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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Sunday, January 10, 2010

“Taken from His Grave by Persons Unknown”

From Gen. George Washington’s general orders for 1 Sept 1775:

Complaint has been made to the General; that the body of a Soldier of Col [Benjamin Ruggles] Woodbridges Regiment has been taken from his grave by persons unknown;

The General and the Friends of the deceased, are desirous of all the Information that can be given, of the perpetrators of this abominable Crime, that he, or they, may be made an example, to deter others from committing so wicked and shameful an offence—
The corpse was almost certainly removed for anatomical study. Ironically, Col. Woodbridge himself practiced some medicine at his home in South Hadley; in rural towns, the local gentleman of learning might be the best one had for medicine, the law, and science. Here’s the house in South Hadley Woodbridge built in 1788 on Historic Buildings of Massachusetts, and the picture of him above comes courtesy of Wikipedia.

Regimental surgeon James Thacher wrote of this incident:
I am sorry to have occasion to notice in my journal the following occurrence. The body of a soldier has been taken from the grave, for the purpose, probably, of dissection, and the empty coffin left exposed.

This affair occasions considerable excitement among our people; both resentment and grief are manifested; as it seems to impress the idea that a soldier’s body is held in no estimation after death. Such a practice, if countenanced, might be attended with serious consequences, as it respects our soldiers.

Much inquiry has been made, but without success, for the discovery of the persons concerned; and the practice in future is strictly prohibited by the commander in chief.
Curiously, when Thacher prepared his journal for publication decades after the war, he dated this paragraph in November 1775, at least two months after Washington’s order.

TOMORROW: The Warren family on this same incident.

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