My Travels to Boston for the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre
Updated: Feb 23
I remember learning about the Boston Massacre in Buddy Moon’s AP US History class. He told us though there were hundreds of witnesses, no single story free of bias and ulterior motives rose to the surface as the prevailing narrative. While a majority of the townsfolk placed all the blame at the feet of the “lobsterbacks,” there was enough evidence to the contrary to exonerate a majority of the soldiers. Even today—despite the benefit of time and the truth that sometimes comes from death or discovery, or our unrestricted access to all of the depositions, broadsides, and even the transcripts from both trials—we still don't know what really happened that night in front of the Old State House.
After summarizing the most plausible versions of events, Mr. Moon presented Paul Revere’s The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.
He discussed how the engraving was a piece of propaganda designed to elicit outrage among the people of Boston. He pointed out the soldiers’ stance and their scowls, the placement of Captain Preston behind his men, the symbolic dog in the foreground, the wailing wife-turned-widow, and the dress and demeanor of the crowd of victims. He then drew our attention to the lone musket barrel sticking out of the window above “Butcher’s Hall” (the Custom House).
While most likely another doctored detail further emphasizing the soldiers’ dishonor and devilry, or possibly a reference to the villainous Ebenezer Richardson and his murder of 11-year-old Christopher Seiders 11 days prior, there are documented testimonies claiming a sniper fired on the crowd from an upper window of the Custom House. What’s more, John Adams (the soldiers’ defense attorney and later the President of the United States) claimed the Boston Massacre might have been staged:
Endeavours had been systematically pursued for many months, by certain busy characters,
to excite quarrels, rencounters and combats single or compound in the night between
the inhabitants of the lower class and the soldiers, and at all risques to inkindle
an immortal hatred between them. I suspect that this being the explosion which had
been intentionally wrought up by designing men who knew what they were aiming at
better than the instrument they employed.
So, if there was, in fact, a sniper, who was he? Was he a soldier stationed above to protect his brothers of the 29th Regiment? Or, maybe he was part of a cabal of terrorists whose clandestine and subversive machinations were designed to provoke enough outrage that the Loyalist Governor would have no choice but to withdraw the troops before any more citizens could be hurt.
Ever since that day in Mr. Moon’s class, I’ve been fascinated by the controversies and conspiracies surrounding the Boston Massacre. And nearly a decade after eyeing the lone barrel for the first time, I started a novel about a member of the Sons of Liberty who, among many other nefarious acts, helped orchestrate the Boston Massacre.
After three years of reading dozens of books about the Boston Massacre, colonial life in the 18th century, the American Revolution, and pre-CIA spycraft; writing pages upon pages of bad drafts that needed to get out; and making fundamental changes in the character, conflict, structure, and narration, I finally found my gunman. I knew who he was, what he wanted, what he was running from, where he was going, and how I was going to tell his story. What I didn’t have was Boston. Even though the Boston I was writing about no longer existed, I had never visited the famed Cradle of Liberty. Fortunately, the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre was around the corner, so I booked a flight, secured a hotel, and created an itinerary based on the events of my book.
Wednesday, March 4, 2020
My first stop in Boston was the Tea Party Museum. A Sam Adams impersonator bellowed from the pulpit of a replica of the Old South Meeting House, and we responded with words like “Fie,” “Hear, Hear!” and “Huzzah!” While we didn’t, fortunately, don face paint and feathers and “Rally” as “Mohawks,” we did storm the Brig Beaver and toss hollow canvas tea crates over the side. After the tour, we were invited to participate in a tea tasting of traditional 18th-century blends. I avoided the tourist trap and went straight for the coffee, just like my boycotting forefathers before me.
Later that evening, I visited the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts (GLMA) to participate in a Fellowcraft Degree with the members of the Joseph Webb Lodge. Overlooking Boston Common, the GLMA is the headquarters for all freemasons in MA, and the building itself is home to 12 Lodges and 6 appendant bodies such as the Scottish Rite, the Royal Arch, and the Order of the Temple.
