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The Boston Massacre, called the Boston Riot by the British, was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers killed five civilian men. British troops had been stationed in Boston, capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, since 1768 in order to protect and support crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation. Amid ongoing tense relations between the population and the soldiers, a mob formed around a British sentry, who was subjected to verbal abuse and harassment. He was eventually supported by a small company of troops, who were assaulted by verbal threats and thrown objects. They fired into the crowd, apparently without orders, instantly killing three people and wounding others. Two more people died later of wounds sustained in the incident.

The crowd eventually dispersed after Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson promised an inquiry, but reformed the next day, prompting the withdrawal of the troops to Castle Island. Eight soldiers were arrested and charged with murder. Defended by Patriot lawyer John Adams, six of the soldiers were acquitted, while the other two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences.

Depictions, reports, and propaganda about the event, notably the colored engraving produced by Paul Revere, further heightened tensions throughout the Thirteen Colonies. The event is widely viewed as foreshadowing the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War five years later.


Boston, the capital of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, was a major source of resistance to unpopular acts of taxation by the British Parliament in the 1760s. In 1768, the Townshend Acts were enacted, by which a variety of common items that were only manufactured in Britain and exported to the colonies were subjected to import tariffs. Colonists objected that the Townshend Acts were a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of British subjects in the colonies. The Massachusetts House of Representatives began a campaign against the Townshend Acts by sending a petition to King George III asking for the repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. The House also sent what became known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter to the other colonial assemblies, asking them to join the resistance movement, and called for a boycott of merchants importing the affected goods. In Great Britain, Lord Hillsborough, who had recently been appointed to the newly created office of Colonial Secretary, was alarmed by the actions of the Massachusetts House. In April 1768 he sent a letter to the colonial governors in America, instructing them to dissolve the colonial assemblies if they responded to the Massachusetts Circular Letter. He also ordered Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard to direct the Massachusetts House to rescind the letter. The house refused to comply.

Boston's chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, wrote to Hillsborough, asking for military support because "the Government is as much in the hands of the people as it was in the time of the Stamp Act." Commodore Samuel Hood responded by sending the fifty-gun warship , which arrived in Boston Harbor in May 1768. On June 10, 1768, customs officials seized the Liberty, a sloop owned by leading Boston merchant John Hancock, on allegations that the ship had been involved in smuggling. Bostonians, already angry because the captain of the Romney had been impressing local sailors, began to riot. Customs officials fled to Castle William for protection.

{{quote box|width=35%|align=right|quote=Daniel Calfe declares, that on Saturday evening the 3d of March, a camp-woman, wife to James McDeed, a grenadier of the 29th, came into his father's shop, and the people talking about the affrays at the ropewalks, and blaming the soldiers for the part they had acted in it, the woman said, "the soldiers were in the right;" adding, "that before Tuesday or Wednesday night they would wet their swords or bayonets in New England people's blood."|source=—Excerpt from A Short Narrative, suggesting the soldiers were contemplating violence against the colonists White called out to Gerrish that he should be more respectful of the officer. Gerrish exchanged insults with Private White, who left his post, challenged the boy, and struck him on the side of the head with his musket. As Gerrish cried in pain, one of his companions, Bartholomew Broaders, began to argue with White. This attracted a larger crowd. Henry Knox, a 19 year old bookseller (who would later serve as a general in the revolution), came upon the scene and warned White "if he fired he must die for it."

The crowd continued to press around the soldiers, taunting them by yelling "Fire", and by throwing snow balls and other small objects at them. Richard Palmes, a local innkeeper who was carrying a cudgel, came up to Preston and asked if the soldiers' weapons were loaded. Preston assured him they were, but that they would not fire unless he ordered it, and (according to his own deposition) that he was unlikely to do so, since he was standing in front of them. A thrown object then struck Private Montgomery, knocking him down and causing him to drop his musket. He recovered his weapon, and, angrily shouting "Damn you, fire!", discharged it into the crowd. Palmes swung his cudgel first at Montgomery, hitting his arm, and then at Preston. He narrowly missed Preston's head, striking him on the arm instead.

