(Mis)understanding the Massacre

It may be said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t try to say that to someone who’s been plagiarized. Like this guy on the right:

From left:John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere. Oil on canvas, 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 30.781John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham). Oil on canvas, 1765. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 1978.297
From left: John Singleton Copley, Paul Revere. Oil on canvas, 1768. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 30.781.

John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham). Oil on canvas, 1765. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1978.297.


You’ve never heard of Henry Pelham, but he created one of the most important propaganda images of the American Revolution, an engraving of the Boston Massacre. Unfortunately for him, Paul Revere stole it. Revere (or as I like to think of him, Colonial Jack Black), was of course the Bostonian silversmith and engraver who on his famous “Midnight Ride” shouted “The British are coming!”

(Digression: Revere never really said that, but perhaps “The Regulars are coming out!” wasn’t dramatic enough for poets. Also, Revere was accompanied for some of his ride by two other men, one of whom fell off his horse, and another who happened to be around because he was, as one historian put it, “returning from a lady friend’s house at the awkward hour of one a.m.”)

On March 5, 1770, a private stationed outside the Boston Custom House exchanged insults with a local wigmaker’s apprentice who had accused a British officer of not paying his bill. I’ll just say that things escalated over the next few hours, with one soldier turning into eight, and the lone apprentice morphing into an angry mob of colonists armed with clubs, snowballs, and rocks. Eventually, several soldiers fired shots into the crowd (though accounts vary as to why). When the smoke cleared, three colonists were dead, and two others died from their wounds. The first to die was Crispus Attucks, a sailor and runaway slave of African and Wampanoag descent who is often considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.

From left:Henry Pelham, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre. Engraving, 1770.Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt. Engraving, 1770.
From left: Henry Pelham, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre. Engraving, 1770.

Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt. Engraving, 1770.

Recognize the second image? Undoubtedly it was the illustration in your junior-high history book’s section on the Boston Massacre, which along with events like the Boston Tea Party helped push the colonists toward revolt. Revere advertised the engraving in the local newspaper, and sold copies from his shop.

It’s the eighteenth-century version of a partisan cable news channel, including all the details of British guilt—indeed, their expressions are more appropriate for a pleasing Christmas dinner than for shooting Bostonians—but nothing that might put blame on the colonists. Clubs? Rocks? Nope. In contrast to the soldiers’ regimented offensive line, the colonists are in chaos, wailing and tending to the victims. Blood gushes onto the cobblestones. A woman clasps her hands together in horror, and a man stands with his back to the soldiers, illustrating the cowardice of those who might shoot a person from behind. And just to rub it in, a precious little dog, the traditional symbol of loyalty, stands with the colonists.

The engraving raises a few questions:

Do we know for sure that Revere copied Pelham’s engraving, and not the other way around?

Yes. Pelham (who I should note was the half brother of famed painter John Singleton Copley) penned a letter to Revere later in the month accusing him of stealing his design. Ever the genteel schoolboy, Pelham gives his adversary more of a scolding than an ultimatum of any kind:

…If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonorable Actions you could well be guilty of.

H. Pelham.

Moral superiority seems to have satisfied Pelham, as there is no evidence he ever pursued the matter further. I like to think that he set his tiny attack squirrel on Revere as the silversmith unsuspectingly strolled across Boston Common.

Not that Pelham would want to admit it, but a certain kind of pictorial evidence would have supported his case: Revere’s version is better. Revere made several additions to the scene that make it a superior piece of propaganda: the soldiers look more gleeful, the colonists bloodier and more mournful, and above the Custom House sign on the British side is a new sign reading “Butcher’s Hall.” Subtle, huh? A famous name and a more dramatic scene likely led to this image being the one chosen to mislead American schoolchildren hundreds of years later.

The red coats. They’re just so red. Seriously, red coats for soldiers?

I recall sitting in my sixth-grade class’s mock Constitutional Convention, circa 1995, and making fun of the British Army’s supremely ignorant decision to put scarlet coats on people whose jobs relied on not getting shot. All 26 of us were wearing fake colonial wigs we had made out of coat hangers and yarn, so we didn’t really have the right to laugh.

And, as I’ve discovered, it’s not as simple as that. Some repeat the myth that red coats don’t show blood, but as anyone who’s ever peeled off a Band-Aid knows, dried blood isn’t red; it’s brown. The truth is that the coats were red because cannon and musket smoke is really, really thick. The depiction of it above is probably not far off from reality. Soldiers needed bright coats so that they could find their comrades as well as their enemies. In all-out battle, you needed to know—through the smoky haze—whether you were shooting at your enemy or your commanding officer. I don’t doubt that the similarity between blue and gray caused a number of accidental deaths later on during the Civil War.

Also, red dye was super cheap, and there were a lot of British soldiers.

All these people are really pale. Where is Crispus Attucks?

The man on the lower left, with his body extending out of the frame, has chest wounds matching Attucks’. His skin tone is a faint yellowish brown (apparently white Bostonians in late winter were all paper-colored). Revere didn’t color the engravings himself, and the colors in existing versions vary drastically. Sometimes Attucks’ skin appears reddish brown and sometimes it isn’t filled in at all. It’s completely possible that neither Revere nor Pelham ever met or saw him. Later nineteenth-century versions of the scene made to showcase Attucks’ heroism portray him as a dark-skinned black man. In reality, Attucks never had a portrait made of himself, and as a sailor he couldn’t have afforded one. So any that exist are imaginary—we don’t know what he looked like. Nor do we really even know if he was a saint or a terrible person.

Unidentified artist, Crispus Attucks. 19th century.

Yet it seems vital in our culture to have official faces to go with official names. An admirable person must be given an image, so that words and deeds can be attached to it, and his or her legend can grow. History books are full of images that have no connection to reality, but still create intense emotional connections for the reader.

No one really knows what Jesus looked like either, but everyone thinks they know.