The death of Christopher Seider on February 22nd 1770 inflamed Boston, further heightening tensions between the city’s rowdy mobs, British soldiers and local Loyalists. It was an important precursor to the Boston Massacre 11 days later. Without Seider’s death and the resulting animosity, the shootings in King Street may not have occurred.
Seider was no fiery orator or political radical but an 11-year-old boy caught up in the maelstrom of colonial politics and tensions. He was shot dead on Middle Street by Ebenezer Richardson, a Boston Loyalist. Seider was one of dozens of young boys engaged in harassing Theophilus Lillie, a local merchant suspected of flouting non-importation agreements and trading in British goods.
The boy’s death produced a wave of public grief that briefly swamped Boston. His funeral was as much a protest against British military tyranny as it was memorial to Seider’s life. Many thought the incident an inevitable outcome of garrisoning a thousand unruly soldiers in a town untroubled by war.
Who was involved?
Despite his young age, history knows a little of Seider. His parents lived on Frog Lane on the city’s outskirts. They were German immigrants and likely spoke little English. Christopher himself worked as a houseboy for Grizzell Apthorp, a wealthy widow. He resided in Apthorp’s affluent home on Tremont Street, on the east side of Boston Common.
It is unclear how much Seider knew little of Anglo-colonial tensions or the vagaries of imperial politics. A press report later claimed that “several heroic pieces”, including a broadside about General Wolfe and the Battle of Quebec, were found in Seider’s pockets after his death. If not a patriotic concoction, it means Seider was at least literate.
It is just as plausible that Seider joined anti-importation protests out of boredom. Agitation against Loyalists and suspected importers was more common on Thursdays, market days in Boston. The town swelled with farmers and shoppers and boys like Seider were often released from school or employment to help their parents.
More is known of the two men involved. Theosiphus Lillie was Boston-born and acquired his wife’s store when he married her in 1757. The business sold clothing, textiles and other items. Lillie is often described as a Loyalist but in truth, he was apolitical but opposed to the trade boycotts. This letter to the Boston Chronicle, penned just a month before the Seider incident, outlines his view.
Ebenezer Richardson was born in Woburn, north of Boston, but was driven out of his hometown after impregnating his sister-in-law. He relocated to Boston where he worked for the Customs office, first as a paid informer and later as an official collector. Richardson was an avowed Loyalist and known for his haughtiness and temper.
Events of February 22nd
Agitation in Boston in February-March 1770 was partly inspired by events in New York. British attempts to destroy New Yorks’s Liberty Pole finally succeeded on January 16th, leading to a confrontation and some violence three days later. The colonists won this ‘Battle of Golden Hill’, as it became known, and erected a new liberty pole.
Accounts of the New Yorkers’ victory over British soldiers reached Boston in mid-February. Not to be outdone, Bostonians intensified their actions against ‘Redcoats’, importers and known Loyalists. The protests of February 22nd were particularly zealous and mobs harassing merchants like Theosiphus Lillie were larger than usual.
The typical mode of intimidation was to erect a giant wooden hand, daubed with the word ‘IMPORTER’ and pointing accusingly at the relevant store. This was Lillie’s fate and it incensed his friend and neighbour, Richardson, who stepped in attempt its removal. In doing so, Richardson made himself a target for the baying crowd.
Richardson and his house were set upon and pelted with stones, causing broken windows. Some claim Richardson or his wife were also both struck. The outraged Richardson emerged from his balcony with a musket and indiscriminately fired ‘swan shot’ (a blast of small pellets) into the crowd.
Richardson’s musket shot scattered most of the crowd but Seider lay mortally wounded on the road. He was carried off but died later that evening. An autopsy conducted by Dr Joseph Warren found Seider’s body pierced with “eleven shot or plugs, about the bigness of large peas”. One hit the boy’s arm while another, likely the fatal shot, pierced his lungs. Another unnamed boy was also struck in the hand.
