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, January 28, 2009

Where Did Major Pitcairn Die?

Here’s another old North End structure from the Boston Public Library’s Old Photographs gallery at Flickr. It’s labeled the “Major Pitcairn House.”

In his History of the Siege of Boston, first published in 1849, Richard B. Frothingham described the death of Maj. John Pitcairn of the British marines in a single sentence:

His son bore him to a boat, and then to a house in Prince-street, Boston, where he was attended by a physician. at the special request of General [Thomas] Gage, but soon died.
Frothingham cited a “Ms. Letter” as his source.

By 1887, Edward G. Porter’s Rambles in Old Boston offered far more detail:
When Major Pitcairn was mortally wounded at Bunker Hill, he was brought over in a boat and taken to a house not far from the ferry at the foot of Prince Street. . . .

As soon as General Gage heard of it, he sent to Dr. Thomas Kast [1750-1820], a well-known Boston physician who sympathized with England in the struggle, and requested him to call on Pitcairn, as the regular surgeons were overwhelmed with work.

The Doctor proceeded at once in his gig, taking with him a friend whom he met on the way.

It was now late in the afternoon. Entering the chamber where the Major was lying on a bed, the Doctor announced that he had come at the request of General Gage, who wished to have everything done that was possible to help the Major in his distress. Pitcairn, with his usual courtesy, asked the Doctor to thank the General for remembering him at such a time, and added that he feared he was beyond all human aid. On being asked where he was wounded, he laid his hand on his breast and said, “Here, sir.” The Doctor proceeded to remove the sheet in order to examine the wound, but the Major objected and said: “Excuse me; it is useless; my time is short. You cannot do anything for my relief; my wound must cause death immediately; I am bleeding fast internally.”

“But let me see the wound,” said the Doctor; “you may be mistaken in regard to it;” and again he attempted to raise the sheet.

The Major kept his hand upon it, and said: “Doctor, excuse me; I know you can do nothing for me; do not argue the matter with me. . . . Let me say a few words to you about my private concerns.” The Doctor yielded for a moment, and listened to such messages as the dying man had to give. This seemed to relieve his mind, and soon after he allowed the Doctor to open his vest and loosen the matter which had collected about the wound, when suddenly the blood spurted out with great force upon the floor. The stains remained a long time, and the room was called “Pitcairn's chamber” for many years.

After doing what he could for the sufferer, Dr. Kast returned to the General and reported the case; but before he could reach Prince Street again, the brave officer had died of his wounds.
Later accounts said Dr. Kast was Gen. Gage’s personal physician, but that seems to be a late addition to the story. Kast was the medical officer on the Royal Navy ship Rose in 1770-72, but he wasn’t enough of a Loyalist to leave Boston with the British military. Dr. Ephraim Eliot later wrote that Kast built “a large practice among the lower and middling class of people…making every one pay him something.”

After relating that story of Pitcairn’s noble demise, Porter goes on to say, “It would be an interesting fact could we know what house it was in which this scene occurred.” So obviously, despite the doctor and his companion, despite the blood staining the floor, no one recalled the major’s death reliably at all.

Instead, Rambles offers some alternative venues:
  • “the late Timothy Dodd and others” insisted that Pitcairn died in what became 130 Prince Street, shown above—third building from the left, behind a barrel. According to Porter, its occupant in 1775 may have been boat builder Thomas Stoddard. (A boat builder of that name was living in the eastern part of the North End in 1780.)
  • As late as 1851, locals pointed out “the third house from Charlestown bridge” on the other side of the street as where Pitcairn died. But then that house was torn down, making it a more challenging tourist attraction.
  • Yet other Bostonians said Pitcairn died in “the Phips mansion, afterward known as the Asylum for Boys, on the corner of Salem and Charter Streets.” But Porter didn’t believe that.
And don’t get me started on the stories of what happened to Maj. Pitcairn’s body.


Trip said...

You can't tease us with that line...you must tell us what happens next!

By the way, isn't there a story of a house in Charlestown that owns two swords. Both from the Battle of Bunker Hill, but one sword is from a British officer and another from a colonist? Both possibly from the same family too?!

J. L. Bell said...

All right, I’ll work on the legends of Maj. Pitcairn’s body.

As for the swords, you might be thinking of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s tablet containing the crossed swords of Col. William Prescott and Capt. John Linzee of the Royal Navy.

A Staunch Whig said...

I had hoped you'd touch on where was Pitcairn "shot". Maybe for a future posting. Most claim he was shot mounting the redoubt, and he is painted in this manner in Trumbull's famous painting. However, I've seen a few, usually unreferenced notes (I think one is on the bunker hill page on wikipedia), claiming he was shot down near Charlestown on the approach of the 3rd assault. I have not spent much time researching it, but have done some, and found nothing to support the latter claim. But maybe you will find something else?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m looking for the earliest sources on where Pitcairn was shot, but so far they do put him up near the redoubt on the grassy knoll. I’ve got at least three men named as the shooter, plus reports that he was shot multiple times.