The Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre printed by Paul Revere

The Boston Massacre printed by Paul Revere

This article on the Boston Massacre which occurred in Colonial America in 1770 provides fast facts and information about the events leading up to

  • What was the Boston Massacre?
  • The Meaning and Definition of the Boston Massacre
  • The events during the Boston Massacre
  • The effects of the Boston Massacre
  • Fast and easy to understand explanation of the Boston Massacre for kids
Facts about the Boston Massacre
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Definition of the Boston Massacre
The Meaning and Definition of the Boston Massacre: The Boston Massacre was a pre-revolutionary incident that occurred on March 5, 1770. British soldiers, who were quartered in the city, fired into a rioting mob killing five American civilians in the Boston Massacre.

British troops had been sent to Boston in 1768 to maintain order, protect the customs officers and to enforce the Townshend Acts.

The Boston Massacre arose from the resentment of Boston colonists towards the British which had been fuelled by protest activities of the Sons of Liberty patriots.

The term 'Boston Massacre' was coined by the patriot Samuel Adams and used in propaganda campaigns against the British.


British Troops - Boston Massacre

British Troops - Boston Massacre


The Boston Massacre
Background facts and information: British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768 following events prompted by the Townshend Acts of 1767. The posting of the soldiers to Boston had been ordered due to civil unrest in the city. The newly appointed Customs Officers at Boston had seized a sloop called the Liberty that was carrying a cargo of Madeira wine and towed her under the guns of a warship which was in Boston harbor. The people of Boston managed to seize one of the war-ship's boats, which they burnt. Two regiments of troops were sent to Boston to maintain order. The Boston Massacre was the climax of a series of brawls in which gangs of local workers and sailors clashed with British soldiers quartered in Boston.

The Boston Massacre - Tensions in Boston
The situation in Boston was extremely tense. The British troops, Redcoats had been stationed in Boston for over eighteen months. The British soldiers had arrived in Boston on September 28, 1768 and were quartered in various public places throughout the city. Their very presence was a constant reminder of Britain attempting to dominate the American colonies. Two men played very different roles were especially prominent in Boston at this time. The men were Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor, and Samuel Adams, patriot and the man of the people, and cousin of John Adams who became the second President of the United States. Click the following links for a short biography and fast facts about Samuel Adams and Thomas Hutchinson.

The Boston Massacre - Military Presence and Mobs in Boston
The heavy military presence in the town lead to the Boston Massacre was the result of British enforcement of the Townshend Acts of 1767. There were 4,000 British troops to the population of Boston which numbered about 20,000 residents at the time of the Boston massacre. Mob demonstrations protesting the Townshend Acts were common, some were spontaneous and some were organized.

The Boston Massacre - Clash at John Gray's Ropewalk, March 4, 1770
The day before the Boston Massacre incident on March 4, 1770 some Bostonians had clashed with British troops at John Gray's Ropewalk in the Fort Hill district of Boston. The clash involved dozens of soldiers and dozens of ropemakers. One of the British soldiers involved in the fighting at the John Gray's Ropewalk was Matthew Kilroy. Kilroy had argued with Samuel Gray at Gray's Ropewalks. Matthew Kilroy would later be convicted of manslaughter at the Boston Massacre trial for shooting Samuel Gray.

The Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770
The Boston Massacre incident occurred on the evening of March 5, 1770. A British soldier called Private Hugh White was on guard at the sentry box in front of the Customs House on King Street in Boston. A British officer called Captain Goldfinch was near the sentry and being taunted by several citizens for not paying a barber's bill. Private White, who had been involved in the skirmish at John Gray's Ropewalk, struck a young teenager called Edward Garrick with the butt of his rifle for insulting Captain Goldfinch. A crowd of over fifty people gathered and began harassing the two soldiers. The British soldiers realized that the situation was about to explode and called for help.

