Friday, March 5, 2010

Aftermath of the Massacre: "This inhuman piece of barbarity"

Given that today is the 240th anniversary of the "Boston Massacre" that occupies such an evocative place in American history, I thought a particular letter in my research database might be of interest to the tens of readers of Transatlantic History. It was written by William Palfrey of Boston to his friend, the infamous John Wilkes, during the events of March 5, though sent a week later. I came across it one day while going through the Palfrey Papers at the Houghton Library of Harvard. This extraordinary passage is one of those rare windows into a major event that really brings it alive for readers. It also shows how one's political presumptions--Palfrey was a staunch Patriot Whig--clearly shape one's perceptions about such events. Nevertheless, Palfrey's account returns us to the very scene, the precise moment of one of the most famous events in the history of the American Revolution.

“I was oblig’d the break off the above by the alarm of ringing a Bell which I at first imagin’d to be for Fire...but sent my servant to see where it was. he very soon return’d & told me there was no fire by that some of the inhabitants & Soldiers were fighting near Kingstreet: I immediately ran out towards the Scene of action & had just got to the East End of the Courthouse which makes the front of Kingstreet when I head the discharge of six or seven Musquettes I ran with many others towards the place where I was witness to one of the most shocking scenes that ever was exhibited in a Christian Country. Three unhappy victims lay weltring in their Gore two others mortally wounded & Six other dangerously. This inhuman piece of barbarity was perpretated by a party of eight Men under the command of one Capt Thos Preston of the 29th Regiment, all the Bells in Town were immediately rang the Inhabitants gather’d some in attempting to remove the dead & wounded were threaten’d & wounded by the Soldiers."
William Palfrey to John Wilkes, 13 March 1770, in Palfrey Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, MSS 1704.4(89).