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, January 19, 2010

“Used to shew a set of human bones in a very large coffin”

Boston 1775 has already discussed when Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Marines was shot (in the middle of the Battle of Bunker Hill, not at the climax), who shot him (probably no one knows, but Pitcairn’s notoriety after Lexington meant many people wanted to claim the shot), and where he died (in a house in the North End, but it’s not clear which one).

Now this CSI: Colonial Boston series offers a chance to address the next important question: What happened to the major’s body?

All sources agree that after the battle Pitcairn and some other British military officers were placed in a crypt under Christ Church in Boston’s North End. Within fifteen years—probably within ten—those bodies had become a public attraction.

This information comes to us through Dr. Ephraim Eliot (1761-1827), son of the Rev. Andrew Eliot and brother of the Rev. John Eliot. The doctor left a number of gossipy manuscript reminiscences of Boston written in the early 1800s. He wrote, probably from personal experience:

The Major was a very large & stout man, was well known to the inhabitants of Boston & notwithstand[ing] the errand he was sent here upon, such was his gentlemanlike deportment, he had their respect.

The sexton of the church taking advantage of this disposition in the people used to shew a set of human bones in a very large coffin as those of the Major.
But Pitcairn wasn’t the only British officer in that cellar. Eliot said that it also contained the remains of
a Lieutenant of the Major’s battalion, who was much like the Major in size & shape. He died of an inflammation of the brain, this is probable from the circumstance of a large Blister plaster upon the head which was in this coffin, & was removed by a friend of the writer.
Who was that sexton, who was undoubtedly pocketing tips from people who viewed these bodies? Eliot called him “as great a villain as ever went unhung,” but didn’t record his name.

The evidence points to that man being Robert Newman, the same Christ Church sexton who on 18 Apr 1775 had helped hang lanterns in the church steeple for Paul Revere. In December 1788 Newman received a severe reprimand, a few months before being replaced, from a church warden who determined to send Pitcairn’s remains to Britain.

TOMORROW: The church warden and the skeleton.

(The photo above comes from Sara L. Brooks’s Flickr set under a Creative Commons license. It shows the Maj. Pitcairn’s name engraved on a sign in the cellar of Old North Church today. His resting-place is still attracting visitors. But is he still there?)

1 comment:

John L. Smith said...

I'm really liking this CSI: Colonial Boston series! Great stuff, Mr. Bell!