Their calls for help were answered by 8 soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston. The crowd continued to harass the group of soldiers taunting them with insults.  The crowd grew in number to over 200 people. They became bolder and started to throw snowballs, mud, ice, coal and oyster shells at the redcoats. A soldier named Private Montgomery was hit in the face by a stick. Private Montgomery was enraged, raised his musket and fired into the crowd killing Crispus Attucks. Other soldiers fired on the crowd. Private Kilroy shot and killed a man called Samuel Gray. A black man named Crispus Attucks was shot and fell dead with several bullets lodged in his chest and head. Three other colonists killed in the volley of fire were called Patrick Carr, Samuel Maverick, and James Caldwell. Crispus Attucks, along with Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, died "on the spot" during the Boston Massacre. Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr died from their wounds afterwards. Six other Bostonians were wounded during the Boston Massacre. The crowd, shocked at the events of the Boston Massacre disbanded and the soldiers returned to the barracks.

Picture of Crispus Attucks who was killed during the Boston Massacre

Picture of Crispus Attucks who was killed during the Boston Massacre

Thomas Hutchinson and the Boston Massacre
The royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson pleaded for calm in Boston. After talking to people who had been at the scene of the Boston Massacre he knew that he had to take action. Hutchinson decided that there was sufficient evidence of 'probable cause' to refer the Boston Massacre to a grand jury. He arranged for the sheriff to issue arrest warrants for the arrest of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. The redcoats were found and placed in jail. He arranged for Doctor Benjamin Church to conduct an immediate autopsy on the body of Crispus Attucks and appointed County coroners Robert Pierpoint and Thomas Crafts Jr. to conduct an inquest into the deaths of the other four victims of the Boston Massacre. Thomas Hutchinson then started to prepare reports and gathered dispositions of the massacre to be sent to Great Britain. Following the autopsy the body of Crispus Attucks was carried to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state until Thursday, March 8, when he and the other victims were buried together as heroes in the same grave site in the Granary Burying Ground. The funeral of the victims was the occasion for a great patriot demonstration attended by Samuel Adams and his cousin John Adams. The funeral procession consisted of 12,000 people first made a symbolic trip to the Liberty Tree, which was a famous elm tree that stood near Boston Common. The Boston Liberty Tree had become a rallying point for the growing resistance to the rule of Britain during the Stamp Act protests.

Thomas Hutchinson Mansion in Fleet Street, Boston

The Thomas Hutchinson Mansion
in Fleet Street, Boston

Picture of Thomas Hutchinson

Picture of Thomas Hutchinson

The Boston Massacre Trials - The Guilty soldiers claim "benefit of clergy"

The guilty soldiers of the Boston Massacre, Kilroy and Montgomery, returned to court nine days after their trial, on December 14, 1770, for sentencing - which should have been the mandatory death penalty. However, according to English common law, felons convicted of some crimes, not affecting the king, were entitled to the 'benefit of clergy' for the first offence. The benefit of clergy was originally a provision by which clergymen could claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried instead in an ecclesiastical court under canon law. Eventually, it was extended to first-time offenders who could receive a more lenient sentence. Kilroy and Montgomery entered a claim and were granted 'benefit of clergy' to avoid the death sentence for their part in the Boston Massacre. But before they were released they had to be branded on their thumb by red hot iron bearing the letter "M" for manslaughter. Felons were only allowed to claim the 'benefit of clergy' once, a brand made it impossible to do otherwise. The sheriff of Boston, Stephen Greenleaf, undertook the duty of court branding the two Boston Massacre soldiers. Kilroy and Montgomery reportedly burst into tears before receiving the painful punishment. Kilroy and Montgomery were then released, discharged from the army and sent back to Britain following the tragic events of the Boston Massacre.

