The greatest historical events can be triggered by the smallest of incidents. This is especially true of warfare. There is the bloody war that was fought over a bucket. Another war was fought over a pig. Still another was all about spilled soup.
Your history classes may have taught you that the reasons the United States declared its independence from Great Britain were disagreements about taxation, representation, and due process. What you probably didn’t learn was that the flashpoint that resulted in the separation from the motherland was a disputed bill for a wig.
Tensions between the American colonists and the British crown had been growing for several years. In response to the unpopular Townshend Acts of 1768, the Massachusetts House of Representatives petitioned King George III to rescind the high tariffs that were disrupting the economy of the colonies. The House also published a circular letter, urging all colonists to resist the oppressive measures.
Boston’s chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, was alarmed by the growing opposition to the tariffs. He asked for an increased military presence in the city, hoping that the sight of the king’s soldiers would put an end to the discontent. It had the opposite effect.
Four British Army regiments were dispatched to Boston at the end of 1768 to keep the peace. Although two were removed the next year, the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot remained. Citizens of Boston were required to support the uninvited soldiers by providing housing. The constant presence on the city streets of the uniformed troops fed the colonists’ growing resentment of their situation.
On March 5, 1770, a 13-year-old boy named Edward Garrick was in a feisty mood. The boy worked as an apprentice for a wigmaker. He saw Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch and started taunting him for not paying for his new wig.
The officer attempted to ignore the boy’s insults. Private Hugh White was on guard duty outside the Boston Customs House. He did not take kindly to the notion of a teenager disrespecting an officer of His Majesty’s military. He told Edward to show some respect. In response, Edward started throwing insults at Private White.
Matters escalated when the boy approached Captain Goldfinch, resumed his accusations, and poked his finger at the man’s chest. This was too much for Private White, who left his post and struck the boy on the side of his head with his musket.
As Edward fell to the ground in pain, his friend, Bartholomew Broaders, shouted his displeasure at the soldier. The commotion attracted a crowd. More than 50 people flooded into the streets, wondering what on earth was going on. Tempers flared as the mob hurled insults and threats against the uniformed men. Other soldiers, alerted to the growing disturbance, rushed to offer support to their comrades.
Someone started ringing the church bell, summoning more of the city’s residents to the scene. Newcomers heard bits and pieces of what was going on. One thing about which everyone agreed was that the soldiers had done something indefensible. Perhaps the most vocal member of the crowd was a former slave named Crispus Attucks. He called on his fellow Bostonians to throw more than words at the soldiers.
By now, the crowd had grown to an estimated size of 300 or 400. Encouraged by Attucks’ call to action, many in the crowd reached for anything that could be hurled at the soldiers. For most of them, the readiest projectile was a snowball.
To this day, no one knows who threw the snowball that struck Private Hugh Montgomery. All we know for certain is that Montgomery discharged his weapon in alarm. His fellow soldiers did not realize it was an accidental discharge and thought the order had been given to fire upon the crowd. Within moments, five of the rioters (including Crispus Attucks) were dead and three were wounded.
The whole thing started because John Goldfinch was accused of not paying for his wig. As it turned out, he had actually paid his bill in full the day before.
The deadly conflict was immediately branded as the wig riot. That name very quickly gave way to the name by which we remember it today: The Boston Massacre.