Thursday, March 8, 2018
March 8, 2018: Boston Massacre Studying: Christopher Monk
[On March 5th, 1770, the events that came to be known as the Boston Massacre took place on King Street. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for that pivotal pre-Revolutionary moment, leading up to a special Guest Post from my sons based on their elementary school studies of the massacre.]
On the Massacre’s sixth casualty and the vagaries of historical memory.
Nearly all accounts of the Boston Massacre list five colonists killed: three during the March 5th conflict itself (Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, and James Caldwell); and two who died of wounds in the immediate aftermath (Samuel Maverick the next day, Patrick Carr two weeks later). Yet a sixth participant in the King Street protests, 17 year-old shipwright’s apprentice Christopher Monk, was gravely injured by the soldiers as well (he was shot in the side and the bullet passed through his body and exited above the other hip), and indeed could likewise be said to have been mortally wounded: Monk remained disabled for the next decade before succumbing to his wounds just over ten years later, on April 20th, 1780. Whether we include Monk among those killed at the Massacre or not (a possible equivalent would be soldiers wounded in battle who die years later and who in that case would not be described as being killed in action), clearly his life was permanently altered and eventually ended by the March 5th violence, making his name and story an important part of remembering the Boston Massacre’s individual and communal effects.
For many years, Monk occupied precisely such a prominent position in the city’s collective memories of the Boston Massacre. Bostonians collected annual donations to support his medical needs and care, a level of public civic attention granted very few colonists (and very few Americans in the centuries since independence). He also became a fixture at the city’s annual commemorations of the Massacre, serving as both a visceral reminder of its violence and an inspiration for further proto-Revolutionary protest and resistance. While of course he had competition from Samuel Adams and the other Sons of Liberty, and eventually from Paul Revere and his nightriding cohort, I think it’s fair to say that in the years leading up to Lexington and Concord Christopher Monk was the most famous living Bostonian, and certainly the city’s most well-known individual icon of Revolutionary sentiments. Which, given the role that Boston played for all of the colonies in that period, would likewise put Monk on the short list of the most famous and noteworthy pre-Revolutionary Americans. I know of few other 1770s Bostonians whose deaths would receive extended notice in a publication like the Pennsylvania Journal & Weekly Advertiser, after all.
Yet if Monk was one of Boston’s and America’s most famous individuals as of his 1780 death, over the subsequent couple centuries he has largely disappeared from our collective memories. Of course there are still accounts such as those to which I’ve hyperlinked throughout this post, but even many of those exist to make the case for Monk as a 6th casualty of the Massacre, since at this point he is not generally included in that conversation. Perhaps as a result of that specific exclusion, Monk’s name is not often associated with the Boston Massacre at all, and so the subsequent decade of disability, public care, and commemorative presence has seemingly vanished from our public historical conversations as well. That striking shift is an important reminder of the haphazard nature of what we do and don’t remember, and of how those often random trends can become self-fulfilling prophecies across centuries of education and commemoration. But as a proponent of an additive approach to collective memory, I think the most important takeaway is the need to continue learning about the past, so we can make sure that the Christopher Monks are added back into our future memories and narratives of historical moments such as the Boston Massacre.
Last massacre studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?