Most of us know Paul Revere as the midnight rider who warned that the British were coming, but before that he was an artist who used his output to sway public opinion toward independence. Of his works, the most famous is of course the above depiction of the Boston Massacre, which went down 248 years ago; it’s this gruesome, blood-soaked image that helped turn the 1770 event into a turning point toward the Revolution. The thing is, though, Revere didn’t actually draw it: It was done by Henry Pelham; Revere stole Pelham’s visual, gave it some sensational flare and sold it as his own, a decision that had fateful consequences not just for the U.S., but the world.
A brief refresher: the Boston Massacre was the culmination of tensions old and new. With regard to the former, Boston and the rest of the colonies were still struggling under a series of onerous taxes enacted five years prior; more immediately, though, and more specific to Boston, was fresh anger over the February 22nd shooting death of 12-year old Christopher Seider by a British customs collector, Ebenezer Richardson; and it was against this simmering backdrop that 13-year old wigmaker’s apprentice Edward Garrick began taunting 30-year-old British Private Hugh White outside the Customs House on King Street, March 5, 1770.
White did his best to ignore the verbal abuse, but Garrick soon summoned reinforcements, forcing White to call his own crew, too; and words continued to be exchanged on both sides, joined in the air by rocks pelted by the Bostonians, now 400 strong. Overwhelmed by it all, British soldier Hugh Montgomery panicked and subsequently fired into the looming, approaching crowd, leading his colleagues to do the same. In the end of it three people lay dead; a fourth victim would die later that night and a fifth a few weeks later.
Revere and his fellow Patriots, including Samuel Adams and publisher Benjamin Edes, decided this injustice could not be let go, so on March 12, in Edes’ Boston Gazette, the men published a grizzly report on what was already being referred to as a “massacre” — “The dead are Mr. Samuel Grey, killed on the spot, the ball entering his head and beating off a large portion of his skull” — and topped it with the image to the right: four coffins bearing the initials of those killed, Grey, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Crispus Attucks, a biracial man who was the first victim that night and who would later be referred to as the war’s first casualty.
Yet as rousing as this grim image was, the casket motif did not incite popular insurrection. It was met with shaking heads, not shaking fists. Revere and company something more visceral, something punchier, something far more graphic. And that’s where Henry Pelham comes in….
A fellow Boston artist incensed by the use of force, Pelham drummed up the protest image “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre,” a black and white showing the British firing into a fleeing crowd. Pelham’s imagining used artistic license, to be sure, and it gave Revere an idea: take Pelham’s picture one step further. He accepted the assignment, but made no mention of his plans.
Within hours Revere was at work altering Pelham’s design. A psalm was removed and replaced with a fierier poem that spoke of “murd’rous Rancour” and “planting ghosts of victims;” the sky was tinted azure; the crescent moon has been inverted, perhaps becoming a gorget, similar to the one seen on South Carolina’s flag today.
Most blaring, though was Revere’s addition of gushing wounds, all done in liberal amounts of red, with every drop speaking out against the violence and the maltreatment American colonists experienced on the daily. It was a sensational scene and that was precisely the point: Revere wanted to inflame as much anger as possible, and began advertising their sale on March 26. [Some version of Pelham’s appear to include British guards’ red coats, others not. Both images include a damsel in distress and neither includes Crispus, the man of color killed in the incident]
Three days later, on March 29th, Revere received the following letter from Pelham, re: Revere’s “dishonorable actions:” [Preemptive sic]
“When I heard that you were 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… You had plundered me….”
Pelham concluded, “If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so.”
Pelham’s prophecy failed to come true: Revere’s intentionally gorified rendition was distributed across the Massachusetts Bay colony, appearing again in the years ahead, such as in a 1772 almanac and a commemorative broadside published the same year, and always eliciting in the viewer rage at the British machine.
Though it took another half-decade for war to be declared, it was clear even then that Boston Massacre and its aftermath would be turning point. As John Adams later wrote, “On that night, the foundation of American independence was laid.” But it may never have been had it not been for Revere’s decision to plagiarize and distribute Pelham’s work, setting in motion what would become the American revolution, an uprising that not only liberated the colonies here, but which inspired dozens and dozens of revolutions around the way, over many centuries – and all thanks to an intentionally sensationalized piece of propaganda.
As for Pelham: he began selling his reprints one week after Revere, but few people purchased them. He and his Loyalist family, including half-brother John Singleton Copley, left America and returned to London in August 1776. He would later teach art at the Royal Academy, no doubt keeping secret that he had designed the image that launched the American revolution.