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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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Looking for Dr. Joseph Warren’s Head

Boston 1775 readers may recall this blog’s unhealthy interest in the physical remains of Dr. Joseph Warren (three successive posts in October 2007 during the last run of CSI: Colonial Boston). Of course, since Dr. Warren kept being dug up and reburied, we can feel confident that other folks were also interested in his body.

I return to this subject now to examine a report that’s resurfaced in recent books: that after finding the doctor’s body on Bunker’s Hill, British officers had his head cut off and delivered to Gen. Thomas Gage. Michael Novak wrote that the British did that in his book On Two Wings and in an essay published in Faith and Public Policy, both arguments for more religion in American government. Novak’s writing in turn apparently prompted Ira Stoll to mention this detail in the preface to his new biography of Samuel Adams.

What’s the basis for this statement? Several histories have mentioned the rumor of Warren’s posthumous decapitation, including Merrill Jensen’s Founding of the American Nation (1968), Kenneth Silverman’s Cultural History of the American Revolution (1976), and Benson Bobrick’s Angel in a Whirlwind (1997).

All those books point to a single source for the report: Abigail Adams’s letter to her husband John dated 31 July 1775:

We learn from one of these Deserters that our ever valued Friend Warren, dear to us even in Death; was [not] treated with any more respect than a common soldier, but the [sav]age wretches call’d officers consulted together and agreed to sever his Head from his body, and carry it in triumph to Gage, who no doubt would have “grin’d horrible a gastly smile,” instead of imitating Ceasar who far from being gratified with so horrid a Spectacle, as the Head even of his Enimy, turned away from Pompeys with disgust and gave vent to his pitty in a flood of tears. “How much does pagan tenderness put christian Benevolence to shame.”

What Humanity could not obtain, the rights and ceremonies of a Mason demanded. An officer who it seems was one of the Brotherwhood requested that as a Mason he might have the body unmangled, and find a decent interment for it. He obtaind his request, but upon returning to secure it, he found it already thrown into the Earth, only with the ceremony of being first placed there, with many bodies over him
But should we take Adams’s secondhand report of what one deserter said as reliable?

TOMORROW: The weight of the evidence.

1 comment:

RJO said...

"But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered? The relicks of many lie like the ruins of Pompey's, in all parts of the earth; and when they arrive at your hands these may seem to have wandered far, who, in a direct and meridian travel, have but few miles of known earth between yourself and the pole."