It’s a little scary how history can depend on simple accidents. Being in the right place at the wrong time. Doing or saying something foolish against one’s better judgement. It’s as though fate can just turn around and randomly select a certain person at a certain moment. And that person’s actions happen to influence the course of a nation. So it was with Private Hugh White on the night of March 5, 1770.
Not much is known about Hugh White. He was a soldier in the 29th Regiment of Foot. His regiment had been among the first to occupy the colonial town of Boston on October 1, 1768 to enforce law and order in the wake of several riots. After about a year and a half of occupation, tempers in Boston, on both sides, were ready to explode. In the preceding months, there had been brawls between British soldiers and Boston laborers. Then, on February 22, a Boston mob descended on the house of Ebenezer Richardson, a Tory. Richardson fired a shot out his window that killed an eleven year-old boy.
By March 5, 1770, both sides were in expectation of large-scale violence. “Patrols” of Bostonians roamed the streets at night, determined to prevent soldiers from setting fire to the town…rumor had it that they would try. The Redcoats, having been repeatedly threatened, knew that any confrontation with the inhabitants could, at this point, end in bloodshed. With such tension–so many out and about that night ready for a brawl–violence was inevitable. It was just a question of who would be unlucky enough to set it off.
Hugh White happened to be assigned sentry duty at the main guard post on King Street (now State Street) in the center of town. There was about a foot of snow on the ground and most of it had turned to ice. It must have been unsettling for White, standing there in his sentry box, hearing the shouts of roaming bands of Bostonians echoing through the frozen streets.
It seems to me that, just by virtue of where he was standing, fate had already selected Hugh White. He was alone. He was in the center of the town. And his post was to guard the Customs House…the headquarters of those officials who sought to enforce royal authority and implement the new taxes. It was, to say the least, a bad spot.
Around 8 o’clock, a group of teenagers approached White’s post. A British officer, Capt. John Goldfinch, just happened to pass nearby at the same time. One of the young men, Edward Gerrick, an apprentice at a wig shop, recognized Goldfinch.
Gerrick shouted at Goldfinch, “There goes the fellow who has not paid my master for dressing his hair!” In fact, Goldfinch had paid his bill and even had the receipt in his pocket. But, wisely, he kept his mouth shut and walked on by.
But Hugh White couldn’t let that go. “He is a gentleman,” Private White said to the lad, “and if he owes you anything, he will pay it.”
Gerrick responded that there were no gentlemen in Goldfinch’s regiment.
White asked Gerrick to come closer. So, Gerrick stepped nearer.
And in the next moment White apparently did something that would change history. He swung his musket and nailed Gerrick in the side of the head.
Now, to be fair, the testimony regarding this specific incident during the ensuing trial would be vague at best and it is possible that Gerrick was not actually hit. But there was some kind of an altercation between the two of them. And soon it attracted attention.
If only White could have kept his mouth shut, for his own sake, he could have avoided being at the center of the storm. But he had made his choice and soon the crowd on King Street swelled. The boys screamed at him, “Bloody back! Damned scoundrel lobster son of a bitch!” Church bells started ringing. The inhabitants of the town, believing there was a fire, began to fill the streets.
The mob surrounding Private White threw snowballs, oyster shells and chunks of ice at him. White fixed his bayonet, loaded his weapon and pointed it at them, warning them to get back.
Not all the townspeople were hostile. Some men with cooler heads, seeing what was happening, approached White and tried to calm the situation. Thomas Hall spoke to White and White told him, “I cannot keep my post clear. Hall, take care of yourself. There will be something done by and by.”
White eventually panicked…and who can blame him? With the crowd screaming, “Kill him! Kill him! Knock him down!” White ran to the Customs House and began pounding on the door. But it was locked. Placing his back against the Customs House and facing the crowd, White had no choice. He bellowed, “Turn out, Main Guard!”
This would eventually bring a squad of soldiers to his defense. But only after a delay which must have been the longest half hour of White’s life. The officer of the guard, an inexperienced young lieutenant, had no idea what to do. Which left the matter up to Capt. Thomas Preston…another man whom fate seemed to have selected as he had the unfortunate luck of serving as officer of the day. Knowing that turning out the guard would likely end in violence, Preston hesitated for some time. But eventually he led seven men to save White. As Preston feared, the crowd grew only more enraged and closed in around the circle of soldiers. One of Preston’s men, a Pvt. Montgomery, was hit with a club and fired. And then several more did as well. Three civilians were killed instantly. Two more would die later. Eleven were injured.
John Adams defended the British soldiers in court that autumn. It was a risky gamble which could have resulted in either political suicide or fame (it turned out to be the latter). In his closing argument, Adams described the scene faced by the soldiers:
When the multitude was shouting and huzzaing, and threatening life, the bells ringing, the mob whistling, screaming and rending like an Indian yell, the people from all quarters throwing every species of rubbish they could pick up in the street, and some who were quite on the other side of the street throwing clubs at the whole party, Montgomery in particular smote with a club and knocked down, and as soon as he could rise and take up his firelock, another club from afar struck his breast or shoulder, what could he do? Do you expect he should behave like a stoic philosopher lost in apathy?…It is impossible you should find him guilty of murder.
Capt. Preston and five of the soldiers (including Hugh White) were acquitted. Two were found guilty but their sentences reduced to manslaughter. Regardless, the Sons of Liberty now had ample fodder for their propaganda machine. Boston’s political mood would never be the same. Revolution was not far away.
The 29th Regiment, now dangerously despised, was removed from Boston in 1771. I presume Pvt. White went with them. I wish I knew what happened to him, the hapless man who precipitated the Boston Massacre.
Sources: The Trial of the British Soldiers of the 29th Regiment (1824), a transcript of court procedings; and Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution by A.J. Langguth (1988), a highly recommended read.