Boston Massacre Propaganda Assignments

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770

A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Paul Revere

By the beginning of 1770, there were 4,000 British soldiers in Boston, a city with 15,000 inhabitants, and tensions were running high. On the evening of March 5, crowds of day laborers, apprentices, and merchant sailors began to pelt British soldiers with snowballs and rocks. A shot rang out, and then several soldiers fired their weapons. When it was over, five civilians lay dead or dying, including Crispus Attucks, an African American merchant sailor who had escaped from slavery more than twenty years earlier.

Produced just three weeks after the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s historic engraving "The Bloody Massacre in King-Street" was probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history. Not an accurate depiction of the actual event, it shows an orderly line of British soldiers firing into an American crowd and includes a poem that Revere likely wrote. Revere based his engraving on that of artist Henry Pelham, who created the first illustration of the episode—and who was neither paid nor credited for his work.

Here are a few of the elements Paul Revere used in his engraving to shape public opinion:

  • The British are lined up and an officer is giving an order to fire, implying that the British soldiers are the aggressors. 
  • The colonists are shown reacting to the British when in fact they had attacked the soldiers.
  • British faces are sharp and angular in contrast to the Americans’ softer, more innocent features. This makes the British look more menacing.
  • The British soldiers look like they are enjoying the violence, particularly the soldier at the far end.
  • The colonists, who were mostly laborers, are dressed as gentlemen. Elevating their status could affect the way people perceived them.
  • The only two signs in the image that you can read are "Butcher’s Hall" and "Customs House," both hanging directly over the British soldiers.
  • There is a distressed woman in the rear of the crowd. This played on eighteenth-century notions of chivalry.
  • There appears to be a sniper in the window beneath the "Butcher’s Hall" sign. 
  • Dogs tend to symbolize loyalty and fidelity. The dog in the print is not bothered by the mayhem behind him and is staring out at the viewer.
  • The sky is illustrated in such a way that it seems to cast light on the British "atrocity."
  • Crispus Attucks is visible in the lower left-hand corner. In many other existing copies of this print, he is not portrayed as African American.
  • The weather conditions depicted do not match the testimony presented at the soldier’s trial (no snow).
  • The soldiers’ stance indicates an aggressive, military posture.

Other Interesting Facts

  • In the first edition, the time on the clock was incorrect. Revere had it corrected immediately.
  • The trial of the British soldiers was the first time a judge used the phrase "reasonable doubt."
  • One of the British soldiers named Pierce Butler left the army and became a South Carolina plantation owner. In 1787, he was appointed as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.


Questions for Discussion

Read the document introduction, apply your knowledge of American history, and closely examine the enlarged document image and the linked supplemental materials to answer these questions.

  1.  While there are many similarities in the engravings by Henry Pelham and Paul Revere, there are also significant differences. Carefully examine both documents and explain how they differ. Consider both the image of the event and the text at the top and bottom of both documents. A copy of Pelham's engraving can be found on the PBS Africans in America site. 
  2. Revere’s document was well known at the time while Pelham’s was less regarded. Over the years, Revere’s painting has gained notoriety and has been frequently reproduced in textbooks and popular publications. How can this be explained?
  3. An accurate transcript of the trial of the British officer and soldiers is available from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Compare the trial testimony to the image in either the Pelham or Revere work. How accurate are the engravings? Create a list of the discrepancies between the trial testimony and both images.
  4. Why has this image been referred to frequently as a work of propaganda?
  5. An in-class, mock-trial, role-playing activity could be developed using the two images, the testimony from the trial and encouraging students to view the segment of the HBO John Adams series concentrating on his defense of the soldiers at the trial and the Library of Congress page: John Adams and the Boston Massacre. Other images can be referred to as well:
A printer-friendly version is available here.