The crowd moved away from the immediate area of the custom house, but continued to grow in nearby streets. Captain Preston immediately called out most of the 29th Regiment, which adopted defensive positions in front of the state house. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson was summoned to the scene, and was forced by the actions of the crowd into the council chamber of the state house. From its balcony he was able to minimally restore order, promising that there would be a fair inquiry into the shootings if the crowd dispersed.


Hutchinson immediately began investigating the affair, and by morning Preston and the eight soldiers had been arrested. In a meeting of the governor's council held late the morning after the shootings, Boston's selectmen asked Hutchinson to order the removal of troops from the city to Castle William on Castle Island, Secretary of State Andrew Oliver reported that, had the troops not been removed, "that they would probably be destroyed by the people—should it be called rebellion, should it incur the loss of our charter, or be the consequence what it would." This decision left the governor without effective means to police the town. Adams was joined by Josiah Quincy II after the latter was assured that the Sons of Liberty would not oppose his appointment, and by Robert Auchmuty, a Loyalist. They were assisted by Sampson Salter Blowers, whose chief duty was to investigate the jury pool, and Paul Revere, who drew a detailed map of the bodies to be used in the trial of the British soldiers held responsible. Massachusetts Solicitor General Samuel Quincy and private attorney Robert Treat Paine, hired by the town of Boston, handled the prosecution. Tried separately in late October 1770, Preston was acquitted after the jury was not convinced that he had ordered the troops to fire.

The trial of the eight soldiers opened on November 27, 1770. Adams argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob, which he called "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs [i.e. sailors]", they had the legal right to fight back, and so were innocent. If they were provoked but not endangered, he argued, they were at most guilty of manslaughter. The jury agreed with Adams and acquitted six of the soldiers after 2 1/2 hours deliberation. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter because there was overwhelming evidence that they fired directly into the crowd. The jury's decisions suggest that they believed the soldiers had felt threatened by the crowd, but should have delayed firing. Patrick Carr, the fifth victim, corroborated this with a deathbed testimony delivered to his doctor. The convicted soldiers were granted reduced sentences by invoking Benefit of clergy, which reduced their punishment from a death sentence to branding of the thumb in open court.

The four civilians were tried on December 13. The principal prosecution witness, a servant of one of the accused, made claims that were easily rebutted by the defense witnesses. In the face of this weak testimony, as well as waning public interest, the prosecution did not press its case very hard. The civilians were all acquitted, and the servant was eventually convicted of perjury, whipped, and thrown out of the province.

The Boston Massacre is considered one of the most important events that turned colonial sentiment against King George III and British Parliamentary authority. John Adams wrote that the "foundation of American independence was laid" on March 5, 1770, and Samuel Adams and other Patriots used annual commemorations of the event to fulminate against British rule. Later events such as the Boston Tea Party further illustrated the crumbling relationship between Britain and its colonies. Although five years passed between the massacre and outright revolution, and direct connections between the massacre and the later war are (according to historian Neil Langley York) somewhat tenuous, it is widely perceived as a significant event leading to the violent rebellion that followed.


Boston marked the anniversary of the massacre as Massacre Day until American independence was recognized in 1783. The massacre was again remembered in 1858 in a celebration organized William Cooper Nell, an African American abolitionist who saw the death of Crispus Attucks as an opportunity to demonstrate the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. In 1888, a monument was erected on the Boston Common to the men killed in the massacre, and the five victims, along with Christopher Seider, were reinterred in a prominent grave in the Granary Burying Ground.

The massacre is reenacted annually on March 5 under the auspices of the Bostonian Society. The Old State House, the massacre site, and the Granary Burying Ground are all part of Boston's Freedom Trail, connecting sites important in the city's revolutionary-era history.<ref name=York46/>

See also

  • Timeline of United States revolutionary history (1760–1789)
  • List of massacres in Massachusetts


  • Original printing of the governor's account.

Further reading

  • Original printing of the colonists' account.
  • Reid, John Phillip. "A Lawyer Acquitted: John Adams and the Boston Massacre." American Journal of Legal History, 1974 18(3): 189-207. Issn: 0002-9319.
  • Ritter, Kurt W. "Confrontation as Moral Drama: the Boston Massacre in Rhetorical Perspective." Southern Speech Communication Journal 1977 42(1): 114-136. Issn: 0361-8269.

External links