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, November 16, 2009

Dr. Church’s Second Riot

We wouldn’t know it from the letter and legislative resolution I quoted yesterday, but the Massachusetts authorities actually tried to put Dr. Benjamin Church aboard a ship to British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island—perhaps even on the same day that those documents were written. And citizens responded with a small riot.

As far as I can tell, our sole source for that action seems to be the petition of Church’s wife Sarah to the Crown, quoted and summarized in E. Alfred Jones’s Loyalists of Massachusetts:

General [William] Howe, commander-in-chief of the British Army in America, having been informed of the wretched condition of Dr. Church, sent one [James Mc]Henry, a surgeon and a prisoner, to be exchanged, and this arrangement was approved by the [Massachusetts] Provincial Council, but the mob, with General [William] Heath at their head, prevented the exchange, and caused Church to be removed from the cartel vessel and re-committed to gaol.
Some historians have difficulty imagining Heath at the head of a mob. Of course, he might have been at the head of a detachment of Continental troops and/or Massachusetts militia blocking the way. Or Sarah Church might have meant that the crowd knew Heath opposed the prisoner exchange, and therefore acted on his behalf. Or perhaps he really did participate in forcing Church back to the jail.

The crowd apparently then proceeded to make their displeasure clear by mobbing Dr. Church’s old house, where his family was still living. Jones’s statement of Sarah Church’s petition says:
Not content with casting him into prison, the mob broke open his house and pillaged or destroyed all the contents, without leaving even a change of clothes for his wife and children, or even a bed to lie on. The only property she was able to recover was a small quantity of silver plate, barely sufficient for her to pay for her passage to England. Permission was refused her for the direct passage to England and she was obliged to travel first to France.
That attack seems especially unfair for Sarah since Benjamin had taken up with a mistress years before; that woman’s mistakes had led to the capture of his coded letter into Boston.

At the end of the day, Dr. Church was back in the Boston jail where he’d started.

COMING UP: So many loose ends! What happened to Sarah Church and the children? What happened to Dr. James McHenry? And, of course, what happened to Dr. Church?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The is a great little story, J. L., keep up the good work!