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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
“Had he a stick in his hand?”
“He had one under his arm.”
Now Quincy concentrated his fire on the scene in Dock Square. Patrick Keaton saw “a tall mulatto fellow, the same that was killed; he had two clubs in his hand and he said, ‘Here take one of them.’ I did so.” Nathaniel Russell, chairmaker, said he saw trouble coming and “intended to retreat as fast as I could. I had not got three yards before the guns were fired.”
“How many people do you imagine were then gathered around the party?”
“Fifty or sixty able-bodied men.”
“Did they crowd near the soldiers?”
“So near, that I think you could not get your hat betwixt them and the bayonets.”
“How many people do you think there might be in the whole?”
“About two hundred.”
“Did the soldiers say anything to the people?”
“They never opened their lips; they stood in a trembling manner, as if they expected nothing but death.”
This hit the prosecution so hard that they introduced a Crown witness, one John Cox, a bricklayer, who testified that he saw three soldiers threatening, earlier in the evening, to chop down or blow up Boston’s sacred Liberty tree. They also threw in a future Revolutionary War general, Henry Knox, who said that Preston and his squad, while forcing their way through the crowd, behaved “in a very threatening” manner. “They said, ‘Make way, damn you, make way,’ and they pricked some of the people.”
But the defense returned relentlessly to the evidence of riot. Benjamin Burdick admitted he stood in the front ranks of the crowd brandishing a highland broadsword. Newton Prince, a free Negro, told of watching people with sticks striking the guns of the soldiers at the right wing of the squad. Andrew, the Negro servant of Oliver Wendell, placed special emphasis on the conduct of Crispus Attucks. He told of seeing Attucks knock Killroy’s gun away and strike him over the head. “The blow came either on the soldier’s cheek or hat.” Holding Killroy’s bayonet with his left hand, Attucks tried to tear the gun loose, crying, “Kill the dogs. Knock them over.” But Killroy wrenched his gun free, and Andrew, sensing imminent bloodshed, “turned to go off.” He had gotten away “only about the length of a gun” when the first man fired.
“Did the soldiers of that party or any of them,” Quincy asked, “step or move out of the rank in which they stood to push the people?”
“No,” Andrew replied, “and if they had they might have killed me and many others with their bayonets.”
Finally John Adams played his trump card, Doctor John Jeffries. Though he later became a Loyalist exile, Jeffries was one of Boston’s most respected physicians. When Adams was representing America in London in the 1780’s, he retained him as his family doctor. Jeffries told how he had been called to attend Patrick Carr, who had been mortally wounded in the firing. Carr lived nine days, and Jeffries conversed with him several times about the brawl. Carr told how he had been drawn from his boardinghouse by the ringing bells and had followed the crowd up Cornhill to King Street. Carr had not been in the front rank of the rioters. He was on the other side of the street circling the outer rim of the crowd when the guns began to fire, and obviously was hit by a wild bullet. Jeffries asked him whether he thought the soldiers would fire: He told me that he thought that the soldiers would have fired long before. I then asked him if he thought the soldiers would have been hurt if they had not fired. He said he really thought they would, for he had heard many voices cry out “Kill them.” I asked him then, meaning to close all, whether he thought they fired in self-defense or on purpose to destroy the people. He said he really thought they did fire to defend themselves; that he did not blame the man, whoever he was, who shot him. … He told me also that he was a native of Ireland, that he had frequently seen mobs and soldiers called upon to quell them: whenever he mentioned that he always called himself a fool, that he might have known better, that he had seen soldiers often fire on the people in Ireland, but had never seen them bear half so much before they fired in his life.
All by himself, Jeffries blew up ninety per cent of the prosecution’s case. Proof of their consternation was the sudden production of additional witnesses at the very end of the trial. They were not particularly effective, merely reiterating what had been said before.
Josiah Quincy summed up for the defense. In a long, emotional speech he reviewed the evidence, urging the jurors to ask themselves crucial questions. “Was the sentinel insulted and attacked? Did he call for assistance, and did the party go to assist him? Was it lawful for them so to do? Were the soldiers when thus lawfully assembled, assaulted by a great number of people assembled? Was this last assembly lawful?” He closed with a moving appeal to mercy, quoting Shakespeare on the subject, asking the jurors to guarantee themselves “an absolving conscience” when the “agitations of the day” had subsided.
John Adams now took the floor to close for the defense. Thus far he had spoken little; Quincy had handled the interrogation of the witnesses. But everyone, jurors included, knew that Adams was the heart and head of the defense. His words would have a finality that Quincy, for all his emotion, could not convey.