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, February 04, 2009

Finding Dr. Joseph Warren’s Head

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 remain
Laurie 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.

8 comments:

Rob Velella said...

This has been a great series of posts - I find myself thoroughly fascinated by the story of Joseph Warren's head!

Trip said...

Maybe the reason behind Washington's location of Vermont vs NH is that Vermont not being a colony, most people thought of it as NH still. The person who considers Washington in Vermont was someone with local ties to the area and considered himself a Vermonter and not a NHer...

J. L. Bell said...

My example of George Washington thinking about a trip to Vermont was a hypothetical.

It was inspired by a claim in the early 1900s that Washington had visited Vermont in 1790. Here’s a refutation of that claim. On the dates when Grace Greylock Niles wrote that Washington was in Bennington, documents show he was in New York City.

At the time, for the President to visit Vermont would have meant leaving the United States, so it would have been a big deal that attracted a lot of attention. Niles’s conclusion rested on a single source, which she turned out not to have seen in a reliable form.

Trip said...

Ah my mistake, thanks for clearing it up!

HistoryBuff said...

Even before I read your description from John Cary's biography of Warren, I interpreted Abigail Adams's letter the same way that Cary did. I think she's saying exactly what he described: the officers wanted to cut off the head, but a Mason among them intervened. I confess I don't see any other way to read her letter.

J. L. Bell said...

Okay, I see that as a valid reading of Abigail Adams’s letter: that for all her anger, she didn’t mean that the British officers had actually taken any steps to behead Dr. Warren before burying him.

In that case, Cary’s reading is indeed an accurate reflection of the rumor—and the interpretations that officers really did behead Warren have even less support.

Either way, I think all the authors who took this rumor as a reflection of what actually happened (either beheading or just talk about it) put far too much faith in a distant rumor from a dubious source.

I’ve found no evidence to support the rumor and one fact (Warren’s corpse found in a grave with one other body) that contradicts it. So it doesn’t seem like reliable evidence of anything but the fact that rumors spread outside Boston.

Thanks for sharing a different reading from the one I’d started with!

A Staunch Whig said...

I think it is worth noting that there are many things about the Cary biography that are unsubstantiated and questionable. You have simply touched on one of many...

J. L. Bell said...

I think the Cary biography’s systematic flaw is to attribute almost everything Dr. Warren was involved in to him alone. Yeah, Warren was a very important guy, especially in the last months before the war when he was the most reliable Whig leader in Boston. But he worked with a lot of other guys.