Throwback Thursday: The Boston Massacre Turns 245

Looking back on the anniversary of a famous attack.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Two hundred forty-five years ago, British soldiers fired into an angry crowd of American colonists in an incident known as the Boston Massacre. They did so after a confrontation between a group of colonists and a single soldier escalated into an angry mob confronting a group of soldiers. Finally, one soldier fired into the crowd without orders, the rest joined him, and the ensuing volley killed five civilians and injured six more.

The anniversary perhaps resonates more now than ever given the widespread attention paid to shootings of unarmed civilians by law enforcement officers. Even centuries later, the parallels to this year’s events exist. Then, as now, one could watch as eyewitness accounts quickly diverged, with each party trying to lay blame at the other’s footsteps. Those loyal to the British crown and the British troops stationed in Boston considered the mob that formed around the soldiers that night, in the words of defense lawyer John Adams, “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” Those who wanted the public to see the incident as evidence of British oppression in quartering troops in Boston portrayed it as a coldblooded attack on the innocent. Paul Revere’s famous engraving (based on a drawing by Henry Pelham), showed a cool, calm, well-organized line of soldiers firing directly into the crowd of unarmed civilians.

The facts as presented at trial fell somewhere in between the two versions of the story. Adams, who defended the soldiers, argued that they were at most guilty of manslaughter for firing when provoked, but not in real danger. The jury agreed, and found that two soldiers, whom evidence suggested had fired directly into the crowd, were guilty. The others were acquitted.