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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Sunday, March 29, 2020

“Cutting a plate of the late Murder”

On 26 Mar 1770, the Boston Gazette ran this advertisment:
To be Sold by EDES and GILL
(Price Eight Pence Lawful Money)
A PRINT containing a Representation
of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street.
The same ad appeared that evening in the Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post.

That picture of the Boston Massacre was made by Paul Revere. It showed a British army officer ordering his soldiers all to shoot into a recoiling crowd. Men lay dead on the ground, their wounds blood red in the painted versions. The Customs House behind the soldiers was labeled “Butchers Hall.”

Ironically, this picture went on sale on the same day the Boston town meeting voted not to distribute the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre lest that sway potential jurors’ minds.

This image is probably Revere’s most famous production, but it’s not at all typical of his artwork. He rarely came up with such a complex composition with people and buildings lined up in careful perspective. So how had he managed that this time?

The Boston Gazette advertisement caught the attention of twenty-one-year-old Henry Pelham, half-brother of the painter John Singleton Copley and an aspiring artist himself. On Thursday, 29 March, 250 years ago today, Pelham addressed an angry note to Revere:
Sir,

When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible, as I knew you was not capable of doing it unless you coppied it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and Trust I reposed in you.

But I find I was mistaken, and after being at the great Trouble and Expence of making a design paying for paper, printing &c, find myself in the most ungenerous Manner deprived, not only of any proposed Advantage, but even of the expence I have been at, as truly as if you had plundered me on the highway.

If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so. However, I leave you to reflect upon and consider of one of the most dishonorable Actions you could well be guilty of.

H. Pelham.

P S. I send by the Bearer the Prints I borrowed of you. My Mother desired you would send the hinges and part of the press, that you had from her.
Pelham had been working on his own engraving of the Massacre, headlined “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power.” It reflected the same anger at the shooting that his older half-brother showed on 6 March when he went to the town meeting to complain about a soldier’s threat.

Revere’s print was almost identical to Pelham’s. The small differences included slightly wonkier perspective, the removal of a church spire, and that “Butchers Hall” sign.

Pelham had the decorative painter Daniel Rea, Jr., (1743-1803) printing 575 copies of his engraving. Along with “12 Quire of Paper,” that left the young artist owing Rea £5.9s.

There was no copyright law in colonial America. If an engraver went to all the trouble to carve a copy of someone else’s design, he could sell those prints. Pelham couldn’t object to Revere copying one of his published prints, but he obviously thought the silversmith had taken advantage of a drawing or early proof he’d cordially shared and then beaten him to market.

Revere and his Whig colleagues appear to have mollified the young artist. On Monday, 2 April, a new ad appeared in the Boston Gazette:
To be Sold by EDES and GILL,
and T. and J. Fleet,
(Price Eight Pence)
The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,
an Original Print, representing the last horrid Massacre in King Street, taken from the Spot.
A similar ad appeared in the Boston Evening-Post. The next week’s Gazette advertised Pelham’s print again. There was no second ad for Revere’s print. The town’s most radical printers thus helped Pelham earn back his investment. Revere’s accounts showed he continued to do business with the Copley and Pelham family over the next few years.

Curiously, there are more copies of Revere’s Massacre in collections today than Pelham’s. Did Revere make a lot more than 575 copies? Did that one-week edge in the market bring much wider distribution? Or did Revere’s fame in the late 1800s mean more people preserved copies of the print with his name?

Designing this image was the height of Henry Pelham’s Whiggism. His family was Anglican to begin with, which made him more apt to side with the royal government. Then Copley married a daughter of tea importer Richard Clarke, beleaguered in the weeks leading up to the Tea Party.

By the outbreak of the war in 1775, Pelham was so angry and suspicious about the Patriot cause that he feared a mob would attack another half-brother, Charles Pelham, in Newton. Henry Pelham left Boston with the British army in 1776 and settled in Ireland.

1 comment:

Frederic C. Detwiller said...

Excellent article on the Henry Pelham vs. Paul Revere Massacre print. Other readers may be interested in seeing the Copley painting of a boy with a squirrel that shows Henry Pelham, as well as Pelham's famous map of Boston and Vicinity in 1775-6; that map has a facsimile of his pass though the lines on Aug. 21, 1775. This was one day after Gen. Gage received information on the Rebel earthworks at Winter and Prospect Hills supplied by M Dubuq, the Frenchman who served as interim chief engineer after Richard Gridley was wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Pelham's map shows the "French Redoubt" formerly on the site of Somerville High School and Public Library. See my JAR article :https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/07/monsr-dubuq-the-first-french-officer-to-serve-the-american-cause/