Artifacts from the Boston Massacre


On March 5, 1770, five years prior to the start of the American Revolution was the so-called Boston Massacre. A Boston mob surrounded a lone British sentry. The guard was called out and shots were fired leading to five being killed and six wounded. There is a lot published and on the internet for a more in depth history, so I won’t go into that. But does anything survive from that horrible event?

The answer to that question is yes. In the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society are the two fired musket balls in a frame with a note next to each. One states “This ball was fired by the British Troops under Captain Preston in State Street on the 5th day of March 1770, went through the shutter of Edw. Payne’s office and through the partition and into the entry” and the other “This ball was fired by the British troops under Capt. Preston in State Street on the 5th day of March, 1770, and went through the arm of Edw. Payne, Esq. and broke a small bone of the arm and then went into the door-post.”

In a deposition, Payne mentioned what transpired and that a few guns had gone off “after which three or four more went off in the same manner; at which time a ball passed through the deponent’s right arm.” Payne, being right-handed had to sign the deposition with his left hand. The shots are also mentioned in the court proceedings when a ballistics study was done for the trials of Captain Preston and his men.

It seems the ball were kept by Payne and passed down to one of his sons who wrote the notes in the early 19th century and framed the artifacts. Searching for the history of these artifacts was tough, but they ended up with a collector in New Jersey and were donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society in the 1940s.

About five years ago, I went to the historical society with some friends to study them. We carefully removed them from the frame and weighed each of them. They fell right in the weight range that British musket balls should be. They also still have pieces of the wood from striking Payne’s office imbedded in them.

A year after we sat down and studied the balls, we did a live-fire ballistics study trying to figure out as close as we could the velocity that they struck Payne and his office. We did numerous tests over a three-day period that are now published for archaeologists and historians.

For such a politically important event with such loss of life, where we have propaganda printed by Paul Revere and clockmaker Jonathan Mulliken and many other published books, it’s incredible the only objects to survive are two mangled lead balls. But as simple and ugly as they are, they have an important story to tell.


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