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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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Difficulties of Medical Training in 1773

Popular demand indicates that it’s time for another series of CSI: Colonial Boston postings! Which is to say, Revolutionary people mucking about with dead bodies. (The last series started here.)

This image appeared on a broadside printed in 1773 with the title: “An Address to the Inhabitants of Boston (Particularly to the thoughtless Youth) Occasioned by the Execution of Levi Ames, Who so early in Life, as not 22 Years of Age, must quit the Stage of action in this awful Manner.” This was only one of the publications that Ames’s execution inspired. This online exhibit from the Library Company of Philadelphia says:

Levi Ames was perhaps the most written-about criminal in colonial America. His execution called forth two editions of [his] “Last Words,” four sermons in a total of seven editions, and no fewer than ten broadside poems.
So will this posting be about the horrible murders Ames committed, and how the authorities used forensic medicine to track him down? No, Ames was simply a burglar. He was executed for a series of property crimes.

Under the law of the time, the disposal of Ames’s body was up to the governor: Thomas Hutchinson could order the corpse to be buried, hung in chains, or given to a doctor for dissection. According to a letter from William Eustis to John Warren, written shortly after the execution:
You must know that [Dr. John] Jeffries (as we heard) had applied to the Governor for a warrant to have this body. The Governor told him if he had come a quarter of an hour sooner, he would have given it, but he had just given one to Ames’ friends, alias Stillman’s gang.
Stillman was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Stillman, minister at one of Boston’s two Baptist churches. Among the clergymen who preached about the execution, Stillman was the one Ames actually trusted. The condemned man asked the minister to arrange for his body to be buried so no aspiring surgeons could dissect it.

Which is exactly what Eustis and Warren wanted to do. They were recent Harvard graduates who trained in medicine under Warren’s older brother, Dr. Joseph Warren. At college they had been members of a group called the Anatomical Society or Spunkers Club. The other recent graduates Eustis mentioned in this letter to Warren were Jonathan Norwood; David Townsend; Samuel Adams, only son of the politician; and “One Allen,” perhaps Ebenezer Allen. All but one became physicians; Allen became a minister. Apparently these young men were hoping for a surgical demonstration or lecture by Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

Meanwhile, Jeffries had the same hopes for using Ames’s body, along with his medical mentor, Dr. James Lloyd, and Lloyd’s current trainee, John Clarke. All those men were friends of the royal government. The Spunkers knew in advance about Jeffries’s group, but not about Stillman’s.

Eustis described what happened to the body:
as soon as the body of Levi Ames was pronounced dead by Dr. Jeffries, it was delivered by the Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] to a person who carried it in a cart to the water side, where it was received into a boat filled with about twelve of Stillman’s crew, who rowed it over to Dorchester Point. . . .

We had heard it surmised that he was to be taken from the gallows in a boat, and when we saw him carried to the water, we concluded it was a deep laid scheme in Jeffries. . . .

However, when we saw the Stillmanites, we were satisfied Jeffries had no hand in it. When we saw the boat land at Dorchester Point, we had a consultation, and Norwood, David, One Allen and myself, took chaise and rode round to the Point, Spunker’s like, but the many obstacles we had to encounter made it eleven o’clock before we reached the Point, where we searched and searched, and rid, hunted, and waded; but alas, in vain! There was no corpse to be found.

Discontented, we sat us down on the beach and groaned, etc., etc. Then rode to [Thomas] Brackett’s [King’s Arms tavern], on the Neck, and endeavored to ’nock ’em up, to give us a dish of coffee; but failing, we backed about to the Punch Bowl, where, after long labors, we raised the house and got our desires gratified, and got home about four o’clock in the morning. Hadn’t much sleep, of course, so we are very lame and cross today. . . .

We have a ——— from another place, so Church shan’t be disappointed.
In a postscript Eustis added: “By the way, we have since heard that Stillman’s gang rowed him back from the Point up to the town, and after laying him out in mode and figure, buried him—God knows where! Clark & Co. went to the Point to look for him, but were disappointed as well as we.”

There’s more about Levi Ames at Bill West’s West in New England.

ADDENDUM: A message from Charlie Bahne convinces me that the medical trainees visited the Punch Bowl tavern in what is now Brookline Village.

1 comment:

Bill West said...

Thanks for the mention. It means a lot to me, because I've long admired your blog!

Bill