In 1770, Crispus Attucks, became the first
casualty of the American
Revolution when he was shot and killed in what became known as the "Boston Massacre."
Although Attucks was credited as the leader and instigator of the event, debate raged for
over a century as to whether he was a hero and a patriot, or a rabble-rousing
villain. In the murder trial of the soldiers who fired the fatal shots, John Adams serving as a lawyer for the
crown, reviled the "mad behavior" of Attucks, "whose very looks was enough
to terrify any person."
Twenty years earlier, an advertisement
placed by William Brown in the Boston
Gazette and Weekly Journal provided a more detailed description of Attucks, a
runaway: " A Mulatto fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispus, 6 feet 2
inches high, short cur'l hair, his knees nearer together than common." Attucks
father was said to be an African and his mother a Natick or Nantucket Indian: in colonial
America, the offspring of Black and Indian parents were considered Black or Mulatto.
As a slave in Framingham, he had been known
for his skill in buying and selling cattle. Brown offered a reward for the man's
return, and ended with the following admonition: "And all Matters of Vessels and
others, are hereby cautioned against concealing or carrying off, said servant on Penalty
of Law." Despite Brown's warning, Attucks was carried off on a vessel many
times over the next twenty years: he became a sailor, working on a whaling crew that
sailed out of Boston harbor. At other times he worked as a ropemaker in
Boston. Attucks' occupation made him particularly vulnerable to the presence of the
British. As a seaman, he felt the ever-present danger of impressment into the
As a laborer, he felt the competition from
British troops, who often took part-time jobs during their off-duty hours and worked for
low wages. A fight between Boston ropemakers and three British soldiers on Friday,
March 2, 1770 set the stage for a later confrontation. That following Monday night,
tensions escalated when a soldier entered a pub to look for work, and instead found a
group of angry seamen that included Attucks. That evening a group of about thirty,
described by John Adams as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and Mulattos,
Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs," began taunting the guard at the custom
house with snowballs, sticks, and insults. Seven other Redcoats came to the lone
soldiers' rescue, and Attucks was one of five men killed when they opened fire.
Patriots, pamphleteers and propagandists
immediately dubbed the event the "Boston Massacre," and its victims became
instant martyrs and symbols of liberty. Despite laws and customs regulating the
burial of Blacks, Attucks was buried in the Park Street cemetery along with the other
honored dead. Adams, who became the second American president, defended the soldiers
in court against the charge of murder. Building on eyewitness testimony that Attucks
had struck the first blow, Adams described him as the self-appointed leader of "the
dreadful carnage." In Adams' closing argument, Attucks became larger than life,
with "hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a
bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down."
The officer in charge and five of his men
were acquitted, which further inflamed the public. The citizens of Boston observed
the anniversary of the Boston Massacre in each of the following years leading up to the
war. In ceremonies designed to stir revolutionary fever, they summoned the
"discontented ghost" of the victims.." A Crispus Attucks Day.."
Revised: July 18, 2013.