“When Innocence itself was not safe: Little-known preface to Boston Massacre sets the stage for trouble”

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back historian Derek D. Maxfield. 

In March 1770 one of the most infamous events of the American revolutionary era took place outside the Custom’s House in Boston, when British soldiers fired into a crowd instantly killing three American civilians and wounding many others.  It is, I hope, a familiar story.  But this terrible tragedy was preceded, just a month earlier by a little-known event that took the life of a preteen boy.

John Adams by Mather Brown

While riding through the country-side attending to errands, John Adams stumbled upon, “a vast collection of people, near the Liberty Tree.”  The large assemblage surprised the Bay State lawyer, who “enquired and found the funeral of the child, lately killed by Richardson.[i]

Adams happened upon the services for eleven year old Christopher Snider, who had been fatally shot by Ebenezer Richardson on Feb. 22nd, 1770 in Boston.  The Boston Gazette carried the story of how this tragedy had come about.  “On Thursday, late in the forenoon a barbarous murder attended with many aggravating circumstances, was committed on the body of a young lad.[ii]

A group of boys of various ages had been demonstrating near the home of a merchant that was known to have violated the nonimportation agreement then in place in the colonies (which had been enacted in answer to the Townshend Duties).  This “piece of pageantry” the Gazette explained, was witnessed by “one Ebenezer Richardson, who…was an officer of the customs, long known by the name of an INFORMER, and consequently a person of a most abandoned character.[iii]”  Richardson apparently charged into the fray and tried to break up the demonstration unsuccessfully.  Failing in this, he disappeared into the merchant’s house.

When Richardson reappeared and employing the most “profane language” prepared to “perpetrate a villany,” according to the Gazette.  Threatening to fire upon the group of boys, Richardson “swore to God that he would make the place too hot for some of them before night, and that he would make a lane through them if they did not go away.”  Witnesses to the scene later testified that the boys in no way answered with violence to that point, though soon Richardson was chucking brickbats and stones at them.  “This, however, brought on a skirmish, and Richardson discharged his piece laden with swan shot[iv].”  Snider, hit in several places, was mortally wounded as well as another boy with non-life-threatening wounds.

Boston Gazette Masthead (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harbottle Dorr, Jr. Collection)

In April Richardson and another customs official, George Wilmot, were indicted and tried for murder in Suffolk Superior Court.  Wilmot was acquitted; Richardson was found guilty but was pardoned by the King.  The King’s pardon, coming as it did on the heels of the Boston Massacre, was met with extraordinary criticism from the people of Boston and contributed to tension that was already pregnant with possibilities for further disruption of the relationship between crown and colony.

Watching the long train of carriages at Snider’s funeral, John Adams was troubled.  Although the Boston Massacre was still a few weeks into the future, the barrister observed “this shows there are many more lives to spend if wanted in the service of their country.  It shows, too that the faction is not yet expiring – that the ardor of the people is not to be quelled by the slaughter of one child and the wounding of another.[v]

The Gazette was scathing in it’s assessment of the shooting.  “This innocent lad is the first, whose life has been victim to the cruelty and rage of oppressors!”  Cut down by an “execrable villain,” in concert with, and with the apparent encouragement of, other British agents, they “could not bear to see the enemies of America made the ridicule of boys.[vi]

The hostility of the people of Boston at the time to the presence of British soldiers is quite understandable.  It was a city of occupation.  The British encampment, after all, was in the heart of the city on Boston Common.  Martial law reigned and off-duty soldiers began to even snatch up jobs along the docks, ordinarily the sustenance of native sons. But when you layer in the shooting of adolescents – and killing of one – at the hands of British agents not a full month before, the temperament of Bostonians is even easier to understand.  As the Gazette put it, “the untimely death of this amiable youth will be a standing monument to the futurity that the time has been when Innocence itself was not safe![vii]















[i] L.H. Butterfield, ed.  Diary and Autobiography of John Adams.  Vol. I.  (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1962)  350.

[ii] Edes and Gill, Boston Gazette, February 26, 1770.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] L.H. Butterfield, ed.  Diary. 349-350.

[vi] Edes and Gill, Boston Gazette, February 26, 1770.

[vii] Ibid.

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