Witness to the Massacre

This week is filled with events in commemoration of the Sestercentennial  (or Semiquincentennial?) of the Boston Massacre on March 5: the usual reenactment, and much more. For a full calendar check out this post on Boston 1775, one of my very favorite history blogs. For my commemoration, I am focusing on a Salem witness for the prosecution in the ensuing trial of Captain Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment of Foot, the commander of the soldiers who fired on the crowd on that dark, cold night, killing five colonists. William Wyatt, a Salem coaster, happened to be on the scene, and was consequently called to provide testimony on several occasions. He is one of two notable Salem people connected to the Massacre and its aftermath: the other, Judge Benjamin Lynde, is arguably more “notable”, but I’d like to experience the event through the eyes of an average bystander, and Lynde was neither average nor a bystander.

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A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIXth Regiment, Which, with the XIVth Regiment, were then Quartered There, with some Observations of the State of Things Prior to that Catastrophe. Printed by Order of the Town of Boston: London: Re-printed for E. and C. Dilly, and J. Almon, London, 1770.

Though their separate trials did not take place until seven months later (so that tempers might simmer down), Captain Preston and the eight soldiers under his command were taken into custody and indicted immediately, as the Town of Boston put together a committee to investigate, gather evidence and depositions, and get the narrative (and the Pelham/Revere image) out there. Wyatt’s deposition is included among many in the appendix of A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, perpetuated in the Evening of Fifth Day of March 1770. It is quite detailed, and he is firm in his conviction that Captain Preston, referred to as the said officer below, ordered his men to load and fire: damn your bloods, fire, be the consequence what it will. And then, after the “consequences” were all too apparent, the said officer waved his sword in front of his men and said damn ye, rascals, what did ye fire for? This characterization of Captain Preston’s character, or lack thereof, caused John Adams, the defense attorney for the accused soldier, to challenge Wyatt in court several months later, asserting that his “diabolically malicious” portrayal of the Captain was in contradiction to all of the other testimony presented.

Wyatt Testimony Horrid (2)

William Wyatt testimony 2 Horrid (2)

William Wyatt testimory 3 Horrid (3)

Wyatt Testimony Horrid 4 (3)

I am always fascinated to find instances of regular people going about their business and then bumping into HISTORY: this seems to be the case with Wyatt. He was not a dashing Salem sea captain or wealthy merchant, but rather a “coaster”, plying his trade along the coast between Salem and Boston in his sloop Boston Packet. He seems to have supported himself and his family doing this quite well: he had a house on lower Essex Street as well as some land in Northfields that he sold a year after the Massacre. But there’s not much more to tell than that.

Wyatt Boston Harbor (3)

Wyatt 1775 Intrenchments Map 1775 (3)

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William-Wyatt-Salem_Gazette_1796-12-13 A coaster’s approach to Boston Harbor and its wharves: John Hills, Boston Harbor and Surroundings, c. 1770-79 & A plan of the town of Boston with the intrenchments &ca. of His Majesty’s forces in 1775 : from the observations of Lieut. Page of His Majesty’s Corps of Engineers, and from those of other gentlemen, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; Essex Gazette, 1771-1774; Salem Gazette, 1796

Given the importance of the Massacre and the remembrance which was almost immediately assigned to it, this must have been a huge event in William Wyatt’s life. I wonder if he was disappointed—or angry—that Captain Preston was acquitted. I wonder if he felt that he bore some responsibility for this acquittal, given the fact that Adams made such a point about his contradictory characterization of Preston as well as his display of some confusion about the color of the Captain’s “surtout” in his trial testimony:

I heard the Bell, coming up Cornhill, saw People running several ways. The largest part went down to the North of the Townhouse. I went the South side, saw an officer leading out 8 or 10 Men. Somebody met the officer and said, Capt. Preston for Gods sake mind what you are about and take care of your Men. He went down to the Centinel, drew up his Men, bid them face about, Prime and load. I saw about 100 People in the Street huzzaing, crying fire, damn you fire. In about 10 minutes I heard the Officer say fire. The Soldiers took no notice. His back was to me. I heard the same voice say fire. The Soldiers did not fire. The Officer then stamped and said Damn your bloods fire be the consequences what it will. Immediately the first Gun was fired. I have no doubt the Officer was the same person the Man spoke to when coming down with the Guard. His back was to me when the last order was given. I was then about 5 or 6 yards off and within 2 yards at the first. He stood in the rear when the Guns were fired. Just before I heard a Stick, which I took to be upon a Gun. I did not see it. The Officer had to the best of my knowledge a cloth coloured Surtout on. After the firing the Captain stepd forward before the Men and struck up their Guns. One was loading again and he damn’d ’em for firing and severely reprimanded ’em. I did not mean the Capt. had the Surtout but the Man who spoke to him when coming with the Guard. 

This is confusing and apparently Adams made the most of it, as Preston’s blazing crimson overcoat was universally acknowledged. But Wyatt corrected his statement—as you can see above— and was in good company in his descriptions of the unruly crowd and the general confusion over competing cries of fire. Perhaps he did see the Captain in back of his men at one point, while others saw him in front at another, indicating that he would not have given such an order in the interest of self-preservation. At the very least, I hope that William Wyatt felt heard and the records of the Boston Massacre and its aftermath indicate that he was.

For more views and sources, check out the Massachusetts Historical Society’s online exhibition Perspectives on the Boston Massacre.


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