Friday, February 19, 2016

Being Samuel Gray: Interpreting a Central Figure from the Boston Massacre (Part IV)

How did Samuel Gray spend his final hours on Earth?  Does his prior association with the donnybrook at John Gray's Rope-walks suggest he went out that night on March 5th, 1770 looking for a fight, or did he show up thinking there was a fire, only to be fired upon himself?  Given the anecdotal and politically motivated testimony that constitutes nearly all the available evidence, not to mention the confusion during the climactic moments of the Boston Massacre, there is room for historical interpretation in either direction, though probably not to either extreme.

Detail from an October, 1775 map of Boston
The map of Boston has changed dramatically since the events of March 5th, 1770.  Even with the benefit of historical maps, it is hard to trace the route taken by Samuel Gray to King-street based on sometimes conflicting depositions and trial testimony.  More than that, a researcher will search such contemporary cartography in vain for streets bearing the names given by witnesses.  There are good reasons why this should be the case, but to provide a clear explanation requires a more nuanced knowledge of Boston history, and perhaps also an appreciation of Bostonian character.

Local place names die hard.  There are still a few long-time residents of Boston who will direct you to Scollay Square in the old West End that was obliterated by urban renewal in the 1960s and replaced by the modern brutalism of Government Center.  It will take another generation before the Mystic Bridge is universally known in Boston as the Tobin Bridge, though it has carried that name since 1967.  The same thing happened to the streets and lanes in Colonial Boston.  It might have been shown on a 1769 map as Atkinson's Street or Leverett's Lane, but everyone in Boston knew these places as Green's Lane or Quaker-Lane (in the latter case because the Quaker Meeting House was located there).

detail from A Plan of the Town of Boston in New-England
Distinguishing that Part which was Burnt in 1760
Boston had experienced the 18th century version of urban renewal with a devastating 1760 fire that gutted a number of blocks in the South End, including most of the locations associated with Samuel Gray sightings the night of the massacre before Gray arrived at King-street.  The Great Fire had started during the night on March 20th, 1760 at a tavern at Cornhill.  Fanned by a Northwest wind, the fire spread out towards the harbor and consumed nearly everything between the rope-walks and Long Wharf.  About 350 structures and ten sailing vessels were lost during the 10 hours that the fire raged, making it the worst urban conflagration in the American colonies up to that date.  Among the destroyed buildings was the Quaker Meeting House that gave Quaker Lane its local name.

During the rest of the decade, the burnt-over section of Boston experienced street reconfigurations as well as rebuilding. Some of the maps of the town printed in the late colonial era were based on earlier maps that had not been altered to reflect subsequent development to the extent that the printers may have claimed.  William Price's wonderful publication - A new plan of ye great town of Boston in New England in America, with the many additionall buildings, & new streets, to the year 1769 - was in fact heavily derivative of Captain John Bonner's 1723 The town of Boston in New England map, also published by Price.  Compare the details from each map, below, which focus on the areas where Samuel Gray was seen prior to his death on King-street during the Boston Massacre.  Among other things, the 1769 map still shows the 1710 Quaker Meeting house that was lost in the 1760 fire.

Detail from Bonner Map of Boston by William Price 1723

Detail from William Price Map of Boston 1769
Let us consider the witness testimony about encounters with Gray discussed in the previous post in this series.  Ropeworker Nicholas Ferriter stated:

"On the 5th March I went to Quaker Lane, and met Samuel Gray. I said Where are you going – he said to the fire. I went into King-Street and saw nobody there, the sentry was walking as usual. We agreed to go home. I went towards home, and stopped at the bottom of Long-lane, and while I wathere, I heard guns go off. I went to King-street and was told several were killed."

Quaker Lane is identified as Leverts L. on both of the Price maps above, running between King-Street and Milk St. and today part of modern Congress Street. There is an L shaped alley just West of Congress St. and south of State St. that is called Quaker Lane today. Ferriter and Gray would have walked North together to King St. where they parted, with Ferriter retracing his route and then continuing on Long Lane after he crossed Milk St.  The bottom of Long Lane (now Federal St.) was at Cow Lane (now part of High St.), and when Ferriter heard the gunfire he went back once more in nearly a straight line from Long Lane to Quaker/Levert's Lane and the Massacre site at King-street.

Benjamin Davis, Jr., on the other hand, testified that he met Samuel Gray that same evening but farther from King Street than where Ferriter came upon him:

I went home and staid at the gate in Green’s Lane some time. Samuel Gray (one of the persons killed that night in Kings-Street) came along, and asked where the fire was. I said there was no fire, it was the soldiers fighting. He said Damn it, I am glad of it, I will knock some of them on the head; he ran off, I said to him take heed you do not get killed in the affray yourself, he said do not you fear, damn their bloods.”

Green's Lane was a local name for what is shown on the maps as Atkinson's St. running close to Long Lane between Milk and Cow St.  The rope walks were located on the East side of Green's/Atkinson's,where a section of Modern Congress street lies today.

 Although Ferriter and Davis's statements seem to contradict each other, they both mention that Gray was out that night because he initially thought there was a fire.  The cause was the untimely ringing of church bells, the universal fire alarm of the day.  The bells started to ring that night before the confrontation on King-street had attracted more than a few youths who were taunting a solitary sentry, for another, seemingly more significant ruckus was underway in front of Murray's Sugar House on Brattle St. where some of the 29th had their barracks. 

Approximate routes of Nicholas Ferriter and Samuel Gray, based on Ferreter's
 and Benjamin Davis Jr.'s sworn statements(shown on a 1775 map of Boston)
If Ferriter and Gray reached King-Street together from Quaker-Lane, it may have been in response to  bells that were ringing because of the altercation several blocks away to the north at Murray's Barracks, for Ferriter claimed that nothing was happening when they came upon the sentry at the Custom House.  Ferriter did not say that Gray left the scene with him when he returned to Long Lane, but perhaps Gray and he parted at Milk Street, with Gray proceeding along Green's Lane still looking for the fire until he encountered Benjamin Davis, Jr., who was too far from the scene of the growing crisis at the Custom-House to have recent knowledge of it.  He might, however, have known about the fighting at Murray's Barracks.

Perhaps Gray became belligerent once he learned from Davis that the alarm was about "soldiers fighting", and ran back to King-Street where by now there was a greater crowd and Captain Preston and the Guard had since arrived to reinforce the beleaguered sentinel before the Custom-House.  Perhaps young Davis was mistaken when he testified that Gray had a stick under his arm, or maybe Gray was by this time carrying a weapon.  The one thing that seems likely based on both Ferriter and Davis's statements was that Gray approached King-Street from the South End of Town and his home as well as the rope-walks where he labored may well have been in that section of Boston.

Plotting Samuel Gray's path risks becoming something akin to  a ricocheting bullet if one tries too hard to make such evidence conform to a definitive account.  The same is true for conflicting accounts of his behavior once he arrived, without Ferriter this time, in the middle of King-Street where minutes later he would lose his life.  We will discuss the evidence for what happened next, including suggestions about how he may have been dressed when he died, and the question once more of whether he was unarmed or carrying a stick, in the next post in this series.

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