Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770—and became known as the first fatality in the fight for American independence. In a poem memorializing the massacre, poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote, "Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd, as you may, such deaths have been seed of nations." Attucks was America's first seed.
1. Crispus Attucks may have escaped slavery.
We have few facts about Attucks's early life. According to Mitch Kachun, author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, likely around the year 1723. Newspaper accounts following the Boston Massacre described him as "a Molatto." His father is said to have been an enslaved African man named Prince Yonger, while his mother was likely named Nancy Attucks and was of Natick or Wampanoag heritage.
Attucks may have been enslaved and escaped servitude in 1750. That year the Boston Gazette ran an ad offering 10 pounds to anybody who apprehended "'a Molatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas,' who 'ran away from his Master, William Brown, of Framingham,'" Kachun writes. "Crispas" was also described as being "'6 Feet two Inches high, [with] short curl'd hair, his Knees nearer together than common.'"
2. Crispus Attucks became a whaler.
Attucks is thought to have joined the crew of a Nantucket whaling ship and worked as a harpooner. He went by the alias "Michael Johnson," perhaps to avoid being sent back into slavery. (A newspaper reporting the massacre refers to him as a "mulatto man named Johnson" [PDF].) At the time of the massacre, Attucks had been planning to stay in Massachusetts only briefly. He had just returned from a voyage to the Bahamas and was preparing to set sail for North Carolina.
3. Crispus Attucks arrived in Boston at a tumultuous time.
The Stamp Act of 1765 required that residents pay taxes on paper goods—from playing cards to magazines to stationery—imported to the British colonies. Colonists resented taxation without representation and riots became widespread. The Townshend Acts, which taxed even more types of goods, followed in 1767 and exacerbated the colonists' anger. The Sons of Liberty, a secret group of American businessmen, organized a yearlong boycott of British imports. To quell the uprising, the British government sent several thousand troops into Boston, a city of 15,000 residents. Just days before the Boston Massacre occurred, a brawl broke out between British soldiers and the city's ropemakers.
4. The Boston Massacre was sparked by a dispute over a barber bill.
On March 5, 1770, a young boy began complaining that a British officer had failed to pay his barber bill. (The officer denied this.) When a British sentry began harassing the boy, a crowd of colonists—including Attucks—gathered at Boston's Dock Square and began harassing the officer in return. British reinforcements arrived. Tensions escalated. The colonists began tossing snowballs, pebbles, and wood at the soldiers. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. Six colonists were wounded, and another five died. Attucks is believed to have been the first to fall.
5. Nobody knows exactly what Crispus Attucks did during the altercation.
Some witnesses claimed that Attucks was the leading protestor and attacked the soldiers with a piece of wood. Others say he was simply watching, leaning on a stick. Regardless of his actions, two bullets ricocheted and lodged in Attucks's chest, killing him instantly.
6. The funeral for Crispus Attucks attracted thousands of mourners.
Attucks, along with the four other victims—Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr—were buried at Boston's Granary Burying Ground. The funeral procession attracted up to 10,000 people. As one contemporary wrote, "A greater number of persons assembled on this occasion, than ever before gathered on this continent for a similar purpose."
7. John Adams called Crispus Attucks the massacre's instigator.
Every British soldier involved faced the prospect of hanging, and John Adams—later America's second president—was tasked with defending them. During his defense, Adams claimed that the soldiers were acting in self-defense and called the protestors "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs. And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them." Adams claimed that Attucks was the instigator. The argument worked: nobody was convicted of murder. (Two soldiers were, however, convicted of manslaughter. As punishment, their thumbs were branded with the letter M.)
8. Crispus Attucks was later hailed as a patriotic hero.
The public outcry after the massacre forced the British troops to temporarily withdraw from the city and caused Adams to lose half of his law practice. Three weeks after the massacre, Paul Revere made and distributed a print depicting the event; today, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History calls the illustration "probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history." In Boston, March 5 became a day of remembrance. According to abolitionist and historian William Wells Brown, "The anniversary of this event was publicly commemorated in Boston, by an oration and other exercises, every year until after our national independence was achieved, when the Fourth of July was substituted for the fifth of March." More than a century after the event, in 1888, a massive monument was erected at Boston Common to commemorate Crispus Attucks and the four other men who died. It, and the location of the massacre, are now prominent locations on Boston's Freedom Trail.