Tim Roberts Digital History Teaching Using digital images and film to teach the Boston Massacre

Using digital images and film to teach the Boston Massacre

I would like to use a series of images of the famous 1770 Boston Massacre to teach students to think about how historical interpretation changes over time, and why those changes may happen. Based on an Internet search, eight digital images of the Boston Massacre, produced over the span of American history, could be utilized as primary sources for undergraduate students to study and interpret.

I have chosen those images because they strike me as useful for students to interpret for how they change over time, and to interpret as reflections of important events going on at the time each image was created.

The most famous image of the Boston “massacre” is Paul Revere’s nearly contemporaneous etching. But subsequent generations of Americans rendered their own versions. Perhaps reflecting nervousness over the brooding sectional crisis, the preeminent history textbook author Samuel Goodrich included an image of the incident in an 1851 primary school history book as a lesson to teach obedience to authority. But only a few years later, the abolitionist William Nell published a revisionist history of the American Revolution, in which he memorialized the prominence of the African American, Crispus Attucks, in the shooting. Attucks became an important reminder in antislavery literature of African Americans’ presence and sacrifice from the founding of the country, and would become even more prominent in Boston Massacre imagery after World War II.

After the Civil War, two new images of the massacre appeared, a study in contrasting portrayals of the crowd that confronted the British soldiers. Alonzo Chappel’s rendering of the scene in 1868 emphasized its chaos and suggested the vulnerability not only of the British troops in colonial Boston but American troops attempting to administer Radical Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South. Twenty years later a German immigrant Adolf Klaus, perhaps reflecting sympathies for striking industrial workers of the day, created a relief on the Boston Common that placed the slain civilians prominently in the foreground.

During World War II, William Johnson’s painting of the Massacre not only returned Crispus Attucks to prominence, but indeed portrayed him as the sole victim in the event, an ironic reversal from Paul Revere’s erasure of Attucks from his etching. In the era of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and in the same year as the Kent State massacre, the danger of reckless soldiers killing innocent civilians then became the poignant emphasis of Larry Rivers’s 1970 montage, which included abstract images of the prone figure of slain activist James Meredith and a Vietnamese woman clutching her child. Crispus Attucks’s central symbolism has persisted in a 2020 invocation of the Boston Massacre to protest racism in the city.

Of course, the interpretations above are my own; students might reach conclusions similar to those, but I would encourage students to render their own interpretations. To give students sufficient scaffolding to launch their inquiries, I have in mind to assign small teams of students to collaborate in researching one or two images’ backgrounds. It may be possible to give students only the images themselves, and allow them to sleuth to determine images’ creators and dates, as well as information relevant to each work’s political and cultural context. Students would have a week to research and prepare a short class presentation. A crucial question students would be asked to document is why they think their assigned work reflects some historical development contemporaneous to the image’s creation, and why their artist chose to invoke the Boston Massacre to make a statement about that development.

This kind of historical thinking could then be extended into an assignment requiring students to conduct independent research on an image of their choice, as long as it commemorated something about the American past. Students would be assigned to find an image by a certain semester date and confirm it with me, then would be required to research the image’s creator and the image’s political, social, and cultural context. The product of students’ independent research might work well as short videos, which would allow them to display and interpret other audiovisual images (depending on their image’s age, including paintings, photographs, videos, music) they uncover in their research that illustrate the contexts in which they locate their researched image.


Paul Revere, Bloody Massacre perpetuated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt.(1770) https://www.nps.gov/articles/250th-anniversary-of-the-boston-massacre.htm

Samuel Goodrich, People Attacking the Soldiers (1851) https://www-jstor-org.wiulibraries.idm.oclc.org/stable/40208199?read-now=1&seq=14#page_scan_tab_contents

William Cooper Nell, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) http://www.teachushistory.org/second-great-awakening-age-reform/resources/boston-massacre-champney

Alonzo Chappel, Boston Massacre (1868) https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Boston_Massacre

Adolf Klaus, Boston Massacre Memorial (1888) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston_Massacre_Memorial_-_IMG_9569.JPG

William Johnson, Crispus Attucks (1945) https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/crispus-attucks-11632

Larry Rivers, Boston Massacre (1970) https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rivers-boston-massacre-65505/11

Anonymous, The Murder of Crispus Attucks: a Eulogy on the Desired Death of Persistent Racism in Boston (2020) http://masspeaceaction.org/event/the-murder-of-crispus-attucks/

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