The Boston Massacre Trials


At the end of March 1770, just three weeks after the Boston Massacre, a grand jury had indicted Captain Preston and his men as well as four civilians accused of having fired from the window of the Customs House. The soldiers of the twenty-ninth regiment accused of murder were William Wemms, James Hartigan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Kilroy, William Warren, John Carrol and Hugh Montgomery. If found guilty they could face the death penalty. Preston and his soldiers could not find a legal representative counsel, they approached several lawyers without success until 35-year old John Adams agreed to head their defense.

But why did John Adams and Josiah Quincy agree to take on the defense of men who had killed five Boston residents?, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Coldwell, Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr. This was an unpopular assignment, one that could have adversely affected his reputation and future income. The reasons for John’s acceptance of the case are difficult to assume. While he strongly believed that all men were entitled to a fair trial and that they deserved equal justice, he knew of the dangers to his practice and of the violence that the mob was capable therefore endangering his wife and young children. On the other hand, in the long term, he might be remembered as a man who put law above his personal beliefs. According to historian Hiller B. Zobel, Adams must have been encouraged to take the case in exchange for a seat in Boston’s legislature as he was the town’s first choice when a seat became available three months later.


Defense and prosecution teams

The defense team was headed by John Adams who was assisted mainly by Josiah Quincy who was the younger brother of prosecutor Samuel Quincy. Josiah Quincy became the main spokesman for the Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty before the revolution. Completing the team were Sampson Salter Blowers, a noted lawyer and jurist, and Robert Auchmuty, a judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court who agreed to serve on the condition that John Adams be co-counsel.

The counsel for the prosecution was headed by Samuel Quincy. He recruited Robert Treat Paine, a prosperous attorney in Southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

It was ironic that revolutionary John Adams took the job of defending the King’s soldiers while loyal prosecutor , Samuel Quincy, of proving them guilty.

Thomas Preston and the eight soldiers were to be tried separately according to the magistrate.


The trial of Thomas Preston

The trials did not take place immediately. Thomas Gage, the commander of British troops in America, urged Thomas Hutchinson to delay the trials until feelings for the murders had cooled down. Seven months passed between the Boston Massacre and the start of the trials on October 24, 1770. During this time the Sons of Liberty had launched a propaganda war trying to change people’s minds and affecting public opinion on the colony’s relationship with Britain.

The town of Boston appointed a committee that included James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren and Samuel Pemberton who were in charge of submitting an official account of the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, the resulting document was titled “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston”. This document included testimony from witnesses and observations prior to the massacre and was submitted to a town meeting in Fenueil Hall on March 19th. It was approved for printing by order of the Town of Boston and was intended mostly for circulation in England. The observations of the events prior to the Massacre were drawn up by Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Joseph Warren. But perhaps the most influential propaganda was Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre which contained inflammatory details such as Captain Preston ordering his men to fire and the customs office shown as “Butcher’s Hall. This image was printed in the Boston Gazette and was publicly distributed furthering public outrage.

Under these circumstances the trial of Thomas Preston took place from October 24th to the 30th, 1770 in Boston’s new courthouse. A six-day trial for a murder case was considered extremely long back then. Preston pleaded not guilty but did not testify. The plan of the defense was to prove that Preston had not ordered the shooting. The prosecution called fifteen witnesses to prove that Preston had ordered his men to shoot but on cross examination their testimony appeared contradictory. The defense produced twenty three witnesses who testified that soldiers were intimidated and provoked by the crowd. Much of the cross examination by the defense was centered on who shouted the word “fire”.

The court took the unusual step of sequestering the jury (keep them away from family and friends). After much deliberation the jury acquitted Preston on the basis of “reasonable doubt”, the first time a judge had used the phrase.



The trial of the soldiers

The soldiers’ trial did not start until November 27th and lasted until December 5th. The names of the soldiers were: Corporal William Wemms, James Hartigan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Kilroy, William Warren, John Carrol and Hugh Montgomery.

Their defense was complicated by the acquittal of Thomas Preston since the jurors would be inclined to believe the soldiers were responsible for the shootings. As a result the defense focused on the actions of the mob that threatened the soldiers rather on who shouted “fire”. Adams argued  that if the soldiers were attacked by “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars,” they could very well defend themselves. He made clear that the soldiers were endangered and they had the right to fire in self-defense and that at most they were guilty of manslaughter and not of murder.

An important circumstance in the trial was the second hand testimony of Patrick Carr, a wounded victim of the the incident who testified from his death bed. His physician, John Jeffries, presented his testimony in court. According to the physician, Carr admitted that the soldiers were provoked and fired in self defense and that he did not blame the soldier who shot him.

The prosecution concentrated on showing that soldiers wanted revenge after many months of being abused and harrassed by townspeople. A witness testified that Private Killroy had admitted to him that “he would not miss an opportunity to fire on inhabitants”. However, the prosecution’s case was weak, on cross examination witnesses admitted that the crowd was throwing objects and provoking the soldiers to fire.

The jury acquitted six of the soldiers: William Wemms, William M’Cauley, Hugh White, William Warren, John Carrol and James Hartegan. The other two soldiers, Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Killroy, were found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, therefore escaping the death penalty. Both men invoked the “benefit of the clergy” allowing them to avoid a long imprisonment. They had their thumbs branded with the letter “M”, leaving a permanent mark so that they would not receive a lenient treatment in the future.

On December 13th, the four civilians who were accused of firing from the customs house were tried. All four were acquitted as the only defense witness presented a false testimony. The witness was convicted of perjury.

The results of the trials were a great victory for John Adams, while he benefited from the prosecutions’ weak management of witnesses and facts, he performed at his best; his summation to the jury, known as Rex v Wemms, was a masterful speech. He was very careful not to antagonize those jurors who sympathized with the Sons of Liberty as they would not believe that they bore the responsibility for the tragedy. Instead he shifted the responsibility to London since they sent the troops that provoked the shootings.

The Boston Massacre Trials elevated John Adams’ reputation as a one of the best lawyers in Massachusetts. Three months after the end of the trials, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Years after he became the the second president of the United States Adams remembered the trials:

“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, 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. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”   –John Adams






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