Date: Concerning Boston Massacre Oration of March 6, 1775
[A British officer] “ostentatiously playing with a couple of musket balls, which he occasionally threw up and caught in his hand…the speaker seemed absorbed in his subject and indifferent to everything except his theme…”
Source: Austin, James T. The Life of Elbridge Gerry with Contemporary Letters. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1828, page 85. Later versions include the detail of Warren covering the threatening musket balls with the white handkerchief. For example: “General Warren.” Army and Navy Chronicle 6, no. 1 (1838): 7. Substantially the same can be found in Everett, Alexander H. “Joseph Warren.” In American Biography, edited by Jared Sparks, pp. 103-93. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, & Co., 1838.
Commentary: In Austin’s early printed version of the story, Joseph Warren simply ignored the threatening gesture. In later versions, he tosses a white handkerchief over the officer’s handful of musket balls in a gesture symbolic of American peaceful intent and purity.
Modern web comic artist and writer Lora Innes depicts this dramatic incident associated with delivery of the 1775 Boston Massacre Oration as part of her meticulously researched and visually striking historical fiction The Dreamer. Despite the wide attention in print that they garnered among both Patriots and Loyalists during the Revolutionary Era, no period pictorials of any of the 1770s Massacre Orations are known with certainty. I believe that Innes’ works are the best and perhaps only ones ever produced. Frames are reproduced here by permission of the artist. Like Esther Forbes of a previous generation’s memorable historical fiction for young adults, Dr. Joseph Warren and his kin are integral to her story. So far three volumes of The Dreamer tale are available: Volume I, Volume II, and – newly off the presses this month – Volume III.
[September 6, 1775] “Col. James…tells an odd story of the intention of the officers the 5 March, that 300 were in the Meeting to hear Dr Warren’s Oration: that if he had said anything against the King, &c., an officer was prepared, who stood near, with an egg, to have thrown in his face, and that was to have been a signal to draw swords, and they would have massacred Hancock, Adams, and hundreds more; and he added, he wished they had. I am glad they did not: for I think it would have been an everlasting disgrace to attack a body of people without arms to defend themselves.”
“He said one officer cried “Fy! fy!” and Adams immediately asked who dared say so? And then said to the officer he shall mark him. The officer answered “And I will mark you. I live at such a place, and shall be ready to meet you.” Adams said he would go to his General [Gage?]. The officer said his General had nothing to do with it: the affair was between them two, &c.”
Sources: Hutchinson, Peter Orlando. The Diaries and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq. .3 vols. New York: Lenox Hill Publishers (Burt Franklin), 1971 reprint of volumes originally published 1884-1886, Vol. I, pp. 528-529. A similar story involving an egg appeared in America: Virginia Gazette, April 13, 1775, issue 466, along with the full text of Warren’s March 6th Boston Massacre Oration. Find highlights of the speech here.
Commentary: The Virginia Gazette news story is the earliest reference of any kind I could find to British officers threatening Warren in this manner at the 1775 Massacre Oration. No deadly handful of lead musket balls are specified in this account, but that egg manages to threaten destruction all by its lonesome.
It is unclear whether an incident involving either egg or musket balls ever occurred exactly as described. However, the story aligns with contemporary written accounts of both Patriots and Loyalists describing a scene at Old South Meeting House rife with ominous rumors and teetering on the brink of mayhem.