Home Massachusetts The Boston Massacre: John Adams Saves a Soldier’s Life

The Boston Massacre: John Adams Saves a Soldier’s Life

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On March 5, 1770, Matthew Kilroy shot Samuel Gray to death during the Boston Massacre.

Kilroy had fought with Gray earlier, and witnesses saw him point his gun at him. He was taken into custody to await trial.

The event that helped trigger the American Revolution began with name calling, petty quarrels and street brawls. Sam Adams used it to stir up anti-British feeling. John Adams used it to uphold high-minded principles.

In the process, John Adams also saved Matthew Kilroy from the gallows.

Would phone spying prevented the Boston Massacre?

Propaganda depicting the Boston Massacre.

Before the Boston Massacre

Boston roiled with tension and anger over British soldiers quartered there during the winter of 1769-70. Two thousand of His Majesty’s Troops, along with their wives, children and hangers on, crowded into the town you could walk in an hour. The soldiers competed for housing and for women, and they weren’t always polite about it. They didn’t make much money, and often looked for side hustles, which lowered wages for the locals.

A Boston protest

Then on February 22, a Loyalist shot to death 11-year-old Christopher Seider during a protest against merchants who broke the ban on selling British goods. Two thousand people attended his funeral.

Eight days later, a fight broke out at John Gray’s ropeworks.


The ships sailing in and out of Boston Harbor used huge quantities of rope. One ship could use as much as 31 miles of the stuff. By 1770, Boston’s wharves had a more than a dozen ropewalks, sheds as long as football fields. Men laid down strands of hemp inside, then twisted them into rope by walking the length of the shed. The workers then dipped the rope in kettles of hot tar, which often started fires. Ropeworks were dirty, dangerous sweatshops, but the poorly paid British soldiers were willing to work in them to earn extra cash.

Charlestown Navy Yard ropewalk, 1852.

On Friday, March 2, Patrick Walker, a private with the 29th Regiment of Foot, left his nearby barracks to fetch a bucket of water from a well next to Gray’s ropeworks.

William Green, a ropeworker, called out: “Do you want work?”

Walker replied, “yes.”

Green said, “then go clean my s–t-house.” (Other witnesses remembered him saying “the necessary house” or “the little house.”)

According to one witness, Walker

…damned us and made a blow at, and struck me, when I knocked up his heels, his coat flew open, and out dropt a naked cutlass, which I took up and carried off with me. He went away, and came back with a dozen soldiers with him.

Others reported a different chain of events. However it developed, dozens of workers and soldiers got into a free-for-all. An elderly justice of the peace happened on the scene and tried to intervene, only to narrowly escape getting knocked down himself.

No Peace

The ropeworkers drove off the soldiers, but feelings didn’t subside over the weekend.

Historian J.L. Bell notes that two of the soldiers, Thomas Walker (the regiment’s black drummer) and Pvt. John Rodgers, needed medical attention. Several soldiers later testified as to their injuries. None of the ropeworkers seemed much the worse for wear, Bell noted.

A 29th Regiment of Foot soldier in 1742.

Among the ropeworkers was Samuel Gray, a journeyman, a streetfighter and no relation to the boss. Among the soldiers was Matthew Kilroy, an illiterate grenadier who would kill Samuel Gray in the Boston Massacre three days later.

Over the weekend, workers and soldiers armed with clubs prowled the streets, spoiling for a good fight. Several broke out between the soldiers and workers.

On March 4, the soldiers returned to John Gray’s ropeworks, looking for a missing sergeant rumored to have been killed. The sergeant showed up, but both sides shouted at each other angrily.

John Gray, who leaned Loyalist, went to visit the regimental officers. He struck a deal. He would fire William Green, and they would keep the soldiers away from the ropeworks. Both sides would try to calm things down.

John Adams

John Adams, a 34-year-old lawyer, spent the chilly winter night of March 5 by a fire in the South End home of Henderson Inches. Inches, married to a niece of John Gray, was hosting a get-together with old friends in their arts and social club.

Dan Abrams and David Fisher recreate the scene in John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial.

