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, November 24, 2009

The Last Days of Dr. Benjamin Church

Sometime in early 1778, Capt. James Smithwick directed the sloop Welcome out of Boston harbor, carrying accused spy Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., to Martinique. On 24 April the Royal Pennsylvania Gazette reprinted some news from New York dated three weeks earlier:

Doctor Benjamin Church, was, about six weeks ago [i.e., mid-February], sent off from Boston in a vessel bound for Martinico, with orders never to return on pain of death.

The goal [i.e., jail] of Boston is crowded with persons who have refused to abjure the British Government, and swear allegiance to the Rebels, who are tendering these execrable oaths to every man they suspect to be a loyalist.
The same item appeared in the next day’s Pennsylvania Ledger. With the British army controlling New York and Philadelphia that season, the cities’ newspapers were decidedly pro-Crown.

Neither the Welcome, its captain, nor Dr. Church was seen again. I’ve found no comments on this mystery in 1778 newspapers or correspondence. The earliest surviving report of what happened may be an extract copied from a letter that a man named Thomas Brown sent from Halifax on 16 May 1782, filed in Britain’s National Archives.

Allen French’s General Gage’s Informers says Brown wrote that Church had been “exiled to some island in the West Indies, and threatened with death in case he shôd ever return.” E. Alfred Jones summarized Brown’s information this way in The Loyalists of Massachusetts:
it would seem that Dr. Benjamin Church was put on board a small schooner which Captain Smethwick bought of Jo. Clark and sailed from Boston in February, 1778, bound for the West Indies, and was lost at sea. A number of other vessels sailing at the same time foundered at sea. One man only was saved and brought back an account of the melancholy disaster.
That appears to mean only one man from all the vessels which hit the same weather. Gen. Thomas Gage’s highest placed spy had been swallowed by the Atlantic.

Dr. Church’s father, who had lobbied for his release from jail, resisted the conclusion that his son had died. In his will he still mentioned the doctor as a potential heir. The doctor’s widow, Sarah Church, moved to England, as described here.

In contrast, Thomas Brown wrote in 1782 that “Captn. Smithwicks widow has married another husband.” And indeed, Mary Smithwick remarried in March 1779 at Christ Church. Her new husband, stepfather to her three young children, was a man named George Lobb.

COMING UP: More about Mary Lobb. (That new marriage was a mistake.)


Robert S. Paul said...

Thanks to you, I've been using the word 'execrable' all day.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve had days like that.