Snow speckled Middle Street in the North End during the last week of February. Near Mr. Pemberton's meeting house boys were pelting the dry goods shop of Theophilus Lillie, pelting it with stones, snowballs and snowballs bunched around cat and dog crap. Ebeneezer Richardson heard the boys before he saw them; shouts and curses hollered in the frigid air. He rushed into the growing line of boys, shouting back, trying to disperse them. They turned on him, hurling more snowballs and rocks before he could scurry away to his own abode. He grabbed his musket and returned to Middle Street, where he climbed to the second story of a building overlooking the dozen or so boys in the street. Ebeneezer fired into the crowd, then again and again. The crowd split and most fled out of range, but two boys lay bleeding in the snow. One of them, Christopher Seider, just days short of his eleventh birthday, was hit in the arm and in the chest; the latter wound killing him.
An enraged mob found Richardson and dragged him through the mud and snow to a constabulary. The town had only a handful of night watchmen, no real police force. Soldiers patrolled the unrulier neighborhoods.
Young Christopher's body was carried to the town hall where anyone and everyone could see what Ebeneezer Richardson had done. Four days later Christopher Seider's funeral procession stretched two miles long. His casket was clearly inscribed with the words, “Innocence itself is not safe.”
Another case of “stand your ground” and an ensuing community backlash?
Well, yes and no.
Readers surely noticed the musket reference. Christopher Seider's death took place in Boston's North End on an otherwise dreary, cold February night, 1770. Christopher was a more or less unknown boy, the child of German immigrants, but his death galvanized nearly every citizen of Boston in opposition to the British government, which essentially held Boston as an occupied town, with British troops patrolling the streets instead of a local, civilian-appointed police force.
Why were boys as young as ten and eleven throwing rocks at a merchant's place of business in the first place? To understand that we need a brief history lesson, starting with the 1765 Stamp Act, which placed a direct tax on most documents printed in the American colonies. According to this law, all newspapers and magazines had to be printed on paper produced in London with a specific embossed stamp on it. The tax on this stamped paper had to be paid for with British currency, not colonial paper money. Protests, led often by a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, grew so widespread that the tax was more often than not ignored. Within a year, the Stamp Act was repealed, swift action for the eighteenth century when news between the colonies and London moved at the speed of a ship's sails, not to mention the speed at which Parliament moved to overturn the Stamp Act. Compare it to the contemporary US Congress and the British Parliament of the 1760s, though not thoroughly fairminded, appears more than competent by comparison.
Enter the Townshend Acts. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried placing a “duty” on items such as paint, tea, lead, and glass. The Townshend Acts also forced colonists to purchase items such as tea only from the British East India Company. Any comparison to modern companies who lobby the US government so convincingly that they receive outrageously favorable contracts and/or fine print benefits in congressional bills is purely coincidental and up to the reader to ascertain.
When colonists like John Hancock continued to smuggle in Dutch tea and other forbidden goods, the British government sent the 50-gun HMS Romney (doesn't history provide lovely little ironies) to cut off colonial smuggling lanes in and out of Massachusetts. One of the first actions of the Romney's crew was to board and confiscate John Hancock's suspected smuggling vessel, Liberty, in June of 1768.
One of the original purposes of the Townshend Acts was to increase the pay of the common British soldier in the American colonies, but by the time revenues actually began to accrue, Townshend switched gears dramatically, using the funds to raise the salaries of colonial governors and judges. Previously, colonial assemblies paid these officials. Townshend's laws made it look like the money was coming from London when it really stemmed from a tax on colonists; in essence, buying the loyalty of many of those judges and governors.
In Boston, “Sons of Liberty” (would they be classified as homegrown terrorists by the NSA and Homeland Security today?) like Hancock and Sam Adams organized boycotts of goods that could only be purchased through British companies. By the end of 1769 the boycott in Boston extended to shops that continued to offer such monopolistic goods for sale. In January, 1770, Boston newspapers printed the names of merchants who still insisted on selling British products. Theophilus Lillie's business was on that list. A Boston town meeting condemned such importers. Such was the popular sentiment a month later when Christopher Seider and a dozen other boys rocked Lillie's shop.
