“A Glorious Tribute which Embalms the Dead:” Paul Revere and Henry Pelham’s Boston Massacre
By: Nina Rodwin
Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre is one of the most enduring images of the Revolution. While the work is so well known in America’s history, few are aware that Revere’s engraving is actually mostly a copy of a print made by Henry Pelham. This misattribution raises questions about our understanding of the massacre as a historical event. Revere’s print of the massacre is well known as an early example of political propaganda, but how does our understanding of the event (and Revere) change when we realize Revere was not the original artist? Why did Revere get the credit while Pelham was overlooked? Although there is not a definitive answer to these questions, exploring the context of Revere’s actions can help contemporary audiences understand his decisions.
Revere’s family had moved into their North Square home just two weeks before the massacre occurred on March 5, 1770. Although it’s impossible to really know what the family thought and felt, it must have been alarming to know that blocks from their home British soldiers had killed five people with little warning. It is unclear if Revere personally witnessed the event, but he would have undoubtedly heard the news from friends, family members, and newspapers. Although Revere ultimately based his image on Pelham’s, his original additions demonstrate he was deeply affected by the event. He included his political opinions into the image by inscribing the words “Butcher’s Hall” above the customs house building and created an 18-line poem, deriding the British soldiers as “fierce barbarians,” who would be punished in the afterlife “by a judge who can never be bribed.”
Henry Pelham was just twenty-two when the massacre occurred blocks away from his home on Lindel’s Row (present day Congress Street.) While it is unclear when Pelham finished his print, at some point he loaned the image to Revere. This wasn’t unusual for the time – engravers often copied their designs from other’s engravings. For example, all of the engravings Revere made for the Royal American Magazine were copied from British magazines. Although England had copyright laws to protect publishers and engravers as early as 1735, the law was never enforced, especially in the distant American colonies. Even painters like John Singleton Copley were expected to copy Renaissance artists to improve their skills. Pelham likely expected that Revere would simply use his work as a reference.
After all, Pelham had reason to trust Revere, as the two men had personal and business connections. As Copley’s half-brother, Pelham had probably seen sketches of Paul Revere’s famous portrait before it was completed. While there is still debate over why Copley chose to paint Revere, it is clear that Copley found Revere to be a reliable businessman. Copley ordered a gold bracelet from Revere as early as 1763 and bought many silver cases and frames for his miniature portraits from the artisan over the next decade.
Revere started to advertise his engraving for sale on March 26, three weeks after the massacre. Pelham unfortunately started selling his version of the engraving a week later, but it was too late now that Revere had cornered the market and claimed the work as his own. Pelham furiously wrote him a letter, accusing Revere of “the most dishonorable action you could well be guilty of.” Written just three days after Revere began to sell his print, the letter demonstrates that even though Revere’s actions were common, such behavior was not always considered respectable. Although much of the letter illustrates Pelham’s anger towards Revere, it also sheds some light on Revere’s artistic skills and the process of engraving.
Pelham’s letter begins with a reasonable deduction: if Revere was “cutting a plate,” then he must have “coppied [sic] it from mine,” as Revere was otherwise “not capable of doing it.” As an engraver, Pelham knew that creating an image was a multi-step process. Before one could make multiple copies (or “prints”), an original engraving must be made, usually on wood or a copper plate. While some artists controlled the entire creative process from the initial sketches to the sale of the prints, others like Pelham and Revere often relied on printers to produce their works in mass quantities. Although Revere sometimes relied on local printers to sell his images, his engraving of the massacre credits himself as sole engraver, printer, and seller.
Pelham explained that he had “great Trouble and Expence [sic]” making “a design, paying for paper, printing etc.” Now he found himself “in the most ungenerous Manner deprived” of both his artistic credit and his money, claiming that Revere’s actions were “as if you had plundered me on the highway.” Pelham previously had “confidence and trust” in Revere, noting that he had only lent Revere his engraving because he believed he had “intrusted [sic] it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour [sic] and Justice.” “But I find I was mistaken,” Pelham lamented, and vowed that he would hurt Revere’s reputation. “If you are insensible of the Dishonour [sic] you have brought on yourself by this Act,” he threatened, “the World will not be so.”
Ironically, Pelham ends his letter with a postscript, noting that he will send back “by the Bearer the prints I borrowed of you.” In addition, the P.S. indicates that Revere continued to have a personal and business relationship with Copley’s family, as Pelham asks for Revere to “send the hinges and part of the press” back to Pelham’s mother. There is no evidence that Revere ever responded to Pelham’s letter. While Pelham had no legal recourse, he tried to inform his customers that his print was the true original. An advertisement in the Boston Evening Post notes that Pelham’s print was titled “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power: An Original Print.” [Emphasis mine]
Although Pelham and Revere both drew artistic inspiration from the Boston Massacre, their political perspectives were drastically different. Paul Revere became a well-known tradesman and patriot, while Henry Pelham eventually became an ardent Loyalist, partially through family connections. When John Copley married Susanna Clarke, he became the son-in-law to Richard Clarke, an agent of the East Indian Tea Company. After Clarke was assigned as one of the consignees of the tea destroyed in the Tea Party in December 1773, it became increasingly unsafe for the family to stay in Boston; Copley’s house was surrounded by a threatening mob in April 1774. By June he left Boston, traveling to England to further his portraiture skills. Pelham and his mother stayed in Boston until August 1776, a few months after the evacuation of British troops.
After the Revolution, Revere’s career as an entrepreneur steadily grew, cementing his place in American History. While the images of the Boston Massacre still hold a large presence in America’s memory of the Revolution, Pelham’s legacy has largely vanished.
Nina Rodwin is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House
Barratt, Carrie Rebora. John Singleton Copley in America. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
Brigham, Clarence S. Paul Revere’s Engravings. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Perspectives on the Boston Massacre – Massachusetts History Society
Gearty, Tom from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006).
Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd Series Vol 28. (1892-1894)