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, November 11, 2009

Rachel Revere and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr.

The 2 May 1775 letter from Rachel Revere that I quoted yesterday was not the first that she’d written to her husband Paul from inside besieged Boston. An earlier note appears here at the Clements Library website, and it begins:

My Dear by Doctor Church I send a hundred & twenty five pounds and beg you will take the best care of yourself and not attempt coming in to this town again and if I have an opportunity of coming or sending out anything or any of the Children I shall do it
It’s undated, but we have good clues about when Rachel wrote it. A hasty note from Dr. John Homans to Dr. Joseph Gardner confirms that Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., went into the besieged town on 21 Apr 1775, and in 1798 Paul Revere recalled that Church came back out two days later, on Sunday. Rachel most likely gave Church the message and money for her husband that during that visit.

Neither Paul Revere nor Dr. Gardner ever saw the letters addressed to them. Church handed them over to Gen. Thomas Gage, and they were found in the general’s files over a century later. (I wrote about the Homans-Gardner-Church document in an article for the spring 2006 issue of New England Ancestors.)

Yet another document that might bear on the relationship between Rachel Revere and Dr. Benjamin Church was quoted by Allen French in General Gage’s Informers. It’s undated and unsigned, but the handwriting matches what’s on other papers from Church, the general’s best-placed spy. French concluded that the doctor probably wrote this note in early May 1775. It says in part:
Send Rachel out with more practicable instructions, I can’t see how ’tis possible to write again there is a close watch set up, Contrivances shall not be wanting if necessary, send me the news.
The note then looks ahead to the 25th of the month, which “finishes a quarter”—i.e., when bills would be due.

So what do we know? On 2 May, Rachel Revere was still in Boston, trying to get a pass out of town for herself and the many children. By 22 May, according to Jayne Triber’s biography A True Republican, the whole family was in Watertown (except for oldest son Paul, Jr., who stayed behind to look after the shop).

Did Gage receive Church’s undated note early in May and give Rachel Revere a pass so that she could leave Boston, unwittingly carrying secret instructions to the doctor? Or was there another Rachel, or was “Rachel” a code name for someone else?

(This musing was prompted by a query from author John A. Nagy. The image above comes via Oceansbridge, which promises to deliver handmade reproductions of this Gilbert Stuart portrait of Rachel Revere in less than a month.)

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