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Murder and the Boston Massacre

By Lana Goldsmith, Intern

Richard Archer is Professor of History Emeritus at Whittier College.  Current events in Iraq have caused him to hark back to an earlier time in American history when ours was the occupied country. In this post, he uses an excerpt from his book, As If an Enemy’s Country, to discuss the Boston Massacre and his theory on the soldiers’ actual intentions.  The Boston Massacre occurred on the night of March 5, 1770, read more about it here.

One of the joys of historical research is the unexpected discovery. Sometimes a new understanding of seemingly familiar material comes from events in our own lives. In 2003, for example, when I was well into studying why Boston was in the forefront of the movement toward the American Revolution, the United States went to war with Iraq. I immediately was sensitized to the importance of an occupation and old documents suddenly had new meanings.

A similar experience came while I was investigating the Boston Massacre. Previous accounts gave the impression that the soldiers had mindlessly fired their weapons. Whether there was an order to fire or not (I conclude not), the standard story simply stated that the soldiers discharged their muskets and five people died and another six were wounded. Much to my surprise as I read depositions and trial testimonies, several witnesses charged that some soldiers fired at specific individuals. The evidence isn’t definitive, but it certainly opens the possibility of murder, as the following excerpt from As If An Enemy’s Country demonstrates:

There looms the possibility that some of the soldiers killed or attempted to kill particular people deliberately. Sailors and soldiers had fought with each other nearly from the first day of the occupation, and Friday’s ropewalk fray still was fresh in the minds of soldiers of the 29th Regiment. Even in the moonlight, the sailors’ attire distinguished them from the rest of the population. Two of the five men who died in the massacre were sailors, and one was a ropemaker who had fought with British troops on March 2. Another sailor was among the six who were wounded but recovered. It is equally possible that the victims were shot randomly. After all, the proportion of sailors and the ropemaker who died approximated the proportion of sailors and ropemakers in the crowd. Most of those who were killed or wounded were shot from a distance where visibility, even with moonlight, was limited and the accuracy of muskets was imperfect.

The deaths of Attucks and Gray, however, require special attention. Both of those men stood in close proximity to the grenadiers, and they would have been recognized as a sailor and a ropemaker. The unusually tall, dark Crispus Attucks stood out still more, particularly at a distance of no more than fifteen feet. Two bullets, from one or two muskets, simultaneously struck him in the chest. Whether the responsible soldier or soldiers intended to kill him may never be known, but there can be little doubt that one or two aimed at him. Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but the only other victims who received two bullets were the sailors James Caldwell and Robert Patterson.

The evidence that Samuel Gray was intentionally killed is stronger still. In a deposition Charles Hobby claimed that one of the grenadiers ‘at the distance of about four or five yards, pointed his piece directly for the said Gray’s head and fired. Mr. Gray, after struggling, turned himself right round upon his heel and fell dead.’ Edward Gambett Langford, in his testimony at the soldiers’ trial, identified the shooter as Matthew Kilroy, one of the grenadiers from the 29th Regiment who had participated in the March 2 brawl. Langford was confident of his identification of Kilroy but less certain that Gray had been the soldier’s exclusive target. ‘Did not see that Kilroy aimed at Gray any more than me,’ he testified. ‘He designed to kill both of us I suppose.’

Edward Hill, Ebenezer Bridgham, and Joseph Hilyer all testified that one of the soldiers aimed at a ‘lad that was running down the middle of the street, and kept the motion of his gun after him a considerable time, and then fired,’ but missed. Hilyer stated that the culprit was the ‘last Man upon the left but one,’ presumably the sentry Hugh White. The sailor Robert Patterson also identified White as the man who wounded him, but he didn’t indicate whether he thought the sentry purposefully shot him; the fatally wounded Patrick Carr believed that either White or [William] Wemms was responsible.

In none of these cases can we know with certainty what a soldier was thinking when he fired his weapon. [Hugh] Montgomery most likely had inadvertently pulled the trigger. The impulse of the others is murkier. Perhaps some did believe they were defending their lives or obeying a command, and perhaps a few discharged their weapons immediately after an adjacent comrade had fired. It is just as likely that several of them without any premeditation seized the opportunity to vent their frustration and anger at the hostile residents or to attain revenge. Whatever the case, the massacre on King Street was a soldiers’ riot.

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