The Boston Massacre refers to the shooting deaths of five civilians by British soldiers in 1770. More than 1,500 soldiers had been garrisoned in Boston since late 1768, proving a source of frustration and annoyance for many locals. Political radicals circulated propaganda alleging poor behaviour and mistreatment by the soldiers, further adding to tensions. In March 1770, a confrontation between groups of soldiers and locals on King Street ended with the British opening fire. The resulting deaths caused mixed reactions, from concern to outrage, while radicals depicted them as evidence of British military tyranny.
The Boston Massacre was precipitated by an increased presence of British soldiers in the city. That decision was itself the result of unrest and occasional violence in the Massachusetts capital.
Some of the more prominent examples of his violence include the attacks on Thomas Hutchinson, John Malcom and others during the Stamp Act crisis, the ongoing harassment of customs officials; intimidation of Loyalist merchants who sought to honour the Townshend duties; and the mob violence that followed the seizing of John Hancock‘s sloop Liberty in June 1768.
The Massachusetts governor, Francis Bernard, found himself in an unenviable position, under pressure from all sides. General Thomas Gage, Britain’s military commander-in-chief in North America, then based in Halifax, began mobilising troops to send to Boston at the governor’s request.
Bernard, knowing the likely outcome, was reluctant to pull the trigger. In the end, he did not have to. In August 1768, Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the Colonies and president of the Board of Trade, instructed Gage to send two regiments of troops to rebellious Boston.
British troops in Boston
In response to Hillsborough’s order, Gage deployed the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot to the Massachusetts capital. On October 1st, hundreds of Redcoats landed at Long Wharf and paraded up King Street to the tune of fifes and drumbeats. Some pitched tents on Boston Common while others, to the outrage of locals, took up residence in Faneuil Hall, where the local assembly regularly sat.
Problems arose from the outset. With most local officials refusing to honour the Quartering Act, there were long and often heated disputes over where to accommodate the soldiers. Bernard almost triggered a riot when he authorised the use of Boston’s Manufactory House, a building sheltering local homeless. The plan was abandoned after a mob arrived, leading to a brief stand-off.
In their first weeks in Boston, British troops were generally well behaved. Aware of the potential for trouble, commanders pressed officers to maintain the strictest discipline. They did by threatening, and occasionally using, severe forms of corporal punishment. That itself may have contributed to several dozen soldiers absconding in the first month.
The ‘Journal of Occurrences’
This was despite the best efforts of radical propagandists. Led by Samuel Adams, in the autumn of 1768 a small group of Sons of Liberty began a campaign to discredit the military presence in Boston. They did this by circulating a series of reports on the alleged misconduct of British troops in the city.
The first of these articles was published in a New York newspaper in October 1768. By December, they were appearing in Boston itself and as far afield as London. Titled the ‘Journal of Occurrences’, they contained grisly stories of peaceful Bostonians being insulted and assaulted, hoodwinked and robbed by drunken and villainous Redcoats. The mistreatment of women, extending to sexual abuse, was a common theme evident in this December 29th piece:
“A married lady of this town [was] taken hold of by a soldier, who other ways behaved to her with great rudeness. A woman near Long Lane was stopped by several soldiers, one of whom cried out seize her and carry her off… Another woman was pursued by a soldier into a house near the North End, who proceeded to enter the same and behave with great insolence. Several inhabitants while quietly passing the streets in the evening have been knocked down by soldiers… The insolence of power will forever be despised by a people who retain a just sense of liberty.”
British officials dismissed these reports as fake news. Francis Bernard said of the Journal of Occurrences that “there could not have been got together a greater collection of impudent, virulent and seditious lies, perversions of truth and misrepresentations”.
By the spring of 1769, four regiments of around 4,000 soldiers were stationed in a Boston, a city of barely 17,000. Locals continued to strongly object to their presence and were routinely annoyed by their activities (one regular complaint was that soldiers broke the Sabbath by drilling and breaking the peace on Sundays). Troops were regularly taunted or insulted by rowdy locals.
By and large, though, Boston remained comparatively calm. British authorities, thinking the situation had settled, began to consider recalling at least some of the garrison. General Gage received instructions from Lord Hillsborough that he could withdraw troops from Boston at his own discretion.
In April 1769, letters from Governor Francis Bernard to London fell into the hands of the Sons of Liberty. These letters, later published in the Boston press, revealed Bernard had supported the landing of troops in the city. The ensuing scandal led to Bernard’s recall to England in August.
