United States and American History: The Boston Massacre

About the Boston Massacre and its place in United States history and the American Revolution.


Mar. 5 The confrontation called the "Boston Massacre" began around 9 P.M. on a clear, cold night. Faced by an unruly crowd of 50 jeering, taunting waterfront toughs-throwing snowballs and chunks of ice-the British sentry on duty called for help. Eight soldiers responded, headed by Capt. Thomas Preston. Twenty minutes later, the affair was over. Three of the mob had been killed: Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and the giant mulatto, Crispus Attucks, the 1st man of Negro blood to die in the fight for freedom. Two others, Sam Maverick and Patrick Carr, were carried away, to succumb to their wounds later.

But was it really a "massacre"? And an early example of "police brutality"? Yes, cried firebrand Sam Adams, who turned the word "massacre," with all its vivid images, into a verbal bellows with which to fan the flickering flame of revolt. No, decided the jury which tried the captain and 8 of his men on charges of murder.

John Adams, Sam's fair-minded cousin, assisted by Josiah Quincy, coolly directed the defense. Preston and 6 other defendants were acquitted. Two were found guilty, but on the lesser charge of manslaughter. They were branded on the thumb and dismissed from the army.

Adams' defense hinged on whether or not Preston, goaded by taunt and threats, had given the order to fire. He denied it, and eyewitness testimony supported him. British army records show that he had actually tried to pacify the mob but failed. Ignoring him, the crowd rushed the soldiers, striking at their muskets with sticks and hefty clubs. They taunted his men, said Preston, shouting: "Come on, you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not."

While Preston stood in front of his squad, to prevent their firing, one member of the mob struck a heavy blow at a soldier. Some accounts say this was Attucks, who had led the crowd from a gathering at Faneuil Hall where a gentleman in a "red cloak and red wig" had harangued them into action. Attucks or not, the blow set off the fight. In the confusion that followed, 6 or 7 other soldiers also fired at their tormentors, in the belief Preston had given a command. Not so, said Preston. Many in the mob had been calling out "Fire! Fire!" and it was these shouts which had touched off the muskets.

The word "massacre" served Sam Adams's needs perfectly. It implied that scores of brave patriot bodies lay crumpled in virgin snow, staining it red with blood. His close friend, Paul Revere, quickly put out an engraving of the action that depicted the British as the villains. In Boston, the alarm bells tolled constantly. By night, marchers carried pictures of the 5 victims through the streets and emitted groans, to show the suffering of the newly departed.

Sam Adams did not allow the incident to fade into oblivion. He reminded his fellow Bostonians that the dogs of the town had been seen "greedily licking human BLOOD in King-street." In 1772, Joseph Warren took up the Cause, reminding the people that the hated British had "promiscuously scattered death amidst the innocent inhabitants of a populous city."

You Are Here: Trivia-Library Home » United States History: 1770 » United States and American History: The Boston Massacre
« United States and American History 1770
DISCLAIMER: PLEASE READ - By printing, downloading, or using you agree to our full terms. Review the full terms at the following URL: /disclaimer.htm