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Paul Revere

Bloody Massacre Perpetuated in King Street, Boston on March 5, 1770, 1770
Hand-colored line engraving

9 5/8" X 8 5/8"
State II

Gift of Minnie Rhea Wood, 1979

All art—whether literature, music, film, painting, printmaking, etc.—is always part-and-parcel of the cultural and historical milieus within which it is created. Inspiration and creativity never operate in a vacuum. Some art is created to elevate the spirit, some to capture a particular moment in place and time. Some art arouses our sense of national pride, others highlight our achievements as a species. And sometimes art is even knowingly conceived of and distributed as propaganda.

When one thinks of Paul Revere (1735-1818), what comes to mind? For most of us, surely, an intangible sense of national pride. From our earliest school days we are taught that Paul Revere was a patriot-hero par excellence. This can be seen simply by typing “Paul Revere” in the books section of, which pulls up dozens of children’s books about the fabled hero. It is no surprise that the Revere engraving holds pride of place here at the WFMA due to its rarity and its importance in early American printmaking. Indeed, in 1954, collector and art historian Clarence Brigham referred to Revere’s Boston Massacre print as “the cornerstone of any American collection” (qtd. in Mayor 28).

Revere’s “cornerstone,” though, was quarried from someone else’s property. On April 2, 1770, Henry Pelham (1749-1806) advertised his Boston Massacre engraving, titled The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre, in the Boston Gazette and the Boston Evening Post as “An Original Print, representing the late horrid Massacre in Kingstreet, taken on the Spot.” Pelham, much to his eventual dismay, lent his design to Revere before it was actually printed because he valued Revere’s professional opinion as a respected engraver and silversmith. In short, Revere poached the image from Pelham and printed his version a full three weeks before Pelham’s original version saw the light of day. Upon learning of his plagiarism, Pelham sent Revere a letter that in part read: “When I heard you was cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible as I knew you was not capable of doing it copied from mine” (qtd. in Mayor 28).

So why refer to Revere’s print as propaganda? Because Revere very pointedly chose to depict the incident on March 5, 1770 in a certain light. One can equally refer to Pelham’s version as propaganda too, for he was a British Loyalist. With a cursory look at the two prints side-by-side, even though they look nearly identical, one can see that the faces of the British soldiers look entirely different. Add to that the accompanying texts—Pelham’s is a plea against violence, quoting the ninety-fourth Psalm: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares”—whereas Revere’s text, on the other hand, incites sympathy for the dead while at the same time calling for retribution against the “bloody hands” of the “savage bands” of the Redcoats. Revere’s poem begins thusly:

Unhappy Boston! see thy Sons deplore
Thy hallow’d walks besmear’d with guiltless gore
While faithless [Captain 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.

Revere even embellished Pelham’s original design by adding the words “Butcher's Hall” to a fictional shop over the British Custom House, which the soldiers were guarding, to further ignite the flames of anti-British sentiment among his fellow colonists. Publishing his widely-circulated depiction of the unfortunate incident so quickly after its occurrence immediately swayed the yet-to-be nation’s understanding of the event, which still reaches us today as part of our own understanding of the Boston Massacre. The image was so inflammatory that John Quincy felt the need to caution the jurors at the trial of the British soldiers that “The prints exhibited in our houses have added wings to fancy; and in the fervor of our zeal, reason is in hazard of being lost” (qtd. in Goldman 20).

Revere’s famous etching reminds us that words and images matter—they can convey, sway, incite and perpetuate misinformation and stereotypes at both individual and institutional levels. Likewise, art is a reflection of our experiences, imagination and history. That is precisely why it is imperative to engage in conversations about our nation’s art. For, as the old adage goes, if we don’t understand our history, we are doomed to repeat it. It is through the looking at and understanding of our art and literature that we know who we were, who we are, and who we have the potential to become as individuals and a nation. 


Works Consulted

Goldman, Judith. American Prints: Process & Proofs. Harper & Row Publishers, 1982.

Mayor, Hyatt and Donald H. Karshan et al. American Printmaking: The First 150 Years. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.

Bloody Massacre Perpetuated in King Street, Boston on March 5, 1770 from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

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