Student Objectives

Session 1: Image Analysis

Session 2: Culminating Activity

Session 3: Oral Presentations/Wrap-Up


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Use a variety of comprehension strategies to determine how an engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere is similar to or different from other images depicting the event

  • Visually depict their interpretations of the Boston Massacre

  • Practice analysis and critical thinking by explaining propaganda as it relates to Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre

  • Demonstrate understanding of how the Boston Massacre was a cause of the American Revolution by explaining British and Colonial reactions to the massacre

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Session 1: Image Analysis

1.Give each student the Anticipation Guide: Boston Massacre to introduce them to the topics that will be studied over the next three sessions: the Boston Massacre, propaganda, and British/Colonial reactions to the massacre. Have each student complete column 1 of the guide before the start of the lesson.

2.Assign groups of three students to work together. Give each group the My Task List: Boston Massacre. Read and explain each task and the points to be earned. Review the extension activities and remind students that the extensions are optional. Give each group one of the images of the Boston Massacre. Do not let students see Paul Revere's engraving at this point.

3.Tell the groups that they are to observe their image for one minute. After the minute is up, group members should discuss their observations of the people, objects, and activities in the image and complete the first section of the Image Analysis Sheet.

4.Have group members complete the inferences and questions sections of the Image Analysis Sheet after their discussion.

5.When each group has completed their analysis sheet, give them a copy of Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre. Group members then use the 2-circle interactive Venn Diagram to record the similarities and differences between their group's assigned image of the Boston Massacre and Paul Revere's interpretation of the event.

6.Have student groups report to the class the similarities and differences they found between their assigned images and Paul Revere's engraving.

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Session 2: Culminating Activity

1.Read aloud The Boston Massacre by Michael Burgan. Students will make connections to the read-aloud and the images they analyzed in Session 1. The following prompts can help get the discussion started:

  • What were some of the events that led to the Boston Massacre?

  • Do you think the British were justified in sending for more soldiers on the night of the massacre?

  • Describe the mood of the crowd (Patriots and British soldiers) the night of the massacre.
2.Introduce the concept of propaganda and post the following definition: Propaganda is a type of message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people.

3.Have the student groups get together to work on the culminating activity. Each group will create a 4-square poster, which should be completed on poster board. Give each group a copy of the 4-Square Project Template; a sheet of poster board; and markers, pens, and pencils.

  • Tell students that Box 1 should include their group's observations and inferences and the completed Venn Diagram that they used to compare their original image of the Boston Massacre to Paul Revere's engraving of the event.

  • In Box 2, students should provide an explanation of how Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre was propaganda. The box should also include a detailed explanation of British and Colonial reactions to the massacre.

  • In Box 3, students should create their own depictions of the Boston Massacre based on the images they analyzed and the facts they learned from the read-aloud. Have students include a caption explaining their drawing.

  • In Box 4, students should write a poem (ballad or cinquain) that explains how and why the Boston Massacre was a cause of the American Revolution.

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Session 3: Oral Presentations/Wrap-Up

1.Have each group present its 4-square poster to the class.

2.Have each student complete column 2 of the Anticipation Guide: Boston Massacre.

3.Have student volunteers read the false statements from their anticipation guide that they made true. Students should be able to explain what part of the lesson helped them make the false statements true (e.g., "The Boston Massacre was a disagreement between Patriots and British soldiers. I learned this by analyzing images of the Boston Massacre.").

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  • Have students find examples of propaganda in current newspapers, magazines, journals, or other publications, and give oral presentations explaining why what they found is propaganda.

  • Have students write an essay explaining the effects of propaganda. They should use specific historical and/or current events to support their ideas. Suggest that they use the Essay Map as a prewriting tool before drafting their essays. Alternatively, students could write an essay that compares their own impressions of the Boston Massacre to Paul Revere's engraving using the Compare & Contrast Map as a prewriting tool.

  • Have students create an example of propaganda that we may see today. In 2 to 3 paragraphs, students should explain who would be affected by this propaganda.

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Assess students’ understanding of the concepts studied using the task list. You and your students should assess the following areas:

  • Clear and accurate understanding of propaganda

  • Understanding of how the Boston Massacre was a cause of the American Revolution

  • Presentation of information to the class using eye contact and appropriate volume

  • Effective use of comprehension strategies to make meaning (e.g., observations, inferences, visualizing, making connections, questioning)

  • Effective editing for conventions of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling

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