By the beginning of 1770, there were 4,000 British soldiers in Boston, a city with 15,000 inhabitants, and tensions were running high. On the evening of March 5, crowds of day laborers, apprentices, and merchant sailors began to pelt British soldiers with snowballs and rocks. A shot rang out, and then several soldiers fired their weapons. When it was over, five civilians lay dead or dying, including Crispus Attucks, an African American merchant sailor who had escaped from slavery more than twenty years earlier.
Produced just three weeks after the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s historic engraving:, “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street,” was probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history. Not an accurate depiction of the actual event, it shows an orderly line of British soldiers firing into an American crowd and includes a poem that Revere likely wrote. Revere based his engraving on that of artist Henry Pelham, who created the first illustration of the episode—and who was neither paid nor credited for his work.
Paul Revere, “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street, March 5, 1770.” Boston, 1770. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)
This version of the Boston Massacre has one major difference from previous renditions of the event: it includes Crispus Attucks and portrays him as a central figure of the event. It is possible that, because this print was published in the 1850’s during the abolitionist movement, artists may have been more sensitive to representing blacks in their art. Crispus Attucks (ca. 1723-1770) was the first casualty of the American Revolution. On the evening of March 5, 1770, a confrontation between soldiers and a group of townspeople resulted in five dead and six wounded. Attucks, of African and Native American descent, grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, and was said to be a runaway slave who found work and spent many years as a sailor and rope maker in Boston. He, along with other local sailors and rope makers, felt particularly threatened by British soldiers and sailors who would often compete for part-time jobs with the locals during off-duty hours. This competition lead to a fight on March 2, 1770, between British soldiers and local rope makers, which helped fuel tensions that lead to the massacre a few days later. Colonists, in general, were very agitated with the increased taxes put on them by the British government, as well as the increased presence of British troops in town. Tensions between the colonists and the British troops built to a point that made confrontation inevitable. The confrontation on March 5, 1770 that became known as the Boston Massacre, began when a large group of locals started taunting British soldiers with snowballs, stones, and clubs. At the head of this group was Attucks. Several British soldiers came to the rescue of the soldiers being taunted and open fired on the crowd. It is unclear whether Attucks attacked a soldier first, but he ended up being the first fatality from bullet wounds. Two others, Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, also died during the incident. Two others, Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr died days later as a result of their injuries. Six others were wounded.
Below is a lithograph from J. H. Bufford’s (1810- 1874) lithography company in Boston, based on an illustration by W. L. Champney.