“[Adams] and his fellow guests were alarmed by the ringing of bells. Supposing it to be a signal of fire, they quickly put on their hats and cloaks ‘and went out to assist in quenching the fire or aiding our friends who might be in danger’.”


John Adams

They fell in with many other Bostonians who rushed to the scene, filling the wintry streets.

…Adams joined the stream of people flowing toward the top of King Street, the scene of the incident. His fears focused on Mrs. Adams, who was alone in their house with maids and their young son. It already was a difficult time for her; the Adamses had buried their young daughter, Susanna, only a month earlier and Abigail was hardly herself.

When Adams reached the Customs House, he saw British soldiers forming a protective wall around their comrades. He hurried on to his house in Cold Lane. On the way he ran into a company or two of regular soldiers drawn up in front of Dr. Cooper’s old Church with their muskets all shouldered and their bayonets all fixed.” He ignored them and went home. Abigail, to his relief, was fine.

The Quarrel That Ignited the Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre started with another argument. This time, 30-year-old Pvt. Hugh White was standing sentry in front of the Customs House, a rented mansion used for offices. A wigmaker’s apprentice started a quarrel with him, saying a lieutenant hadn’t paid his bill. The sassy boy irritated White so much he finally hit him in the head with his musket.

Though attention focused on the Customs House, the action also took place in front of the Old Statehouse, pictured here.

The boy started crying and a sergeant chased him away. But the boy and another apprentice told passersby what White had done. Some then made their way to the Customs House to hurl insults at White.

“Damned rascally Scoundrel Lobster Son of a Bitch”! a witness later remembered them saying.  The crowd threw snowballs and oyster shells at White, but mostly missed. White then made a show of loading his musket.

Henry Knox, then a burly 19-year-old bookseller, came out of his shop on Brattle Street. He watched White handle his gun and said, “If you fire, you die.”

Samuel Gray

A couple of boys got into the First Meeting House and started ringing the bell. People then began showing up with fire buckets.

A town watchman, Edward Langford, tried to calm both sides. In the street, someone told Samuel Gray what had happened at the Customs House. He then made his way toward the growing crowd and planted himself at the front. Months later at trial, John Adams quoted a witness saying

[Gray] had a stick under his arm, and said he would go to the riot, “I am glad of it, (that is that there was a rumpus) I will go and have a slap at them, if I lose my life.” And when he was upon the spot, some witnesses swear, he did not act that peaceable in-offensive part, which Langford thinks he did. They swear, they thought him in liquor—that he run about clapping several people on the shoulders saying, “Dont run away”—“they dare not fire.”

At the same trial, patriots tried to characterize the crowd as small boys.

“We have been entertained with a great variety of phrases, to avoid calling this sort of people a mob,” Adams said. “The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs.”

Matthew Kilroy

Matthew Kilroy was in the guardhouse with a handful of other grenadiers when Capt. Thomas Preston ordered them to march to the Customs House.

Kilroy was big and burly, like the rest of the grenadiers. A 22-year-old Irishman, he had already served in the British Army for seven years. He couldn’t read or write. Someone once overheard him saying he would not miss an opportunity to fire on the inhabitants of Boston.

The grenadiers rushed toward the Customs House, led by Cpl. William Wemms. Shouting oaths, they pushed aside people who got in their way. They made their way through the crowd and formed an arc in front of the Customs House.

Wemms ordered them to load their rifles. Knox pulled Preston aside and said, “”For God’s sake, take care of your men for if they fire your life must be answerable.”

The Boston Massacre

The crowd dared the soldiers to fire. Then a group of several dozen sailors arrived, led by a tall sailor of mixed race–Crispus Attucks. They had picked up heavy sticks from a pile of firewood. The sailors had their own grievances. The British Royal Navy had a habit of kidnapping sailors off the street and impressing them into a miserable service aboard ship.

Some of the sailors surged forward throwing ice and rocks. British bayonets sliced into them.  Attucks got close enough to grab one of the bayonets with one hand and knock the soldier down with the other.

An 1868 print of the Boston Massacre by Alonzo Chappel, showing more chaos (and probably more accurately) than the earlier propaganda.


