There is no Crispus Attucks statue. There is a Boston Massacre monument nicknamed “the Crispus Attucks statue” but it is not a statue of Crispus Attucks. Yet the history of Attucks’ martyrdom is there to learn and his story has all the ambiguity necessary for quality folklore and mythology.
From what we know, Crispus Attucks was a complicated character in American Revolutionary history but not any more complicated than your random Founding Father. Encyclopedia Britannica confesses that the only thing they know for sure about Attucks begins and ends with the events around the March 5, 1770, Boston Massacre, where he and four other American colonists were killed when jumpy British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Bostonians who had mobbed a barracks of the 29th Regiment, one of two regiments stationed in Boston resulting from tensions over new authoritative British policies attempting to deal with the burden of French-Indian War debt. The crowd had isolated a sentry stationed at the Custom House and the commander of the barracks, Captain Thomas Preston, ordered a squad of seven soldiers with fixed bayonets out into the crowd to support the lone sentry. Receiving steady verbal and physical resistance from the crowd, one of the outnumbered and confused soldiers fired his musket, causing the others to open fire in the confusion.
Massachusetts colonial Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson arrived at the scene and ordered the troops back to their barracks and settled the crowd with promises of justice for the shootings. Eleven colonists had been shot, three, including Crispus Attucks, were killed instantly while two more among the wounded died shortly after. Revolutionary Boston patriots would quickly seize upon the Massacre narrative and Attucks would go down in history as the first martyr for the cause of American independence, to the point of burial in the same plot as the other martyrs in the Granary Burying Ground. Early the following morning, Captain Preston, the barracks’ sentry and the seven soldiers Preston ordered to support him were placed under arrest. Bostonians demanded removal of the troops and both the 29th and 14th Regiments were moved out of the city to what is now Castle Island in Boston Harbor. After several delays before trial, Captain Preston and his troops would be defended successfully in court by future US President John Adams, now buried in the same Granary Burying Ground as the Boston Massacre martyrs.
With little help from primary sources, beside any circumstantial evidence they may provide, the life of Crispus Attucks loosely shapes up as a portrait of a runaway slave who took work and refuge among the whaling crews sailing out of Boston Harbor. The story of Crispus Attucks hinges on a classified ad placed in the October 2, 1750 issue of the Boston Gazette and Weekly Journal by a William Brown of Framingham, Massachusetts, who sought the return of “A Mulatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas [sic], 6 feet 2 inches high, short cur’l hair, his knees nearer together than common.” While some sources report Attucks also laboring as a ropemaker, dock worker and other jobs over the course of twenty years between his escape and martyrdom, Brown warned in his ad seeking the return of his slave, that “all Matters of Vessels and others, are hereby cautioned against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of Law.”
Children of Black and Indigenous parents were considered Black or mulatto in colonial America and Attucks was reportedly born to an African father and a Natick (or Nantucket) mother. On whaling vessels, Attucks would have labored under the threat of impressment by the British Navy. In any of his other positions, Attucks would have lived with a dangerous competition from British troops who commonly sought and often found moonlighting jobs for cut rate wages during their off-duty hours.
Tensions between the people of Boston and the British troops stationed there were part of the landscape. From the trial of Captain Preston and his troops, we know that a fight broke out on March 2, between soldiers and ropemakers after one of the employees of John Gray’s Ropewalk started heckling a passing soldier, “Do you want work?” The soldier replied that he did and the employee said to the soldier, “Wee then, go and clean my shithouse.” The soldier and about a dozen more returned later and the fight broke out.
While Attucks was known to sometimes work as a ropemaker, it remains unclear whether or not he was involved in the brawl or who got the better of it. Meanwhile, friction between the Bostonians and the troops escalated over the following days, with several disturbances breaking out from the Custom House to the Dock Square, where the cold and snowy Northeastern weather provided much ammunition in the form of ice and snowballs. The chain of events winding up what would become known as the Boston Massacre began with the the heckling of Captain John Goldfinch in his new wig when the wigmaker’s apprentice, Edward Garrick, called out the officer in the street. “There goes the fellow who hath not paid my master for dressing his hair,” Garrick shouted. Captain Goldfinch tried to ignore the heckler but a sentry named Hugh White stationed at the nearby Custom House and overhearing the remarks told the apprentice, “He is a gentleman, and if he owes you anything he will pay for it.” Garrick heckled back something to the effect that there were no gentlemen left in the regiment, causing White to leave his post and exchange a few more words and ultimately hit Garrick with his musket. A crowd grew around the scene, attacking White with ice, snowballs, oyster shells, anything they could pick up and throw, driving him back outside of his sentry box at Custom House and onto the steps where he loaded his musket and began shouting and aggressively waving his gun.
Province law prohibited troops from firing on civilians without the order of a magistrate. Word of the sentry’s trouble reached Captain Preston at the barracks who ordered seven soldiers to line up with fixed bayonets, led their way through the crowd, ordered the sentry to fall in and tried to march back to the Main Guard barracks. But the crowd had swelled in numbers and fury.
At the front of the crowd before the surrounded troops, Crispus Attucks grabbed one of the soldier’s bayonets, knocking him to the ground. The soldier got up and fired his musket into the crowd. Soon, the other soldiers also began firing without any orders, according to Captain Preston’s statement. Two musket balls hit Attucks in the chest. Altogether, five people lay dying in the streets; another half dozen lay injured and the soldiers loaded their weapons and prepared to fire again but Captain Preston ordered them to “Stop firing! Do not fire!” Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson would arrive and restore order with promises of justice and Captain Preston and his troops were placed under arrest overnight.
Revolutionaries like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere quickly exploited the shootings as martyrdom to the cause of independence. Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, branded the confrontation “the Boston Massacre” and Paul Revere published an evocative engraving of the shootings as interpreted by Henry Pelham, albeit without attribution. Their efforts arguably succeeded in causing the withdrawal of all British troops from the city of Boston out to the harbor on Castle Island.
The Revere-Pelham leaflet would prove its staying power as future editions featuring the iconic prominence of Attucks’ mortal wounding in Boston inspired the movement to abolish slavery well into the nineteenth century, through Emancipation and the induction of Black troops in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“When in 1776 the Negro was asked to decide between British oppression and American independence,” Booker T. Washington spoke in his Chicago Thanksgiving Peace Jubilee address in 1898, “we find him choosing the better part and Crispus Attucks, a Negro, was the first to shed his blood on State street, Boston, that the white American might enjoy liberty forever, though his race remained in slavery.” The founder of the Tuskegee Institute delivered his Thanksgiving address before President William McKinley, members of his cabinet, foreign ministers and several military officers attending the event.
Statues are a way to crystalize examples of heroic history, folklore and mythology in public consciousness that augments a disciplined study of history. What we see today in the iconoclastic toppling of statues mostly raised in honor of a slaveholders’ rebellion against our Enlightenment revolution is nothing short of a popular shift in American culture away from the rehabilitation of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause,” finally and hopefully, toward the basic and corny, yet radically singular, ideal of equality as expressed in the rhetoric of our Revolution and ultimately by the Constitutional system that revolutionary nation produced. “We the People” means all its people.