Saturday, March 5, 2011

"The Letter'd Stone Shall Tell"

Boston Evening-Post, 12 March 1770 via Archive of Americana
Today is the 241st anniversary of the Boston Massacre. In honor of the day, I present the following poem, printed in the Boston Evening-Post a week after the event:
With Fire enwrapt, surcharg'd with Death,
Lo, the pois'd Tube convolves it's fatal Breath!
The flying Ball with heav'n-directed Force,
Rids the free Spirit of it's fallen Corse.
Well fated Shades! let no unmanly Tear
From Pit'y Eye, distain your honour'd Bier:
Lost to their view, surviving Friends may mourn,
Yet o'er thy Pile shall Flames celestial burn;
Long as in Freedom's Cause the Wise contend,
Dear to your Country shall your Fame extend;
While to the World, the letter'd Stone shall tell,
How Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav'rick fell.
A few notes on this poem:
  • Though unsigned in this form, this poem is generally attributed to Phillis Wheatley.
  • I have seen the poem reprinted many times, but somehow, nobody bothered to mention the little soul effigy border! The gravestone imagery used in this little woodcut really strengthens the "letter'd Stone" reference.
  • Did the Boston Massacre victims have a gravestone before the current marker (1906)? The Boston cemetery commission had no knowledge of an earlier stone when they published this pamphlet in 1902, and this book from 1853 says the same thing: if there ever was a stone, it was destroyed during the siege winter of 1775-6. Does anyone know of a reference to a gravestone for the Massacre victims from 1770-1775?
  • Let's go back to those little soul effigies in the border for a moment. The Boston Evening-Post was established in 1735 by Thomas Fleet. In 1770, it was published by his son, Thomas Fleet, Jr. The Fleets owned at least three slaves: Peter Fleet (d. circa 1758), Pompey and Caesar Fleet (Peter's sons, still alive in 1770). We know for sure that Peter Fleet made woodcuts — there is a book from the 1730s called The Prodigal Daughter that is illustrated with his signed woodcuts. We also know that Pompey and Caesar were trained as printers and worked in the Fleets' printing business before the war (I'm not sure about Caesar, but Pompey escaped to Nova Scotia and spent the rest of his life in Sierra Leone). Could Pompey or Caesar have carved this border? Is it possible that this is a poem by a black poet, illustrated by a black engraver, eulogizing, among others, a black/Indian sailor?
  • I feel a sense of calm knowing that people were messing up its and it's in the 18th century. It's the same calm I feel knowing that 18th-century Americans had ridiculous names like Belcher Noyes and Cotton Tufts. The world is not going to hell in a handbasket, or, at least, it is not a recent development.


J. L. Bell said...

As I recall, the Massacre victims and Christopher Seider (killed days before) were all placed in a single tomb. Different type of marker?

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Yes, they were all in the same tomb, but I think that's just the underground vault. I don't think there was a visible marker, even though the Boston Gazette of March 5 says that people took up a collection for Seider's gravestone. I can't find anyone who mentions actually seeing a gravestone. Sometimes, people call the upright stones "gravestones" and the horizontal tables "tombstones," but I can't find any mention of either in a completed state erected over their graves.