Then a missile – a snowball, or an oyster shell, or a stick – struck Pvt. Edward Montgomery’s musket. He lost his balance and fired his weapon—probably, say historians, inadvertently. Someone shouted, “Fire.”

Fourteen shots rang out. Attucks took two balls in the chest and fell into the gutter.  Samuel Gray went to look at Attucks and Kilroy leveled his rifle at Gray’s head. Gray may have shouted, “Don’t fire, damn you!”

Kilroy fired. The ball left a hole the size of a fist in Samuel Gray’s head. He struggled for a moment, then collapsed, dead, onto the feet of the town watchman.

A sailor named James Caldwell took two bullets in the back. Samuel Maverick, an apprentice, caught a ricocheting ball and died the next day. Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant who happened to pass by, was shot in the hip. He died nine days later.

The constable took charge, directing people to fetch a doctor, memorize soldiers’ faces, carry away the dead and wounded. Captain Preston ordered the men to prop their rifles and march back to the guardhouse. The next day, all eight were taken into custody.

John Adams, Esq.

Adams later remembered James Forrest, a wealthy Irish merchant, visiting him in his law office. With tears streaming, Adams recalled, Forrest begged him to defend the soldiers. Lawyers Josiah Quincy, Jr., and Robet Auchmuty, Jr., said they’d accept the case if John Adams did.

Agreeing to take the case was one of the best things he ever did, Adams wrote. He did it because he believed a fair trial was the right of all English citizens. If the poor fools fired in self-defense, they must be tried, he wrote. If the truth came out and law prevailed, they must be acquitted.

A jury acquitted Capt. Thomas Preston in the first trial. The second trial, of the seven grenadiers, was harder. Despite confusion and conflicting witness statements, two soldiers were consistently singled out. Edward Montgomery for killing Crispus Attucks and Matthew Kilroy for killing Samuel Gray.

The prosecution attacked Kilroy for joining in the ropewalk melee three nights before the Boston Massacre.

Adams painted a dramatic picture of a fearsome mob assaulting a small squad of soldiers who did their best to restrain themselves. “[T]he law does not oblige us to bear insults to the danger of our lives, to stand still with such a number of people round us, throwing such things at us, and threatening our lives, until we are disabled to defend ourselves,” he said.

No one, continued Adams, said Matthew Kilroy knew Samuel Gray. And even if he did, and even if he hated him, he had a right to defend himself.

The rule of the law is, if there has been malice between two, and at a distant time afterwards they met, and one of them assaults the other’s life…the law presumes the killing was in self defence.

Grave marker for the victims of the Boston Massacre in the Old Granary Burying Ground.

The Verdict

A jury returned a verdict of not guilty for five of the grenadiers. But it found Montgomery and Kilroy guilty of manslaughter. The punishment was death by hanging.

But John Adams had a well-known trick up his sleeve called “benefit of clergy.” Originally intended to protect clergy from the gallows, it allowed people to avoid hanging by proving they could read the Bible. To let illiterate criminals like Kilroy off the hook, the court asked them to recite an easily-memorized psalm. If they could manage that, the court would lessen their punishment to branding on the thumb.

Appeals were made to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson to waive the painful punishment. Hutchinson, however, didn’t want to further inflame Boston. So on Dec. 14, 1770, Matthew Kilroy and Edward Montgomery stood before the sheriff and held out their hands for the red-hot iron. It either burned an “M” for murder—or maybe an “F” for felon—so they couldn’t escape hanging again.

Just before the sheriff put the hot iron to his thumb, Matthew Kilroy and Edward Montgomery burst into tears.

With thanks to John Adams Under Fire: The Founding Father’s Fight for Justice in the Boston Massacre Murder Trial and to J.L. Bell, who probably knows more about the Boston Massacre than anyone else on the planet. Check out his Boston 1775 blog. He’s also written The Road to Concord. This story updated in 2022.

Images: Ropewalk: Courtesy By Leslie, Published by the Boston Public Library – https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/4016581027/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75001991. Old Statehouse By Dion Hinchcliffe – Site of the Boston Massacre, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19245186. Gravestones By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84157347.

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