The Trial of Captain Thomas Preston for the Boston Massacre

The Trial of Captain Thomas Preston for the Boston Massacre

On the night of March 5, 1770, an angry crowd of more than fifty Bostonians began taunting a British Sentinel. Captain Thomas Preston, a British officer for the day, brought several soldiers to his assistance. By that time, the crowd escalated to approximately 400 people, some were pressed close to the soldiers ready to fight, some were simply curious observers, and others were called from their homes by the town’s church bells. Preston’s efforts to suppress the crowd were useless. Snowballs were thrown at the soldiers as well as a three-foot long stick. The word “fire” was uttered causing British troops to fire their muskets at the angry mob. In the end, three people were dead, including a free black sailor named Crispus Attucks. Eight others were wounded, two of which died later. The people at the time had protested against British policies such as the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Duties. British soldiers were simply given order restore peace to Boston and to enforce the taxes posed on the colonists. Captain Thomas Preston did order his troops to “prime and load” their weapons, to keep them ready for attack, but he did not order them to fire.

According to the testimony of ten witnesses for both the prosecution and defense, not one person heard or believed to have heard Captain Preston command his soldiers to fire their muskets. Even according to his deposition, Thomas Preston claimed, “some well behaved persons asked if the guns were charged” to which he said was true, but when asked if he intended to order his soldiers to fire, he strongly denied it because “under those circumstances would prove me to be no officer.”

Paul Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre is an inaccurate depiction of the horrid event. First of all, almost every witness who testified in Captain Thomas Preston’s trial claimed that snowballs were thrown at the British soldiers. However, there is no snow portrayed in Revere’s engraving. Second, troops are shown in a straight line, shooting their rifles all at once, in which Revere portrayed the colonists as vulnerable and innocent. However, on March 5, 1770, both colonists and British troops were belligerent and confrontational, daring the troops to fire. Third, the engraving only shows white men being shot at. One of the causalities of the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks to which Revere portrayed him as a white man. Finally, the engraving shows a blue sky. Only a wisp of a moon suggests that the riot occurred after nine o’clock on a cold winter night.

It seemed as if there were a few inconsistencies regarding the testimony of many witnesses in Captain Thomas Preston’s trial. Only a few witnesses were able to describe his attire on the day of the Boston Massacre. Not one witness testified that he wore red, but only a few people claimed he wore a surtout, presumably cloth colored, while other witnesses argue that he did not. Frankly, it really did not matter what he wore because not everybody saw him.

What also seemed inconsistent about the trial was the testimony of one of the witnesses. He claimed that he heard “A Capt.” cried out of the window “fire upon ‘em, damn ‘em”. The witness also confirms that Captain Preston commanded the troops. However, the witness he did not hear him give order to fire. Theodore Bliss, a witness for the prosecution, had no doubt that he heard Captain Preston give order to fire after the first firing, but had no recollection. He claimed that when asked if the guns had been loaded by powder and ball, Captain Preston did not answer. Richard Palmes testified that Theodore asked Preston if his soldiers were loaded to which Preston, Theodore, and Richard confirmed were true. However, Richard claimed that Preston did tell Theodore that “by no means” did he intend his soldiers to fire on the colonists, which is also confirmed in Thomas Preston’s deposition.

Whether or not Captain Thomas Preston ordered his troops to fire into the unruly crowd on March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre left an indelible mark on US History, helping the colonists in their fight for independence from England. A few witnesses believed that Preston said the word fire to his troops, ordering them to attack the mob of Boston townspeople, however those witnesses did not have direct evidence that he did so because they did not actually see him. If the soldiers were told to fire, there would have been a lag because they would have all fired at that moment which would have made the attack premeditated or they would have had to take time to charge their guns and be ready.