What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A short Narrative of the horrid MASSACRE in BOSTON.”
Commemoration and commodification of the American Revolution occurred simultaneously, the process beginning years before the first shots were fired at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775. The Boston Massacre took place on March 5, 1770. A week later, the town meeting appointed James Bowdoin, Samuel Pemberton, and Samuel Warren to a committee charged with preparing an account of that infamous event. The committee quickly prepared A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston and presented it to the town meeting on March 19. The town meeting accepted the account and ordered it printed immediately. The Short Narrative quickly became available to consumers, its imprint declaring that it was “Printed by Order of the Town of Boston, and Sold by Edes and Gill, in Queen-Street, and T. & J. Fleet, in Cornhill.” Other commemorative items quickly hit the market as well. On March 26, Paul Revere advertised his “PRINT containing a Representation of the late horrid Massacre in King-Street.” A week later, Henry Pelham announced a similar print, “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,” available for purchase at local printing offices.
Months later, Thomas Fleet and John Fleet, printers of the Boston Evening-Post, occasionally advertised the Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. On January 14, 1771, they reminded readers of one of the most significant events of the previous year when they once again ran advertisement for the Short Narrative. An advertisement for another book likely prompted them to market the Short Narrative approved by the town meeting once again. They inserted their advertisement immediately below John Fleeming’s notice that he would soon publish “The Trial of William Wemmes, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, for the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, & Patrick Carr, on the Evening of the 5th March 1770.” Following a vigorous defense by John Adams, a jury acquitted six of those soldiers and found the other two guilty of manslaughter. The latter managed to reduce their sentences from death to having their thumbs branded by pleading benefit of clergy. Fleeming, the printer who offered an account of the trial to the public, had formerly published the Boston Chronicle, noted for its Tory sympathies, in partnership with John Mein. That newspaper ceased publication in 1770, shortly after angry colonists chased Mein out of town.
The account of the trial and its outcome ran counter to the version of events depicted in the Short Narrative and the prints produced by Pelham and Revere. It became another entry in the propaganda battle of competing stories presented in newspapers, prints, and pamphlets, published in both Boston and London, following the Boston Massacre. It could hardly be considered a coincidence that the Fleets just happened to advertise the Short Narrative once again just as Fleeming announced publication of a pamphlet about the trial of the soldiers, especially since their advertisement appeared immediately after Fleeming’s notice. The Fleets did not censor Fleeming from advertising in their newspaper, but they did insist on having the last word in hopes of shaping the narrative for the public.