Moving Pictures: Images Across Media in American Visual and Material Culture

Revere's "The Boston Massacre"

Revere’s “The Boston Massacre”

When a singular image is reused in various publications or shows up in more than one medium, it’s indicative of the breadth of its impact. Take, for example, perhaps the most iconic image of the American Revolution, “The Boston Massacre” by Paul Revere, which was not only first copied by Revere from someone else’s design, but his own version was then copied by others. This was a scene that got a lot of traction and helped fuel the Revolution, which was the original intent!

Copying another’s work—not an uncommon practice in the eighteenth century—might be considered the sincerest form of flattery, but this was not the sentiment of Henry Pelham (1749-1806) when he discovered that Revere had copied his rendering of “The Bloody Massacre” (also known as “The Boston Massacre”) in March of 1770. Pelham was livid about Revere’s preempting his work, as revealed in a letter from Pelham to Revere on  March 29, 1770: “When I heard that you were cutting a plate of the late Murder, I thought it impossible as I knew you was [sic] not capable of doing it unless you coppied [sic] it from mine and as I thought I had entrusted it in the hands of a person who had more regard to the dictates of Honour and Justice than to take the undue advantage you have done of the confidence and Trust I reposed in you.”[1] It is unclear whether Pelham ever sent the letter but certainly he was not happy about Revere copying his print and advertising it for sale first.

Pelham's "The Bloody Massacre"

Pelham’s “The Bloody Massacre”

Muliken's version of the image

Muliken’s version of the image

Certainly others followed suit in printing this propagandistic scene. Clockmaker Jonathan Muliken of Newburyport made use of his experience in engraving clock faces to also engrave the popular print in 1770. His version was based quite directly on Revere’s print.  We have no record of how Revere responded to Muliken’s print, but suspect that he saw it as business as usual.

What is even more fun to consider is that the image likely traveled right onto the Revolutionary battlefield in the 1770s on a powder horn owned by one Hamilton Davidson, probably from New Hampshire. The Davidson powder horn in the collections of Historic Deerfield was made by Jacob Gay in 1772 and depicts the historic Boston Massacre scene in reverse. The horn is one of Gay’s finest (he was a prolific carver of horns) and its detail suggests how this inciting image may have inspired a soldier in battle. Gay has reversed the scene, with the British soldiers shooting from the left, and depicts the men in his cartoon-like style. Whether he adapted the scene from a print by Revere or Pelham or Muliken, Gay’s rendering is impressive, especially when you recognize that he was engraving the scene on a curved horn surface rather than on a copper plate!

Hamilton Davidson horn by Jacob Gay, 1772. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, Mass.

Hamilton Davidson horn by Jacob Gay, 1772. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, Mass.

Detail of Hamilton Davidson horn, 1772. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, Mass.

Detail of Hamilton Davidson horn, 1772. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield, Inc., Deerfield, Mass.

To hear the latest cutting edge research on how and why imagery moved from one medium to another, come to the CHAViC conference Moving Pictures: Images Across Media in American Visual and Material Culture to 1900 at the American Antiquarian Society on November 20 and 21, 2015. More information and registration can be found on the AAS website.


 

[1] The original of the Pelham letter is in the British Public Record Office, Colonial Office Record. A photostat of the original is available at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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