If Roy Falls is correct, a simple insult and a punch to the nose helped set off the American Revolutionary War, and eventually spawned the “Kilroy was here” graffiti phenomenon that reached its height during World War II.
Falls, a 94-year-old military veteran who lives in Comanche Harbor, said he began researching the origin of “Kilroy was here” about five years ago.
“It was the most phenomenal thing, as far as graffiti, everywhere you went. And nobody asked the question where it came from. It showed up in the most unusual places, and became a topic of conversation among the G.I.s.,” said Falls, who served in the Army and later in the Army Air Corps, from 1941-45.
Falls estimated that he saw the Kilroy cartoon drawing approximately 1,000 times in Europe during the war.
“Everybody talked about it,” he said. “It was most prominently in the latrines. Then it spread everywhere.”
Falls, noting that others have tried to pin down the origin of the cartoon character, said, “It goes back to the Revolutionary War.”
Based on what Falls found, “Kilroy was Here” grew out of an insult directed toward Matthew Kilroy, one of the British soldiers stationed in Boston during colonial times. The Boston Massacre occurred three days later, on March 5, 1770.
“It goes back 245 years ago, so it has lived as a legend,” Falls said.
There had already been tension and clashes between the British soldiers and the resentful colonists living in New England when the 18-year-old Matthew Kilroy approached Boston rope maker Samuel Gray while searching for part-time work. Gray told Kilroy that the only job he had for him would be to clean his outhouse.
Kilroy was neither amused nor thrilled with the offer, according to Falls, and punched Gray in the nose.
Falls said that also marked the origin of the song, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,” because of the doodle-like qualities of the Kilroy drawings.
“They were very fond of calling each other doodle heads,” Falls said. “That’s where that song got started – as a result of that confrontation.”
The nose used in the Kilroy graffiti often was comically enlarged, as if swelled from being struck by someone’s fist.
“Kilroy is seen looking over the partition of (an) army latrine toilet, and in his mind, he is getting the ‘last laugh,’” Falls said.
But Kilroy’s ultimate revenge against Gray was still to come.
“Kilroy considered Gray’s remarks to be humiliating and vowed to take revenge at his first opportunity,” Falls said, adding that Gray was among a mob that formed on the evening of the Boston Massacre. “Kilroy became the No. 1 aggressor. He had followed through with his vow to even the score against Samuel Gray.”
British soldiers fired on the crowd that had gathered that evening. Five Boston residents, including Gray, were killed.
“(Kilroy) shot Gray and killed him,” Falls said. “That’s why the story has a living foundation.”
Kilroy and eight other British soldiers went to trial on a murder charge.
“John Adams was persuaded to act as the defense attorney,” Falls said. “Two of them were convicted of manslaughter.”
Falls explained that the phrase “Kilroy was there” was coined during the trial, and “thus the phrase has had a lasting experience throughout New England folklore.”
John Adams, of course, became the second president of the United States in 1797.
FACT OR FICTION?
Some accounts state that the Boston Massacre was triggered by a British soldier striking a child with the butt of his rifle during an earlier confrontation.
“Events of the past are fraught with anecdotal facts and fiction. In the case of Matthew Kilroy, he was indeed a real live person at the time of the American Revolution,” Falls said. “If there had not been a Boston Massacre, there might not have been a Revolutionary War that followed. Historians have agreed that the Boston Massacre was the event that triggered the war of independence.
“The Patriots had clamored for the removal of the British troops from the Boston area since their arrival in 1768. Samuel Adams, known as the ‘father’ of the revolution, led in the movement to accomplish this fact.”
According to Falls, the massacre – “with Kilroy in the forefront” – intensified the revolutionary movement, which “finally erupted in full-scale warfare. Samuel Adams, no friend of Kilroy, probably felt somewhat gleeful that Kilroy was there, as the antics of Kilroy played into the hands of his political game.”
Roy Falls was impressed by how prolific the Kilroy graffiti became. He said that the Kilroy graffiti he saw while overseas during the war were written in English, and most were drawn by U.S. soldiers.
“Multiply that by 16 million G.I.s and you can see how it proliferated,” he said, speculating that the soldiers wanted to leave their “mark” for others to see. “But then it faded out after the war. It kind of lost its attraction.”
Falls said his curiosity about the origin of Kilroy led him to begin researching online. Fort Worth resident Gail Hawkins, daughter of Falls and his late wife Eula, began to teach him the ins and outs of surfing the Internet more than a dozen years ago, he said. Roy and Eula also have a son, Ron, who lives in Dallas.
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