In October of 1768, because of the colonists' reaction to the Townshend Acts of 1767, the King of England sent troops to occupy Boston. All totaled, the number of redcoats sent was 4,000, which was a very large number, considering that the population of Boston was only about 20,000 at that time.
The occupation antagonized the already upset citizens of Boston more each month. There were numerous reports of "atrocities" being perpetrated on the colonists, who taunted them by calling them names, spitting on them, and keeping them from carrying out their duties.
Finally, on March 5, 1770, there was only one sentry on duty at the Customs House, and he and a young apprentice barber became embroiled in an argument. The soldier hit the teen with the butt of his musket, and a crowd gathered. The mob, which had swelled to about 400 men and boys, began to throw coal, ice, and snowballs at the soldier, shouting and jeering at him as they did.
Someone rang the bell at the church, which was usually the signal for men and boys to help put out a fire. The soldiers who arrived then found themselves being taunted as the citizens in the mob daring them to shoot. It is thought that those in the crowd did not believe the soldiers would actually shoot, since there was a law against them discharging weapons within the city without permission from a judge.
The captain of the soldiers, Captain Preston, tried to disperse the mob, but then someone threw a wooden club which hit a soldier knocking him to the ground. It is not clear who, but someone in the crowd shouted "Fire!" or "Don't fire!" and during the ensuing commotion, the British soldiers did so.
The first colonist to be killed was Crispus Attucks, a mulatto man who is said to have been a runaway slave, was the first fatality of the Revolutionary War.
Three colonists, Attucks, James Caldwell, and Samuel Gray, died immediately in the melee. Samuel Maverick died the next day, and Patrick Carr died two weeks later. Christopher Monk, who was 17 at the time of the incident, died ten years in 1780 later as a consequence of his wounds. Five other colonists were wounded as well, but recovered.
A funeral for the three dead was reportedly attended by 10,000 people.
The riot was referred to as "The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street" at the time, until Sam Adams, the famous pamphleteer, published accounts of what he termed the "Boston Massacre". Paul Revere created one of his most famous engravings depicting the fight, both of which fanned the flames of discontent among the colonists. Revere, it turns out, was probably not present at the event, though his engraving was used as evidence at the trial, and the court took the placement of the bodies in the depiction as factual.
The Bostonians demanded that the redcoats be tried and executed for the murders of their countrymen, and future United States President John Adams was part of the legal team which defended the redcoats in the autumn of that year. The captain and six of his soldiers were acquitted, and two others were found guilty. Adams used a legal maneuver known as "benefit of clergy," which was a move which allowed them to do penance instead of being executed.
"Benefit of clergy" was a very old maneuver, originally used by men of the cloth who were able to make the claim that they were outside secular jurisdiction and should be tried under by ecclesiastical court.
In early English law, in order to be given the chance to use the benefit of clergy, the accused had to make his court appearances wearing his clerical clothing in order to prove he was a member of the clergy. Eventually, the measure of proof was changed from the way the defendant was dressed to a simple literacy test. In order to prove his status, the defendant had to read from the bible. Looking back, one might think that the test was rigged, since the passage which was required to be read was Psalm 51, which read "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions."
Benefit of clergy was meant to be used only one time for any defendant, and so both soldiers had their thumbs branded with the letter "M" for "murder", which signaled to all who laid eyes on them that they were convicted felons, hence precluding them from using that defense ever again.
The defense was the law of the land in the United States well into the 19th century.
Although the American Revolutionary War was still a few years in the future, and despite the fact that the next three or so years were relatively quiet in Boston, the Boston Massacre is often pointed to as one of the events which led to the War.
Additional resources for March 2010:
March Madness – Complete coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Women’s History Month – Details women’s suffrage, a timeline of events that led toward equality, a women’s hall of fame, and more.