Yesterday I described how the Rev. William Montague of Dedham came to possess the musket ball that supposedly killed Dr. Joseph Warren—or at least was taken out of the doctor’s body after his death.
Alexander Hill Everett brought that relic to public attention during an oration in Charlestown on 17 June 1836. That was the Battle of Bunker Hill’s 61st anniversary, not usually a noted date, so Everett may have had to try extra hard to make a splash. He stated:
The bullet by which he [Warren] was killed had been previously taken from it [the body] by Mr. [Arthur] Savage, an officer in the Custom House, and was carried by him to London, where he afterwards delivered it to the Rev. Mr. Montague of Dedham.According to chronicler James Spear Loring, in April 1843 the minister’s son, William H. Montague, sent the musket ball to Edward Warren, junior editor of the Boston Daily American, with a note stating that he was to hold it “till called for.” I suspect Edward was a grandson of Dr. John Warren, younger brother of the doctor killed at Bunker Hill.
It was brought to me a day or two ago by a son of Mr. Montague with an affidavit authenticating the facts, and is the one, fellow-citizens! which I now hold in my hand.
The cartridge paper which still partly covers it is stained, as you see, with the hero’s blood.
That prompted a letter from Richard E. Newcomb, widower of Dr. Joseph Warren’s youngest child, Mary, asking for the bullet on behalf of his son as the dead man’s only direct descendant.
But it appears that the younger Montague, who in 1845 became one of the founders of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, enjoyed owning the relic himself. The ball was in his possession when he died, and the N.E.H.G.S. recorded in its proceedings for 1884:
The librarian would also report the gift, in March last, by William H. Montague, of Boston, the only survivor of the five founders of the Society, of a ball, taken by Arthur Savage, who was a personal acquaintance of Gen. Joseph Warren, who fell at the battle of Bunker Hill, from the body of that hero the morning after the battle.Reportedly ball and deposition were displayed in a frame at the society. However, Samuel Adams Drake had to report in Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston:
The ball was presented by Mr. Savage to the father of the donor, the Rev. William Montague, while he was on a visit to England, in the year 1789 or 1790. A deposition to this effect by the Rev. Mr. Montague, taken March 5, 1833, accompanies the bullet.
The identity of this ball has been disputed by some of the martyr’s descendants, on the ground that it was said to have been taken from the body, while Warren received his death from a ball in the head. The controversy was maintained with considerable warmth on both sides, the general opinion favoring the authenticity of the fatal bullet.Mucking about with dead bodies? Controversies over how people died? Single-bullet theories? Why, it can only be the return of CSI: Colonial Boston! (And this time we’ll get to the mystery of Maj. John Pitcairn’s body. Eventually.)
ADDENDUM: Note this observation on the musket ball in question.