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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
The justices, however, reserved their own opinion of when they should risk their lives by bringing Preston to trial: they went on circuit into the country. First, however, they did bring the Captain and his eight soldiers into the courtroom for arraignment. Each pleaded “Not guilty,” and “for trial put himself upon God and the country.”
At this point John Adams played a surprise card, one he had been holding very close to his vest. He made a motion to try Captain Preston and the soldiers separately. The court granted it. The soldiers immediately decided they were to be the sacrificial lambs, and forwarded a plaintive petition to the court: “May it please Your Honors, we poor distressed prisoners beg that ye would be so good as to lett us have our trial at the same time with our Captain, for we did our Captain’s orders and if we don’t obay his command we should have been confined and shott for not doing it. …” This only confirmed defense fears that Preston and his men would each accuse the other if tried jointly, and in the confusion the jury would decide to hang them all. But as we shall soon see, this was not the only reason for Adams’ unexpected motion.
Not until October 24, 1770, did the judges return and the lawyers assemble to impanel a jury to decide Captain Preston’s fate. Almost immediately it became evident that the court and all the lawyers were involved in a curious kind of collusion. Adams, the acknowledged leader of the defense, challenged every juror who came from within the city limits of Boston, quickly rejecting the eighteen men who had been selected by the Boston town meeting of August 24, 1770. When the legally summoned jurors were used up, it was the custom of the day to allow the sheriff to contribute “talesmen.” By no coincidence, every talesman produced by the sheriff for Preston’s trial came from outside Boston. Indeed, a study of the jury list reveals that five of the twelve selected were later Loyalist exiles.
These maneuvers must have been obvious to Samuel Adams. They were beyond all doubt known to John Adams and Josiah Quincy. Why did Samuel Adams by silence and inaction give tacit approval? A nod from him, and his well-disciplined bullyboys could have filled the courtroom as they did at Richardson’s trial and terrified the judges and jurors into submission. But there is no evidence of any disorder during Preston’s trial, nor at the trial of the soldiers. The change of tactics is startling, and there is nothing in the written evidence of the Massacre story that explains it.
The answer must lie in the political struggle that surrounded the trials. By this time, John Adams and Josiah Quincy had, thanks to a liberal supply of sovereigns from General Gage, obtained depositions from dozens of people who had been witnesses to various aspects of the bloody deed. These statements conflicted so totally with the evidence advanced by the Liberty men in their ninety-six depositions that there was only one possible conclusion—someone was committing perjury. Worse, the evidence advanced by the witnesses Adams and Quincy uncovered put the town of Boston in a most unholy light. For the first time the Loyalists had a weapon with which they could smite Samuel Adams hard. But Sam on his side retained the weapon he knew and handled best: the Boston mob.
Even with the packed jury, Preston’s case was by no means a sure thing. The prosecution attacked vigorously, parading witness after witness to the stand for the better part of two days; all of them agreed that the Captain gave the order to fire—and, equally important, that there was no provocation for it beyond name-calling and a few snowballs from the crowd gathered in King Street.
The defense attorneys did little to dispute these assertions in their cross-examination. But they did shake the believability of many witnesses by pointing out strange confusions in their testimony. Some swore the Captain stood in front of the men; others said he stood behind them. Several said that the Captain had on a “cloth color” surtout (a kind of overcoat); almost as many said they distinctly saw him in his bright red regimentals.
After a prosecution summation by Samuel Quincy, in which he accused Preston of “murder with malice aforethought,” the defense produced their witnesses. The first few disputed the prosecution’s claim that the crowd was small and peaceful, but said nothing that would stir an already tired jury. (It was the first time in Massachusetts’ memory that a murder trial had lasted more than a day.) Then John Adams produced a merchant named Richard Palmes, and the courtroom came to life. Mr. Palmes was the real reason for the separate trials. He had earlier given a lengthy deposition supposedly supporting the Liberty side of the story. Even a cursory reading of this told a lawyer as keen as John Adams that detaching Preston from his men converted Palmes into a witness for the Captain.
Palmes knew it, and had desperately tried to decamp from Boston. John Adams had kept him in town by court order. On the stand, the reluctant Palmes was forced to repeat his sworn deposition. He told of stepping up to Preston as he joined his soldiers and asking: “Sir, I hope you don’t intend the soldiers shall fire on the inhabitants.”
“He said, ‘by no means.’ The instant he spoke I saw something resembling snow or ice strike the grenadier on the Captain’s right hand, being the only one then at his right. [The grenadier] instantly stepped one foot back and fired the first gun. … The gun scorched the nap of my surtout at the elbow.”