A funeral was held four days later (February 26th). Contemporary reports suggest it was attended at least 2,000 mourners, a sizeable proportion of Boston’s population of 16,000. John Adams said “my eyes never beheld such a funeral” while Thomas Hutchinson suggested it might be “the largest perhaps ever known in America”.
Though evidence is scant, it is likely Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty had some involvement in organising and funding Seider’s funeral. If so, it had the desired effect. As Seider’s coffin processed to the Granary Burial Ground, the mood was one of anger tempered by solemnity. Its political significance was recognised by Hutchinson, who later wrote:
“When the boy was killed… the Sons of Liberty in Boston, if it had been in their power to have brought him to life again, would not have done it, but would have chosen the grand funeral.”
“Little hero and first martyr”
Propagandists exploited Seider’s death keenly. He was hailed as a “little hero and first martyr to the noble cause”. Patriotic newspapers produced biased accounts of the incident, like this one in the Boston Gazette. Others called for a public memorial, claiming that as “young as [Seider] was, he died in his country’s cause”. The Whig press also dug deep into Richardson’s history and flayed him mercilessly.
On March 11th, a week after the Boston Massacre, the Gazette told readers Paul Revere’s North End home was displaying engravings depicting the brutality of British soldiers. One of three displayed in Revere’s window was likely Revere’s famous rendering of the Boston Massacre or a version of it. Another, reported the Gazette, was a depiction of Seider:
“At one of the chamber windows was the appearance of the ghost of the unfortunate young Seider, with one of his fingers in the wound, endeavouring to stop the blood issuing therefrom. Near him, his friends weeping. And at a small distance, a monumental obelisk… with the following lines:
Seider’s pale ghost fresh-bleeding stands,
And vengeance for his death demands”
The February 22nd incident was also depicted on a broadside titled “The Life and Humble Confessions of Richardson, the Informer” (see image at the top of this page). It shows the tumult outside Lillie’s store and, in a similar vein to Revere’s famous engraving, a rifle barrel protruding from an elevated window. The body of Seider (right foreground) is attended by the crowd and a grieving woman, likely his mother.
Another Boston patriot, the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, also weighed in. In an unpublished poem, Wheatley suggested Seider’s death was a fateful sacrifice, necessary to purge America of British soldiery:
“In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed
To clear the country of the hated brood
He whet his courage for the common good”
Immediately after the shooting, Ebenezer Richardson was seized by a livid mob, assaulted and almost lynched. Wiser heads took charge and Richardson was taken to Faneuil Hall, where he was charged with murder and cast into jail.
Richardson’s trial preceded the trial of Captain Thomas Preston and his soldiers for the Boston Massacre but it followed a similar pattern. The defence argued Richardson had acted in self-defence against a mob assailing his home and threatening his life. Their task was made difficult by a “vast concourse of rabble” who filled the courtroom, cat-calling and interjecting with regularity.
After numerous adjournments and interruptions, Richardson’s trial ended in September 1770 with a conviction for murder. Many in the Massachusetts elite, fearful of the precedent this might set, sought an executive pardon. This was granted in March 1772, prompting further fury in the patriotic press. Richardson, now free but in fear of the mob, immediately fled the city, never to return.
1. Christopher Seider was an 11-year-old boy, shot dead by a Boston Loyalist on February 22nd 1770 while engaged in a protest against British importation.
2. Seider and dozens of other boys had been harassing a Boston merchant, Theophilus Lillie, and had erected a wooden sign outside his store on Middle Street.
3. He was fatally shot by Ebenezer Richardson after the mob turned on him, pelting Richardson’s house with stones and possibly striking Richardson and his wife.
4. The patriotic press condemned Richardson, while local radicals seized upon the incident, producing propaganda that attacked the presence of British troops in Boston.
5. Seider’s funeral on February 26th, probably organised by the Sons of Liberty, was attended by at least 2,000 people. This heightened tensions in the city that contributed to the Boston Massacre on March 5th.