Boston Massacre Engraving by Paul Revere
Paul Revere created his most famous engraving titled the “Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street in Boston” just 3 weeks after the Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770. It is regarded by historians as an important document of the pre-revolutionary period. At the same time it is known to contain number of inaccuracies because the author used it as a propaganda piece to advance the cause of Independence. Let’s take closer look at the details.
The engraving shows the Boston Massacre event unfolding in front of the State House. The composition of the engraving is clearly divided into two sides as if telling “It’s us against them!” On the right side there are the British soldiers dressed in uniform with their rifles with bayonets drawn, firing into the crowd. One of the British regulars is clearly the commander raising the sword and giving the order to fire. All solders and the officer have cold and determined looks on their faces.
On the left side, across the clouds of smoke there is a crowd of colonists. Their faces show horror and panic. The engraving accurately shows the five victims. Three men are laying on the ground with blood gushing from the wounds which are clearly shown. Two of them lay right in front and the third one is somewhat obscured by other men standing in the bottom left corner. The man with two chest wounds is believed to be Crispus Attucks, the fist victim to fall during the shooting as he was standing in the front row. Two addition bodies are being carried by the crowd in the attempt to help them. One of the men in the crowd is looking directly at the solders raising his hand towards them as if trying to make them stop firing.
A very interesting detail of the engraving is a small spotted dog pensively standing in the bottom center, between the shooting solders and the crowd. The dog is being spared from the firing guns. Perhaps P.R. meant it as a symbol of the British Soldiers treating colonists worse than dogs?
On the bottom of the engraving, there is a poem written by P.R. full of the outrage about the killing. One of of the lines reads “Like fierce barbarians grinning o'er their prey
Approve the carnage and enjoy the day.”
P.R. also honored the names of the dead and wounded listing them just below the poem:
Mesr's Sam'l Gray, Sam'l Maverick, James Caldwell Crispus Attucks, & Patr. Carr Killed
Six wounded; two of them (Christ'r Monk & John Clark) mortally.
The circle of cobble stones marks the location of the Boston Massacre in front of the Old State House
The tall building in the center is the Old State House which still stands in Boston today and is a popular tourist attraction. Of course back then it was the only State House. Another historic building depicted in the engraving is the First Church with the dome and the steeple towering on the left of the State House.
Inaccuracies in the Engraving
We are used to treating historic documents with a degree of trust, however the composition of this the engraving contains serveral inaccuracies that a serious researcher should be aware of.
There are seven soldiers and the captain shown in the picture. In reality there were only 6 British soldiers. Two captains, lieutenant, corporal and two private regulars.
British Grenadiers are depicted as if moving in the line of attack just like in a battlefield. However by all accounts the Boston Massacre was a scene of chaos and the soldiers were separated form each other by the crowd when they started using their weapons against the colonists.
A lonely gun is shown sticking out from a second story window of the Customs House firing into the crowd.
Customs House on the right side of the engraving is labeled ‘Butcher’s Hall’
The events of the Boston Massacre took place a night but the sky in the picture is rather light. On the other hand a crescent moon is visible above the roof lines, indicating that the author intended to show a night scene but was constrained by the engraving technology or simply chose not to make the picture too dark.
Crispus Attucks shown as the victim with two chest wouds laying on the ground does not seem to have African mulatto features, but some researchers who analysed the engraving found otherwise. You decide.
Captain Preston is shown as giving the order to fire by waving his sword. At his trial in court, this was proven not be had been the case.
Finally, it is a well known fact is that P.R. did not create the drawing himself. He was a skillful engraver but not an artist and therefore used the image created by a young artist Henry Pelham to make his engraving. Furthermore Pelham publicly accused P.R. in Boston Gazette of copying his drawing without permission. In Revere’s defence we could note that copying somebody’s work at that time was not considered a crime and the feud was probably more about the silversmith not sharing the proceeds from selling the print with Pelham.