On this day March 5, 1888
Five Americans, including a black man named Crispus Attucks, and a boy are killed by British troops in an event that would contribute to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War five years later.
A tense situation because of a heavy British military presence in Boston boiled over to incite brawls between soldiers and civilians and eventually led to troops discharging their muskets after being attacked by a rioting crowd.
Three civilians were killed at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident.
The incident started on King Street in the early evening of March 5, in front of Private Hugh White, a British sentry, as he stood duty outside the Custom house.
A young wigmaker’s apprentice named Edward Gerrish called out to a British officer, Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch, that Goldfinch had not paid the bill of Gerrish’s master. Goldfinch had in fact settled his account and ignored the insult.
Gerrish departed, but returned a couple of hours later with companions. He continued his complaints, and the civilians began throwing snowballs at Goldfinch. Gerrish also exchanged insults with Private White, who left his post, challenged the boy, and then struck him on the side of the head with a musket. As Gerrish cried in pain, one of his companions, Bartholomew Broaders, began to argue with White. This attracted a larger crowd.
As the evening progressed the crowd grew larger and more boisterous with a momentary lull. The mob grew in size and continued harassing Private White. As bells rang in the surrounding steeples, the crowd of Bostonians grew larger and more threatening. Private White left his sentry box and retreated to the Custom House stairs with his back to a locked door. Nearby, from the Main Guard, the Officer of the Day, Captain Thomas Preston, watched this situation escalate and, according to his account, dispatched a non-commissioned officer and several soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot, with fixed bayonets, to relieve White.
He and his subordinate, James Basset, followed soon afterward. Among these soldiers were Corporal William Wemms (apparently the non-commissioned officer mentioned in Preston’s report), Hugh Montgomery, John Carroll, James Hartigan, William McCauley, William Warren and Matthew Kilroy.
As this relief column moved forward to the now empty sentry box, the crowd pressed around them. When they reached this point they loaded their muskets and joined with Private White at the custom house stairs. As the crowd, estimated at 300 to 400, pressed about them, they formed a semicircular perimeter.
In the midst of the commotion, Private Hugh Montgomery was struck down onto the ground by a club. When he recovered to his feet, he fired his musket, later admitting to one of his defense attorneys that he had yelled “Damn you, fire!”. It is presumed that Captain Preston would not have told the soldiers to fire, as he was standing in front of the guns, between his men and the crowd of protesters. However, the protesters in the crowd were taunting the soldiers by yelling “Fire”.
There was a pause of indefinite length; the soldiers then fired into the crowd. Their uneven bursts hit eleven men. Three Americans — ropemaker Samuel Gray, mariner James Caldwell, and an African American sailor named Crispus Attucks — died instantly. Seventeen-year-old Samuel Maverick, struck by a ricocheting musket ball at the back of the crowd, died a few hours later, in the early morning of the next day.
Thirty-year-old Irish immigrant Patrick Carr died two weeks later. To keep the peace, the next day royal authorities agreed to remove all troops from the centre of town to a fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. On March 27 the soldiers, Captain Preston and four men who were in the Customs House and alleged to have fired shots, were indicted for murder.