Almost immediately after Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., was arrested in late September 1775 for secret correspondence with people in Boston, there were rumors that he would be exchanged for one of the British military’s prisoners.
On 21 October, even before the Massachusetts General Court or Continental military formally expelled Church, Abigail Adams passed on this news to her husband John:
a Man one Haskings who came out [of Boston] the day before yesterday...also says that the Tories are much distressd about the fate of Dr. Church, and very anxious to obtain him, and would exchange Lovel for him.Abigail and others probably saw that rumor as evidence that Church really was a valuable spy for the British, a supposition the Continental authorities still had trouble proving.
“Lovel” was Boston schoolteacher James Lovell, whom the British military had locked up during the summer, reportedly because they’d found letters from him on Dr. Joseph Warren’s body after the Battle of Bunker Hill. But there was no exchange. The British authorities kept Lovell imprisoned through the winter, carried him to Canada in March 1776, and finally traded him in November for Philip Skene, governor of Crown Point and Ticonderoga.
As for Church, he was locked up for a while in Connecticut, then sent back to Massachusetts in mid-1776, as I described yesterday. Confined in the jail at Boston, he remained an embarrassment and a burden to the state.
On 2 July 1777, the General Court leapt at an opportunity to get rid of Church and get something in return, resolving:
Whereas it has been represented to this Court that Doctor McHenry now a prisoner with the British Troops will be immediately exchanged for Doctr. Benjamin Church on his being sent to New-York — ThereforeA “Cartel vessel” was an unarmed ship used in wartime to deliver prisoners and messages, the equivalent of an officer carrying a flag of truce.
Resolved that the Honble. Council of this State be And they are hereby desired to cause said Doctr. Church to be sent as soon as may be to Rhode-Island to be forwarded to New York in such way and manner as to the Council may seem fitt, in Order to be exchanged for said Doctor McHenry, and that said Church continue in confinement till put on board the Cartel vessel in which he may depart and that he be thoroughly searched to prevent his carrying any papers with him which may be detrimental to the American Cause.
TOMORROW: Who was this Dr. McHenry?