Inside the lodge room were four marble statues salvaged from the original GLMA after its first of two fires in the late 19th century. Each of the four statues is representative of masonic ideals and paired with a prominent masonic forefather: faith with George Washington, hope with Joseph Warren, wisdom with Ben Franklin, and charity with Marquis de Lafayette.
Jr. Deacon Ben Flax, a former member of my home lodge Shades Valley Lodge #829, was my host for the evening. After conferring the degree and breaking bread over dinner, he and his friend, Roman, gave me a tour of the building’s many rooms and treasures, such as the Knights Templars’ Theater and a replica of the Bunch-of-Grapes’ tavern sign made from the wood of the USS Constitution. At one point, Ben and Roman exchanged knowing looks and said they had something special to show me: a framed certificate for the Society of Cincinnati signed by George Washington.
Thursday, March 5, 2020
The next morning, I attended the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s ceremony at the Granary Burial Grounds on Tremont Street. They placed a wreath on the shared headstone of the five victims of the Boston Massacre and Christopher Seider (Snider, according to some accounts).
I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon following the Freedom Trail, a two-brick wide walking trail that starts at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill. Of the 16 stops along the way, I visited the Old North Church, the site of Boston’s Latin School, the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre, and Faneuil Hall.
At the Old State House Museum, I wandered through their permanent exhibits (From Colony to Commonwealth and Voices of Protest) and observed well-designed displays, flawless facsimiles, and rare artifacts, such as weaponry and artillery found at Bunker Hill; the red velvet coat John Hancock wore at his inauguration as the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and the coroner's report for Crispus Attucks. The museum’s new stewards, Revolutionary Spaces, just opened their first post-merger exhibit on the top floor called Reflecting Attucks. Full of many powerful details and sobering images, the exhibit traced Attucks’ trajectory from forgotten figure to champion of equal rights:
Black Crispus Attucks taught / Us how to die / Before white Patrick Henry’s
bugle breath / Uttered the vertical / Transmitting cry: / ‘Yea give me liberty, or
give me death.’ (Tolson)
He [Attucks] is one of the most important figures in African-American history,
not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America. (King)
Outside the Old State House, I stood in front of the supposed spot of the “Site of the Boston Massacre.” The marker, comprising 13 rings of cobblestones with a star in the center, is encased in a bronze ring that displays the massacre’s date.
The marker isn’t placed where the massacre occurred, but neither of the two likely locations—under the New England Merchants Bank Building or in the middle of State Street—are exactly conducive to solemn reflection or taking photographs.
I pulled out my copy of “A Poem, in Memory of the (never to be forgotten) Fifth of March, 1770” and read it to myself:
The rising sun bespeaks the mournful day,
When youth's, (though innocent) in blood did lay,
When bloody men shot forth the darts of death,
FIVE of our fellow-creatures drop'd their breath.
(“A Poem, in Memory…”)
Trying to capture the perspective depicted in Revere’s engraving, I stood 100 yards away from the Old State House and snapped a picture. After returning home a week later, I superimposed that photograph atop Revere's The bloody massacre...
I visited the Printing Office of Edes & Gill inside Faneuil Hall. Once owned by Benjamin Edes, a prominent member of the Sons of Liberty, the press was responsible for printing the Boston Gazette, colonial New England’s most inflammatory newspaper. A very helpful employee was gracious enough to postpone cleaning the 18th-century reproduction copperplate press to walk me through how the contraption worked.
