Sunday, June 1, 2008

Boston Massacre Memorial

I posted a few months ago about the Boston Massacre Memorial on Boston Common, which I think is a great piece of art and one that may, because of its location, be overlooked by Bostonians. Following my post, I was fortunate enough to hear from Denise Sparda, the great-granddaughter of Robert Kraus, the sculptor of the monument.

Denise was nice enough to send me a fantastic restored photograph from the day the memorial was unveiled, which I've posted here. Based on newspaper accounts, the date of the unveiling and the photograph appears to have been November 14, 1888.

According to one newspaper account of the unveiling, Governor Oliver Ames and Boston Mayor Hugh O'Brien gave brief remarks at the ceremony at the monument, which is depicted in the picture. Following the ceremony, the crowd marched to the location of the site where the Boston Massacre occurred, and a brief ceremony was held there. Then the crowd proceeded to Faneuil Hall where the governor and mayor again addressed the crowd, an historical oration was given by John Fiske, and a poem by John Boyle O'Reilly was read.

It's really interesting to read newspaper accounts of the memorial's creation and dedication. It's hard to imagine today, when the Boston Massacre is held up as one of the first events in America's path to independence, but there was considerable controversy back in 1888 as to whether it was appropriate to honor the victims of the Boston Massacre, who many believed to be lawless in their actions and just a part of a drunken and angry mob. Newspaper articles in 1888 were just as apt to refer to "the affair in King Street" as they were to call it the "Boston Massacre."

And don't think that the race and class of the victims—including Crispus Attucks, he of African-American and Native American descent, and Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant—didn't play a role in the controversy. The race of Attucks, in particular, was a hot topic in 1888, just a little more than two decades removed from the Civil War. In fact, even though all five victims are listed on the monument's pedestal, many newspaper accounts refer to the work as the "Crispus Attucks monument." According to a May 22, 1888, article in the Macon Telegraph about the memorial: "Special interest is given to it by the fact that one of the killed was a colored man named Crispus Attucks, who was glorified by the Abolitionists, for their purposes, as one of liberty's martyrs. No doubt the [Massachusetts] Historical Society and the [New England Historic] Genealogical Society are right when they say that these men were rioters, who got into a squabble with the soldiers, having no patriotic purpose, and not appreciating the historical importance of their disorderly behavior."

U.S. Senator George F. Hoar, quoted in an October 24, 1889, article in The Boston Globe, gave a passionate defense of the victims and wondered why their "lawless" activities were viewed differently than those who participated in The Boston Tea Party, with the underlying reasons being class and race: "They did no more than the members of the tea party did, or than Samuel Adams when he threatened the governor that unless the troops were removed the people would come down upon him. This threat by Sam Adams was as lawless as anything the populace did...Why is there such a hidden desire to attribute to these people in the humbler and perhaps lower walks of life base and rowdy motives? Perhaps it was justice to acquit the British soldiers tried for murder, but their acquittal did not condemn the people as a mob."

I'm not sure if the controversy that swirled about the place of the victims in American history back in the 1880s played a role in the location of the monument on Boston Common or not, but I still believe the time is right to move this monument to the site of the Boston Massacre so that more people can appreciate the powerful symbolism in this work by Robert Kraus.


J. L. Bell said...

It’s no coincidence that the Boston Massacre took place on one of the town’s busiest streets: it was a locus of the conflict between the people and the royal authorities.

Because that area’s still very busy and crowded, I fear it would be hard to relocate the Boston Massacre Monument nearby.

Putting the big monument on the traffic island that now holds the circle of cobblestones seems like an invitation for some besotted driver to smash into it. There’s more space alongside the modern office buildings to the north, but it would be visually incongruous there. I think slipping it between the Old State House and its neighbor to the south would make the monument hard to appreciate at a distance.

Incidentally, the circle of cobblestones merely approximates the location of the shooting. Charles Bahne, a Boston history researcher and tour guide, tells me that those stones moved with the traffic island when the streets were redesigned for fastest and safest flow some years ago.

Yet another memorial to the Massacre victims appears in the Granary Burying Ground: a stone erected by the Sons of the American Revolution in 1906 or so, with the names of the five victims and of Christopher Seider (“Snider” on the stone), who had been shot eleven days earlier.

Chris Klein said...


Thanks for posting. Love your blog by the way. If you're interested in the American Revolution, check it out at:

You're right in pointing out the logistical challenges with moving the monument closer to the massacre site. With every inch of space at such a premium downtown, it's always a challenge to ensure safety for both pedestrians and vehicles. When I was walking by the site today, there was a huge tour group of people standing on the cobblestones and virtually falling off the traffic island. That could be an accident waiting to happen as well.

J.L., do you happen to know if the site on the Common was selected simply because land was available (and there was no possible location near the massacre site) or did the controversy surrounding whether the victims deserved to be honored play into the location away from the massacre site?

Even if it's not possible to move the monument, it definitely could benefit from some greater recognition.

Linda said...

I am the great granddaughter of the sculptor, Robert Kraus. He was my mother's father's father. Every year my mother comes to Boston, she visits the site. I recall visiting it and there were a few costruction workers sitting on the base. I told them that my great grandfather was the sculptor and they immediately got up. I told them to relax, I'm sure he doesn't mind. They told me that they've been sitting there every day at lunch for quite some time. Why move it after all these years?