J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Attucks and the A.P. Exam

Today Boston 1775 salutes all the young scholars taking this year’s Advanced Placement U.S. History exam—particularly those at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Boston. Last month I had the honor of speaking to Matthew Kazlauskas’s A.P. history classes there.

I talked about what we know—and don’t know—about Crispus Attucks, based on various primary sources and recollections. I seized the opportunity to share this image; it’s a detail from Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, as reproduced on the poster that hangs on my office wall (purchased from the Old State House gift shop).

The black lines of an engraving are reproduced with a copperplate, but Revere or his artistic partner Christian Remick had to add all the solid blacks and colors by hand. That means every colored copy of this engraving is different. I therefore can’t say that this copy is typical.

Nevertheless, I like to raise the question of whether it shows Attucks, who was usually labeled as a “mulatto” (and once as an “Indian”). This image shows a man with two symmetrical wounds in the chest—Attucks’s wounds, as detailed in an autopsy. He has dark black hair and skin that looks slightly darker than that of surrounding figures. Did Revere and Remick actually depict Attucks as a person of color? Or is that just how the paper has aged?

At least one student smartly pointed out that in this engraving the man with the two chest wounds is the victim farthest from the soldiers’ guns. Eyewitness testimony and an earlier image by Revere tell us that Attucks was struck down at the front of the crowd. So perhaps that figure wasn’t meant to represent Attucks. Or perhaps the artists moved him back, acknowledging his presence but not making him so prominent.

Of course, Revere and Remick could have used their paints to produce different versions of the scene for different customers, or however they chose. As with so many other historical questions, we’re unlikely to find any definite answers, but half the fun is in thinking through the questions.


Steven Wyder said...

Thanks J.L.
My students took the AP Exam yesterday (Friday 5/9) as well. Interesting analysis of the Attucks depiction.

Do ever stop and think, are we over analyzing some things? Perhaps Revere thought, "ah Attucks,forgot to make one darker, lets pick him, and put some wounds on him to match."

Or do you think they were placed, planned in a certain way? If they were putting him in the back to hide him because of race, why depict him at all? He could have easily been just removed from this particular depiction. I tend to think he was there on purpose for this reason.
But some parts are fabrications, in our minds, like the orderly shooting of the British soldiers lining up and shooting. Or, is that the best depiction Revere could have made? Some things I always wondered.

Also could you explain the dog in the foreground? I've heard something that the British officers all had dogs and the Bostonians had propaganda fueled myth, that the British gave the dogs blood. Have you ever heard that?

Thanks and great site,

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it could be easy to overanalyze this image, especially if the various copies that have survived don’t match up well in the details. Then Paul Revere and his partner (or kids? who knows?) could have been adding the paint however they chose.

I’ve seen a book or museum exhibit make a big deal of the fact that the central figure, the man nearest the soldiers, isn’t depicted as a mulatto. Supposedly this showed that Revere didn’t include Attucks at all. But that central man is usually shown with a head wound, indicating that he’s supposed to be ropemaker Samuel Gray. We might just have to look harder for Attucks.

The composition of the drawing, with the soldiers all shooting at once, was the work of young artist Henry Pelham. Revere could never have created this elaborate scene with such good perspective on his own. Interestingly, Pelham became a Loyalist and left Boston in 1776.

I’ve never heard the explanation for the dog that you describe. A dog was a common detail in British political cartoons of the time. It supposedly signaled that the situation had gone to the dogs. The beast was often drawn as described in Proverbs 26:11, but Pelham and Revere spared us that detail.

Matt said...

Thanks for mentioning my class on your blog! The students loved your presentation, and were talking about Crispus Attucks and the documents you shared for several days after you came. They all said you were very helpful, and they are all hoping to make their own historical discoveries as they begin their research papers.

In terms of the AP test, they were all optimistic about their document analysis for the essay question!

Thanks again for the presentation and your entertaining blog!

~ Matt Kazlauskas