I took a brief detour from my sojourn along the Freedom Trail to attend a lecture at the Boston Athenæum. Assistant Curator Ginny Badgett presented an “in-depth look at the inception of Revere’s engraving” and led a discussion on “how it continues to shape American historical memory today” (“Curator’s”). After an active Q&A, the audience was invited to look at the following pieces up close: Revere’s A View of Part of the Town of Boston in New-England and Brittish [sic] Ships of War Landing their Troops! 1768; Revere’s The bloody massacre…; Revere’s View of the Obelisk; and Champney / Buford’s Boston Massacre, March 5th 1770, which was the first depiction of the Boston Massacre that featured Crispus Attucks as a person of color. As I passed through the line, I couldn't help but wonder—if Revere made around 250 prints of The bloody massacre... and 25 are accounted for, whatever happened to the other 225 copies?
I visited the Green Dragon Tavern, a famous watering hole “remembered for the social, political, public, and private gatherings...of the historic men of ‘76” (Moore). Though not the original building, it was exciting to walk into that dark haunt nonetheless. All around the room were little mementos relating to the tavern once located on Union Street, the Sons of Liberty, and Boston’s role in the American Revolution. Because I don’t drink alcohol and the kitchen was out of commission for remodeling, I gave the barkeep one of the Green Dragon Tavern stickers I designed and left.
Ben Flax and I attended the Commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre at the Old South Meeting House. We watched from the balcony as distinguished citizens such as Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, Dr. Ted Landsmark (the subject of the famed photograph The Soiling of Old Glory), Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, Tanisha Sullivan (President of NAACP Boston Branch), and Elizabeth Solomon (member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag) spoke of the legacy of the event, the lives of the victims, and the lessons we’ve learned about our nation’s identity since.
Friday, March 6, 2020
I spent the morning resting, re-reading certain excerpts from A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, and revising my novel’s Boston Massacre chapter. Felt fitting.
After lunch, I traveled to Concord and checked into the Colonial Inn, a 300-year-old hotel that was once “a storehouse for arms and provisions during the Revolutionary War” (“Colonial Inn”).
I walked to the Concord Museum to view their newest exhibit, Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere and His Ride, which featured one of the two lanterns Newman and Fischer placed in the window of the Old North Church’s steeple to indicate that the British were crossing the Charles River into Charlestown: “One if by land, two if by sea” (Longfellow). Among the many other treasures present were the following: another of the remaining originals of Revere’s The bloody massacre...; the plate Revere engraved for the aforementioned print; Emerson’s “The Concord Hymn;” the desk at which Emerson wrote Nature; the Wyeth painting, Paul Revere; and Johnson’s Green Dragon Tavern.
I traveled to Westford to meet David Brody, author of Cabal of the Westford Knight. Despite living an hour away, he graciously offered to be my guide. We met at the JV Fletcher Library, home of the Boat Stone, which is a 250lb rock with “a sailing ship in the style of a knorr, an arrow in the style of a medieval crossbow arrow, and the numerals ‘184’” punched or pecked into it (Brody).
As I marveled the mysterious carvings, David narrated the story of the Stone’s discovery nearly one hundred years ago. He went on to explain its possible connection to the Westford Knight (carving technique, location, ship-style) and what he thinks the symbols represent. Though many claim the markings could have been punched long after the 14th century, in 2007, forensic geologist and host of Travel Channel’s America Unearthed Scott Wolter studied the Stone and concluded, “All of the man-made surfaces exhibit a weathering profile that is indistinguishable from the weathering profile of the glacial age surfaces,” which suggests it has been subject to the elements for hundreds of years.
David drove us over to the site of the Westford Knight, a memorial honoring the fallen Scottish Knight, Sir James Gunn. According to legend, in 1398, nearly 100 years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue,” a Scottish Earl by the name of Henry Sinclair and his crew of loyal Scotsmen and skilled Italian navigators traveled across the Atlantic and ended up in Nova Scotia. After a season of exploration, they attempted to return home but stumbled upon the New England coast instead. Drawn to the high point towering in the distance, they traveled inland via the Merrimack River and then paddled up the Stony Brook River until they reached Prospect Hill in present Westford. During this leg of the journey, Sinclair’s second-in-command, Sir James Gunn, perished, and “As was a custom in those days, a funerary effigy was made to memorialize the fallen knight” (“Westford”).
