I'm traveling this weekend, so it seemed like a good time to discuss a notable journey by a Revolutionary Bostonian: Dr. John Jeffries's balloon trip across the English Channel in 1785. For this feat, and an earlier balloon flight in Nov 1784, Jeffries is sometimes called the first American to fly.
Jeffries was an American by birth, having been born in Boston in 1745. And he was an American when he died, back in Boston in 1819. But in 1784 he was a British subject, a Loyalist who had served in British military posts during the war. In his published account of his aerial voyages, he made his allegiance clear:
I had provided an handsome British Flag, (invidiously misrepresented the next day, in one of the public papers [i.e., newspapers], to have been the Flag of the American States)...
Jeffries was an unusual Loyalist since his father, David Jeffries, was a Boston official, town treasurer for many years before and after the Revolution. John himself went to Harvard College, earned an M.A. in 1766, and then traveled to Scotland for a quick medical degree. Back in Boston in 1769, he started to practice under the wing of Dr. James Lloyd, an Anglican who was an old friend of the British general and politician Sir William Howe.
During the Boston Massacre trial, Drs. Lloyd and Jeffries both testified for the defense. They said they had heard one of the shooting victims, Irish sailor Patrick Carr, say that the soldiers had held off shooting longer than they would have in Ireland under the same provocation. This sort of hearsay testimony would probably not be allowed in trials today (except under the Bush-Cheney administration rules for special military tribunals). But the words of a dying man carried great weight in the culture of colonial America.
Jeffries's testimony may have convinced his fellow Bostonians that he was a friend of the royal government. But his loyalties may have been clear already. He didn't participate in the political protests of the early 1770s, and in 1771 became an assistant surgeon for a Royal Navy warship while it was docked in Boston harbor. He had a family to support, having married in 1770 and fathered three children, one dying young. In 1774 he reportedly tried to offer the first lecture on anatomy in America, but was interrupted by a mob that “entered his anatomical room and carried off in triumph his subject, which was the body of a convict given him by the governor after execution.” (I haven't been able to find any contemporaneous record of such a controversy, however.)
In the mid-1800s a story circulated in Boston that just after the Revolutionary War broke out Dr. Joseph Warren paddled a canoe over to the besieged town to meet Dr. Jeffries and try to convince him to join the provincial cause. The implication is that Jeffries was such a good doctor Warren was ready to risk being captured. I don't believe it. The only source on this secret two-man meeting must have been Jeffries himself since Warren had died in 1775. There's no contemporaneous evidence for it; indeed, Paul Revere remembered Warren as trying to discourage Dr. Benjamin Church from going into Boston, as I discussed in this article. When Jeffries returned to Boston after the war, he had to win over patients, and claiming the endorsement of the great, martyred Warren would have been a sharp way to do that.
What the record shows about Dr. John Jeffries at the start of the Revolution is that he sent his wife and children to England, left with the British military for Halifax in 1776, and then won a commission as Surgeon-General of the British forces in North America. A couple of years later, wanting a higher and more lucrative position, he set off for England.
Tomorrow: in Part 2, Dr. Jeffries goes to London.