Many of us use Paul Revere’s image of the Boston Massacre when we teach the American Revolution.
Pelham came from prominent Boston family and was the half-brother of the artist John Singleton Copley, one of the most renowned painters in 18th-century America. (A teenage Pelham is the subject of one of Copley’s famous early works, the 1765 portrait The Boy With the Squirrel.) It’s not known if Pelham witnessed the Massacre. But as a Bostonian and engraver by trade, he certainly understood how earth-shattering it was. He quickly produced a copperplate engraving depicting the events. At some point in the days afterwards, he showed a colleague a version of it, perhaps an early proof. The image, called Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston, on March 5th, 1770, was highly inflammatory—more propaganda than journalism—showing an organized British squad following an order to fire on the colonists, several of whom fall wounded in the street. It leaves no doubt of the patriot point-of-view: This was cold-blooded murder.
Pelham’s intent was to get the engraving printed and disseminated as widely as possible. There was only one problem: He got scooped. The colleague he conferred with was silversmith, fellow engraver, and Son of Liberty Paul Revere, who quickly realized how powerful the image was and set about engraving one of his own that was remarkably similar to Pelham’s. Revere called his version The Bloody Massacre, Perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt and rushed it to press, beating Pelham by several days.
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