Digital

Exclusive online content

Massacre on King Street

By: Patrick J. Walsh
March 22, 2018

 frequently walk past the graves of the “victims of the Boston Massacre” in Boston's Granary Burial Ground and think of the events that happened on March 5, 1770. On that cold, calm moonlit night, musket fire erupted in King Street: three men were immediately killed and two more died days later. All now lie under the same headstone.

Was it a massacre? Paul Revere’s famous engraving shows Captain Thomas Prescott, sword raised, standing behind his troops commanding disciplined, perfectly lined men to fire simultaneously into an unarmed, well dressed, small, non-confrontational crowd. Smoke rises peacefully from a nearby chimney while a small, forlorn dog stands with his back to the blood and gore of the dead and dying. But that never happened.

Eric Hinderaker’s Boston's Massacre welcomely revisits “the bloody massacre perpetuated in King Street.” This well written and organized book explores the events leading to the infamous skirmish.

British victory in the French and Indian War (1757-1763) doubled the size of England’s dominion in America, but the war was costly. The colonies had incurred over £2,500,000 of debt. The 1764 Sugar Act increasing customs was the first measure England sought to settle that debt.

The American Customs service was notoriously inept and corrupt. It cost £8,000 to run, but collected less than one-fourth that sum in revenue. The revenue-raising Molasses Act (1733) had long been ignored by Boston merchants, who illegally imported molasses duty free from the French and Spanish West Indies and very little from British island possessions―smuggling made possible by the connivance of customs officers.

Massachusetts's distilleries turned that molasses into rum for great profit. The Sugar Act threatened their lucrative business. As John Adams recorded, “it is no secret that rum was an essential ingredient in the American Revolution.”

The 1765 Stamp Act was another means of raising revenue for defense of British possessions.  But the new taxes and administrative reorganization were deeply resented by the colonies, long used to running their own affairs while turning a blind eye to British laws.

In Boston, antipathy to the Stamp Act was extreme. Massachusetts Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson (no friend of the act) had his Boston house gutted by an angry mob in August 1765. They dismantled it brick by brick while Hutchinson's furniture and possessions were stolen or smashed in the streets. Hinderaker estimates the mob inflicted damages of up to $300,000-$450,000 in today's money.

The appointment of a new reformed American Customs Commission in 1767 met further resistance by organized Boston mobs. In 1768, a mob of 500 to 1000 people attacked the Customs Commissioners after wealthy Boston merchant John Hancock was charged with unlawfully unloading cargo from his sloop, Liberty. Governor Francis Bernard evacuated the Custom Commissioners, employees, and their families to Castle William in Boston Harbor. Numbering sixty-nine people in all, they remained on Castle Island for nearly five months.

One of the evacuated women, Anne Hulton, wrote in a letter to a friend in Liverpool that American mobs were better organized, violent, and purposeful, with, “no Magistrate to restrain them…no person daring or willing to suppress their Outrages.” She scorned them as “Sons of Violence” warning, “this is a specimen of the Sons of Liberty, of whom you have heard, and will hear more.”

Lacking a police force, Governor Bernard decided Boston was ungovernable and requested British troops be sent to restore order. They arrived in 1768. Governor Bernard resigned a year later and returned to England.

The Sons of Liberty led the opposition in Boston. They were organized by Samuel Adams, a fabulous propagandist who created, as his cousin John Adams wrote, “a political engine, the wheels, cogs or pins, some of them dirty ones, which composed it and made it go.” Among its dirty parts were intimidation and violence of government officials. Hiller Zobel, a Massachusetts judge and massacre scholar, wrote, “for five years, preceding the Boston Massacre, order had gradually disappeared from streets, untrammeled law, slowly had been barred from the courts. For five years violence had become so common in Massachusetts and the attempts to restrict it utterly futile, that killing must surely come, on one side or another.”

Two insurgencies seemed to be working simultaneously in America―the revolt of the colonies against imperial reorganization, and a democratic revolt against vested interests and local governing cliques by people hoping to rise in the new world.

In Massachusetts, the rising Adamses, James Otis, and merchants like John Hancock deeply resented the patronage bestowed by the crown on the Hutchinson family and their cousins the Olivers. Bernard Bailyn writes in his classic The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson that the distrust and animosity Hutchinson inspired were “pathological, paranoic in their intensity.” John Adams viewed Hutchinson as “a courtier slyly manipulating the passions and prejudices, the follies and vices of great men in order to obtain their smiles, esteem, patronage...the mazy wanderings of Hutchinson’s heart and serpentine Wiles of his head were primary sources of the Anglo-American conflict.”

There is no direct evidence that Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty plotted the events of March 5, 1770, but it's a good bet. Exactly what happened on that night is unclear. The least that can be said is that, seventeen months after the arrival of British troops in Boston, a deadly altercation between soldiers and Bostonians occurred. Someone rang the steeple bells, indicating a fire, and citizens turned out from their homes into King Street where a mob faced a detachment of soldiers. The crowd threw snow and rocks and taunted the soldiers to fire. A musket was discharged, then another, and three men were killed.

More than two hundred eyewitnesses gave testimony to the Boston Massacre. In the ensuing case John Adams and Josiah Quincy defended Captain Thomas Preston and the soldiers. Adams may well have taken the case not to defend their right to a fair trial but rather to suppress evidence of treason against his cousin Samuel, and to protect the reputation of Boston from notoriety as a place of lawlessness.

Adams and Quincy successfully defended Captain Preston, who was acquitted from charges of murder. Hinderaker posits that Adams was, “resolute about protecting Boston's reputation, to such an extent that it threatened to compromise his effectiveness as a lawyer for the defense.” His colleague Quincy had proposed to pile up evidence against the town of Boston “to prove premeditated design to drive out the soldiers... Adams objected strenuously to this line of defense” threatening to resign from the case. Instead, Adams blamed a mob of outsiders, led by a half-Indian, half-black named Crispus Attucks and “Irish Teagues.”

Hinderaker believes the Massacre was “the sine qua non causing the American Revolution”. But this is not so. The end of 1770 brought, as Gov. Hutchinson said, “a surprising change in the temper of the people with the crest of our late incendiaries much fallen.” Things seemed calm.

The actual spark for the American Revolution would not come until the Boston Tea Party of 1773. That event destroyed several thousand pounds of tea at a cost of half a million dollars. It led to the closure of the port of Boston by British authority and the appointment of a military governor, galvanized the support of other colonies which rose to defend Boston. John Adams called the event “sublime” and thought it “marked an epoch in history”. Though the Boston Massacre was not so epoch-making, it retains its power in the nation's memory. Eric Hinderaker ably tells its tale.