The Boston Massacre: A Family History

Image of The Boston Massacre: A Family History
Release Date: 
February 28, 2023
Mariner Books
Reviewed by: 

“Though the Boston Tea Party is perhaps more notorious, the Boston Massacre is equally as important to understanding the events to follow, culminating in the American Revolution.”

Author Serena Zabin tells us that the American Revolution was less like a political event, but “much more like a bad divorce,” particularly in light of personal bonds that were broken, as well as political. Like a lot of bad divorces, it came complete with drunkenness, infidelity, domestic violence, and unresolved finger-pointing.

In her new book The Boston Massacre: A Family History, Zabin details an event that foresaw the deterioration of that uneasy marriage between England and her colonies. She expands the view from that of traditional history to include the “story of personal connections between men and women, civilians and soldiers.” It was those personal connections that today’s readers can identify with and that make this an important contribution to the literature of pre-Revolution American history.

In hindsight, it’s hard to see how the arrival of British troops from across the Atlantic, some with their personal families and some soon to form families in the colonies, could have ended any other way. That is particularly true when the British Parliament decided that ungrateful extended family members, like the colonists in Boston, should help defray the expense of the Seven Years’ War, particularly those of the local theater known as the French and Indian War, or Pontiac’s War—the latter named for the Odawa tribe war chief.

Surely those who had benefitted from the war, the thinking went, wouldn’t mind paying their fair share of those expenses in the form of taxes imposed on stamped, or embossed, paper by the Stamp Act in 1765. That was just the first in a series of miscalculations by the Crown. Other taxes would follow, including probably the most notorious, the Tea Act of 1773. The former would lead to a massacre, while the latter resulted in a “tea party.” They both would culminate in a revolution.

Though the Boston Tea Party is perhaps more notorious, the Boston Massacre is equally as important to understanding the events to follow, culminating in the American Revolution. Interestingly, one of the catalysts for the massacre was the housing of troops in inns and public houses and, when there was no more room, in the homes of Bostonians.

The intrusion in private homes, particularly, was a combination of the Quartering Act of 1765, passed primarily due to the need for British troops to provide defense to the colonies in the aftermath of the recently ended war, and a shortage of suitable places for them to quarter.

Quartering of troops in private homes, necessary or not, would also be a catalyst for one of the lesser known, and probably most underappreciated, amendments in the Bill of Rights, the Third. It reads in part: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner. . . .”   

Problems from the forced integration of military and civilian personnel in close quarters were inevitable. The author writes that “the quartering of British soldiers in Boston created a fundamental shift in relationships between colonial and imperial, between citizen and soldier.” Some of those new relationships became familial.

The problems “were only aggravated by Boston’s culture of heavy drinking.” Nothing new under the sun, one supposes. Couple drinking with “dalliances” with young women—some consensual and some not, guns, and the highly resented Stamp Act, along with Boston’s propensity for “unruly street politics” (a euphemism for riots), and the streets of the city were a powder keg.

The keg exploded on the evening of March 5, 1770, when what started as a verbal confrontation between a group of civilians and a British private named White escalated from words to thrown snowballs and ice, and maybe even rocks and pieces of wood. White was reinforced by additional soldiers under the command of Captain Thomas Preston. The situation quickly got out of hand, exacerbated by, of all things, church bells.

“Soldiers believed these were a signal to Bostonians to join an uprising in the heart of town, on King Street. Some inhabitants thought that the bells were a fire alarm and came running to put out a conflagration.” The British troops fired, killing five colonists and wounding a half-dozen others, eerily reminiscent of a similar incident, sans church bells, just two months and a day shy of being exactly two centuries later at Kent State University.  

Of particular interest in the book is the author’s discussion of the post-massacre, pre-Constitution justice system at work in the colonies. Captain Preston was tried first, with eight enlisted men to be tried later, and their defense counsel provides the answer to a great trivia question: Q: What American president defended the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre? A: John Adams.

The critical question in Preston’s trial was whether he had ordered his men to fire; in the latter trial, it was whether the men were justified in firing. With several of Preston’s friends, remarkably, sitting on the jury—apparently some of the finer points of the art of voir dire, or jury selection, were lost on the prosecution—Adams was able to secure an acquittal. 

As regards the make-up of the jury, the exact opposite was the case when the soldiers under Preston’s command later came to trial. “. . . every single juror came from outside Boston. Samuel Adams complained later that it was hardly a jury of peers when none of them had had the experience of living in a town with soldiers.”

In defense, Adams walked a fine line between blaming the colonists while exculpating his clients. Instead, he blamed outside agitators for attacking the soldiers, who were, themselves, “lonely outsiders, neither aggressors nor friends. Boston, just as much as the soldiers, was an innocent victim of the mob.”

It worked—for the most part. Some were exonerated while others were found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder, and they were sentenced to branding on their thumbs. Not pleasant by any means, but it beat the gallows. All of them, including Preston, were quickly returned to England.

To some extent, The Boston Massacre raises more questions than it answers. As it illustrates, culpability remains undecided. “. . . even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.”

But, Zabin argues, a history focused on the legal and political questions of responsibility for the massacre erases the memory of others who were also affected by the tragedy. “With the eventual disappearance of these families came the disappearance, more specifically, of all women, both civilian and military, associated with this event.” Hence, her subtitle: A Family History.

And, in some ways, that family history foreshadowed another bad divorce in American history that was, arguably, even more devastating to the families involved: the Civil War.