After parking at a nearby elementary school, we walked the short distance to the cordoned off memorial located directly off Depot Street. David had arranged for the protective plexiglass covering to be partially removed so that we could better view the fading carvings on the large slab of Gneiss protruding from the ground. He brushed away the dirt and leaves and pointed out the indentions that hadn’t been eroded by time or weather.
Beside the engraving is a bronze effigy of a knight designed by Sinclair enthusiast and local firefighter David Christiana.
While most disregard the theory that Sinclair traveled to America, I consider the totality of evidence too compelling to ignore. I don’t see the site as a corky roadside attraction, something to see for the hell of it, like visiting the “World’s Largest Mailbox” in Casey, Illinois, or the “World’s Largest Office Chair” in Anniston, Alabama. It was a pilgrimage, and standing in front of the grave of Sir Gunn was a remarkable experience, especially with Brody as my guide.
Saturday, March 7, 2020
The next morning, I attended the Corinthian Lodge’s monthly breakfast. Located conveniently across the street from the Colonial Inn and Monument Square, the brick building used to be the local schoolhouse.
Supposedly, Thoreau taught there, but he “resigned after only two weeks because of a dispute with his superintendent over how to discipline the children” (“Schneider”). A month before my trip, I reached out to Doug Ellis, one of Corinthian’s Past Worshipful Masters, to see if he knew of any living history sites or camps that were open (most were closed until April 1), particularly ones that offered musket demonstrations. While he wasn’t aware of any, he did me one better: he invited me to his Lodge’s breakfast to show me his musket and walk me through how it worked.
When I arrived, I met a few members of the Lodge and swapped stories over many cups of strong coffee. Then, Doug presented his prized Pedersoli Brown Bess Musket. From “Half-cock Firelock” to “Fire,” he walked me through the steps a soldier would take to ready their weapon in the multi-count manual of arms. Afterward, he handed it over for me to try. Being able to handle a musket—to feel its weight, to run my fingers over the engravings and the gunsmith’s mark, to hear the sound it makes when I opened and closed the pan, to see the spark after the flint struck the frizzen, to smell the smoke from the ignited powder—helped me bring to life the two-dimensional pictures and boring descriptions of smoothbore vs. rifle muskets I had been drowning in during my research.
Afterward, Doug showed off some of the Lodge’s historical treasures. First, he displayed the officers’ jewels. Each was made of silver and masterfully engraved by none other than Paul Revere.
Then, he brought out the Lodge’s charter and drew my attention to Paul Revere’s signature.
While touring the lodge room, Doug brought my attention to me the Worshipful Master’s gavel, which, like the Bunch of Grapes Tavern sign at GLMA, was made from wood salvaged from the USS Constitution. He then showed me the chapters’ working tools, which were gifted to the Lodge in 1872 by the brothers’ wives, or “Ladies of the Lodge” as the engravings say.
Around noon, I drove back to Boston and returned to the Printing Office of Edes & Gill to purchase one of the commemorative reproductions of Revere’s The bloody massacre… According to the work’s artist Andrew Volpe, “This is the first time in 250 years that everything done was with the same materials, techniques, paper, ink, etc. as Revere used in 1770.”
I stumbled upon a group of reenactors at the Irish Famine Memorial as they were singing traditional patriotic songs such as William Billings’ “Chester:” “Let tyrants shake their iron rod, / And Slav'ry clank her galling chains, / We fear them not, we trust in God, / New England's God forever reigns.”
Shortly after, a much larger group of actors reenacted the Brawl at Gray’s Ropewalk between Patrick Walker and his “Redcoat” cronies and Samual Grey and his co-workers on March 2, 1770. Fighting between citizens and soldiers was certainly common, but this altercation directly influenced the Boston Massacre three days later. Walker was one of the eight soldiers who fired on the crowd, and Gray was one of the five victims. This led many to believe the shooting was an act of revenge.
