Wednesday, March 05, 2008

March 5

On this date in 1770, British redcoats from the 29th Regiment of Foot opened fire on a crowd of American colonists at the Old State House in Boston, killing five bystanders from a crowd that had been pelting the soldiers with snowballs, garbage, and chunks of ice. At their trial, the Redcoats were successfully defended by a lawyer named John Adams -- Adams would eventually serve one term as President of the United States.

Broadly speaking, the shootings represented perhaps the inevitable outcome of the hostility between many Bostonians and the British regulars quartered so controversially in their city since October 1768. Clashes between soldiers and local men were routine and had accelerated in the days before the encounter on March 5. In narrower terms, however, the so-called Boston Massacre originated in a dispute over a bill owed to a local wigmaker by an English officer; when the argument over the bill escalated and the wigmaker’s apprentice was beaten, a crowd of artisans and other workingmen responded by confronting a group of soldiers outside a government guilding. When a chunk of ice knocked Private Hugh Montgomery to the ground, he and his fellow soldiers opened fire on a group that Adams described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”

Among the “motley rabble” were Crispus Attucks, an Afro-Indian who died of two shots to the chest; Samuel Gray, who took a bullet to the brain; James Caldwell, who died of two shots to the back; and Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr, both of whom died from their wounds several days after the attack.

In his famous “Boston Massacre Oration,” delivered on the fourth anniversary of the bloody deed, John Hancock urged his fellow colonists not to forget what happened on 5 March 1774. Speaking with typical revolutionary hyperbole, Hanckock thundered:
Let this sad tale of death never be told without a tear; let not the heaving bosom cease to burn with a manly indignation at the barbarous story, through the long tracts of future time; let every parent tell the shameful story to his listening children until tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passions shake their tender frames; and whilst the anniversary of that ill-fated night is kept a jubilee in the grim court of pandemonium, let all America join in one common prayer to heaven that the inhuman, unprovoked murders of the fifth of March, 1770, planned by Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston, and executed by the cruel hand of Preston and his sanguinary coadjutors, may ever stand in history without a parallel.
Without doubt, John Hancock would not have enjoyed the 20th century. One hundred and seventy years after the Boston Massacre, Joseph Stalin accepted a memo from Lavrenty Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, recommending the execution of 25,000 Polish prisoners of war being held at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. The shootings were carried out beginning in April at the Katyn Forest, at two locations in Smolensk, as well as at prisons in Kalinin, Kharkiv, Moscow, and other Soviet cities. For the next half century, the Soviet Union denied that the mass executions had ever taken place.

Thirteen years after agreeing to what would become known as the Katyn Massacre, Joesph Stalin expired from a massive stroke on 5 March 1953. Most of his final day was spent alone on the floor of his dacha, where he lay partly paralyzed and unable to call for assistance, or to tell anyone that he had soiled himself. If he was not in fact poisoned -- as has sometimes been alleged -- he probably should have been.