Images of the Boston Massacre

Categories: Boston Massacre

As the bells of the Old Brick, Brattle Street, and Old South churches sounded throughout the town, hundreds of citizens gathered in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, on the evening of March 5, 1770. The ringing of the church bells gathered the outpouring citizens around the sentry post outside the customhouse on King Street. There, a group of youths were taunting a British sentry named Private Hugh White, pelting him with snowballs and other small items.1 The assaults against Private White, and later against the seven relief soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston, became increasingly violent as the crowd augmented and joined in the agitation.

2 The mob of citizens dared the soldiers to fire on them.3 Private Hugh Montgomery, whose musket was struck by a snowball, stumbled backwards, surprised, and discharged his weapon into the crowd. After a confused pause, the remaining soldiers fired. 4 Five Bostonian men, including a mixed-race sailor named Crispus Attucks, died, and six more citizens were injured. This event, termed "The Boston Massacre" by colonial Patriots, was the worst and most publicized of many violent interactions between Boston citizens and British soldiers following the enactment of the Townshend Acts beginning in 1767, which aimed to forcefully exert British power over the colonies, both politically and economically.

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News of the incident spread quickly throughout the British colonies and to Great Britain. The Boston Massacre was utilized by colonial Patriots and other radicals to fuel the flames of sedition in America against Great Britain and King George III. Several modes of communication, including both textual and visual representations, depicted the event under the influence of Patriotic biases.

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An article printed in the Boston Gazette, and Country Journal on March 12, 1770, relates a highly subjective version of the confrontation on March 5th, condemning the British soldiers involved. A subsequent engraving of the incident by Paul Revere, called "a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King St.," was also used to paint the British soldiers in a negative light and encourage colonial dissention against Great Britain. Though the newspaper article and the engraving had similar overall intentions in their construction, these two images of the Massacre differ in their relation of the actual course of events and in their visual impressions effecting audiences through each portrayal. However, despite these dissimilarities, both pieces of propaganda demonstrate the quickness with which news travelled in the few years preceding the American Revolution, as well as the various modes of communication with which news was carried throughout the colonies.

From its conception in 1755, the Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, founded by coeditors and Patriots Benjamin Edes and John Gill, was the voice of colonial radicalism and anti-British sentiment in Massachusetts.6 Especially in the few weeks prior to the Massacre, the volatile newspaper reported incidents of violent encounters between the British occupiers and Boston citizens, including the death of eleven-year-old Bostonian Christopher Seider on February 22nd. 78 The Gazette's recounting of the Boston Massacre, which appeared on March 12, 1770, portrayed the confrontation between the British soldiers and the townspeople as a violent act perpetrated by oppressive soldiers against an innocent populace.9

Before describing the events of the Massacre itself, the Gazette article explains the confrontational tensions within Boston, which allowed for the Massacre and other violent incidents to take place:

THE Town of Boston affords a recent and melancholy Demonstration of the destructive Consequences of quartering Troops among Citizens in a Time of Peace, under a pretence of supporting the Laws and abiding Civil Authority; ... but in Reality to inforce oppressive Measures; to awe & controul the legislative as well as executive Power of the Province, and to quell a Spirit of Liberty...[I]t appears too probably from their Conduct, that some of the Soldiery aimed to draw and provoke the Townsmen into Squabbles, and that they then intended to make Use of other Weapons than Canes, Clubs and Bludgeons.10

The article inflames anti-British sentiment from the introduction, as it describes Great Britain and the British troops as a destructive and oppressive force, which aims to dominate the colonies and "quell a Spirit of Liberty" developing within them. As the article alludes to previous confrontations between British soldiers and Boston citizens, the troops are labeled as the primary instigators, desiring to "provoke the Townsmen" into violent, even deadly, altercations.

In an effort to be "particular" in the recounting of the Boston Massacre, the publishers of the article outlined the events that occurred prior to, and that helped incite, the bloody riot. British soldiers confronted a group of Bostonian youths as the two groups passed while walking down Cornhill Road. A scuffle ensued, but discovering quickly that they were outnumbered, the young Bostonians disbursed, only to gather again with several reinforcements in King Street where an anxious crowd was forming outside the customhouse, throwing snowballs at the troops.11 Despite the heavy utilization of exaggerations and charged language throughout the article's description -- the young men are referred to as "heroes" and the British soldiers are accused of premeditating the shootings --, the depiction of the events preceding the actual shootings of Boston citizens has truth in its foundation.12 The description of the altercation between the young men and the soldiers and the formation of the rowdy crowd, though obviously biased against the troops and filled with subjective language, offers an important pretext for the event, explaining and clarifying the existing tensions and unanimous feelings of frustration between the British troops and the Boston citizens that effectively instigated the shootings on King Street.

Despite the description of these preceding events, which could serve to undercut the idea that the Massacre was a merciless and unprovoked killing of innocents, the article's depiction of the actual shootings is not only inflammatory but also highly inaccurate, presenting an image in the mind of the reader, which exacerbates the murderous guilt of the British soldiers, despite the instigating actions of the "clamorous" crowd:

[The soldiers] took place by the custom-house, and continuing to push to drive the people off, pricked some in several places [with their bayonets]; on which they were clamorous, and, it is said, threw snowballs. On this, [Captain Preston] commanded them to fire, and more snow-balls coming, he again said, Damn you, Fire, be the consequence what it will! One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands... [T]he soldiers continued to fire, successively, till 7 or 8, or as some say 11 guns were discharged.13

