Saturday, March 5, 2011

Boston's Mob Massacre

Today is celebrated as the anniversary of the Boston Massacre - also known as Crispus Attucks Day in honor of the first American to fall in our fight for freedom. This day has been full of controversy since 1770 despite our nation's inclination to honor it as a patriotic event. As a historian, I have been fascinated with this event for many years - from an early age - and devoured anything I could about the subject. The reason being: smoke and blood covers many sins, and this event was the result of many sins on both sides. I also have a suggestion: If you love murder mysteries or dark intrigue - this is the historical event for you! The wealth of primary source documentation for this "massacre" is staggering: autopsy reports, various and contradictory eye witness accounts, trial transcripts, victim placement maps, crossbone propaganda adverts, plagiarized artistic handbills (yes Revere, that means you!), etc. Since there are scores of books already written about this night that almost started the Revolution, I will only list some of the fascinating and little known facts surrounding this dark night.
  • Setting: Cold, cloudless night, frigid temperatures after a significant snowfall.
  • Mob or riot that began and ended in the "massacre" was only one among several that had taken place in the city over the past several days. Reports of a red cloaked "instigator" were heard concerning the other riots.
  • The number of bullets fired into the crowd were almost exactly double the number of guns used by the soldiers. Where did the other bullets come from? Eyewitnesses said shots from the Custom House were also seen. Some of the soldiers reported the possibility of double loading the muskets.
  •  While Crispus Attucks was one of the men killed in the "massacre", his legacy as the first to die, and significance as an African American martyr was not established until 1826 at the earliest during the country's jubilee and the beginning of the abolitionist movement's momentum.
  • Rioters or "patriots" were not unarmed. They were throwing ice chunks and wielding clubs/sticks at the soldiers who were forbidden from firing their weapons. The rioters knew the soldiers could not fire unless "read the riot act" which allowed them to disperse a mob via violence.
  • The command to fire was reported by the rioters, but the commanding officer Preston was found not-guilty of giving this order.
  • Just before the incident, church bells rang out calling the citizens to fire - but instead they were called by the words "town born turn out". It was reported that the series of riots staged throughout the city were meant to incite the emotions of the people. Rebellion was desired to get rid of the British troops stationed in Boston since 1768. It was said that the local villages already had arms hidden and ready to fight should the Rebellion begin, but in 1770, they did not act as the Sons of Liberty had hoped....they were not ready for fighting until 1775 as demonstrated at Lexington and Concord.
  • Paul Revere's famous engraving of the Massacre was stolen from Henry Pelham, his local competition.
  • Every year up until the first years of the Revolution, orations were given to large audiences when the anniversary of the Massacre came around.
  • Despite their involvement with the Sons of Liberty, John Adams and Josiah Quincy defended the soldiers at the trial, winning their case for all except two who were charged with manslaughter and branded on the hand. The trial transcripts are widely available as published shortly afterwards.
This is only a small list of the fascinating facts that surround this event. Despite my use of quotation marks, I am a staunch believer in the patriotic cause. I admire all the efforts of those who conspired to acquire our freedom....but am realistic in my understanding that this was not a pretty nor honorable process. Boston was an incredibly volatile place in the years leading up to the Revolution. Those responsible risked their lives at every turn....not always out of noble intentions, but always out of a sense of dedication and the desire to make a difference. The Boston Massacre is a romantic title given to an incident that killed not-so-innocent men....or as John Adams described them: "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs"......ah, our patriotic ancestors.....sure sounds like heroic Revolutionaries to me!
For further reading, you must begin with the authoritative title of the event's name by Hiller Zobel. From there, I suggest reading the propaganda, the trial transcripts and other eyewitness accounts.



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