Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massacre Illustrated

The best known of the engravings depicting the Boston Massacre was made by Paul Revere in 1770, but several other versions appeared in Massachusetts and London over the next two years. Each of these images was made to express outrage at the actions of the British troops and to solicit support for the Patriot cause. The images of the confrontation between the soldiers and the townspeople are significant and compelling, but are historically inaccurate. The artists influenced public opinion by depicting a line of Redcoats firing point-blank into a defenseless crowd, when in fact there was no such organized military action and the civilians were an unruly mob of sixty.

To compare versions of the engraving from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, visit the  comparison page where you can locate the similarities and differences between seven prints of the Boston Massacre and one painting of the location as it was depicted about 30 years after the event.

Paul Revere

Paul Revere's engraving is commonly believed to have been based on an engraving by Henry Pelham, a Boston painter and engraver. Although Pelham created his image, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power first, somehow Revere, working from Pelham's rendition of the scene, created, advertised, and issued his own version, The Bloody Massacre, ahead of Pelham's. This angered Pelham, who wrote to Revere on 29 March 1770, "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 and I thought I had intrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and trust I reposed in you." [Pelham's letter was published in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd series, volume 8 (1892-1894), page 227.]

The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by ...
Engraving by Paul Revere

Revere is also credited with the creation of a less-detailed woodcut of the Massacre scene, which was widely distributed by printer Isaiah Thomas. Its first appearance was in The Massachusetts Calendar or an Almanac for 1772. The same woodcut was used later in 1772 in the upper left corner of a broadside entitled A Monumental Inscription on the Fifth of March, also published by Isaiah Thomas.

The Boston Massacre, perpetrated on March the 5th, 1770
Woodcut by Paul Revere
A Monumental Inscription on the Fifth of March
Broadside with woodcut by Paul Revere

Henry Pelham's Engraving

Henry Pelham's depiction of the Boston Massacre, The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, Or the Bloody Massacre, was published in the spring of 1770. Pelham--despite having created what was probably the first illustration of the event on 5 March 1770--lost out on the fame and fortune of having done so when Paul Revere got his print to market first. Pelham's engraving is rare, but the American Antiquarian Society owns a copy, which can be viewed through their "Illustrated Inventory of Paul Revere's works at the American Antiquarian Society." [Please note: Since the MHS doesn't own a copy of this engraving, the image isn't available on the comparison page, but the link above will open a new tab and direct you to the AAS's online presentation of Pelham's engraving.]

Differences between Revere's and Pelham's Engravings

Although at first glance the engravings of Revere and Pelham appear to be quite similar, on closer inspection there are a number of differences that allow us to distinguish them. In Pelham's print, the moon in the top left-hand corner faces to the right, whereas it faces to the left in Revere's version. Pelham's version shows eight columns in the cupola of the First Church, while Revere's print shows only seven. Pelham includes a smoking chimney just to the right of the State House and also a slim steeple to its right, neither of which appear in Revere's version. And lastly, Pelham's print includes a quote from the Ninety-fourth Psalm, while Revere's features an original eighteen-line poem. 

Revere's approach (deliberately basing his depiction of the Boston Massacre on Pelham's imagery) was not unusual for the time, when works were not yet considered intellectual property nor were they protected by copyright. Clarence S. Brigham, in Paul Revere's Engravings, writes: "It was customary in the eighteenth century for engravers to copy anything which came their way, without credit or acknowledgement." (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society, 1954), page 44.

Jonathan Mulliken (based on Revere)

Jonathan Mulliken, a clock-maker from Newburyport, Mass., created his own rendering of the scene, after Revere's print. Although it also appeared in 1770, Mulliken's version had enough variations, such as only six columns in the cupola, that it was clearly struck from a different plate.

The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a ...
Engraving by Jonathan Mulliken

Based on Henry Pelham

An English reprint of Henry Pelham's engraving appeared on a broadside published by W. Bingley in London in 1770. The title and image are both similar to Pelham's engraving, and the text is drawn from both Pelham's and Revere's engravings. MHS's copy of the Bingley reprint was originally folded and bound within the pamphlet, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, (London: reprinted for W. Bingley, 1770). The MHS also holds another English reprint of Pelham's engraving, The Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston. This engraving appeared as the frontispiece for A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, (London: reprinted for E. and C. Dilly in the Poultry; and J. Almon, in Piccadilly, 1770).

The Fruits of Arbitrary Power: or The Bloody Massacre
Broadside with engraving by unidentified artist based on Henry Pelham
The Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th, 1770
Engraving by unidentified artist based on Henry Pelham

Two Nineteenth Century Depictions of the Event

The importance of the Boston Massacre did not fade over time, and images of that night in March of 1770 continued to be created, published, and distributed decades later. One example, an engraving by Alonzo Hartwell that was published in 1838, was based on Revere's engraving. Another example, a lithograph published in 1856, presents a different interpretation of the event by placing Crispus Attucks, one of the five casualties (and the only African American), at the center of the scene.

Boston Massacre, 1770
Woodcut by Alonzo Hartwell, based on Paul Revere
Boston Massacre, March 5th 1770
Lithograph by J.H. Bufford’s Lith., after W. Champney

Where it Happened

State Street, 1801
Oil on canvas by James Brown Marston

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