Thursday, March 5, 2020

On the Occasion of the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, a riot broke out on King Street (now State Street) in front of the Custom House in Boston. Soldiers fired into the crowd and killed five civilians. This dramatic event came on the heels of weeks of upset between colonists and British soldiers occupying the town. Its reverberations would be felt all the way through the American Revolution.

Red Study at the Gibson House Museum.
A copy of the famous print of the Boston Massacre, as the event would come to be known, hangs in the red study at the Gibson House. You might know the one I’m talking about. It shows a line of soldiers, in red coats with muskets, firing into a crowd. Three men in the foreground are seen shot and dying on the street. (This particular copy does not include Crispus Attucks, an African-American man born into slavery, and a well-known victim of the Massacre.) Well-dressed colonists look on in horror.

Paul Revere produced this illustration just three weeks after the event, titling it “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston.” (He appears to have copied the image from the work of fellow printer, Henry Pelham, whose similar depiction was published around the same time.) The print became a famous, and important, piece of propaganda. It did much to inflame colonial sentiments against the British, even as it depicted an inaccurate portrayal of the actual event.

Why is there a copy at the Gibson House? This particular print was produced for the 1876 Centennial (purportedly on original plates from the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society). It was first owned by Charlie Gibson’s uncle, Dr. John Collins Warren; Warren gave it to Charlie in 1904.

Charlie Gibson was incredibly proud of his Revolutionary-era ancestors. His great-great-uncle, William Dawes, joined Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride. His other great-great-uncle, General Joseph Warren, was “martyred” at the Battle of Bunker Hill. General Warren gave a famous and stirring speech on the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre in 1775, linking the event to the cause of revolution. Indeed, this print hangs in the middle of two others related to General Warren—a shrine, of sorts, to a famous and important ancestor. For a man as obsessed with history and legacy as Charlie Gibson, being able to link your family’s story to one of Boston’s most important and well-known moments on the world stage would have been very gratifying.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:

“Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre,” Massachusetts Historical Society

“Episode 228: Eric Hinderaker, The Boston Massacre,” Ben Franklin’s World

“Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre 1770,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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