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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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dr. Benjamin Church Put on Trial

On 4 Oct 1775, Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. (1734-?), was brought before a Continental Army court-martial on the charge of carrying on a secret correspondence with the British military. Gen. George Washington himself presided. This was a bigger bombshell than anything the Royal Artillery was throwing at the American lines.

Dr. Church had been one of the top echelon of Boston Whigs since the late 1760s, known especially for his satirical political verse. In 1773 he had delivered the town’s oration commemorating the Boston Massacre, one of the movement’s most visible and honored tasks. In the first four months of 1775, whenever Samuel Adams and John Hancock were at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, leadership of the resistance in Boston fell to Church and Dr. Joseph Warren.

That spring, after the war began, Church had served as the chairman of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety, which coordinated the military resistance of the whole province. Most recently, the Continental Congress had appointed Dr. Church to head its army hospital. He had traveled back to Boston with Gen. Washington himself.

The day after the court-martial, the commander-in-chief reported on the matter to Congress:

I have now a painful though necessary duty to perform, respecting Doctor Church, the Director of the Hospital. About a week ago, Mr. Secretary [Henry] Ward, of Providence, sent up one [Godfrey] Wainwood, an inhabitant of Newport, to me with a letter directed to Major [Edward] Cane in Boston, in occult [i.e., encrypted] letters, which he said had been left with Wainwood some time ago by a woman who was kept by Doctor Church.

She had before pressed Wainwood to take her to Captain [Sir James] Wallace [commander of the H.M.S. Rose patrolling off Newport], Mr. [Charles] Dudley, the [Customs] Collector, or George Rowe [later agent for all the Rhode Island Loyalists], which he declined. She gave him the letter with strict injunctions to deliver it to either of these gentleman.

He, suspecting some improper correspondence, kept the letter and after some time opened it, but not being able to read it, laid it up, where it remained until he received an obscure letter from the woman, expressing an anxiety as to the original letter. He then communicated the whole matter to Mr. Ward, who sent him up with the papers to me.

I immediately secured the woman, but for a long time she was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover [i.e., reveal] the author. However she was at length brought to a confession and named Doctor Church. I then immediately secured him and all his papers. Upon the first examination he readily acknowledged the letter and said that it was designed for his brother [actually brother-in-law, printer John Fleeming], etc. The army and country are exceedingly irritated.
Church steadfastly denied he had done anything wrong. But as soon as the general had received Dr. Church’s letter from the Rhode Islanders, he had sought out men to decipher it, and he had their evidence before him. (Click on the image below for your own digital copy of the first page of Church’s coded letter, part of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress.)

COMING UP: The investigation of Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

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