Seider's death made him a martyr to the cause, and a direct link to the cause and effect of the most important single event prior to the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775. That event started less than two weeks after Seider's death, on March 5, 1775, along Boston's King Street when a slightly older youth, Edward Garrick, called out to a British officer, John Goldfinch, that he was overdue on a bill at a local wigmaker's business. Goldfinch, having paid his bill the previous day, apparently ignored the comment and moved on, but Private Hugh White, standing guard duty in front of the Custom House, yelled at Garrick that he should show more respect to a British officer. Garrick and White exchanged a series of escalating insults until White left his post and jammed the butt of his musket into Garrick's head. Garrick crumpled to the snowy ground, crying out in pain. His friend Bartholomew Broaders cursed Private White so loudly that locals came out of nearby buildings. A 19-year-old bookseller named Henry Knox (he would go on to become a general in the Colonial Army) saw Garrick writhing on the ground, blood coming from his head or mouth, and exhorted the gathered crowd while pointing at White, “If he fired, he must die for it.”
The crowd grew larger and louder. At least one local church began tolling its bell. White backed up to the steps of the Custom House. The crowd numbered at least 50, including a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks right up front. Just as in the Seider incident, snowballs and rocks and possibly feces-laced snowballs were tossed at White.
Captain Preston, a non-commissioned officer, and six privates from the 29th Foot Regiment pushed through the crowd with fixed bayonets. Eyewitnesses swore that the British soldiers used the bayonets to “prick” civilians as they passed.
When Preston reached the steps of the Custom House, his men formed a small semi-circle facing the angry crowd. The civilians, more than 100 by then, spat in the snow and at the soldiers as they pressed close enough for the spittle to strike. Some may have even tauntingly shouted, “Fire. Fire. Why don't you?” Others claimed that Loyalists present were urging Captain Preston with similar words.
Innkeeper Richard Palmes, toting a cudgel, stepped out of the crowd and asked Captain Preston if his soldiers' muskets were loaded. Preston stepped in front of his men to respond in the affirmative, but insisted that no one would fire unless he ordered it, further indicating his position directly in front of one of the muskets.
Either a stick or another rock struck Private Hugh Montgomery, the only soldier standing to the right of Preston. Montgomery staggered in the snow, then re-gripped his musket. Witnesses claimed he called out something like, “Fire. Damn you, fire.”
Innkeeper Palmes' testimony states that Montgomery did fire into the crowd at that point and that Montgomery attempted to swing his weapon about to bayonet the innkeeper. Palmes swung his club and knocked Montgomery's musket into the snow, but not before other shots rang out from Preston's left. The vast majority of first hand witnesses insisted that Captain Preston never gave an order to open fire.
Nevertheless, Crispus Attucks and ropemaker Samuel Gray fell dead within a few feet of the soldiers. Farther down King Street, mariner James Caldwell died more or less instantly as well. Eight citizens lay wounded. Seventeen year-old Sam Maverick died two hours later from wounds incurred by ricochet bullets. Patrick Carr perished two weeks later from his gunshot wound.
Ebeneezer Richardson was found guilty of murder in the death of young Christopher Seider. However, royally appointed judges delayed his sentencing long enough for a pardon to arrive from London.
The intense protests against Theophilus Lillie caused him to pull up stakes and move around Massachusetts for the next five years. After the war began in earnest he was evacuated with other Loyalists to Halifax where he died in the spring of 1776.
Tried separately from his men, Captain Preston was acquitted on all charges the day before Halloween, 1770. His defense team was headed by John Adams, who had taken the appointment to defend the soldiers after several other attorneys, including Loyalists, sidestepped the position.
Amongst those assisting Adams at the trials of Preston and his men was John Hancock, whose drawing of the scene of the killings proved pivotal in the acquittal of six of Preston's soldiers, including Hugh White. Just two of the soldiers, those deemed responsible for the deaths of Crispus Attucks and Samuel Gray, were found guilty. In a country that now puts away some non-violent criminals for years and years the two soldiers found guilty of manslaughter for killing Attucks and Gray each received a brand on their right thumb for the crime. The two convicted soldiers: Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy.
Yes. "Kilroy was here" was true as far back as the Boston Massacre.