How picturing the Boston Massacre matters
Maybe this painting looks familiar. A long row of red-coated soldiers. A cloud of gun smoke engulfing the street. Falling bodies.
But not every depiction of the Boston Massacre puts an African American man at the center. Doing so asks for reflection, and not just because this painting is on a mirror. Tracing the ways this man and the massacre have been interpreted, starting from the moment the smoke cleared, can help us think about what the massacre means today—250 years later.
On the evening of March 5, 1770, when cries came from the center of Boston that British soldiers were beating teenage boys who had been taunting them, the man at the center of the painting led an immediate community response.
The 47-year-old sailor, who called himself Michael Johnson and had escaped from slavery near Boston 20 years prior, gathered fellow seamen near the wharf. Sailors were particularly angry at British soldiers. They enforced the trade regulations that constrained shipping jobs, and they moonlighted where sailors might otherwise find work.
Johnson had his next voyage lined up. Nevertheless, he led his crew up the street toward the soldiers at the Custom House, yelling “Town-born, turn-out!” to rally other aggrieved locals. A crowd of about 50 arrived and started taunting the soldiers. Some waved clubs or pieces of firewood (it was dark out and eyewitnesses disagreed). Others threw snowballs or sticks.
In response, the soldiers leveled their muskets, tipped with bayonets, aiming to push the crowd back. Then a soldier fired, in reaction either to something thrown or to protestors who whacked the guns in an effort to stand their ground. More shots followed, two of which hit Johnson’s chest. He and four other protestors died. Several more were wounded.
In the immediate aftermath, the protest leader was remembered with the other victims as Michael Johnson, a name he chose for himself. But, starting about a week later, newspapers, the coroner, and witnesses started calling him by the name his enslaver gave him: Crispus Attucks.
Johnson’s enslaved name reflected both Native American and African American ancestry. He may have selected a new name to shed his enslaved past, or to avoid being tracked. Either way, it’s notable that when witnesses recognized him as the famously “large stout man” known in the area since his days in bondage, they reverted to using his enslaved name. But Johnson’s role in the massacre soon underwent other revisions.
In late March, Paul Revere published what is now the best-known surviving representation of the event. Revere’s print shows armed redcoats lined up and firing on unarmed, mostly well-dressed, civilians. This take was popular in America, resulting in many editions over time. In some versions, a man bleeds from two chest wounds on the far left of the crowd. Most surviving examples present this man, and the entire crowd, as white, though some rare hand-colored examples do darken Johnson’s face.
Revere marginalized or even whitewashed Johnson in his illustrations to make the patriot movement appear orderly and law-abiding. In 1770 patriot leaders like Revere had not yet called for independence. They wanted the British government to adjust its policies, but they did not support actions that might threaten social order in the colonies. An armed crowd led by a formerly enslaved man was too radical for Revere.
John Adams shared Revere’s concerns. So he defended the soldiers at their trials in April, where he also tried to distance the protestors from the patriot movement by painting a certain picture of Johnson. In his closing argument, Adams described a “reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout mulatto fellow whose very looks was enough to terrify any person. What had not the soldiers then to fear?” Adams concluded. Seven of the nine soldiers were acquitted. The two convicted of manslaughter soon were allowed to leave Boston.
The details of the trial faded while Revere’s image continued to be reprinted, and Johnson remained on the margins of the massacre—as the museum’s 1832 edition of Revere’s print demonstrates.
The rise of the abolition movement in the 1840s and 1850s brought Johnson back to the center of depictions of the Boston Massacre. Abolitionists celebrated “Crispus Attucks” as an example of African Americans’ patriotism and desire for freedom.
The painting on the mirror in the museum’s collection is a simplified take on the best-known example of this interpretation, which emphasizes Johnson’s heroic martyrdom.
The mirror hung in a house belonging to a prominent white family in a Connecticut county known for abolitionism. As time passed, the painting may have inspired memories of white abolitionist ancestors or maybe discussions of African American civil rights. Since the mirror came to the museum in 1951, new representations of the massacre have continued to either illustrate the moment Johnson was shot or memorialize him in a classical bust for his sacrifice.
Should our memory of Johnson and the massacre continue to focus on the moment of murder? The tragedy resulted from aggressive policing, an issue that resonates today. The crowd responded to soldiers beating teenagers. Witnesses noted that only after they started “pushing with their guns” did Johnson and other protestors push back beyond taunts, snowballs, and maybe some sticks. Even more pointedly, as Adams suggested, the soldiers’ racist fear of Johnson at the front of the crowd may have triggered the shooting. As University of Virginia law professor Farah Peterson has put it, “A critical part of Adams’s strategy was to convince the jury that his clients had only killed a black man.”
But prominent conversations today about race and economic opportunity suggest concentrating on Johnson's leadership of an interracial yet predominantly white group of protesters, not just his tragic death. Risking his own recapture, despite having his next job lined up, Johnson’s actions ask us to remember his unselfishness—and the interracial support it garnered—at the forefront of a fight for jobs as well as against the tyranny of aggressive policing.
What does Johnson’s story make you picture?
Kenneth Cohen is an Edward and Helen Hintz Secretarial Scholar and a curator of American culture and politics.