On the evening of 5 March 1770, an unruly crowd gathered in Boston outside the Customs House to taunt with jeers and snowballs the British soldiers standing guard. Reinforcements were called, unordered shots rang out, and when the smoke cleared three locals lay dead and another eight were wounded, two mortally. The Boston Massacre quickly became a rallying point for anti-British sentiment in the province, and the real indignation of the people was further inflamed by colonial propaganda, such as the two items exhibited here. (Footnote 1)
Before the end of March, Paul Revere issued his engraving of the Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street. The original drawing was the work of Henry Pelham, John Copley's half brother. Somehow Revere obtained Pelham picture and speedily produced his own engraving, which beat Pelham's to the street by a few days. (Footnote 2) A letter from Pelham to Revere, written on 29 March 1770, angrily begins: "When I heard that you was cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you coppied it from mine ...." (Footnote 3) Though at quick glance the Revere and Pelham renderings of the Massacre may appear identical, there are small but discernible variations in the figures, buildings and sky.
Although colorful and dramatic, the scene portrayed is historically inaccurate and inflammatory. The picture shows a line of Redcoats with Captain Preston urging a point-blank volley into a defenseless crowd, when in fact there was no such organized military action and the civilians were an unruly mob of sixty. However, such a vivid representation of the viciousness of the British served as a powerful propaganda tool, and Revere, the ardent patriot, exploited the fact and added touches like the sign "Butcher's Hall" over the British-guarded Customs House. Appearing so soon after the event, the engraving was enthusiastically admired and widely circulated, and it continues even today to serve as the popular conception of an historical moment. (Footnote 4)
1. Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New YorK: W. W. Norton,1970, ch. 16.
2. Brigham, Clarence S. Paul Revere's Engravings. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society,1954, pp. 41-42.
3. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. 2d ser. Boston: The Society, 1892-1894, 8:227.
4. Brigham, Clarence S. Paul Revere's Engravings. Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society,1954, p. 41.