Henry Pelham created an image for the ages.
On the snowy night of March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers were confronted by an unruly crowd of colonists near the Custom House in Boston. The melee that followed ended with the panicked troops firing into the crowd, killing several colonists, including Crispus Attucks, a Black sailor who’s often regarded as the first casualty of the American Revolution. The deaths outraged a rebellion-minded city already on edge over British occupation. Quickly known as the Boston Massacre, it became a signal event in early American history and the run-up to the Revolutionary War.
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.
It was just enough time to make history. Revere’s engraving went on sale on March 28, 1770, a full week before Pelham’s. Over 200 copies were printed and sent far and wide throughout America and Europe, spreading news of the Massacre and stoking revolutionary fervor in the colonies. Revere’s The Bloody Massacre was also printed as part of a publicly posted newspaper broadside. The image is still widely reproduced today—chances are you’ve seen it in your school textbooks. So, how did Revere’s version become an essential part of Revolutionary lore? And was he a “plagiarizing patriot,” as the PBS show Antiques Roadshow once asked?
New-York Historical’s exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere explores this fascinating interlude in Revere’s incredible life and career. Created with the American Antiquarian Society, Beyond Midnight is the first exhibition to bring together all of the engravings that were created right after the Massacre—five in total, including Pelham’s, Revere’s, and the only complete surviving copy of the newspaper broadside.
Needless to say, Pelham was furious about what he viewed as Revere’s subterfuge. (To be fair to Revere, engravers at the time often copied each other, and there was no enforcement of copyrighted material like we have today.) We only know about Pelham’s feelings because of a draft of a letter to Revere that was discovered in Pelham’s papers in London after his death. Written just weeks after the Massacre on March 29, 1770, it’s absolutely scathing.
Pelham opens: “When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible, as I knew you was [sic] 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.” He goes on to say that it was as if Revere “plundered me on the highway” and includes the threat, “If you are insensible of the Dishonour you have brought on yourself by this Act, the World will not be so.”
Harsh words! But did he ever send it? It’s unclear, since no actual letter was ever found in Revere’s papers. Perhaps Pelham cooled down and thought better about mailing it. Or maybe he and Revere patched things up in person—they had plenty of professional and family connections, after all. (Indeed, one of John Singleton Copley’s most famous paintings is a 1768 portrait of Revere.)
Either way, the world wasn’t too concerned with Revere’s “dishonor.” And Pelham, who moved to London in 1776, had to settle for coming in second.
Come see the Revere and Pelham engravings and much more in New-York Historical’s exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, on view until Jan. 12, 2020.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, Content Editor