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The Truth Behind the Boston Massacre: A Look at the Testimonies of Eyewitnesses

WBG Essay Chapter 4: What Really Happened in the Boston Massacre?

By the late 18th century, tensions in Colonial America were running high. Despite colonists coming to America to start anew and to escape from under British rule, the British Parliament still maintained a strong foothold over the colonies through various taxes and rules the colonists had to abide by. The tension that these rules created amounted to fervor among the colonists that the British were overstepping their boundaries and feelings of resentment towards the British soldiers that were sent to America. The events that happened at the Boston Massacre illustrate the tension that had built up between the colonists and the British, which ended in bloodshed because of orders given by Captain Thomas Preston.

Captain Thomas Preston’s testimony as to the events that happened on that fateful evening places the blame on the crowd. He places himself in between the crowd and soldiers, trying to “persuade them to retire peaceably, but to no purpose.” He described the crowd as taunting the soldiers and goading them on, questioning why they had not yet fired. He said he had no intention of ordering his soldiers to fire because he would have been undoubtedly shot in the chaos. Captain Preston claimed that the first soldier firing was an accident, due to him being struck with a stick. Finally, he blamed the ensuing chaos of all of his soldiers firing on the goading from the crowd with many of them saying “…why don’t you fire.” Captain Preston stated that his soldiers thought the words came from him and that is why they started to shoot.

Based on many eyewitness testimonies of the event, there were many discrepancies in Preston’s story that make his version of events highly unlikely. The most important difference in the testimonies told of that night is whether or not Captain Preston actually gave the order to fire. While Preston states that he would never have given the order as “…my giving the word to fire under those circumstances would prove me to be no officer,” testimonies claim otherwise. Multiple witnesses for the prosecution who were within feet of Preston heard him give orders to fire, with three of the witnesses hearing essentially the same phrase “Damn their bloods fire again and let ‘em take the consequence,” coming after one of his soldiers was struck with a stick that was thrown. All witness testimony from the defense except for one individual, claimed that they did not hear an order to fire, meaning they cannot be for sure that the Captain did not say it and that they just missed him saying it.

One important discrepancy between Captain Thomas Preston and multiple eyewitnesses is where he was positioned during the ordeal. Preston asserts that he was standing in between both the soldiers and the crowd in order to try and maintain peace. He also asserts that he would never give orders for his men to fire because he would have been shot too, because of his position. This account cannot be true for two reasons with one of them being, Preston came away from the massacre with no wounds. If he indeed was standing at the front of all of this gunfire, surely he would have suffered some kind of injury. Secondly, the eyewitness accounts of people standing extremely close to Preston including Robert Goddard who said, “I was so near the officer when he gave the word to fire that I could touch him….He stood in the middle behind the Men,” state that he was standing behind his soldiers.

Captain Preston essentially describes the crowd as savages, ready to attack the soldiers at a moment’s notice. Even though the crowd was particularly angry that evening, riots in the town normally never escalated to physical harm, but mainly concentrated around the destruction of property and the burning of effigies. These demonstrations rarely resulted in death and authorities never had to fire into the crowd. Although multiple witnesses describe a stick being thrown at a soldier and snowballs being thrown, this hardly supports Captain Preston’s notion of a deadly crowd.

In conclusion, Captain Preston did give the order to shoot to his soldiers. As the crowd’s goading became louder and bolder, and things such as snowballs and sticks being thrown, tensions undoubtedly escalated. When one of his soldiers was struck by a stick, it was most likely the breaking point for Preston. Angered and feeling as if he and his soldiers were threatened, he then gave them the order to shoot.

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