A week or so ago, I spent two days with a group of fifth-graders, teaching them about the Boston Massacre. Most of this teaching involved showing them the famous engraving by Paul Revere. I had them tell me what they saw, and then had them extrapolate from there. I’m not stupid, I didn’t say “extrapolate”. I said “what do you think that means?”
I had some notes from the teacher in my hand as the kids and I analyzed this primary source. It was a fantastic exercise. The kids learned a lot, about the Boston Massacre and the use of images as propaganda. They also did real history as opposed to just being told what to think, which is a major plus.
But one of the points that the Teacher’s Notes made, which I wasn’t sure what to do with, was the fact that Crispus Attucks is depicted as white in the image. There are three dead men depicted in the engraving. All three are white. Despite its name, only five people died in the Boston Massacre (as opposed to the dozens or hundreds the name implies). Three of the dead were white men, one was a white boy, and the last was Crispus Attucks, a black man. The fact that there are no black men on the engraving at all indicates some rewrite of the facts, but to go so far as to say that Crispus Attucks was turned white for propaganda purposes seems to be going too far. After all, three white men died, back when it was thought that white men were the only people worth noting. The three white men are being shown dying. To me, the boy and the black man were completely ignored.
I didn’t mention this thinking to any of the kids. All I did was point out the lack of Crispus Attucks, and slid that right into the demographics of the crowd overall (very peaceful, diverse, and well-dressed for a mob of ropemakers and dockworkers, don’t you think?). The kids jumped right onto the fact that no one in the mob has a weapon. A lesson was learned.
It occurred to me today, two weeks later, that Crispus Attucks is the only name I know from the Boston Massacre. How often had I pointed out the Commander of the British regiment to the kids, without knowing his name? I didn’t even know the name of the white men and the boy who had died. Just Crispus Attucks. Which isn’t a bad thing, but this morning, as I stared into the bacon frying in the pan, I suddenly wondered if that was on purpose. Perhaps the Civil Rights movement had something to do with it. What was more important for American schoolchildren to know, the names of each individual person that died at the Boston Massacre, or the fact that there were only five of them? In the grand scheme of things, did we really even need to know their names? And yet, here I was, with this fact. Crispus Attucks died in the Boston Massacre. I didn’t know what his job had been beforehand. I didn’t know how old he had been. All I knew was that he died on March 5, 1770, by British hands.
Google has a tool called the Ngram, which tells you how many percentage of books, in each year, included a certain phrase. It’s therefore easy to compare mentions of the Boston Massacre to mentions of Crispus Attucks.
The mid-1850s had a sudden spike of interest in the Boston Massacre; possibly because of the impending Civil War and the surge of patriotism in the North and South towards their respective countries. Tellingly, Crispus Attucks’ name was not use proportionally. In other words, most mentions of the Boston Massacre didn’t mention Crispus Attucks. Perhaps they didn’t want to mention that black men were fighting for the American cause from the start, or perhaps, like me, the writers felt that the existence of the five victims was more important than their individual names. Or perhaps the Boston Massacre was just a name, a reference in American society, the same way we talk about the Boston Tea Party as an example of rebellion without mentioning what the participants actually did.
Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre don’t sync up until the post-WWII era, when the Civil Rights movement kicked off. Look at how neat that is. From 1940 onwards, Crispus Attucks isn’t always mentioned, but interest in him surges and plummets at the same rate that interest rises and falls in the the Boston Massacre in general. I think my theory is correct: I only know the name of Crispus Attucks because of the efforts of the Civil Rights movement.
Still, a simple Google search pulled up all of the names of the Boston Massacre victims. I wondered what the story would be. Would Crispus Attucks be excluded from the narrative? Would the four white people have been mentioned while excluding the black man? The results turned out to be an absolute mess, so I sorted them a bit.
James Caldwell was the name of a prominent Irish baronet who lived from 1722-1784. He served in the Army and wrote a book or two. In a few places, interest in his name surges at the same rate as the Boston Massacre, but not enough to make me think that the James Caldwell mentioned is the dead Bostonian.
The last three rarely sync up with the Boston Massacre. Perhaps some books mention them, but not always? Only Crispus Attucks seems to be directly linked to the Boston Massacre, and that looks to be the result of the Boston Massacre.
Crispus Attucks was born into slavery in 1723 Massachussetts to Prince Younger, a black slave and a local Indian, Nancy Natick. In September 1750 he escaped captivity. He was 6’2, and knock-kneed, and made a living for himself in and out of Boston Harbor, first working on whaling ships and then later as a ropemaker. He was part of the mob that started a fight with a lone British soldier outside a pub. He was the first one killed.
James Caldwell was born in 1753. He was not from Boston; he had only recently arrived on a ship, the merchant ship Hawk. Very little else is known about him. He was part of the mob that started the fight, and was the third to die.
Patrick Carr was born in 1740 in Ireland. He was not part of the mob, but instead ran to help. He was shot in the abdomen crossing the street. It took him nine days to die of his wound, during which time he gave a testimony of what happened, and notably forgave the British soldiers who opened fire. Sam Adams therefore denounced him as a papist. He died on March 14, 1770, the last to die.
Samuel Gray was born in 1718 and was a professional ropemaker. He was apparently always starting fights, and had the previous week started a fight with some British soldiers. Two of those same soldiers had reappeared during the fight, as reinforcements for the British sentry the mob had happened upon. He was the first person fired upon, although he was not the first to die.
Matthew Kilroy was one of the soldiers Samuel Gray had fought with the week before. He ended up killing Gray. He was later convicted of murder.
John Maverick was born in 1753, a local apprentice to Isaac Greenwood. He was not part of the mob that started the fight, but was instead called over by the bells and hubbub. He and his friend, John Greenwood, assumed it was a fire and ran to help. The two boys got separated in the fight. Maverick may not have started the fight, but when the British soldiers raised their guns in fear, he shouted, “Fire away!”, indicating that he probably got wrapped up in the revolutionary spirit/mob mentality. He died of his wounds on March 6.
Edward Montgomery stumbled a bit, whether it was from slipping on ice, or getting his with a stick or a snowball. He was the first person to fire, although whether he fired on purpose or accidentally is left for debate. He was apparently heard shouting for the other soldiers to fire.
Captain Thomas Preston was born around 1722, and was probably Irish. He was Captain of the Guard that day. Upon hearing that a mob was looking to attack and kill a sentryman, he sent about 12 men to the sentry’s aid, and then went to the mob himself. He claimed to have stood between the mob and his soldiers himself. He was found Not Guilty, but soon after left the army and returned to the British Isles.