Verdicts Of History I: The Boston Massacre


On the day the second trial began, the audience was a good barometer of the local atmosphere. At Preston’s trial the benches had been filled by Tories and army officers. Now the courtroom was jammed to the windows with townspeople. Shorthand-writer John Hodgson, who recorded the trial, complained that he did not have room to move his elbow. Outside, snow was falling, and the bailiffs had to light candles against the gloom. People shivered in winter clothes; the two small stoves in the room seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the pervading chill.

The prisoners were brought to the bar. Their blazing red coats set off their faces, drawn and pale from almost nine months in jail. The clerk of the court read an enlarged indictment to them. It accused them of murdering, besides Crispus Attucks, Samuel Maverick, a seventeen-year-old apprentice boy; Samuel Gray, a former employee of (but no relation to) the owner of Gray’s rope works; James Caldwell, a sailor from a Massachusetts coasting vessel; and one Patrick Carr, known as “the Irish teague.”

The jury was now chosen, and Adams and Quincy challenged and rejected no less than thirty prospects, forcing the sheriff to summon eight talesmen. As in Preston’s case, the accepted jurymen were all from neighboring towns—Roxbury, Dedham, Milton, Hingham—and one, Isaiah Thayer, was from Adams’ home town of Braintree. But there is no evidence that any had Tory leanings.

The prosecution opened with a brief, low-keyed talk by Samuel Quincy. He declared that the trial involved the “most melancholy event that has yet taken place on the continent of America, and perhaps of the greatest expectation of any that has yet come before a tribunal of civil justice in this part of the British dominions.” He vowed to make no appeal to partiality or prejudice but to conduct himself “with decency and candor,” with one object—“simply that of truth.”

Whereupon he began summoning witnesses by the dozen. The first several (one was Jonathan W. Austin, John Adams’ clerk) simply identified various soldiers and reported seeing one or two of the victims fall. Things heated up when Edward Langford, a town watchman, took the stand. He testified that Samuel Gray was standing beside him in the front rank of the crowd in the most peaceable manner, without any weapon, not even a snowball: “His hands were in his bosom.” According to Langford, Gray asked him what was going on. Langford replied he did not know, and almost immediately Matthew Killroy’s gun went off and Samuel Gray fell, striking Langford’s left foot. A parade of succeeding witnesses repeatedly identified Killroy as Gray’s assassin.

Richard Palmes returned to testify, for the prosecution this time, and was obviously much more comfortable about it. He identified bald-headed Hugh Montgomery, one of the sentries, and testified that he had knocked Montgomery down—but only after the grenadier had fired his gun, and was attempting to run Palmes through with his bayonet.

Subsequent testimony, notably by Nicholas Ferreter, supplied interesting background information for the “massacre.” Ferreter was a worker at Gray’s rope works. He reported that on Friday, March a, during the lunch hour at Gray’s, Samuel Gray hailed a passing soldier and asked him if he wanted work. “Yes,” said the poorly paid redcoat, “I do, faith.” Well, said Gray in pure Anglo-Saxon, he could go clean his outhouse. The soldier’s temper exploded. He took a swing at Gray, and other ropemakers rushed to Gray’s assistance. Ferreter described how he “knocked up his [the soldier’s] heels, his coat flew open and out dropped a naked cutlass which I took up and carried off with me.” The soldier was soon back with a dozen of his fellows, among them Matthew Killroy. A battle royal ensued, until the ropewalk owner, John Gray, stopped it. That afternoon the soldiers returned in force, and this time the rope workers, in a furious brawl, drove them back to their barracks.

Ill feeling on the part of the British garrison toward the populace was thus well established. Another point in the prosecution’s attack was the conduct of the soldiers on the night of the killing. There was, they argued, a plot afoot among the members of the agth Regiment to attack anyone they caught on the street. Nathaniel Appleton told how a dozen soldiers with drawn bayonets had attacked him on the steps of his house and only fast footwork got him inside in time to bolt the door. John Appleton, “a young lad,” told how he had been with his nine-year-old brother in King Street when twenty soldiers with cutlasses in their hands attacked him. He begged them to spare his life, he testified, and one said, “No, damn you, we will kill you all,” and struck at his head with a sheathed cutlass. Thomas Marshall told how he saw “a party from the main guard, ten or twelve, come rushing out violently. I saw their arms glitter by the moonlight, hallooing, ‘Damn them, where are they, by Jesus, let them come.””

Finally, to certify the hideous and bloodthirsty character of the defendants, one Joseph Crosswell testified that the next morning he saw blood dried on five or six inches of Killroy’s bayonet.