Samuel Adams and the Boston Massacre
Samuel Adams was a patriot and politician in colonial Massachusetts at the time of the Boston Massacre. He was also the second cousin of John Adams and a prominent Boston patriot. The town of Boston met at Faneuil Hall the day after the Boston Massacre and appointed a committee to investigate the Boston Massacre. Samuel Adams was chosen as chairman of the committee. The first action by Samuel Adams and the Committee was to demand that governor Thomas Hutchinson should arrange for the immediate removal of the British troops from the town. Thomas Hutchinson insisted that he did not have the authority to send the troops away. He offered to send one regiment out of the town. But Samuel Adams was adamant and Hutchinson, fearing open warfare, had no choice but to order the two regiments of troops from the city to Castle William which was an old fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. These regiments became known in the British Parliament as "The Sam Adams Regiments." Samuel Adams, together with other patriots such as Paul Revere used the Boston Massacre as a powerful vehicle for political propaganda igniting the flame of revolution in the American colonies.

Picture of Samual Adams

Picture of Samuel Adams

Faneuil Hall meeting place, Boston

Faneuil Hall meeting place, Boston

The Boston Massacre Committee investigates the 'Horrid Massacre'

One week after the Boston Massacre on March 12, 1770 the Boston committee appointed James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton to investigate the "horrid Massacre." The report, compiled by John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren and others, was presented to the citizens of Boston to provide the Patriot account of the Boston Massacre. A similar document entitled "A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre" was published under the auspices of the Boston town meeting, and was principally written by James Bowdoin and drawn from more than 90 depositions taken after the Boston Massacre. Town leaders sent copies to other colonies and to London, where they knew depositions collected by Governor Hutchinson were en route. The term 'Boston Massacre' was  subsequently coined by Samuel Adams who took the phrase from the "horrid massacre" and used it to great effect in the patriots propaganda campaigns against the British who perpetrated the Boston Massacre.

The Port of Boston in the mid 1700's

Boston Massacre - The Port of Boston in the mid 1700's

The Boston Massacre Trial - John Adams is appointed to defend the Soldiers
John Adams, later the great patriot and second President of the United States was politically more moderate than his than his cousin Samuel Adams at the time of the Boston Massacre. He opposed the abuses and taxes by the Crown and Parliament but did not favor a complete break from British rule as did Samuel Adams. But he was a patriot and despite his personal sentiments John Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre Trials. John Adams firmly believed that every man deserved a fair trial at court. John Adams was joined in the defence by Josiah Quincy Jr., while the prosecuting attorneys for the Boston Massacre trial were Robert Treat Paine and Samuel Quincy.

The Boston Massacre Trial - John Adams defends Captain Thomas Preston
Captain Preston and eight of his men were brought to trial on November 27, 1770 for their roles in the Boston Massacre. The eight British soldiers accused of murder were tried separately from their officer Captain Preston. The trial of Captain Preston took six days and the trial of the eight soldiers took nine days. Captain Preston was found not guilty, released from jail and sent to Castle William for his own safety. He returned to England on December 2, 1770 and was awarded 200 in compensation for the troubles he had endured during the Boston Massacre.

The Boston Massacre Trials - John Adams defends the Soldiers
The names of the eight British soldiers brought to trial for the Boston Massacre and defended by John Adamas were Hugh White, William Wemms, Hugh Montgomery, James Hartigan, William McCauley, Matthew Kilroy, William Warren and John Carroll. On 5 December, 1770, six of the soldiers were acquitted on the grounds of self-defence, but two, Kilroy and Montgomery, were found guilty of manslaughter. There was overpowering proof that both Kilroy and Montgomery had fired into the crowd during the Boston Massacre. Kilroy was found guilty of manslaughter for killing Samuel Gray and Montgomery was found guilty of manslaughter for killing Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre.

The Effects of the Boston Massacre
The effects of the Boston Massacre were far reaching and led to the creation of the Committee of Correspondence.

The Sons of Liberty and patriots such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere used the Boston Massacre as a calculated piece of political propaganda, designed to rouse antagonism in all of the colonies toward the Crown. The events of the Boston Massacre were widely publicized, it contributed to the unpopularity of the British regime in America and played a major part in the events that led to the American Revolution including the 1773 Tea Act which led to the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1774.

Boston Massacre

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  • The Boston Massacre article is a great history resource for kids

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