The Bloody Massacre
American Silver Porringer
The provenance of this famous print is remarkable. It is perhaps the only impression to have descended in the family of one of the victims of the Boston Massacre of 1770.The victim’s name, James Caldwell, was underlined in pencil by his granddaughter, according to family tradition. Equally notable is the fine condition of the print, since political broadsides such as this were published rapidly and passed from hand to hand as propaganda, not art objects, and they deteriorated rapidly.
The life of Paul Revere, the silversmith and patriot, is well known; little known, however, is his production of seventy-two copperplate engravings between about 1762 and 1780. Of these, at least sixteen were political prints, if the total includes portraits of political figures.1The standard reference is Brigham.
The Boston Massacre was in large measure provoked by colonial radicals. The Townshend Acts of 1767 levied duties on a wide range of British imports, including paper, and were a constant annoyance to the colonists. British troops stationed in Boston felt the brunt of public opinion, from heckling to beating. On March 5, 1770, a group of men began hurling snowballs at a lone redcoat standing sentry at the customs house on King (now State) Street. He was soon reinforced by the main guard of some twenty men, who stood with fixed bayonets facing a mob of several hundred people who taunted and stoned the troops. Finally, one soldier fired without orders; the others followed suit; and what began as a “bad brawl” took a fatal turn. Moderate Bostonians did not fault the British, who, in fact, were defended in court by John Adams and acquitted of murder. But the propaganda of the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and including Paul Revere, turned the sad event into a massacre of martyrs. Through 1776, the fifth of March was observed annually as a day of anti-British sentiment. Revere’s Bloody Massacre was arguably the most important instrument in the creation of this pre-Revolutionary watershed.2Morison, 199–201, is the source from which this summary of the event is drawn. Interestingly, Paul Revere also drew a plan of King Street and vicinity that was used in the trial of the British soldiers (see Andrews, 98).
Paul Revere did not invent the image. Henry Pelham, a half brother of John Singleton Copley and a painter and engraver, designed and engraved it. Its title was The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre. Before he sent it to the printer, Edes & Gill, Pelham maintained that he had shown it to Revere. When Revere’s plagiarized image was advertised (March 26, 1770) and issued before his own, Pelham wrote an angry letter (March 29):
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 as I thought I had entrusted 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. But I find I was mistaken and after being at the great Trouble and Expence of making a design paying for paper, printing &c. find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived not only of any proposed Advantage but even of the expence I have been at, as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway. 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.3Brigham, 52–53.
Pelham was naive to have shown Revere his design, since he was entirely correct in charging that Revere “was not capable of doing it.” He must have known that virtually none of Revere’s engravings was of his own invention. Revere copied whatever came to hand, most often British prints, and adapted them to his purposes by changing the captions. Since he did not pretend to be an artist, he seems to have felt no compunction about his plagiarism, especially since patriotism was his cause. His reply, if any, to Pelham is unknown. Revere’s daybook for March 28, 1770, records a payment of £5 to Edes & Gill for “Printing 200 Impressions of Massacre.” Pelham’s “Original Print . . . taken on the Spot” was not advertised until April 2, 1770, and was also published by Edes & Gill.
The “late horrid Massacre” had taken place around ten o’clock at night (the clock hands on the First Church show 10:20 in Revere’s version), a fact signified by the moon. The Old State House identifies the location. The identity of the colorist is unknown, and there are variations among the prints, though they follow a pattern. The left side of the print, with the victims, is dropped into symbolic shadow, and an ominous plume of black smoke rises from a chimney there. Above the commanding officer’s head, the “Custom House” sign further locates the event while reminding the viewer of the hated taxes. Above that, Revere improved upon Pelham by introducing the large sign “Butcher’s Hall.” These significant indications of time, topography, and point of view are emphasized by the color.
Revere lists five men who were killed on the spot and two who later died of their wounds; of these men, a few can be identified in the image. Crispus Attucks, the black man whose head projects from the crowd near the left edge, was the most aggressive of the radicals that day and has thus received the greatest share of glory (or of ill repute, depending on the speaker’s bias). Art historian Jan Bialostocki has pointed out that the theme of the firing squad, not as an instrument of just punishment but as the perpetrator of atrocities for political tyrannies, appears in The Bloody Massacre for the first time. This new iconographic type in the history of art is given its most famous expression in the great painting by Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 (1814; Prado, Madrid), which indicts the cruelties of the Napoleonic troops in Spain by depicting a specific slaughter of civilians in 1808. In addition to introducing the shockingly modern theme, the Revere print “is the representation of a real happening seen from the point of view of the victims.”4Bialostocki, 211–18, esp. 215–16.
The strength of the Pelham-Revere conception “originated in sincere outrage,” an outrage also expressed in the biting verses that conclude, “Keen Execrations on this Plate inscrib’d/Shall reach a JUDCE who never can be brib’d.” Henry Pelham invented, and Paul Revere broadcast, a new pictorial theme in the history of art.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.