During the afternoon, I attended a town meeting in the Great Room at Faneuil Hall in which the participants debated whether the soldiers who fired on the crowd should receive “Vengeance or Justice.” Once inside, each visitor was handed a card that featured a different Boston citizen from the 1770s and a quotation to read during the public debate. I was given William Molineux, a volatile figure most known for his proclivity for protest and participation in the Boston Tea Party. I read the card and realized fate had presented me with a nice reminder of the lone barrel: “When we heard guns firing, we ran up to a balcony. A companion suddenly pointed to a window in the Custom-house. ‘There!’ he exclaimed. ‘They are shooting out of the Custom-house!’”
At 6:00, I joined the throng of people already gathered at the site for the reenactment that would begin in an hour. I stood directly across from the Old State House. It was the perfect vantage point. The blue sentry post was ten feet to my right, which meant I would view the “horrid massacre” from behind the soldiers, as if I, too, was one of the “bloody lobsterbacks” staring down the angry mob of Bostonians.
About 20 minutes before the reenactment was to begin, members of the 29th Regiment performed a Changing of the Guard, and Private Hugh Montgomery, the soldier who would later fire the first shot, took his post. As the crowd hissed and booed at the man, the gentleman to my left, a police officer from Connecticut who’d brought his two daughters, said that he can’t help but sympathize for the soldiers and the tenuous predicament they were in; he knew all too well what it was like to square off in uniform in front of the same citizens you’d sworn to protect. That personal and unpopular perspective certainly deepened my experience, especially as a spectator viewing the tragedy from behind the so-called “villains.”
The reenactment officially began with a series of vignettes that set the tone for the upcoming drama. One featured a Whig and a Tory arguing about rising tensions between citizen and soldier and who’s to blame. Another involved a soldier’s wife defending herself from the cruel taunts of passing locals.
I knew the principal scene had begun when two men took the stage and one referred to the other as Edward: the wig-maker’s apprentice whose imminent assault would ignite the evening’s explosive end. Gerrick confronted Captain Goldfinch, an off-duty British officer on his way back to the barracks, for an unpaid bill, “You owe my master money!” Goldfinch disregarded the apprentice’s rebuke and left. Unlike the captain, Private Montgomery wouldn’t let the insult go unchecked: he struck Gerrick with the butt of his musket, and that single act of violence drew a crowd of hundreds, all of whom were out for blood. From there, the confrontation escalated quickly.
Despite knowing what was about to happen, I was surprised to see eight soldiers and an officer of the 29th join Montgomery in front of the Custom House. My heartbeat sped up as the crowd grew larger and louder. And when that first shot rang out, I flinched, and again with each subsequent one.
In the midst of the melee, I kept stealing glances above the crowd to the right. I was trying to spot the mysterious sniper shooting out of the nonexistent Custom House window. Even though my camera was trained on the events of State House Square, I was ready to capture the lone barrel fire from the 18th-century Grassy Knoll, and my Zapruder film would settle the 250-year-old controversy once and for all.
When the smoke had cleared and the lifeless bodies had been carried away, the victims returned to the stage and placed five roses upon the bronze and stone marker. And just like the spectators who witnessed the tragedy firsthand, the crowd scattered in every direction, fading into the cover of night.
Sunday, March 8, 2020
My cousin, Rufus, and I attended the 11:00 service of Holy Eucharist at Old North Church, the same church where Newman and Fischer displayed the lantern in the steeple, informing Revere that the British were traveling “by sea.” While walking back to my seat, I spotted General Thomas Gage’s box pew. The gold placard indicated that Gage witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill from the church’s steeple, the same steeple used in Revere’s plan two months prior.
By mid-afternoon, I was on a flight headed for home. The next day was Monday, March 9th, the start of the last normal work week for many Americans before President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday, March 13th. In the coming weeks, I would spend much of my time and energy fearing an uncertain future, but for five days in March, I was fortunate enough to dwell in history and commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre.
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