New Exhibition at the MHS Commemorates 250th Annversary of a Flashpoint that Changed American History

Witnessed and described by many, in both words and images, the Boston Massacre may be one of the least understood incidents in American history. Though contradictory accounts and testimony led to acquittals for all of two of the accused soldiers, the “massacre” became a landmark event on the path to revolution.

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On the evening of March 5, 1770, soldiers occupying the town of Boston shot into a crowd, killing or fatally wounding five civilians. In the aftermath of what soon became known as the Boston  Massacre, questions about the command to “Fire!” became crucial. Who yelled it? When and why? Because the answers would determine the guilt or innocence of the soldiers, defense counsel John Adams insisted that “Facts are stubborn things.” But what are the facts? The evidence, often contradictory, drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses. Through a selection of artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and trial testimony—the voices of ordinary men and women—Fire! Voice from the Boston Massacre explores how this flashpoint changed American history. The exhibition is on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) October 31, 2019 through June 30, 2020, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

In the immediate aftermath of the shootings on March 5, 1770, both Patriots and Tories realized the event’s value as propaganda and began gathering depositions from witnesses to support their interpretations of the Boston Massacre. At the same time, Boston engravers and printers raced to publish a representation of the ‘late horrid Massacre in King-Street” and in the process created one of the most famous political prints in American history. Paul Revere’s The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street was advertised for sale on March 26, 1770, and two days later he recorded paying Boston printers Benjamin Edes and John Gill for 200 impressions of the engraving. Visitors can view Revere’s engraving as well as representations by other printers.

Within a day of the bloody incident, Capt. Thomas Preston and eight soldiers of the 29th Regiment were imprisoned, the search for attorneys for both sides began, and indictments for murder were secured. Boston patriot leaders encouraged a special prosecutor, Robert Treat Paine, to pursue the case. Under contested and obscured circumstances, John Adams and Josiah Quincy were retained to represent the prisoners.

Paine, joined by the newly appointed Attorney General Samuel Quincy, had a straightforward argument for the prosecution—all killing is, on its face, murder. The defense was more complicated. To prevent mutual finger pointing and a possible mass conviction, the captain’s trial needed to be severed from that of his men. The best defense for Captain Preston was to show that he had not ordered the men to fire. As for the soldiers, John Adams’s primary legal strategy was to prove justifiable homicide—self-defense from a dangerous and unlawful gathering. Notes from the trial are on display.

In the 18th century, when nearly all trials were begun and resolved in a single day, these trials are unusual for their length. Each lasted a week, leaving the attorneys to work through a heavy load of testimony.  When the verdict was returned, all but two were acquitted. Pvt. Hugh Montgomery, who had been the first to fire, and Pvt. Matthew Kilroy, who deliberately aimed at people in the crowd, were found guilty of manslaughter.

The people of Boston accepted the results of the trial peaceably. The 29th Regiment was removed to New Jersey, and Captain Preston returned to England. The trials stayed with John Adams for the remainder of his life. Years later he reflected that despite “the Lash of ignorant and malicious Tongues on both Sides of the Question,” Adams believed “As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”

In the years immediately following the Boston Massacre, local residents began to commemorate the incident annually—on or near the date of March 5. These tributes appeared as special orations, poetry, and visual representations. Every year from 1771 until 1783, when the commemoration of the massacre was superseded by the celebration of independence on the Fourth of July, a leader of the patriot movement gave an address on or near the date of the anniversary. The addresses were, for the most part, not detailed depictions of the events of March 5, 1770, but more general arguments against the presence of “mercenary standing armies cantoned in free cities.”