Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Boston Massacre: Patrick Carr vs. Crispus Attucks

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This post is admittedly along the same theme as my last one: why are some people remembered and others forgotten.  I promise this won't become a long term trend in my posts, but I thought this story is also useful for discussion.

The Boston Massacre - Lead Up

If you learned US history, you hopefully learned about the Boston Massacre.  This was one of many events in the Boston area that eventually led the American colonies into war with Britain and to Independence.

The Massacre took place on March 5, 1770.  Britain and her colonies were still at peace, but there had been great tension for several years.  Boston particularly was the center of resistance to many new British regulations.

A quick summary of events leading up to the Massacre: The British imposed taxes and began enforcing long unenforced trading rules on the colonies in order to raise money.  The Colonies deeply opposed this and thought any attempts to raise revenue should be handled by their own locally elected legislatures. Boston was particularly unruly in its resistance to these British attempts to collect money.  Well organized mobs of people destroyed the homes and property of tax collectors.  A few were tarred and feathered, threatened, and run out of town.

In late 1768, the British sent soldiers to Boston to restore order and protect the new tax collectors.
The locals saw this as a despotic act of using military force to deny them their rights and liberties. The brunt of their wrath fell on the regular soldiers who were just following orders.  Soldiers were heckled, harassed, had things thrown at them and generally treated horribly by the locals.

On March 2-3, 1770 there were several outright brawls between locals and soldiers, with one soldier left with a fractured skull.  Soldiers were discussing having revenge on the locals while the locals were said to be trying to provoke more fights with the hated soldiers.

The Massacre

This brings us to March 5, 1770.  Events that day began as a rather minor incident which quickly grew out of control due to existing tensions.  A young wig maker's apprentice named Edward Garrick shouted an insult at a British officer.  It was nothing political.  He accused the officer of refusing to pay for a hair treatment at his master's place of work.  The officer had the good sense to ignore the comment and walk away.

Hugh White, a British soldier on sentry duty in front of the Customs House did not let the comment pass.  He confronted the boy and said something about the officer being an honorable man who paid his debts.  Garrick then made some insulting comment directly at White (we don't know exactly what he said), which only enraged White to the point of hitting Garrick on the ear with the butt of his rifle. The boy's screams quickly caused a group of mostly boys and young men in the area to confront the lone sentry.   Someone rang the bells in a nearby church (taken as an alarm bell) which drew more people. The sentry found himself confronting a large angry mob.

White called for help the main guard. Six more soldiers, led by a corporal, responded. They were soon joined by the officer on duty, Captain John Preston.  Their guns were not loaded but had fixed bayonets, to intimidate the mob and force it to back down..

But these few soldiers were facing a crowd of almost 400 men. The crowd not only taunted them and shouted threats, but also began pelting the soldiers with snowballs and chunks of ice.  The soldiers loaded their weapons hoping to convince the mob that this was serious.  This only got the mob angrier and they began striking at the soldiers with clubs and a sword.

According to some accounts, one soldier was hit on the head by a chunk of ice or a club.  He then fired his weapon into the crowd.  The other soldiers also fired into the crowd.  Three men were killed instantly.  Eight more were wounded, two of whom died from their wounds within days.  The crowd dispersed from the immediate area, but then grew to thousands of people within a few blocks.  The small group of soldiers then retreated back to the main guard.

The mob was eventually dispersed on the promise that the soldiers would be arrested and tried for murder.  After a legal defense by local lawyer and Patriot John Adams most were acquitted based on a claim of self-defense.  Two soldiers Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Killroy, were convicted of manslaughter and had their thumbs branded.


Despite the soldiers getting off lightly, the event was a Patriot victory.  All British soldiers had to retreat from the city and stay in Castle Island in the harbor for their own safety.  They only came back to the city when they were in large numbers.  This clearly hampered their avowed purpose of protecting the lives and property of officials in the city.  For many years following, anniversary events were held to remind Bostonians of what the British had done and to rekindle their anger at the military occupation.

The event greatly inflamed tensions between Britain and her colonies.  The British saw the event as part of the difficulty in controlling the mob ruled Boston.  The people of Boston saw it as an example of the savagery of the despotic British attempting to crush their demands for liberty and their rights as Englishmen.

Crispus Attucks Gets the Honors

Alright, that is the background of events.  Two of the men killed in the Massacre with Crispus Attucks and Patrick Carr, the men I mentioned in the title of this post.  The other three were  Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and Samuel Maverick.  All five men suffered the same death.  But only one seemed to have achieved any level of fame.

Many of you may have learned about Crispus Attucks in your grade school or high school history class. There are numerous buildings and other landmarks named in his honor.`

Attucks grew up in Farmington, Massachusetts, a small town just outside Boston.  His father was a slave born in Africa.  His mother was Native American.  In the language of the day, Attucks was a mulatto.  Today we would call him mixed-race.  Attucks is believed to have been a slave as a child but ran away to Boston.  He spent twenty years as a sailor on trading vessels and whaling ships. In 1770, he was working as a Boston rope maker and was involved in the street brawls with the British on March 2-3.  By some accounts he was the first person killed when the soldiers began firing.

