Paul Revere is best-known for his “midnight ride” celebrated in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem. But Revere’s role in the American Revolution extends far beyond that famous 1775 mission to warn the towns of Lexington and Concord that British troops were on the move from Boston.
A silversmith by trade, Revere also produced copperplate engravings for book and magazine illustrations, portraits and political drawings that supported the nascent Patriot movement. Revere’s most effective piece of anti-British propaganda was “The Bloody Massacre,” a full-color rendering of the 1770 melee that came to be known as the Boston Massacre.
Printed just weeks after British troops opened fire on an unarmed crowd of rabble-rousing Bostonians, Revere’s one-sided depiction of the Boston Massacre likely lit a flame under the Patriot cause and stoked anti-British sentiment throughout the restless colonies.
Paul Revere: Silversmith and Son of Liberty
Paul Revere apprenticed as a goldsmith and silversmith in Boston under his father, a French Huegenot immigrant named Apollos Rivoire, who died when Revere was 19, leaving him the family’s sole means of support. Revere matured into a hardworking middle-class artisan who knew how to leverage his skillset into new business opportunities.
One of those new markets was engraving, which Revere started working in around 1765, says Robert Shimp, the research and adult program director at The Paul Revere House in Boston.
Revere was hired for all types of everyday engraving work—graduation certificates, advertising trading cards, business receipts—but he also produced overtly political prints in support of his membership in the Sons of Liberty, the grassroots agitators who would later plan the Boston Tea Party.
To celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, for example, proud Patriots erected an obelisk in Boston Common, but it burned down during a raucous celebration the night of its unveiling. Luckily, Revere had an excellent memory and produced a detailed engraving of all four sides of the obelisk.
“That’s a very important early political print from Revere,” says Shimp. In patriotic fashion, Revere dedicated the print “[t]o every Lover of Liberty… by her true born Sons, in Boston New England."
Two years later, Revere created an even more iconic political piece known as the Liberty Bowl, a solid silver bowl commissioned by the Sons of Liberty to honor “the glorious 92”—members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who refused to rescind a letter protesting the Townshend Acts that taxed British imports like tea, paper and glass.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which exhibits the Liberty Bowl, says that Revere’s bowl is counted among the nation’s “three most cherished historical treasures” along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The ‘Bloody Massacre’ as Timely Propaganda
On March 5, 1770, a mob of Bostonians harassed a lone British soldier on sentry duty at the Customs House, and when seven more British troops came to his protection, they were pelted by snowballs and stones. In the skirmish, one of the British soldiers opened fire on the unarmed crowd without orders and more shots were fired in the chaos.
When the smoke cleared, three Bostonians lay dead on the street—including a formerly enslaved Black dock worker named Crispus Attucks—and two more died later from their wounds. They would later be eulogized as the first casualties of the American Revolution.
As the British soldiers sat in jail awaiting trial, the two sides of the clash—Patriots and pro-British Tories—raced to tell their conflicting narratives of what happened on March 5. The Patriots hastily publish a pamphlet of eyewitness testimonies called “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston” to counter British military depositions later published as “A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England.”
But none of those publications would have the visceral impact of a large hand-colored print sold by Paul Revere on March 26, just three weeks after the violent clash, called “The Bloody Massacre on King Street.”
Designed to serve as Patriot propaganda, Revere’s engraving was a baldly biased depiction of the event. Instead of a chaotic scrum with violence on both sides, it showed an organized and sneering line of British soldiers firing on unarmed innocents in response to obvious orders from Captain Thomas Preston. The engraving even added the fictional name “Butcher’s Hall” above the Custom House to further evoke the carnage in the street.
What’s clear from the historical record is that Revere wasn’t the original creator of this now-iconic engraving. It was copied almost stroke-for-stroke from a print made by a young artist named Henry Pelham and entrusted to Revere. Since Revere didn’t keep a diary, we don’t know his side of the story, but in a letter to Revere dated March 29, 1770, Pelham accused the silversmith of “the most dishonourable Acts you could well be guilty of,” essentially stealing Pelham’s print and selling it as his own.
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Shimp from the Paul Revere House says that “borrowing” another artist or engraver’s ideas was common in the 18th century when copyright laws weren’t as stringent, but he sees a different motive in Revere’s appropriation of the powerful image.
“As the Revolution progressed, it increasingly became a battle of information, getting out your side of the story as quickly as possible,” says Shimp. “That’s how I read Revere’s reaction. ‘We have to get this thing out right now!’ And that’s exactly what he did. Revere had 200 copies to sell by late March.”
Lasting Impact of ‘Bloody Massacre’
Today, Revere’s “Bloody Massacre” print is included in nearly every American history textbook and is indelibly linked with the events of the Boston Massacre, accurately or not.
But what would the violent image have meant to Revere’s contemporaries? Revere certainly hoped that it would enrage the American public and foment Colonial resistance to the British military occupation. To drive his point home, Revere included a poem with the print, which begins:
Unhappy Boston! See thy sons deplore,
Thy hallow’d walks besmear’d with guiltless gore;
While faithless Preston and his savage bands,
With murd’rous rancour stretch their bloody hands;
Like fierce barbarians grinning o’er their prey,
Approve the carnage and enjoy the day.
Shimp says that there’s little record of how Bostonians or other colonists immediately reacted to Revere’s print, but there is an alluring clue from exactly a year later.
On March 5, 1771, to commemorate the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere created a “striking exhibition” at his house. He made new prints of some of his best propaganda pieces, including the “Bloody Massacre,” and set them in his windows to be illuminated from within. Passersby were presented with almost movie-like images depicting the tragic events of the prior March.
According to newspaper accounts, Revere’s illuminated display drew massive crowds.
“The whole was so well executed,” wrote the Boston Gazette, “that the Spectators, which amounted to many Thousands, were struck with solemn Silence, and their Countenances covered with a melancholy Gloom.”
The Paul Revere House recently staged a reenactment of Revere’s display to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the event.
“If we’re going by the account in the newspaper, thousands of Bostonians saw that in a town of only 15,000 at the time,” says Shimp, “so it certainly had a visual impact a year after the massacre itself.