2 minute read

Boston Massacre Trials: 1770

Snowballs, Then Musket Balls Fly, The Redcoats Are Indicted, Captain Preston's Trial

Defendants: Captain Thomas Preston; Corporal William Wemms; Privates Hugh White, John Carroll, William Warren, and Matthew Killroy, William McCauley, James Hartegan, and Hugh Montgomery
Crimes Charged: Murder and accessories to murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Both trials: John Adams, Josiah Quincy, Jr.; First trial: Robert Auchmuty; Second trial: Sampson Salter Blowers
Chief Prosecutors (Attorneys for the Crown): Samuel Quincy and Robert Treat Paine
Judges: John Cushing, Peter Oliver, Benjamin Lynd, and Edmund Trowbridge
Place: Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Dates of Trials: Rex v. Preston: October 24-30, 1770; Rex v. Wemms etal.: November 27-December 5, 1770
Verdicts: First trial: Captain Robert Preston, Not guilty; Second trial: Corporal Wemms, Privates White, Carroll, Warren, McCauley, and Hartegan, Not guilty; Privates Killroy and Montgomery, Not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter
Sentences: Branding on the thumbs for Killroy and Montgomery

SIGNIFICANCE: This case was a landmark on the road to the American Revolution. Despite a politically hostile atmosphere, two reasonably fair trials were conducted and the concept of the right of self-defense was upheld.

On the night of March 5, 1770, three men lay dead and two more were dying, following shots fired by British troops into an angry crowd outside of the Custom House in Boston, Massachusetts. This scene, known as the Boston Massacre, came after months of feuding between Bostonians and the soldiers sent to the city to protect newly appointed Customs commissioners. The British king and his cabinet viewed Boston as a hotbed of dissent in the colonies, where ill will blossomed in the years following the French and Indian War. Quarrels arose over Indian and frontier affairs, over customs regulations, over taxes, and particularly over how extensive was Parliament's right to tax the colonies. Boston, with its unusually stormy Stamp Act riots, seemed to be the focal point of the American political ferment.

Although some British troops had remained in the colonies following the war, the stationing of a large number of troops in a colonial city was a new and unwelcome phenomenon. In the 18th century, British citizens and colonists viewed the maintenance of a standing army in peace time as an abomination, much as Americans would regard a secret police force today. The ever-present troops in Boston seemed proof of the erosion of the colonists' rights as individuals and the usurpation of the powers of their cherished political institutions.

In such an atmosphere, trouble was inevitable. Snubs, shoving matches, loud arguments, and occasional fistfights occurred between Boston residents and the soldiers almost from the day the first contingent landed in the fall of 1768.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832