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Massacring the Boston Massacre Trial

When it comes to TV trials, dramatic license trumps law license every time. No exception is the now-running HBO miniseries, John Adams. In the first of seven installments, Adams the young lawyer takes on an unpopular cause by agreeing to defend the British soldiers accused of gunning down American colonists in the Boston Massacre. At trial, his clever questioning implicates the crowd in provoking the soldiers to fire. The jury clears the soldiers and Adams is proud that he has served the cause of justice.

Good TV but not so good on the facts, J.L. Bell tells us at the blog Boston 1775. Bell, a writer who specializes in the start of the American Revolution, finds a number of discrepancies between the miniseries version of the trial and the historical record. "Some of those changes must have been dictated by the need to keep the cast and sets limited, the story short and simple," he writes. "Others reveal some misunderstandings of the eighteenth century, and then there might be unconscious ideological distortions." Among the deviations from fact he finds:

  • While the eight British soldiers and their captain are tried together in the series, the captain was actually tried separately, as necessitated by his defense that he never ordered them to fire.
  • Adams was not the sole defense counsel. He was aided by a team that included Josiah Quincy Jr., who did much of the questioning, and Robert Auchmuty, who gave part of the summation.
  • Robert Treat Paine was not the only prosecutor; part of that job was handled by Samuel Quincy, Josiah's older brother.
  • Three judges presided, not just one.
  • Several witnesses and defendants were inaccurately portrayed, as Bell explains in more detail.
  • Jonathan Sewall, the royal attorney general for Massachusetts, did not watch the trial, but was notably absent, partly because of political distaste and partly, Bell conjectures, because of biological depression.

Historian Jeremy A. Stern also blogs about the historical inaccuracies of the HBO series at the History News Network, calling the depiction of the trial "deeply flawed."

The anarchy shown in the courtroom is almost certainly inaccurate, unattested even by staunch pro-government men who branded almost any gathering an incipient riot: Massachusetts had great respect for jury trials. ... The behavior of the crowd before the shots were fired was indeed much argued over, but the daring of the troops to fire was openly and frequently mentioned, not boldly extracted from a fearful witness in a crucial 'aha!' moment.

For Bell, his "favorite" inaccuracy involves a trial scene in which the lawyers question a black witness named Andrew Holmes. Where, Bell wonders, did HBO come up with this surname, given that the character was based on a slave owned by the merchant Oliver Wendell. Perhaps, Bell suggests, the screenwriter confused the merchant Wendell with the child named after him in 1809, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who would later pass the name to his own child, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 24, 2008 at 01:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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