Little is known for certain about Crispus at beyond that he, along with Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, died "on the spot" during the incident. Two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, did not refer to Attucks as a black man or "Negro"; it appeared that Bostonians accepted him as mixed race. Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave; but agree that he was of Wampanoag and African descent.
While the extent of his participation in events leading to the massacre is unclear, Attucks in the 18th century became an icon of the anti-slavery movement. He was held up as the first martyr of the American Revolution along with the others killed. In the early 19th century, as the abolitionist movement gained momentum in Boston, supporters lauded Attucks as a black American who played a heroic role in the history of the United States Because Attucks had Wampanoag ancestors, his story also holds special significance for many Native Americans.
In 1750 William Brown, a slave-owner in Framingham, advertised for the return of a runaway slave named Crispus. Attucks's status at the time of the massacre as either a free black or a runaway slave has been a matter of debate for historians. However, his descendants maintain he was a slave and ran away sometime in his teenage years. What is known is that Attucks became a sailor and he spent much of the remainder of his life at sea often working on whalers which involved long voyages. He may only have been temporarily in Boston in early 1770, having recently returned from a voyage to the Bahamas. He was due to leave shortly afterwards on a ship for North Carolina.
This 19th-century lithograph is a variation of the famous engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere. Produced soon before the American Civil War and long after the event depicted, this image emphasizes Crispus Attucks, who had become a symbol for abolitionists. (John Bufford after William L. Champey, ca. 1856)
In the fall of 1768, British soldiers were sent to Boston in an attempt to control growing colonial unrest, which had led to a spate of attacks on local officials following the introduction of the Stamp Act and the subsequent Townshend Acts. Radical Whigs had coordinated waterfront mobs against the authorities. The presence of troops, instead of reducing tensions, served to further inflame them.
After dusk on March 5, 1770, a crowd of colonists confronted a sentry who had chastised a boy for complaining that an officer did not pay a barber bill. Both townspeople and a company of British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot gathered. The colonists threw snowballs and debris at the soldiers. Attucks and a group of men with Attucks approached the Old State House armed with clubs. A soldier was struck with a piece of wood, an act some witnesses claimed was done by Attucks. Other witnesses stated that Attucks was "leaning upon a stick" when the soldiers opened fire.
Five colonists were killed and six were wounded. Attucks took two ricocheted bullets in the chest and was the first to die. County coroners Robert Pierpoint and Thomas Crafts Jr. conducted an autopsy on Attucks. Attucks' body was carried to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state until Thursday, March 8, when he and the other victims were buried together in the same grave site in Boston's Granary Burying Ground. He lived for approximately 47 years.
Reaction and trials
Arguing the soldiers fired in self-defense, John Adams successfully defended most of the accused British soldiers against a charge of murder. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. Faced with the prospect of hanging, the soldiers pled benefit of clergy, and were instead branded on their thumbs. In his arguments, Adams called the crowd "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs."." In particular, he charged Attucks with having "undertaken to be the hero of the night," and with having precipitated a conflict by his "mad behavior."
Two years later, Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, named the event the "Boston Massacre," and helped assure that it would not be forgotten. Boston artist Henry Pelham (half-brother of the celebrated portrait painter John Singleton Copley) created an image of the event. Paul Revere made a copy from which prints were made and distributed. Some copies of the print show a dark-skinned man with chest wounds, presumably representing Crispus Attucks. Other copies of the print show no difference in the skin tones of the victims.
The five who were killed were buried as heroes in the Granary Burying Ground, which also contains the graves of John Hancock and other notable figures. While custom of the period discouraged the burial of black people and white people together, such a practice was not completely unknown. Prince Hall, for example, was interred in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End of Boston 39.
1858, Boston-area abolitionists, including William Cooper Nell, established "Crispus Attucks Day" to commemorate him.
1886, the places where Crispus Attucks and Samuel Gray fell were marked by circles on the pavement. Within each circle, a hub with spokes leads out to form a wheel.
1888, a monument honoring Attucks and the other victims of the Boston Massacre was erected on Boston Common. It is over 25 feet high and about 10 feet wide. The "bas-relief" (raised portion on the face of the main part of the monument) portrays the Boston Massacre, with Attucks lying in the foreground. Under the scene is the date, March 5, 1770. Above the bas-relief stands a female figure, Free America, holding the broken chain of oppression in her right hand. Beneath her right foot, she crushes the royal crown of England. At the left of the figure, is an eagle. Thirteen stars are cut into one of the faces of the monument. Beneath these stars in raised letters are the names of the five men who were killed that day: Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr.
And to honor Crispus Attucks who was the leader and voice that day: The first to defy, and the first to die, with Maverick, Carr, and Gray. Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd as you may, such deaths have been seeds of nations, such lives shall be honored for aye...
In an unsourced, popular book about Attucks, James Neyland wrote his appraisal of the man's significance:
He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America.
^I. Kimber, The London Magazine, or Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer, Vol. 39, p. 251.
^Margot Minardi, The Inevitable Negro: Making Slavery History in Massachusetts, 1770-1863 (Harvard University: PhD Dissertation, 2007);
^W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600-1871 (Cambridge University Press, 2005); as well as two histories by Daniel Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); and Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
^The Trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William M'Cauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, soldiers in His Majesty's 29th Regiment of Foot, for the murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday-evening, the 5th of March,1867 at the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery, held at Boston, the 27th day of November, 1770, by adjournment, before the Hon. Benjamin Lynde, John Cushing, Peter Oliver, and Chris Metzler, Esquires, justices of said court (Boston: J. Fleeming, 1770); and A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (New York: John Doggett, Jr., 1849).
^The Trial of William Wemms; and A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.
^Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre. (W. W. Norton and Company, 1970).