Patrick Carr - One of the Forgotten Martyrs

The second person I wish to focus on is Patrick Carr.  Carr was an Irish Catholic Immigrant.  Remember that at this time, there were few Irish in Boston. Most arrived during the Irish Famine, nearly 80 years later.  Massachusetts was traditionally hostile to Catholic.  At one point the law called for the execution of any Catholic Priests found in the colony.  While not that hostile to Catholics by this time, there was still no Catholic Church in the colony.

After arriving from Ireland, Carr worked in Boston in a leather business.  He was thirty years old in 1770 when the Boston Massacre occurred. On the night of the shooting, he heard the Church alarm bell and rushed toward the events. Carr, familiar with soldiers and street mobs, seems to have at least suspected that the trouble had something to do with the British.  He started off with a small cutlass before his neighbor persuaded him to leave it behind. When the shooting erupted, he was wounded while crossing the street with his friend Charles Connor, a shipmaster.

Carr was shot in the abdomen, which meant almost certain death in those days.  He lingered for several days of agonizing before finally dying.  During his slow death, he was able to give some testimony about the events on March 5.  His suffering did not deter him from showing great forgiveness toward his killers  Carr said that he was surprised how much abuse the soldiers took before they fired in self defense.  He had seen soldiers suppressing Irish mobs in his home country, but ‘he had never in his life seen them bear half so much before they fired’. He further said he did not bear malice to the soldiers who had fired.  A few days later he passed away and was buried along with the other four victims.

Who is Remembered?

Of the five fatalities in the Massacre, Attucks is indisputably the best known.  Profiles appear in most grade school history books.  The US Treasury minted a commemorative silver dollar with Crispu Attucks on it in 1998.  There are at least four public schools, two parks, a theater, a road, and a bridge named in honor of Attucks.*  By comparison, I am not aware of any monuments or memorials named after any of the other four victims individually.

Why does Attucks get the special claim to fame?   The most obvious answer is that Attucks was black.  There has been a concerted effort to hold up black historical figures for enhanced recognition.  It is an effort to include the black story in the history of America.  Unfortunately, there simply were not that many blacks who did much of any significance.  Most blacks of that period were slaves. They could not rise to positions of importance in the military, politics, or industry.  Therefore, when someone like Attucks is a part of a well known event, his role is over emphasized.

While Irish Catholics were also clearly an oppressed minority in colonial Massachusetts, they have largely outgrown that designation.  There is not as great a need for modern historians to seek out historic figures of note who were particularly Irish Catholics.  If they do, there are probably more notable figures to select, such as John Barry, the famous Revolutionary War Naval officer, sometimes called the "Father of the American Navy."

But race is not the only reason Attucks may get special promotion.  The allegation that he was the first to die also gives him a special place.  Many consider the Boston Massacre the first real act of the Revolution where people died.  Therefore, the first person killed, is also the first fatal casualty of the Revolution itself.  That also may contribute to his special mention.  Whether Attucks really was the first to die (after all, three were killed instantly within seconds of one another)  is not the point.  That he was named as the first, makes it part of the narrative in perpetuity.  One could also quibble that there were several earlier fatalities in the political riots surrounding the Stamp Acts, but none killed by British regulars.

Attucks also seemed to take a leading role in the riot itself.  Several witnesses commented on his leading role in provoking the soldiers.  While some today might consider a mob provoking and attacking what were essentially police on guard duty as being "thugs," in the context of the Revolution it makes them brave and heroic. By contrast, Carr was killed while still standing a distance away from the events.

Attucks previous activities with Sons of Liberty protests and riots meant that he was probably friends with others dedicated to the cause and was likely a supporter of the political aims of the Sons of Liberty.  By contrast, Carr seems to have approved of the soldiers' actions that day, at least after the fact.  Patriot leader Samuel Adams was apparently deeply annoyed at Carr's willingness to forgive the soldiers.  Patriot leaders, therefore, had no interest in profiling him particularly as a face of the Patriot cause.

There may be many reasons why one person's role in history is remembered over others. But all are certainly deserving of our knowing what they did.

* Places named in honor of Crispus Attucks include:
  • Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Attucks Middle School in Sunnyside, Houston, Texas
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
  • Crispus Attucks Elementary School in East St. Louis
  • Crispus Attucks Park in Carbondale, Illinois
  • Crispus Attucks Park in Washington, DC
  • Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia
  • Crispus Attucks Road in Spring Valley, New York
  • Crispus Attucks Bridge in Framingham, Massachusetts.
  • Crispus Attucks Association in York, Pennsylvania
  • Crispus Attucks Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts 
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