This Week in History: The frenzy that produced the Boston Massacre

During this week in 1770, the Boston Massacre occurs. Five Bostonians are killed by British soldiers. Others are wounded.

Tension had been mounting for years. Parliament wanted to establish its authority to tax the colonies, and it had approved a series of duties: the much-hated Townshend Acts. Naturally, the colonists didn’t think too much of THAT. What right had Parliament to tax them when the colonists had no representation in Parliament? The Acts caused such turmoil that British soldiers were sent to Boston in 1768, allegedly to keep the peace.

The presence of the soldiers caused constant friction, and Bostonians were becoming even more irate. Were the soldiers really necessary? Where would they be housed? And at whose expense? Was their presence even legal? Was it all just a pretense, with the ultimate goal of subverting Boston’s own governance?

By February 1770, matters were coming to a head. Readers of this page may remember the 11-year-old boy, Christopher Seider, who was killed when a crowd chased a British sympathizer to his house. The Loyalist responded to the angry crowd by firing a musket out his window. Unfortunately, he inadvertently shot the 11-year-old Seider.

Needless to say, Bostonians were (if possible) even more irate than they were before.

Once a few dominoes had fallen, the rest continued to fall—and quickly! A British soldier was harassed in the street. Various scuffles ensued. People had heard that a soldier might have been killed, and rumors flew that the British would retaliate. By March 5, matters were reaching a fever pitch.

One thing to know at this juncture: We may never know exactly what happened in Boston on the day of the Massacre. It was a confused and chaotic situation. Emotions ran high. The crowd was large. People had different viewpoints.

One catalyst for the problems that day was a simple dispute: A young barber’s apprentice, Edward Gerrish (or Garrick), claimed that he was owed money by a British officer. Gerrish went to find the officer, but he ended up in a scuffle with a British sentry instead. That sentry, Hugh White, hit Gerrish. By then, a crowd was growing. And it was angry.

In the midst of this frenzy, someone tolled the bells that were typically used to notify Bostonians of a fire. The bells could not have helped matters. Soon, British Captain Thomas Preston arrived with 7 men. Preston’s intent was to keep the peace or to escort White away. But, at this point, the crowd had grown quite large.

The crowd began to taunt Preston and his soldiers. They hurled snow and ice. The result was confusion. An accidental shot may have been fired and at least one soldier thought he heard an order to fire. Three Americans were killed on the spot. Others were wounded. (Two of the wounded died later.) Ironically, Preston may have been shouting “DON’T fire,” but the soldier thought he heard “Fire!”

The British soldiers were subsequently tried for murder. Their defense lawyer was none other than future President John Adams. Naturally, that is a story for another day.

P.S. The picture is of an engraving printed by Paul Revere in the wake of the Massacre. It was meant to be deliberately incendiary! Whatever did or didn’t happen that day, the British soldiers did not formally line up and gun down Americans, as depicted in the engraving.