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How the Boston Massacre Fanned the Flames of a Revolution

Boston Massacre engraving
Paul Revere's engraving, which was used as propaganda after the Boston Massacre, shows a line of red-coated soldiers firing on a contingent of unarmed colonists. Library of Congress

In the cold, early weeks of 1770, the city of Boston was an absolute tinderbox. British soldiers and others loyal to the crown jockeyed with angry colonists who chafed under the taxes levied by England and talked openly of starting a new nation. Tensions escalated. Sides were chosen. Soldiers sent word home that the entire thing could blow at any minute.

And on a wintry night in March of that year, it did.

The Boston Massacre didn't, in the strictest of terms, start the American Revolution. That was still a few years and one Tea Party away. But the tragic events of March 5, 1770, cemented the notion that the relationship between England and its colonies was irretrievably broken, convincing many colonists that freedom from English rule was the only way forward.

You can still visit the site of the Boston Massacre today, at the intersection of Devonshire and State (formerly King) streets in downtown Boston, at the foot of the Old State House. New England schoolkids take regular pilgrimages to the area as part of their curriculum. Tourists stream by on their walks down the Freedom Trail.

But the story of the Boston Massacre — what rabble-rouser Paul Revere called the "Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street" in an engraving made just weeks after the event — is not as simple as it's often told.

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Boston Was a Powder Keg

"The Boston Massacre," says Katie Drescher, the gallery supervisor and senior educator at the Bostonian Society and the Old State House, "was something like 10 years in the making. This didn't happen out of nowhere. There was so much happening."

To understand that night, you have to get a feel for the tensions between those loyal to England and those who were tired of it. You have to understand what the residents of Boston and their families, some of them going back more than 100 years to the city's founding, had been through; smallpox outbreaks, a huge earthquake in 1755, a "great fire" in 1760.

Shopkeepers were refusing to pay taxes imposed under the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Acts two years later. The whole idea of "no taxation without representation" was taking hold. Colonists were not represented in England's Parliament, and many felt their rights as Englishmen were being stripped away. Throughout the colonies, a resistance grew.

The British sent more soldiers to Boston — redcoats, "lobster backs" — to restore order and enforce the law. Scuffles ensued. Protests broke out. And then, 11 days before the incident in front of the Old State House (the seat of Royal Government and the Massachusetts Assembly), an 11-year-old boy was killed by a British customs service employee who fired into an unruly crowd on the North End of Boston.

Hundreds of people, maybe more than 1,000, attended the boy's funeral. An angry Boston was ripe for something bad to happen. And that's how things stood on the night of March 5.

"It wasn't a surprising event," Drescher says of the Boston Massacre. "I think it was a pretty inevitable thing."

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What Happened That Night

For one of the most well-known, well-researched incidents of Boston's pre-Revolutionary War Era, it's still unclear as to exactly what triggered the Boston Massacre.

"One of the big things about the Boston Massacre is that we still don't really know why those soldiers fired into the crowd, what really happened to cause that first shot to be fired," Drescher says. "We have an understanding that a soldier fired into the crowd, and it kind of causes a chain reaction, the other soldiers fired. But what was his motive? Was it accidental? Of course, the soldiers all said they were defending themselves against the crowd. But what was that moment that causes this man to fire? Was he hit with something? Does he trip and fall — someone said he slips on ice and falls down and his musket fires? There are trial records, but there isn't one, general consensus."

This much we do know: An angry mob, hundreds strong, faced off against some soldiers in front of the Custom House, near the Old State House on State Street. From Capt. Thomas Preston's deposition at the ensuing trial:

I saw the people in great commotion, and heard them use the most cruel and horrid threats against the troops. In a few minutes after I reached the guard, about 100 people passed it and went toward the custom house where the king's money is lodged. They immediately surrounded the sentry posted there, and with clubs and other weapons threatened to execute their vengeance on him.

Preston ordered several men and an officer to back up the sentry, but things only got worse. Some in the crowd had clubs, including fugitive slave-turned sailor Crispus Attucks, who is said to have been leading the angry mob. Others reportedly threw snowballs, rocks, chunks of coal or shells. In the confusion, a soldier — often identified as private Hugh Montgomery — was struck by someone in the mob (some say it was Attucks who struck him). Montgomery reportedly rose from the blow and fired, killing Attucks. Others followed. More from Preston:

On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word fire and supposed it came from me. This might be the case as many of the mob called out fire, fire, but I assured the men that I gave no such order; that my words were, don't fire, stop your firing. In short, it was scarcely possible for the soldiers to know who said fire, or don't fire, or stop your firing.

This, too, we know for sure: Five men in the crowd died, including Attucks, who eventually became known as the first martyr of the American Revolution. Preston, eight British soldiers and four civilians were arrested and charged with the deaths. In October 1770, they faced trial. Preston was acquitted, as were six of his soldiers and the four civilians. Two soldiers were convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

The defense team was led by John Adams — who eventually became the second president of the United States — in an effort that he later described as "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country."

Still, the "Bloody Massacre" proved to be a rallying point for those looking for independence from Britain, made so in large part by Revere's propagandist engraving that shows a tightly formed line of red-coated soldiers firing on a well-dressed contingent of unarmed colonists.

"Most of the misconceptions about the Boston Massacre come from Paul Revere's image, which I think was the intent of the image in the 1770s," Drescher says. "He wanted people to think that's what happened. And it has hung around for hundreds of years. People still see it and say, 'Oh, yeah, I know what happened.'"

Boston Massacre
In a separate engraving of the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks is shown being fired upon and killed. He is remembered in history as the first martyr of the American Revolution.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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The Boston Massacre Today

At least once a year, a re-enactment of the night of March 5, 1770, takes place on the spot of the Boston Massacre. A six-minute multimedia exhibit in one of the Old State House's second-floor antechambers is held six times a day. A marker, made of 13 sections of cobblestone, with a cobblestone in the center emblazoned with a star, is laid in the street near the site where the five men were shot.

Local students, beginning around the third grade, are told a watered-down version of the Boston Massacre. Tour guides regularly regale tourists with stories of one of the most infamous events in the history of the history-rich city.

"It's snowing pretty good outside right now, and there's people out there, so ...," Drescher, a native of the Boston area, says on a recent early December afternoon. "It doesn't matter what kind of weather. Every single day people are out there taking a picture."

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