I Predict A Riot – Part Twenty
March 9, 2017
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The Boston Massacre, March 1770
We have already commented about the uppity nature of the colonists in Boston and here is another clash which became a cause celebre in the eventual fight for independence. Taxes imposed by the Brits were at the root of it and such was the febrile atmosphere that troops were stationed in the town to maintain order and to protect the Custom House in what is now State street but then was King Street (natch). On February 22nd 1770 a young lad of eleven by the name of Christopher Seider was killed by a customs official – his funeral was one of the biggest Boston had seen – and from that point the locals and the soldiers were spoiling for a fight.
The story goes that the spark that caused the incident on 5th March was whether a bill for a wig had been settled. A wigmaker’s apprentice, Edward Garrick, took it upon himself to do a spot of credit controlling and approached Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch on the subject. It later transpired that Goldfinch had settled the bill – whether he was wearing it at the time is unclear – but that is by the by. An argument broke out and Private White stepped in to remind Garrick that he should be more respectful of an officer. To reinforce his point White cracked Garrick over the head with a musket.
A crowd formed and the church bells rang, usually the signal that a building was ablaze, and this attracted more to the Customs House. Around 400 Bostonians, described by contemporary reports as “howling and wailing” confronted White who was by now on the steps of the government building and had been joined by twelve colleagues. The soldiers formed themselves into a semi-circle and their commander, Captain Thomas Preston, urged the crowd to disperse.
But the Bostonians’ dander was up. Instead of retreating they pelted the soldiers metaphorically with insults and physically with stones and snowballs. A British account recorded “a general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs and snowballs being thrown at them, by which all our lives were within imminent danger.” The crowd edged nearer to the soldiers, daring them to fire. What happened next is unclear but Private Montgomery is thought to have been struck by a missile, dropping his musket and on recovering it either deliberately or accidentally firing it.
Other soldiers began to fire and in the ensuing mayhem eleven protestors were hit, of whom three died instantly and two others subsequently from injuries sustained. The dust up had lasted around twenty minutes but its repercussions reverberated around the thirteen colonies. On March 27th eight of the soldiers and four of the protestors were charged with murder. In the trial held in November 1770 six of the soldiers were acquitted and two were found guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter for which the sentence was to be branded on the thumb. The four civilians were acquitted.
In May 1770 General Gage reckoned that the troops in Boston were doing more harm than good and withdrew them but by then the genie was well and truly out of the bottle. Within three days of the massacre an engraver by the name of Paul Revere had produced a post-truth version of an illustration produced by Henry Pelham. The soldiers were greater in number and the crowd was depicted as defenceless. The red of the soldiers’ uniforms matched the red of the blood spilt. The Boston Gazette published the picture and it circulated around the thirteen colonies as a way of galvanising public opinion against the Brits. The journey to independence had begun.