Issued soon after the fateful brawl opposite the Old State House, Revere’s print has become an icon of the American Revolution, and indeed one of the most successful examples of political propaganda of all time. The depiction of the event, and a poem printed below, vilify the British Army and list the first casualties of the American Revolution: “Unhappy Boston! see thy Sons deplore, Thy hallow’d Walks besmear’d with guiltless Gore … The unhappy Sufferers were Mess[ieur]s Saml Gray, Saml Maverick, Jams Caldwell, Crispus Attucks & Pat[ric]K Carr Killed. Six wounded; two of them (Christr Monk & John Clark) Mortally.”
Revere executed his engraving of the Massacre within a few weeks after the event, advertising it for sale on March 26, 1770. The Boston firm of Edes & Gill printed the engraving for Revere; on March 28, their ledgers show a charge for 200 copies. The clock on the church steeple originally read 8 o’clock; only two first impression copies are known. The event actually occurred around 10 pm, and all of the other copies, including this one, shows the event at 10:20.
The exact details of the Boston Massacre are murky. Contemporary witnesses, chroniclers and the soldiers and subjects at the heart of the matter told very different stories. In any case, by the spring of 1770, New England’s metropolis had been smoldering with discontent. Five years earlier, Parliament had imposed the Stamp Act, taxing the colonies without representation. Though repealed, it was soon replaced by Townshend’s “Intolerable Acts,” which included new taxes. Then, Crown commissioners of customs, fearing (with reason) for their safety, had requested military support, and it was granted. In 1768, the Crown had ordered several regiments of infantry, accompanied by a small artillery train, to keep order in the city. Nearly 2,000 soldiers lived amongst Boston’s population of just 15,000. The quartering of the troops in private homes was seen as an additional affront to America’s already injured liberty. The soldiers soon became a despised caste in the city.
On March 2, 1770, a scuffle broke out between workers at a rope walk and a number of soldiers who supplemented their wages with occasional work. The incident was repeated the following day. All was in readiness for the 5th of March. That night, the riot known as the Boston Massacre began when a group of young apprentices, teenagers for the most part, took it on themselves to heckle and harass a lone sentry standing guard at the customs house. A the crowd continued to gather, a small relief arrived at the scene, determined to extricate the soldier from a menacing situation. Epithets, and snowballs and ice were hurled at the soldier. A club was thrown, a soldier struck. When he rose to his feet, he fired his musket. Enraged, the crowd advanced en masse. A volley of bullets met them. Three men were killed outright, two more died of their wounds, and several more were severely injured.
Boston was transfixed and horrified by the shootings. Church bells rang throughout the city, speeches were made, town meetings were ordered. Three weeks later, on March 26, an advertisement in the Boston Evening Post announced that “A Print, containing a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street,” was available for purchase. This was Paul Revere’s “Boston Massacre” print, one of three such images produced directly after the event. The future nationalist icon was primarily a silversmith, but he had also established a fine reputation as an engraver. Revere somehow acquired a copy of an engraving of the massacre by Henry Pelham, local painter and engraver. Revere rushed out his own version, trumping his competitor by one crucial week, ensuring that Revere’s production would dominate the market.
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