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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
Samuel Quincy summed up the prosecution’s evidence. He dwelt at length on testimony that accused Killroy of firing directly at Gray, and deduced that the private was guilty of murder with malice. He then deplored the conduct of the soldiers before the riot, maintaining that the church bells had rung because it was the soldiers who, rushing to the street, had cried the word “fire.” “It is probable,” declared Quincy darkly, “the word fire was the watchword. It appears to me that if we can believe the evidence, they had a design of attacking and slaughtering the inhabitants that night and they could have devised no better method to draw out the inhabitants unarmed than to cry fire!” Finally, he hammered again at Killroy, reminding the jury that it is “immaterial, where there are a number of persons concerned, who gave the mortal blow; all that are present are in the eye of the law principals. This is a rule settled by the judges of England upon solid argument.”
To the bar now stepped young Josiah Quincy to open for the defense. After a vigorous speech, in which he reminded the jurors that a soldier’s life was, from a legal standpoint, “as estimable as the life of any other citizen,” he began summoning witnesses to bolster his assertion that the soldiers had fired in self-defense. This was the climax of the Adams-Quincy tightrope act. Could the defense prove a mob was at work without pricking the jury’s civic pride and political animosity? One by one the witnesses paraded to the stand.
James Crawford told how on the way home he met “numbers of people” going downtown with sticks in their hands. The sticks were “not common walking canes but pretty large cudgels.” Archibald Wilson told of sitting in a house near Dock Square when “a certain gentleman” came in and asked how “he came to be sitting there when there was such trouble betwixt the soldiers and inhabitants.” Looking out the window, Wilson saw thirty or forty men from the North End make “two or three sundry attacks up that lane where the barracks which are called Murray’s were.”
“How were they armed that came from the North End?” Josiah Quincy asked.
“They had sticks or staves, I know not what they are called,” Wilson said.
In Dock Square Wilson found some two hundred men gathered. They surged away as if on a signal giving “two or three cheers for [ i.e. , challenging] the main guard.” Wilson followed them and was in Royal Exchange Lane, leading into King Street, when the bells rang. He said he heard voices shouting fire and remarked it was “uncommon to go to a fire with bludgeons.” Somebody told him, “they were uncommon bells.”
William Hunter, the next witness, added another significant detail to the gathering in Dock Square. He told of seeing “a gentleman” with a red cloak around whom the crowd gathered. “He stood in the middle of them and they were all very quiet; he spoke to them a little while, and then he went off and they took off their hats and gave three cheers for the main guard.”
“Was the man who spoke to these people a tall or short man?” Josiah Quincy asked.
“How was he dressed?”
“He had a white wig and red cloak, and instantly after his talking a few minutes to them they made huzzas for the main guard.”
It may well have been at this point that John Adams arose in distress to interrupt his colleague and declare that he would walk out of the case if Quincy insisted on cross-examining witnesses to such unnecessary lengths, thereby setting the town in a bad light. (The transcript of the trial does not show us exactly where this happened but we know it occurred.) William Gordon, the British historian of the Revolution, describes the incident but mistakenly places it in Preston’s trial. We must be grateful to him, nonetheless, because in John Adams’ personal copy of Gordon’s book he wrote an explanatory marginal note: “Adams’ motive is not here perceived. His clients’ lives were hazarded by Quincy’s too youthful ardor.” Could anything sum up more graphically the terrible pressure under which Quincy and Adams worked? If Quincy persuaded a witness to identify the tall, red-cloaked speaker in Dock Square (Samuel Adams was short, but Will Molineux, his right-hand man, was tall), the Liberty boys in wrathful self-defense would have almost certainly unleashed the mob, jammed the courtroom, and created the kind of atmosphere that had convicted Richardson.
The evidence Adams did tolerate was bad enough, from the Liberty viewpoint. Witness after witness confirmed that there had been mobs of Bostonians surging through the streets, armed with clubs. Doctor Richard Hirons gave some details of a scene before the barracks. As early as seven o’clock some twenty or thirty townspeople appeared there, he said, led by “a little man” who lectured four or five officers of the agth Regiment on the conduct of their soldiers in the streets. The man then began making a speech, shouting, “We did not send for you. We will not have you here. We will get rid of you.” The officers insisted they were doing their best to keep the soldiers in their barracks and urged the speechmaker to use “his interest” to disperse the people.
Next came Benjamin Davis, Jr., who shattered the prosecution’s claim that Samuel Gray was “in the King’s peace” on the night he died. Young Davis told of meeting Gray, who asked where the fire was. “I said there was no fire, it was the soldiers fighting. He said, ‘Damn it, I am glad of it. I will knock some of them on the head.’ He ran off. I said to him, take heed you do not get killed … He said, ‘Do not you fear, damn their bloods.’”