Boston selectman Timothy Newell took note of events large and small in his journal entry for 10 Oct 1775, but they had one theme in common: complaints about the British authorities’ treatment of locals.
A negro man belonging to [blank] wheeling a barrow load of [blank] in the Streets, the Provost came up to him and caned him to a great degree. The negro conscious of his innocence asked him why he did so—he was told it was for wheeling his barrow at the side of the street and not in the middle.Newell may have left out the name of the person who was keeping that black man in slavery because he didn’t know it. I’m pretty sure he left the contents of the wheelbarrow unnamed because it was full of dung. The town had a lot of horses, after all.
General [Thomas] Gage sailed this day for London and left several thousand Inhabitants in town who are suffering the want of Bread and every necessary of life.
The “Provost,” or Provost Martial, was a man named William Cunningham. He worked for the British military administration in occupied Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and made enemies among Americans wherever he went. Cunningham was in charge of prisoners of war, so it wasn’t hard for Continental sailors and soldiers to resent him. But several little episodes of unnecessary meanness like this one made him especially unpopular.
In early 1792 an article appeared in many American newspapers stating that Cunningham had been “executed in London, the 10th of August, 1791,” for financial crimes. The report then went on to quote the former Provost’s “life, confession, and last dying words,” a standard literary genre in those days of public executions. That document said Cunningham was born in Dublin in 1738, raised in a military family, and came to New York at the head of a shipload of Irish immigrants in 1774.
However, British historians later reported that there is no record of a William Cunningham being executed anywhere in Britain in 1791. The Old Bailey Proceedings of London criminal trials include no case against Cunningham. Revlist members Bart Reynolds and Bob Vogler found evidence that the man was still receiving a half-pay pension as a retired British army officer in 1792. A Philadelphian named John Binns reported meeting Cunningham in 1799 in Gloucester, England, where he was once again serving as a prison warden.
Furthermore, the New York historian Ferdinand S. Bartram wrote that Cunningham had been in New York well before 1770; he was part of the city’s Sons of Liberty movement, helping to buy land for the massive Liberty Pole. He broke from the Patriot movement by early 1775, when he got into a fight near that pole and was badly beaten. Then he left to join the British army administration in Boston.
In short, the “life, confession, and last dying words of captain William Cunningham” was a hoax, eagerly swallowed by resentful Americans but not credible in any detail. Even though its most basic statements can’t be confirmed, however, American authors have continued to rely on what that document said about Cunningham’s birth and background.
According to Binns, Cunningham had an American wife. A former prisoner remembered he had a brother who wasn’t so nasty. Contemporary British military records supplied by author Don Hagist say that he had at least one son, Capt. Ralph Cunningham, serving in the British army during the war. If anyone else has information to share about Provost Martial William Cunningham, I’d be delighted to hear it.
(It would be so much easier if William Cunningham were a less common name. The Provost Martial is not, for example, the Loyalist captain who became notorious in the southern theater of the war. Nor is he the Boston militia captain and painter.)