Bernard was replaced by the even more unpopular Thomas Hutchinson. Meanwhile, Gage, thinking the situation much calmer, ordered the withdrawal of two regiments from Boston to Halifax, leaving less than 2,000 soldiers in the city.
This reduction in troop numbers did not allay tensions. If anything, they began to increase. Soldiers on checkpoint and sentry duty routinely found themselves being harassed by local workmen. Numerous soldiers were hauled before the city’s civilian courts for petty offences and claims, from trespass to allegations of robbery.
There were also several reported incidents of intimidation and brawling, both with soldiers and local Loyalists. On February 22th 1770, a mob assembled outside the house of Ebenezer Richardson, an outspoken Loyalist who had provided customs authorities with information about smugglers. When the group hurled stones at Richardson’s home, he grabbed a musket and fired pellets from a window. Some found the chest of 11-year-old Christopher Seider, inflicting mortal injuries.
Adams and the Sons of Liberty seized on Seider’s death, which began a propaganda circus. His funeral, four days after his death, began with inflammatory speeches at Boston’s Liberty Tree before proceeding to the burial ground. The procession was attended by 2,000 people or more than 10 per cent of the city’s population.
Richardson was placed on trial and found guilty of murder. He was later pardoned by King George III, after lobbying from Hutchinson, and released from jail. Understandably, he fled Boston for Philadelphia before relocating to England.
The incident in King Street
Seider’s death and the propaganda that exploited it saw tensions peak. In the two weeks that followed, local gangs regularly gathered in the afternoon or at dusk to bait, intimidate and hurl objects at local Loyalists or lone British sentries.
It was this behaviour that sparked the event we know as the Boston Massacre. On March 5th, a soldier stationed outside the Customs House on King Street engaged in verbal sparring with a 13-year-old boy. When the teenager became belligerent, the soldier struck him with the butt of his musket.
Word of this altercation quickly spread and by dark, a larger crowd of between 40 and 50 had gathered near the sentry post. Heated words were exchanged and soon gave way to the hurling of snowballs and stones. The sentry was joined by other soldiers and the situation deteriorated.
Amid the chaos an unknown figure fired a shot, perhaps leading other soldiers to believe an order to fire had been given. Without orders and in no formation, the soldiers fired upon the Bostonians. The shots hit 11 of the mob, killing three of and fatally wounding two more.
The deaths in King Street were tragic but not unexpected, given the heightened tensions and the fracas in King Street. Nevertheless, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson promised a thorough investigation into the deaths. In the interim, Captain Thomas Preston, the only British officer present at the time, and eight soldiers were arrested and detained.
Preston and four soldiers were later charged with murder. Their case was taken up John Adams, much to the alarm of Boston’s political radicals. In his defence of the soldiers, Adams assigned blame to the violent rabble of ‘saucy boys’ rather than the soldiers. All were eventually acquitted.
For radicals looking to exploit the tragedy, truth was not going to get in the way. The events of March 5th were dubbed the ‘Boston Massacre’ or ‘the Bloody Massacre of King Street’. Rumours circulated that it was an intentional act, quietly sanctioned by royal officials, and colonial cities who dared resist a British military presence could expect similar treatment.
Perhaps the most famous product of the Boston Massacre was a colourful but wildly exaggerated engraving crafted by Paul Revere, depicting the shootings as a coordinated attack. Revere circulated copies around Massachusetts, making a small profit from their sale. The ideas it contained were apparent to all: a deliberate assault on the civilians of Boston.
“Anti-British opinion was inflamed with broadsides and pamphlets, such as ‘A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston’, first published in 1770 by a partisan committee chaired by James Bidden… The document included eye-witness interviews of military men, citizens and others, who testified about their experiences on that day … Coverage of the “massacre’ had little impact in the American colonies outside Massachusetts, but for many years after it was commemorated on its anniversary.”
Martin Manning, historian
1. The Boston Massacre is a name given to the shooting deaths of five civilians following a stand-off with British soldiers in March 1770.
2. More than 1,500 British soldiers had arrived in Boston from October 1768, a response to violent and intimidatory actions that followed the passing of the Townshend duties.
3. The presence of a large military contingent was an annoyance for Bostonians. Radicals like Samuel Adams circulated propaganda about their poor behaviour towards civilians.
4. The shooting of a young boy by a Loyalist in February 1770 heightened tensions. Two weeks later, a confrontation between soldiers and local workers led to the deaths of five men.
5. The soldiers, represented in court by John Adams, were acquitted of murder. Despite this, radicals like Paul Revere produced propaganda and painted the shootings as a deliberate act.