March 05: The Setting of the Massacre
2016/03/05 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1770, a regiment of British soldiers unloaded their muskets into a crowd on King Street and killed five men.
Known in the US as the Boston Massacre, the event was politely termed “The Incident on King Street” by the British (who also euphemized their weapons as “pip pip kaboomers”). (That is not true. But, it is true that a later pamphleteer, sympathetic to the British solders, entitled his screed on the subject A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. That is true. No kidding.) Although they fired without orders, the soldiers were under attack of sorts–firing sort of self-defensively–into a crowd that threatened them. With insults and snow balls. Really, can you blame them?
In the famous view drawn by Henry Pelham and engraved for distribution by Paul Revere (yes, that Paul Revere), details were changed or emphasized to stir up emotional reactions, just like the editorials it accompanied. But it is a fairly accurate view of the site in Boston, and reveals the importance the buildings that played important roles in the bloody event. The British soldier who was the focus of the Colonists’ anger was stationed outside of the Customs House; a crowd (ultimately of hundreds) was attracted to the street by the ringing of church bells in cupolas like the one on the horizon (still performing the medieval duty of ringing the tocsin, in addition to calling the faithful to worship); the whole of the site presided by the building now called the Old State House. Originally it was the Town House, built in 1713 to serve a variety of functions. Most important among them were the chambers for the governor and courts, comprised of royally appointed functionaries. Although it was also the seat of the elected colonial Assembly, its royal British pedigree was highlighted by the huge unicorn and lion at the top of the gable end (surprisingly underplayed in the Pelham/Revere engraving, which highlights the red of the “Lobster-backs” uniforms). Under these rampant symbols a greater number of British soldiers amassed in a show of strength after the original event.
The Town House was one of the strongest edges to the open space (as “open” as it gets in Boston) in which the turmoil unfolded. It was prominently featured in most engravings of the event as the principal building on the site, especially as it could be drawn (literally) to suit pro-British or pro-Colonist interests. Such was true not only at the moment, but also across the next years as the building’s symbolism was altered to suit Revolutionary objectives. The unicorn and lion became the goal of vandals who, in a show of anti-British fervor, ripped them from their crest and threw them into a bonfire. (While good for the masses, political revolution is oftentimes really bad for art and architecture, from Paris in 1789 to Baghdad in 2003.) In 1770, the Royal Governor took to the fine balcony to order the mob to disperse; six years later, one of the Sons of Liberty read the Declaration of Independence from the same perch, and probably to a lot of the same people.
In time the building became known as the backdrop to a violent attack that was also understood as contributing to the Revolution. The people who died that day reveal not just an arbitrary sample from the late eighteenth century Boston, but seem now as a mosaic of the country that would be: a ropemaker, mariner, runaway slave, apprentice ivory turner, and an Irish immigrant. The soldiers later went on trial and were defended by John Adams (yes, that John Adams); two went to prison on short sentences and the others were acquitted. Just as an act of violence that unfolded before a symbol of royal oppression was turned to explain the legacy of the Revolution, the building too became a symbol of free American authority, but it took a while. More than a century passed before the unicorn and lion were recreated and returned to the building in a restoration of 1882.
Lots of history on the “Old State House” can be found here.
Image: hand-colored engraving “The Bloody Massacre,” 1770 (from this source–where it’s zoomable, check it out)