Friday, February 19, 2016

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

Detail from Henry Pelham's 1770 engraving of the Boston Massacre
On March 2nd and 3rd, 1770, several escalating conflicts took place in Boston's South End between British soldiers and laborers at John Gray's rope manufacturing complex.  Samuel Gray is said to have been one of these rope workers who played a notable part in these brawls, possibly even fighting with the same soldier who would later shoot him dead just days later during the Boston Massacre.  Gray's actions in those earlier conflicts became an important legal question during the trial of the soldiers of the 29th regiment after the shooting on King-street, because a claim of self defense could be made if the shooter felt that his life had been previously threatened, while a charge of deliberate murder could be asserted if instead it was shown to be targeted revenge.

Needless to say, depositions were used for propaganda purposes by Tory's and Sons of Liberty alike.
One of the statements included in the pro-government document "A Fair Account of the late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England" infers that Gray was a premeditated aggressor:

“…on the second and third of March, last, before the general assault of the fifth, one Gray, and another person, both rope makers, met an acquaintance of mine, an high son of liberty, and told him that they expected to die to-morrow, they did not care how soon, as it was in a good cause, for that they, as well as several of their profession, with the assistance of some noted North-End bruisers, were determined the following day to attack the soldiers. That they (the ropemakers) were well prepared, and certain there would be bloody work; and concluded with asking him whether he would not attend as a spectator, advising him to arm himself in case of the worst, that Gray and his companion were both of them armed with desperate bludgeons…
                                                       - deposition of Thomas Pryce (No. 97) April 22, 1770

Pryce considered Samuel Gray a "worthless fellow", though his loyal bias in favor of the soldiers is clear.  If the radicals are to be believed, Gray was a peaceful man who arrived at King-street with neither a weapon nor in anger.  Sam Adams, writing on December 31, 1770 to the Boston Gazette under the pseudonym VINDEX, claimed that on the night of the shooting,

"Mr. Gray...was at his own house the whole of the Evening, saving his going to a neighbour's house to borrow the News-Paper of the day and returning; He went out on the ringing of the bells; and altho' a child swore in Court, that he saw him with a stick, after the bells rang, yet another witness saw him before he got into King-Street without a stick; others saw him in King-Street and testified that he had no stick; and when he was shot, the Witness at whose feet he fell, declared, as is mentioned in a former Paper, that he had no stick, and his arms were folded in his bosom, so that it is probable, the young witness mistook the person."

John Adams, who defended Captain Preston and the soldiers of the 29th regiment at their separate trials, also references Samuel Gray's activities prior to the Massacre in a summary address.

"Some of the witnesses, have sworn that Gray was active in the battle at the Rope-walks, and that [Private] Killroy was once there, from whence the counsel for the Crown would infer, that Killroy;  in King-street, on the 5th of March in the night, knew Gray whom he had seen at the Rope-walks before, and took that opportunity to gratify his preconceived malice; but if this is all true, it will not take away from him his justification, excuse or extenuation, if he had any.  The rule of the law is, if there has been malice between two, and at a distant time afterwards they meet, and one of them assaults the other's life, and he kills in consequence of it, the law presumes the killing was in self defense, or upon the provocation not on account of the antecedent malice."

Based in part on this legal nicety, Private Killroy, whose shot according to the March 12,1770 Boston Gazette account of the Massacre "killed [Gray] on the spot, the ball entering his head and beating off a large portion of the skull…”, was found not guilty of murder but only of manslaughter.

Fellow rope worker Nicholas Ferriter, who testified as a prosecution witness that he himself had been involved in the initial dust up on March 2nd at John Gray's warehouse, offered further evidence of Samuel Gray's lack of militant behavior on the night of the Massacre:

…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 was there, I heard guns go off. I went to King-street and was told several were killed. The then went home. Samuel Gray, when I saw him that night, was quite calm, and had no stick.”

In contrast, Benjamin Davis, Jr. testified for the prosecution that when he encountered Gray that night the rope worker had belligerent intent:

“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.”
In response to follow up questions by the prosecutor, young Davis stated that Samuel Gray did indeed have a stick under his arm at that time, and that "I do not suppose he could have got into King Street two minutes before the firing."

Is it possible to reconcile the statements of Ferriter and Davis?  One explanation may lie in the route that Samuel Gray took to King-Street and what was happening at the time.  We will explore the conundrums of 18th century Boston's geography in a subsequent post in this series.

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