Two hundred and forty-five years ago today, on March 5, 1770, an armed altercation occurred in front of the Old State House in Boston in which five Massachusetts colonists were killed by British troops. If you’re American, you’ve probably heard this incident referred to as the “Boston Massacre,” and know that it has something to do with the American Revolution. You may even have seen the most famous image of the incident, which was drawn by Paul Revere, later of “Midnight Ride” fame, printed in a history book. This engraving is reproduced in miniature at the end of this article (click for a larger/high-resolution version), and the source of the header image above which depicts the lurid details of cold-blooded British troops callously pumping bullets into innocent Bostonians because, well, the British are the bad guys.
The real story of the “Massacre” is extraordinarily complicated, and some details are still unclear almost 250 years later. Whether and to what degree the troops were provoked is still not well understood. A few hours before the massacre, a young man passing in the street outside the State House apparently shouted to one of the guards that he had an unpaid bill owed to the young man’s master. The bill had in fact been paid, but other passers-by picked up the taunt and continued harassing the Brits, who were no doubt unpopular due to the British crown’s heavy-handed tax policies. Eventually a crowd of jeering protesters, some throwing rocks and snowballs (and snowballs containing rocks), had gathered in front of the State House, where the armed troops grew increasingly jittery. You can imagine what happened next.
The communal grave of the Massacre’s victims is still a major tourist attraction in Boston. People still put flags and flowers on it.
Paul Revere’s very famous image glosses over all of these details and is pretty straightforward in its depiction of the event. Although this inaccurate picture is quite famous, being reproduced all over the Colonies, Revere didn’t originate it. It was based on another picture by Henry Pelham–it’s not clear to me whether Pelham was an eyewitness to the massacre, but Revere certainly wasn’t–and according to Pelham, Revere plagiarized it, putting his own engraving on sale a week before Pelham’s was ready to go to press. Ironically Pelham was a Loyalist who went back to England during the Revolution. But the revolutionary underground in Boston–a hotbed of radical firebrands like Sam Adams’s “Sons of Liberty”–made great use of Revere’s engraving, making sure it circulated everywhere. Devoid of its context, Revere’s engraving made a huge impact in sparking anti-British sentiment and creating an ideological basis for open revolt against Britain, which would come to pass, also in Massachusetts, five years later.
The site of the massacre is very famous to this day. I visited it on my trip to Boston last summer, and of course I also visited the communal grave of the victims, including Crispus Attucks, an African-American who was one of the five killed and is often claimed as the first casualty of the Revolution. The lore of the Boston Massacre remains attractive and pervasive, but it’s interesting how much it differs from the reality. Mythmaking is a powerful force in history.