J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Joshua Simonds: potential suicide bomber

Joshua Simonds was a Lexington farmer who, though he didn’t actually blow himself up to kill British soldiers on 19 April 1775, told people in later years that he'd been prepared to.

At dawn on that day, the British column marched into Lexington from the east. There were about seventy militiamen drawn up in lines on the Green. Between the British column and the provincial lines stood Lexington’s meeting-house, the town’s only public building of substantial size. The locals therefore also used it as the town schoolhouse and, in April 1775, the town gunpowder repository.

Simonds was in the meeting-house as the troops arrived. We know that because in the wake of the battle a pro-Crown newspaper suggested that someone had fired from that building at the regular troops, and the Rev. William Gordon sought to refute that idea in his “ACCOUNT of the Commencement of Hostilities between Great Britain and America, in the Province of Massachusetts Bay” published in the 7 June 1775 Pennsylvania Gazette. Gordon insisted there were very few men in the meeting-house:

And who do you imagine they were? One Joshua Simonds, who happened to be getting powder there as the troops arrived; besides whom I believe there were not two, if so much as one, for by reason of the position of the meeting house, none would have remained in it thro’ choice, but fools and madmen.
Indeed, being in the meeting-house was dangerous—but it was even more dangerous to try to leave. In 1824, John Munroe of Lexington, age 77, gave the town minister, Elias Phinney, a deposition that said:
Caleb Harrington was shot down on attempting to leave the meeting-house, where he and some others had gone, before the British soldiers came up, for the purpose of removing a quantity of powder that was stored there.
Joseph Comee was wounded while trying to leave with Harrington. A fourth man, unnamed, hid up in the meeting-house gallery.

Back to Joshua Simonds. In 1775 he was 35 years old and one of the ensigns (the lowest level of officer) in the Lexington militia company. Some of his tales came down in his son William’s family to Eli Simonds (born 1817), who was an informant for Abram E. Brown’s Beneath Old Roof-Trees (1896). Writing in Joshua’s voice, Brown said:
I was in charge of the town's stock of ammunition on the eventful morning. The magazine was the upper gallery of the meeting-house, and in the discharge of my duties I was there filling the powder-horns of my comrades when the regulars came into the town.

My associate glancing out saw the situation, and said, "We are all surrounded!" He then hid in the opposite gallery.

I then determined to blow up the house and go with it rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. I cocked my gun already loaded, placed the muzzle upon the open cask of powder, and waited for their course to determine their fate and mine as well.
That account echoes the deposition of 72-year-old Ebenezer Munroe on 2 April 1825:
When the British came up in front of the meeting-house, Joshua Simonds was in the upper gallery, an open cask of powder standing near him, and he afterward told me, that he cocked his gun and placed the muzzle of it close to the cask of powder, and determined to “touch it off,” in case the troops had come into the gallery.
At that moment, according to the Simonds family account, Lt.-Col. Francis Smith arrived on the Green below and called the British troops back into line. The soldiers who had entered the meeting-house left, and the column marched on to Concord.

Imagine if events had proceeded differently—if regulars had climbed the stairs to the gallery, and Simonds had fired his gun into the casks of powder. The explosion would have been fatal, and would have severely damaged Lexington's religious and civic center. Locals would have blamed the British soldiers. The soldiers would have blamed the locals. Both sides would have felt that their worst thoughts of the other had been confirmed. A one-sided skirmish might well have turned into a free-for-all in the middle of the small town. The Revolutionary War would have started on a very different note from what we Americans have come to know.

Joshua Simonds's suicidal commitment also makes me think of Prof. Robert Pape's study of suicide bombers worldwide from 1980 to 2003, Dying to Win. That book concluded that, in its publisher's words:
Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.
There was no "terrorist campaign" at Lexington, obviously. Simonds didn't plan his attack, and it's not certain that he would have gone through with it. But he did see military forces arriving in territory that he viewed as his own.

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