Henry Pelham, Paul Revere, and Drawing of Boston Massacre


Many people know that the famous silversmith made the etching of the bloody 1770 event. How many know Revere copied it from the work of another man?

On March 5, 1770, British soldiers on Boston’s King Street (now State Street) fired on a raucous mob of screaming, taunting civilians, killing five.

Within days of the shooting, Henry Pelham made a sketch of the event, which became known as the Boston Massacre. Pelham was half-brother of painter John Singleton Copley, who by this time had acquired international recognition for “Boy with a Squirrel,” a painting exhibited in London. Henry was the boy in that painting. Henry, about 21 at the time of the Massacre and 11 years younger than Copley, had his own artistic aspirations. Certainly he expected to make some money on his drawing of the Massacre.

Inaccurate and Provocative

Pelham gave silversmith Paul Revere the drawing and Revere—without giving the Pelham credit or even getting his permission—made an engraving based on Pelham’s work, then printed it and sold it, establishing the picture as the defining image of the event. This engraving, inaccurate and provocative, showed a neat row of soldiers firing in a volley on command into a well-heeled cluster of townsmen. Later evidence indicated that no officer gave an order to fire and, before any shots were fired, at least one soldier was attacked by a man with a club.

Pelham put his own print on the market about two weeks after Revere’s was put on sale. Pelham also wrote a note of outrage to Revere for his “dishonorable Actions.” Creating the image had cost Pelham time and money, and he had hoped to make a good profit from the sale of the images. Pelham complained that Revere had deprived him “not only of any proposed advantage but even of the expense I have been at, as truly as if You had plundered me on the Highway.” We don’t know if the letter was ever delivered to Revere. We do know that, whatever difference Pelham and Revere had were settled because four years later the two had a business arrangement.

Agreed with Patriots but Opposed Bloodshed

Pelham’s drawing proved a valuable propaganda tool for the patriotic side in the emerging crisis between Americans and British authorities. Pelham himself, however, wound up a Tory. Like his half-brother Copley, Pelham seems to have been generally sympathetic to the ideas of the patriots—that taxation without representation was wrong. But he opposed the violence of the radical patriots and thought the prospect of war catastrophic for everyone.

Pelham’s letters to Copley, who sailed to Europe before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, show Pelham’s anguish over the crisis in Boston. He is dismayed about the appearance of British soldiers on Boston Common in the summer of 1774. The Commons, wrote Pelham, “glows with warlike Red. The fireing of Cannon, the Rattling of Drums, the music of the fife, now interrupt the pleasant silence which once rendered it so peculiarly deligh[t]ful.”

Boston Under Siege

After Lexington and Concord, he described the scene in Boston full of British soldiers and under siege by patriot militia in the countryside: “It is inconceivable the distress and ruin this unnatural dispute has caused to this town and its inhabitants. Almost every shop and store is shut. No business of any kind is going on. . . . I am with the multitude rendered very unhappy, the little I collected entirely lost. The clothes upon my back and a few dollars in my pocket are now the only property which I have.”

In a later letter, Pelham further describes his dire situation: “I can’t but think myself very unfortunate thus to have lost so much of the best part of my Life, to have my Bus[i]ness, upon which my happyness greatly depends, so abruptly cut short, all my bright prospects anialated, the little Property I had acquired rendered useless, myself doomed either to stay at home and starve, or leave my country my Fri[e]nds, forced to give up those flattering expectation of domestic felicity which I once fon[d]ly hoped to realize: to seek that Bread among strangers which I am thus cruelly deprived of at Home.”

Hopes Destroyed After Tea Party

Pelham also confesses about other hopes “blasted” since the time of the Tea Party—the “fatal Era of the Tea’s arrival.” He wrote that a certain Miss Sally Bromfield was “the Object of my Highest Esteem and Regard,” a secret he never told Sally and now he felt he never could because it would be “totally unbecoming a generous mind, under Such circumstances as mine, to disturb a Lady’s repose by soliciting a Return of that Regard and attention which my Present situation forbids me to expect.”

Henry Pelham, broke, broken-hearted, and despairing in Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill, left Boston in 1776 and settled in London where he painted portraits and miniatures, worked as an engraver, and taught astronomy, geography, and perspective. He later moved to Ireland and married. His wife died after giving birth to twin sons. Pelham died in 1806, age 55 or so, following a boating mishap as he was directing the construction of military fortification on an island in the River Kenmare.

Did Henry ever confess to Miss Sarah Bromfield that she was the object of his “Highest Esteem and Regard”? We suspect she had an inkling of what he felt. Historians found two volumes of the poetry of John Milton with the inscriptions: “For Miss Sally Bromfield with Mr H. Pelham’s Sincere & Affectionate Compliments.”