In the actual course of events, the crowd of townspeople outside the customhouse on King Street the night of March 5, 1770, was mob-like and violent. The incident of the shooting was more a case of miscommunication and confused, accidental action than one of malicious intent. Rather than as a violent mob, this section of the article portrays the townspeople almost as petulant children, who, after being pushed and prodded by the British troops, angrily began throwing snowballs. The reaction of the British soldiers was, therefore, both excessively hostile and unwarranted. Captain Preston, who is portrayed in the article as overtly malicious in his attitude towards the crowd, was in actuality attempting to disburse the angry Bostonians, placing himself in front of the loaded British muskets.14 Likewise, the angry order given to the British troops to fire on the crowd did not come from Preston, if it occurred at all, but rather was most likely a misunderstood taunt from a rowdy Bostonian within the mob.15 Both Captain Preston and Private Hugh Montgomery, who was the first to fire into the crowd, were struck with a cudgel before the first shot was fired, despite the article's description, and the blows themselves were not the cause of the shootings.16

A silversmith and ardent Bostonian Patriot, Paul Revere cut an engraving that portrayed the climax of the Boston Massacre, specifically of the shootings outside the customhouse on King Street, which was released on March 26, 1770.1718 The engraving, which was modeled, even plagiarized, according to an engraving by fellow Patriot Henry Pelham, is, like the article from the Boston Gazette, both inaccurate in its depiction and incredibly anti-British in sentiment. However, the depiction of the event according to Paul Revere's engraving is unlike the article in both its descriptive content and in the visual impression that it evokes. Rather than provoking the imagination of the reader and offering a background explanation of the reciprocated tensions and the chaotic episodes leading up to the event, the engraving places the image of a wholly unprovoked killing of unassuming, calm innocents into the mind of the observer.

Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, which includes errors in composition that deliberately portray the British soldiers as a group of malevolent killers, while simultaneously presenting the colonists in the most sympathetic light, is an almost entirely inaccurate description of the incident that transpired on March 5, 1770. Like the article, the engraving illustrates a group of British troops firing into a crowd of townspeople following the command of a ranking official. The depiction in the engraving, however, shows the troops in a straight line discharging their muskets, much like a firing squad, into a crowd that is neither mob-like nor "clamorous," as the crowd of townspeople was described in the Boston Gazette. Only seven British troops are included in the line, while the eighth soldier shoots from a window in the customhouse, which is labeled "Butcher's Hall". A man lying dead with two chest wounds in the foreground of the engraving has injuries that match those of Crispus Attucks, the mixed-race sailor who was the first to die at the Massacre. However, the man with the two chest wounds is white; there is not a person of color depicted in the engraving. Though the Massacre occurred during early March, when snow and ice still covered the ground, allowing the crowd to form snowballs to throw at the British troops, no snow is shown in the engraving.

Visually, the engraving is incredibly compelling. Employing artistic rather than written inflammatory details, the engraving places the guilt of the event squarely on the British soldiers. For example, Paul Revere employed artist Christian Remick to color the print made from the engraving. Remick's choice to use a bright red to color both the British uniforms and the blood was effective in its simplicity.19 However, because the engraving's representation of the event is an inaccurate portrait of only one small event of the entire incident, the observer perceives the entire event based on that single portrait. Unlike the article, which is also full of exaggerations and inflammatory details, the engraving does not explain the shared existing tensions between the British troops and the Boston citizens, or the violent, mob-like activity of the crowd leading up to the event. The engraving, therefore, promotes an image in the mind of the observer, much like that of an execution of innocents, in which British soldiers appear to be "massacring" Bostonian citizens, unprovoked, in the broad daylight -- only a sliver of moon denotes that the event took place in the evening hours.

Despite the dissimilarities between Revere's engraving and the article in the Boston Gazette concerning their descriptions of the Massacre, both pieces of propaganda were demonstrations of the speed at which news travelled in 1770, and the different modes with which news was carried throughout the colonies in the few years preceding the American Revolution. Within one month after the article describing the events at the Boston Massacre appeared in the Boston Gazette, the same article had been reprinted in newspapers throughout the thirteen colonies -- from Providence, Rhode Island, to Connecticut, and all the way to Georgia by April 11, 1770. Similarly, thousands of copies of the engraving by Paul Revere, titled "a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King St.", were also distributed throughout the colonies in the months following the event.20 Prints of the "Representation" were marketed for sale in newspapers such as the Boston Gazette for the price of around eight pence. Much like the reprinted article, the mass distribution of the engraving allowed for the travel of news, which remained notably unchanged from the source, and for the continued progression of anti-British sentiment across the colonies.

Immediately following the bloody event known as the Boston Massacre, news concerning the incident began to circulate throughout the colonies and Great Britain. Two such pieces, an article printed a week after the Massacre in the newspaper the Boston Gazette and an engraving by Patriot Paul Revere, were distributed in order to heighten the tensions between the British and the colonists by describing the events of the Massacre as a line of British soldiers firing into an innocent crowd of Bostonians. However, the Gazette article, unlike the engraving, offered a pretext to the shootings, describing the mounting tensions between the British soldiers and the Boston citizens before the event and explaining the mob-like activity, which prompted the shootings. The image evoked by the article, in which the British soldiers fire into an innocent crowd, but are prompted by a chaotic scene, and the image evoked by the engraving, in which the soldiers are acting as a firing squad, killing innocents indiscriminately, differ in both their descriptions of the event and the visual impressions given to the audience. Despite the dissimilarities between the two pieces of propaganda, both the Gazette article and Paul Revere's engraving demonstrate the way news travelled in the years leading up to the American Revolution, and both played an important role in spreading anti-British sentiment throughout the colonies using exaggeration and inflammatory details.

Updated: May 21, 2021
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Images of the Boston Massacre. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Images of the Boston Massacre essay
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