When Dr. Joseph Warren died at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, his estate was burdened with debts. Those finances were also tangled up in the estate of the spectacular bankrupt Nathaniel Wheelwright, which the doctor had agreed to administer.
As I described yesterday, Warren left behind four children and a fiancée named Mercy Scollay. (Ironically, Mercy’s father, selectman John Scollay, had been forced into bankruptcy after Wheelwright’s collapse, and had had to dig himself out of that financial hole.)
Mercy Scollay took on the task of raising the Warren children and arranging for their education. The eldest boy was of particular concern, according to the values of the time: as the son of a gentleman and a martyr, Joseph simply had to go to Harvard—but who would pay the fees for schooling (the Boston schools were closed during the siege), tutoring, and the college itself? Scollay asked lots of people for support. The local Freemasons seem to have been the first to respond to her.
In January 1777, Samuel Adams proposed at the Continental Congress that “the eldest son...might be adopted by the continent, and educated at the public expense.” On 18 May, he sent Scollay this letter, shared online by the Massachusetts Historical Society:
With respect [the M.H.S. transcription has “request”] to the youngest Son and Daughter, I mentiond my strong Desire that they might be continued under your care; and that means might be continued to have the eldest son sent to Dummers School [now the Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts]. . . .That sort of regional horse-trading in legislation is not unfamiliar today.
While I was in Baltimore, an opportunity presented of making a Proposal, which, if agreed to, would be honorary to my friend and beneficial to his Son. General [Hugh] Mercer having been slain in Battle [at Princeton], or rather Barbarously murdered [not really], a Motion was made in Congress for a Monument to be erected to his Memory, and that his youngest Son should be educated at the Expense of the Continent.
I did not think my self partial in judging that the services and Merit of General Warren considered as a Patriot or as a Soldier were not inferior to those of General Mercer, and therefore added to the Motion that the same Honor should paid to his memory and that one of this Sons should be educated—I proposed the eldest. It was agreed that my Motion should be first entered on the Journal, and a Committee was appointed to consider of both.
Congress soon after adjorned to this Place [back to Philadelphia]. The gentlemen of the Committee are not all of them arrived. I am persuaded it will be agreed to in the Committee, but as the Determination in the House may be uncertain, I think it best that it should not be made known abroad [i.e., publicly], till we see the event.
What about the three other children: Elizabeth, Mary, and Richard? Gen. Benedict Arnold wrote to Scollay offering $500 in July 1778 and again in late 1779 in case the Congress didn’t offer additional funds. Mercy Warren of Plymouth (her husband no close relation to the Warrens) was apparently interested in bringing up Elizabeth, but the girl chose not to leave her school in Boston.
A 20 Dec 1779 letter from Samuel Adams relays this news from Dr. John Warren, the children’s uncle:
the eldest son was, as early as it could be done, put under the care and tuition of the Rev. Mr. [Phillips] Payson, of Chelsea; a gentleman whose qualifications for the instructing of youth, I need not mention to you. The lad still remains with him.In 1780, Congress took up the issue of the other three children, noting that “it appears no adequate provision can be made out of his [the late father’s] private fortune.” The national government decided that Massachusetts should step up with its own money, but agreed to provide half of a major-general’s pay until the youngest child came of age. The back pay came to $7,000, historian Jared Sparks later calculated. Of course, inflation was eating away the value of that money.
The eldest daughter...is with the doctor; and he assures me, that no gentleman’s daughter in this town has more of the advantage of schools than she has at his expense. She learns music, dancing, writing and arithmetic, and the best needle-work that is taught here. The doctor, I dare say, takes good care of her morals.
The two younger children, a boy of about seven years, and a girl somewhat older, are in the family of John Scollay, Esq., under the particular care of his daughter
What return did the nation get on its payments for the boys’ education? Not much, alas. The young Joseph Warren graduated from Harvard in the class of 1786, served as a militia officer at the Castle, and died at age 22. His little brother Richard went into business and died at 21. Elizabeth married Gen. Arnold Welles and died without having children. Mary married twice, and is the only child of Dr. Joseph Warren to have left heirs.
The major local legacy of Dr. Joseph Warren came through his younger brother, also a physician. Dr. John Warren helped to found Harvard Medical School. His son Dr. John Collins Warren helped to establish the New England Journal of Medicine and the Massachusetts General Hospital, and performed the first surgery under ether anesthesia.