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“Malicious accusations, often intirely false and always overcharged”: an Unpopular Account of the Boston Massacre

A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England

A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England

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    by Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Assistant

    This pamphlet, published in London, was written and compiled by lawyer Francis Maseres and Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple of the British 29th Regiment. It contains a narrative and 31 testimonies describing the infamous Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 with an eye toward exonerating the soldiers involved in the incident and promoting the loyalist cause. The narrative and the accounts from which it was derived were the first to reach King George III after the event occurred, but the claims therein sound somewhat unfamiliar compared to what most know today as the Boston Massacre. The rough sequence and setting are well known by many, but the specifics of what exactly happened, why, and to whom are as murky now as they were then. In the wake of the event, defining these particulars was crucial.

    Gathering Evidence

    Patriots and loyalists alike recognized that blame for the Massacre could be fashioned into a potent source of propaganda to help either fuel or extinguish revolutionary stirrings in the colonies. Both groups acted immediately to capitalize on this opportunity. Lieutenant Colonel Dalrymple scrambled to gather testimonies that would support the soldiers' case as the smoke cleared. English lawyer Francis Maseres composed a narrative to accompany the soldiers' testimonies. Maseres, known now for his controversial views on the algebraic use of the negative sign as well as his work as Attorney-General of Quebec in the 1760s, approached the account with an aim to dispel outrage and implore readers to consider the event reasonably. His tone betrays an air of superiority over the hotheaded patriots, especially "these sons of liberty and well-disposed persons (as they stile themselves)," and he seems to attempt to connect with readers (who initially would have been largely English) on that level. Meanwhile, a committee of three prominent colonial figures comprised of James Bowdoin, Samuel Pemberton, and Joseph Warren composed the narrative accompanying the patriots' testimonies. 

    The results of Maseres's and the colonists' efforts were two very different accounts of the same event—A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston which was sympathetic to the patriot cause, and A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England which favored the British soldiers' view. Both groups of testimonies were sent to England for the King's review less than a month after the Massacre occurred, with the British Fair Account arriving first.

    Compounding Tensions

    The narratives in each pamphlet derive from depositions of soldiers, passerby, and prominent community members; 96 testimonies are reproduced in the patriots' Short Narrative, and 31 in the Fair Account. Both pamphlets acknowledge that tensions were high in Boston due to the unpopularity of the Stamp and Quartering Acts, among other factors. An altercation on Boston's ropewalks is also cited by both accounts as an important precursor—a few days before the Massacre, a ropemaker suggested that a passing soldier clean his "necessary-house" if he needed work. Naturally this resulted in an argument and quickly escalated into a brawl which attracted reinforcements from both sides. The patriots' pamphlet describes a vengeful and cruel group of British soldiers, already infamous for committing random acts of violence against long-suffering Bostonians since their first day ashore, who plot to murder innocent colonists as payback for the altercation on the ropewalks. Those sympathetic to the British soldiers' cause claim the reverse—that the ropemakers and their peers responded to the ropewalks incident by stirring up a mob of colonists, all of whom resented the soldiers' presence and took every opportunity to berate and inconvenience them, to attack a sentry posted at the Custom House.

    "Fire, and be damned"

    From here the depositions greatly diverge from one another. Some claim that the Custom House sentry left his post to randomly attack a boy whom he overheard speaking ill of British soldiers. Some swear to have heard bands of colonists shouting in the streets as they converged on King Street: "murder, kill all the dogs: for we will have no commissioners nor soldiers in Boston." Others heard groups of redcoats sneer to one another that "the soldiers were not to be trod upon by the inhabitants, but would know before morning, whether they or the inhabitants were to be masters." Somehow, a mob formed in front of the Custom House. The lone sentry posted there, pelted with debris and foul language, called for reinforcements. When Captain Preston and a group of soldiers arrived, both accounts confirm that there were multiple shouts of "fire"—some, mockingly, from mob aggressors and one, the patriots claim, from Preston himself.

    Both pamphlets acknowledge the unfortunate loss of life. The soldiers' Fair Account describes the casualties with an air of grave simplicity, after describing in detail the mob's frenzy and Preston's vain efforts to restore peace. Likely with the intention of evoking an emotional response, the patriots' account goes into a hauntingly technical degree of detail, outlining the injuries of each man and even describing where and at what angle the bullets entered their bodies. The soldiers' accounts plead self-defense, stating that their actions were necessary "in defence of a post which it was their duty to defend." The colonists declared that they glimpsed more muskets glinting through the upper windows of the Custom House, pointing to a conspiracy. After reading testimony from both sides, even the number of shots fired is unclear.

    A War of Words

    The manifold differences listed above testify to the fact that while the Boston Massacre is an extremely important point in the early history of our nation, we may never uncover the full truth of how it happened. The voices and intentions of those who gave depositions, penned narratives, and participated in the trials are too much to unpack without reliable evidence. Some accounts even contradict themselves. One deposition, that of Bostonian merchant Richard Palmes, appears in both the Fair Account and the Short Narrative. After Palmes was called to appear in court as a witness during the Massacre trials, his testimony also appeared in the printed court notes for the trial of William Wemms. After Palmes himself read the published version of his testimony, he submitted an article to the Boston Gazette to correct what he saw as a misleading transcription of his words. Although similar, none of these accounts are exactly the same—although it is just as likely that these differences stem from human error as from intentional spin. The only other account that appears in both pamphlets is that of Thomas Greenwood, a Customs House official. While it stands alone in the Fair Account, the patriots pick it apart in the Short Narrative, using every pro-loyalist assertion Greenwood makes to demonize the soldiers in a series of long-winded footnotes.

    The crux of the two pamphlets' arguments lies not just in whether or not Preston ordered the soldiers to fire at the climax of the ordeal, but why and by whom the first acts of aggression were committed. This was far from the first time colonists and British soldiers butted heads on the streets of Boston, and resentment between the groups was building long before the events of 5 March 1770. The volume and diverse content of the depositions collected by both sides shows how desperate each was to demonize the other, be it through truth, fiction, or some combination.

    In Boston's Massacre, Eric Hinderaker calls the contents of the two pamphlets "a war of words." In spite of the immediacy with which the patriots and British soldiers produced their testimonies, the actual trials did not begin until months later, the first of which was Rex v. Preston on 5 October 1770. Ultimately, however, it could be argued that the actual truth of what happened during the Boston Massacre ended up mattering very little compared to the fervor that grew from the patriots' efforts to spin it in their favor. In fact, Hiller Zobel argues in The Boston Massacre that the pleas for consideration of the British soldiers' predicament in the Fair Account were too little, too late in terms of swaying public opinion in Boston.

    For further reading

    Hinderaker, Eric. Boston's Massacre. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017.

    Witness to America's Past: Two Centuries of Collecting by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston: The Society: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1991.

    Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970