Crispus Attucks’ dramatic death made him a polarizing figure in 1770. On March 5th of that year, the infamous Boston Massacre claimed his life and left a legacy over which the emerging nation would soon struggle.
Attucks’ early days are largely clouded in mystery. It appears that his father, Prince Yonger, was an abducted West African while his mother likely hailed from New England’s native Wampanoag people (in whose language Attucks means “small male deer”). Crispus himself was born in Framingham, Massachusetts sometime around 1723. Though historians aren’t quite sure if he was birthed into slavery, there’s no doubt that young Attucks was quickly claimed by this “peculiar institution” or a similar form of dehumanizing servitude.
Attucks appears to have run off in 1750, as evidenced by a telling Boston Gazette advertisement which read, “Ran away from his Master William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last… A Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas [sic], 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour’d Bearskin coat.”
Ultimately, Attucks eluded re-capture and is believed to have worked as a Boston-based sailor and rope-maker. As such, he would have had plenty of reason to harbor anti-British grievances. To begin with, the Royal Navy had acquired a nasty habit of forcing Yankee sea-farers into its ranks. Furthermore, when they weren’t patrolling the coastline, nautical Brits often earned extra cash by competing with New England tradesmen for a variety of jobs.
This tense situation worsened by the day, and, before long, it exploded. When Boston’s Massacre broke out, Attucks—who stood near the front lines—became its first victim, though how he came to be there remains uncertain. Some witnesses claimed that, wielding a wooden staff, Attucks played ringleader and rallied this Massachusetts mob. Others believe he was merely standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, a mistake for which he received two bullets to the chest.
Lawyer and future President John Adams stood firmly in the former camp. While arguing on behalf of the redcoats who fired the shots, Adams denounced Attucks as one who “in all probability [caused] the dreadful behavior of that night.” His “very looks,” Adams opined, were “enough to terrify any person.”
However, in dying, Attucks also earned his fair share of admirers. Local revolutionaries not only hailed him as a martyr, but, in defiance of the law at the time, buried him alongside the fray’s white victims within a common grave. The Crispus Attucks Monument (an ornate, statue-laden column) was erected in the Boston Commons 118 years later.