Propaganda, Neighbors, and the Boston Massacre

The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated...."The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated...." (Photo: Paul Revere, 1770, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

On March 5, we commemorated the 246th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, the outline of which is at least vaguely familiar to most Americans. British troops, sent to stamp out radical tendencies among colonists in Boston, succeeded mostly in exacerbating tensions until that night in 1770 when eight soldiers standing in front of a government building faced off against a gathering of Bostonians and fired into the crowd. Three colonists died immediately; two more died of their wounds within a few days.

Our imaginations of the event remain shaped primarily by Paul Revere’s famous engraving, entitled
The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated in King Street, Boston, on March 5, 1779“. Based (without permission) on an earlier drawing by Henry Pelham, Revere’s image was a masterful piece of propaganda that did more than advance the spin radical politicians wished to put on the event. It disguised how the conflicts that gave rise to the American Revolution were conflicts between neighbors rather than strangers and how friendships could coexist with passionate political positions even in a place on the cusp of revolt.

Revere’s “Bloody Massacre” shows a disciplined phalanx of soldiers drawn up in front of a clearly marked “Customs House.” Safely behind them stands their commanding officer, waving his sword. The soldiers point their guns through a white haze of gun smoke at a crowd of well dressed, unarmed civilians, several of whom have blood pouring from their wounds. Three men lie dead on the ground. A single woman stands in the crowd, her hands clasped in horror. The engraving was widely distributed and did much to shape public opinion, both in England and in the colonies.

Revere was a member of an informal group of patriots known as the Sons of Liberty, and even schoolchildren are taught that his engraving was a way of furthering the radical cause. Many of the propagandistic touches in the image are easy to spot. The large sign identifying the Customs House as “Butcher’s Hall,” the innocent bystanders raising their empty hands, the gleeful soldier at the end of the line, and the title itself all openly displayed Revere’s politics. But one element is usually overlooked, though it may be the most obvious of all: that cloud of smoke that neatly and cleanly divides the row of red-coated soldiers from the crowd of terrified civilians they were slaughtering.

It is easy to discount “Butcher’s Hall” or the physical contrasts between the soldiers and the civilians as overblown visual rhetoric, but this smoky divide is also part of Revere’s spin on the evening. It is no more accurate a recording of what someone might have seen that night than the sad little dog at the bottom of the frame. In fact, the division between townspeople and soldiers was not nearly so complete as Revere implied.

We can see the real complexity of relationships on the ground in Boston in the intertwined stories of a civilian and a soldier, both of whom were actually on King Street that night. The civilian was a man named Thomas Wilkinson. We don’t know whether Revere modeled any of his horrified onlookers on Wilkinson. But Wilkinson did testify against the soldiers at their trial in the fall following the shootings. There he told the jury that one of the soldiers, Edward Montgomery, had been his neighbor the year before, and that they had been on friendly terms. Wilkinson and his wife would occasionally send one of their children over to the Montgomery home for the eighteenth-century equivalent of a cup of sugar: a pan of burning coals for their cold fire. In fact, when the sound of ringing bells drew Wilkinson out of his home onto King Street, he saw Montgomery marching up the street with the other soldiers and went to ask him for news.

On the other side of the gun smoke, Edward Montgomery was no rash young man with a gun; he was a married 35-year-old father of three. His children and wife Isabella lived in Boston with him. Sometimes these living arrangements worked out well, as they had for the Montgomerys when they lived next to the Wilkinsons. When the Montgomerys moved, however, they found their new neighbors less friendly. On March 5, Isabella Montgomery was at home, about a half-mile away from King Street. While Thomas Wilkinson was trying to get her husband’s attention a little after nine o’clock that night, Isabella was arguing with the people who lived nearby.

Testimony given later by people in the area that night said that Isabella had her own altercation with Bostonians. A teenager who was visiting friends said that he heard her gloating as the soldiers confronted the crowd at the Customs House. Those bells everyone heard were not ringing for a fire, she scoffed as she stood at her doorway that evening. They rang for revenge. She taunted one of her neighbors that “the town was too haughty and too proud; many of their arses would be laid low before the morning.” Comments like this cannot have made Isabella many friends, but tensions with her neighbors predated March 5 and compelled one woman to holler back, “I hope your husband will be killed.” Paul Revere might have wiped soldiers’ families out of his picture, but Isabella Montgomery was not invisible–or inaudible–to her neighbors. One of her neighbors, at least, knew enough about her and her husband to wish them dead.

There certainly were tensions in Boston in 1770. A year and a half before the “massacre,” 2,000 soldiers, along with hundreds of women and children, had crammed into a city of 16,000 inhabitants that sat on a peninsula not much more than a single square mile in size. There was little room to spread out, so it was no wonder that resentments flared. But the conflicts were between neighbors, not strangers. Soldiers and Bostonians found that their daily lives were tangled and knotted together. No bright white line divided them.

Political spin as blatant as that of Revere’s engraving seems to pervade our world today, and we often believe that we can see through the manipulation. But sometimes the most obvious sleight of hand is precisely the one we overlook, because it plays to our assumptions about the world. We let our focus on political difference blind us to the strength of our human relationships. Sometimes the lines that we believe divide us from each other really are no more than smoke.

About the Author

Serena Zabin

Serena Zabin is Professor of History at Carleton College. Her most recent book is Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (University of Pennsylvania Press 2009), and she is currently writing a very new history of the Boston Massacre.

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  1. I’ve looked at this engraving in postcard size all over Boston, my town, but had not stopped to study the careful manipulation behind it. This was not a model of “love thy neighbor,” and I fear history repeating itself, yet again.

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