8 Things to Know About Crispus Attucks

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Detail of "The Bloody Massacre" by Paul ReverePaul Revere, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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 Boston Massacre monument commemorates Crispus Attucks and four other victims.Scott D, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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65 Years Ago, a Bus Driver Had Rosa Parks Arrested. It Wasn't Their First Encounter.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made her historic civil rights stand by refusing to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Had she noticed who was behind the wheel, she probably wouldn’t have gotten on in the first place, as the day Parks protested wasn’t her first encounter with bus driver James Blake.

More than a decade earlier, in November 1943, Parks had entered a bus driven by Blake and paid her fare. Instead of simply walking to the designated section in the back, she was told to exit and reenter through the back doors, as was the requirement for Black riders at the time. When she got off the bus to do so, Blake pulled away—a trick he was notorious for pulling.

The restored Montgomery, Alabama bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, on display at the Henry Ford Museum
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Parks avoided his buses for the next 12 years; of course, we all know what happened the next time they met, on a day Parks said she was too tired and preoccupied to notice who was driving. Parks and three other black passengers were ordered to give their seats up for a white passenger, and when Parks refused to move, Blake had her arrested. He had no idea that his actions—and more importantly, hers—would be the catalyst for a civil rights revolution.

Though the times eventually changed, Blake, it would seem, did not. He worked for the bus company for another 19 years before retiring in 1974. During a brief interview with The Washington Post in 1989, the driver maintained that he had done nothing wrong:

"I wasn't trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes. What was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn't move back. I had my orders. I had police powers—any driver for the city did. So the bus filled up and a white man got on, and she had his seat and I told her to move back and she wouldn't do it."

In the rest of his short encounter with the reporter, Blake—who passed away in 2002—used the n-word and accused the media of lying about his role in the historic moment.

Parks had at least one more run-in with Blake, and it must have been incredibly satisfying. After bus segregation was outlawed, the civil rights leader was asked to pose for press photographs on one of the integrated buses. The bus they chose was driven by Blake.