Comparing coffins, remembering the Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers open fired on a group of Boston citizens, killing five. This event, the Boston Massacre, was one in a series of crises that led many American colonists to choose independence from Great Britain five years later. Since 1770, Americans’ understanding of the massacre has been shaped by the images created by engraver Paul Revere. Revere’s sensationalized engraving of the event, titled The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, defined how the tragedy was and is still imagined in historical memory.

But The Bloody Massacre was Revere’s third attempt to chronicle the massacre, to transform the event into a rallying point for Patriots throughout the colonies. In his two earlier engravings, Revere memorialized the colonists who died at the hands of the soldiers by depicting coffins. A woodblock in the museum’s collection reminds us that, while less famous, Revere’s earlier engravings were also powerful images that have been remembered, and copied, for centuries.  

Paul Revere’s print, “The Bloody Massacre perpetuated in King Street,” showing British soldiers firing into a crowd as smoke fills the street in Boston.
Paul Revere’s third engraving in his Boston Massacre series, “The Bloody Massacre perpetuated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regiment,” was an image copied from Henry Pelham’s drawing of British soldiers shooting at unarmed civilians. This engraving of the scene influenced both past and present popular memory of the event’s occurrences and in turn served to demonstrate the powerlessness that colonists felt in the hands of the British Empire. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Revere’s first engraving relating to the Boston Massacre appeared in the March 12, 1770, edition of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal. Revere framed each coffin in a thin black border with a skull and crossbones depicted in the center of each coffin. Each coffin also included the initials of one of the fatalities of the massacre: S.G. for Samuel Gray; S.M. for Samuel Maverick; J.C. for James Caldwell; and C.A. for Crispus Attucks. The coffin representing Samuel Maverick includes a sickle, an hourglass, and the characters “AE 17”, referring to his young age of 17 at the time of his death. Revere’s second Boston Massacre engraving recreated the same coffin design but consisted of a single coffin marked P.C. for Patrick Carr, a Bostonian wounded by the soldiers’ gunfire who died after the creation of the first engraving. 

An engraving of four coffins. The black coffins appear side by side, and they are each decorated with a skull and crossbones. Each includes the initials of a Bostonian killed during the Boston Massacre; one also includes a sickle and an hourglass.
Paul Revere’s original coffin engraving, printed in the “Boston Gazette” on March 12, 1770. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society
An engraving of one coffin, marked with a skull and crossbones as well as the initials “P.C.”
Revere’s second coffin engraving, printed in the “Boston Gazette” on March 19, 1770. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society

Although Revere’s coffin engravings were not as blatantly inflammatory as his more famous The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, they did showcase Revere’s opinion regarding the tragedy. The coffin engravings humanized the massacre’s victims while dramatizing the dangers of Britain’s militarized policing of the colonies. By pairing the victims’ initials with familiar symbols of death, Revere both recognized the dead and reminded readers that these men's lives were cut short at the hands of British soldiers. In combination with The Bloody Massacre, Revere portrayed the event as an unjust execution of colonists by soldiers and provided viewers a visual example of why colonists should reconsider their longstanding loyalty to the British Empire.

The Graphic Arts Collection holds an engraved woodblock with an image extremely similar to Revere’s original engraving of four coffins. Closer inspection revealed that minute differences distinguish Revere’s original work from the woodblock preserved by the museum, including: the shapes of the eyes and nose of the skulls, the number of teeth on the skulls, the shapes of the arm joints of the crossbones, and the amounts of sand portrayed in the hourglass.  

Woodblock of four coffins. The black coffins appear side by side, and they are each decorated with a skull and crossbones. Each includes the unique individuals of a Bostonian killed during the Boston Massacre; one also includes a sickle and an hourglass.
Woodblock reproduction of Revere’s original coffin engraving held in the museum’s Graphics Arts Collection. (RSN82608X26)
A composite image showing a woodblock and an engraving of four coffins. Colorful circles on the images mark the differences between them.
This is an image comparison between Revere’s original engraving printed in the Boston Gazette on March 12, 1770 (top) and the museum’s reproduction woodblock (bottom). The coffin woodblock is the inverted version of the newspaper image. The green and pink circles highlight the differences in crossbones, the yellow circles the differences in the hourglasses, and the blue circles the differing teeth.
A woodblock of four coffins placed on top of a reproduction of the March 12, 1770, issue of the Boston Gazette, which features a slightly different version of the same image.
The museum’s Graphic Arts Collection also includes a reproduction of the March 12, 1770, “Boston Gazette,” where readers first saw Revere’s coffin engraving. In the image above, the museum’s woodblock was placed on top of the newspaper for comparison. (RSN82608X26 and GA.21689)

There are still mysteries about the woodblock to uncover, but for now it’s clear that this reinterpretation of Revere’s original has had a storied history of its own. The woodblock’s image appeared in the March 1872 issue of the American Historical Record, and Repertory of Notes and Queries Concerning the History and Antiquities of American and Biography of Americans; three years later, it surfaced again on the pages of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in an article dedicated to caricature in U.S. history. Accompanying the reprint of the coffin engraving, the Harper’s writer wrote: “Amidst the frenzy of the time these coffin lids served to express and relieve the popular feeling.” More recently, this version of the coffin engraving appeared on the cover of historian Serena Zabin’s book The Boston Massacre: A Family History.

Although the museum’s woodblock does not match Revere’s original design exactly, its existence reminds us of the enduring power of images in the lead-up to the American Revolution and their changing meaning to Americans over time.

Lauryn Baehr (she/her) is a former collections management intern with the Graphic Arts Division and a current Exhibit Collections Management Office intern at the museum. She is a second year graduate student in the Public History program at American University.