Yesterday I quoted Abigail Adams’s 31 July 1775 letter complaining that British officers had cut the head off Dr. Joseph Warren’s corpse after they found it on the battlefield of Bunker Hill. Of course, Adams was living in Braintree, and had no firsthand knowledge of what went on in army-occupied Charlestown or Boston. She was angrily recounting what unstated sources told her that a recent British deserter had said. How strong is that letter as evidence that Warren was indeed posthumously beheaded?
Adams herself knew that a defector’s report might not be reliable. In the paragraph just before the passage about Warren’s head, she wrote:
5 deserters having come into our camp. One of them is gone I hear to Phyladelphia. I think I should be cautious of him—no one can tell the secret designs of such fellows whom no oath binds—he may be sent with assassinating designs. I can credit any viliny that a Ceasar Borgea would have been guilty of—or Satan himself would rejoice in.Furthermore, it seems significant that I can’t find any mention of Warren’s decapitation in newspapers of the time, in other people’s letters, or in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress report on the battle. Patriots were seizing any opening to complain about British cruelty, including the treatment of prisoners of war captured in Charlestown, so they wouldn’t have kept secret about this event if the evidence were strong.
What’s more, Adams and her family stopped mentioning Dr. Warren’s severed head after this letter, though their letters and memoirs contain many remarks about their late friend and physician. None of the early American histories of the Revolution repeat the report. The Warren family published multiple memoirs in the 1800s without lamenting their honored ancestor’s decapitation. Richard Frothingham didn’t include the detail in his 1865 biography of the doctor, though he did say that Warren’s “coat was sold by a soldier in Boston.”
Furthermore, we have firsthand information about the treatment of Dr. Warren’s body from the man put in charge of burying it. In a letter dated 23 June 1775, Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie described giving the enemy leader a swift and humble burial on the battlefield:
Doctor Warren, President of the Provincial Congress, and Captain General, in the Absence of [John] Hancock and [Samuel] Adams, and next to Adams, in abilities, I found among the Slain, and stuffed the Scoundrel with another Rebel, into one hole, and there he, and his seditious principles may remainLaurie had no reason to treat Warren’s corpse well, but also no impetus to lie to his friends about how he’d treated it. His letter contradicts what Abigail Adams later heard on two points. Not only did he say nothing about decapitation, but he also said he’d buried the doctor with one other body; Adams understood there were “many bodies over him”—or at least over his headless corpse.
Finally, the most commonly related story about Dr. Warren’s body is that, after the British evacuation, occasional dentist Paul Revere identified it by recognizing a false tooth he had made for the doctor. It would be awfully hard to identify a body by its false teeth if the whole head has been buried separately. Furthermore, in 1776 Bostonians reportedly found Warren’s body in a grave with one other corpse, agreeing with Laurie’s account instead of Adams’s rumor. It had been “stripped of its covering,” which supports the accounts that British soldiers took Warren’s clothing, but not his body parts.
Assessing this rumor offers a chance to highlight one difference between the Massachusetts Historical Society’s two online databases of Adams family letters. The Adams Electronic Archive offers a look at Abigail Adams’s handwritten letter, with a transcript. The Founding Families Adams Papers offers a transcription plus the published edition’s notes, which say: “AA is reporting only a part of the rumors that circulated then and later about British indignities to Joseph Warren after his death in Bunker Hill battle.” Those notes go on to quote the Laurie letter as more reliable.
One odd treatment of this rumor is in John Cary’s 1964 biography of Warren. It says that some British officers wanted to decapitate the doctor, but a Freemason among them stopped them. In essence, Cary decided that the deserter’s story about cutting off Warren’s head was entirely reliable—except for the actual cutting-off-the-head. That seems like an odd way to combine historical evidence. It’s as if one dubious source says George Washington was in Vermont on a particular date, and all other sources say he was in New Hampshire, so an author concludes that he was in New Hampshire but thinking about going to Vermont that whole day.