangued the judges, threatening to withhold their salaries if they delayed any longer. But Hutchinson, who had the courage of his convictions, finally won the seesaw battle. Under his direction, the court constantly met and adjourned, met and adjourned. Then Hutchinson shifted the next meeting of the judiciary to Cambridge, proclaiming it a necessity to avoid the threats of the Boston mob. This inspired (on June 1, 1770) what Hutchinson ironically called “a jovial celebration … at Boston in opposition to me,” which involved roasting an ox whole on the Common and a great dinner at Faneuil Hall. While toasts were being drunk to liberty, the judges quietly adjourned the court sine die (without setting a day to reconvene), automatically continuing to the next term the question of the soldiers’ fate. Hutchinson wrote proudly to Gage, describing how he had “procured without any tumult a continuance of the trial to the next term.”
Through the hot Boston summer Preston and his men sat in their cells. Preston’s fortunes, which seemed for a while to be rising, took a sharp downward turn when a Tory version of the Massacre, first published in England, appeared in the Boston Gazette . The Captain was soon writing Gage that he feared the mob was planning an attack on the jail to murder him and his men in their cells. Though Hutchinson doubted that the Liberty people would make such an attack before the trial, he recommended to Sheriff Steven Greenleaf that he take the keys from the jailkeeper at night, just in case.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson was having his troubles with the judges. Twice during the summer, Chief Justice Benjamin Lynde, who was over seventy, came to him with his resignation. Justice Edmund Trowbridge was at least as terrified. Only Judge Peter Oliver stood firm, ignoring personal threats in the newspapers. Another worry was the lack of enthusiasm which the Tories anticipated in the soldiers’ attorneys. Loyalist Auchmuty bluntly told Hutchinson he did not think Preston had a chance.
Nevertheless, early in September, with Hutchinson’s approval, Preston began to press for a trial. Actually Hutchinson was still certain Preston would be found guilty, but he wanted the matter settled early in the fall, with sentencing delayed until the opening of the March term. This might give him time to get a ship to England and back with a King’s pardon to save Preston’s neck.