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, January 27, 2010

“When the corpse arrived here”

Yesterday I described how Dr. Amos Windship of Boston was asked to ship the remains of Maj. John Pitcairn to his widow and relatives in London, to be reburied with his family.

This webpage on the Pitcairns expresses doubt that any body actually to be interred:

It has been alleged that in 1791 the family sent for John’s body to be reinterred in his brother Dr. William Pitcairn’s vault at St. Bartholomew the Less in London [shown here]. . . . .

However,...there is no entry in the burial register at Bart’s about the alleged re-interment. The only Pitcairns buried there are John’s brother Dr. William (d. 1791), son Dr. David (1749-1809), Betty Dalrymple, John’s widow, who outlived her son by only a month (1724-1809), and David’s widow, Elizabeth Almack (1759-1844). So this looks very much like an old wives’ tale.
The Pitcairns and their circle in the early 1800s would disagree. In the Gentlemen’s Magazine for 1809, Dr. John Coakley Lettsom published a long letter addressing the question:
In answer to your Correspondent’s query, in June, p. 548, respecting the place of interment of the late Major Pitcairn; I am induced to explain the apparent contradiction noticed there, as I believe no other person is enabled to do it. . . .

Dr. Winship of Boston visited London about 20 years ago; and his indisposition occasioned my being consulted, and thereby acquiring his acquaintance. Some time afterwards I was daily in consultation with Dr. David Pitcairn; a circumstance which was casually mentioned to Dr. Winship, who then informed me, that he had with him the key of the vault in which Major Pitcairn had been deposited; that he saw him a little before his departure from Boston, in the vault in which he was laid, in his regimentals, as has been observed; and that he counted at least 30 perforations from balls, which must have entered his body; and that the stone vault, in the cold climate of Boston, had so preserved the corpse as to enable him to recognize his features. At the same time, the Doctor very politely assured me of his services to send the Major to England, were it desirable to the Son.

All this time I was attending a person near London, who had been Churchwarden at Boston at the period that the Major was placed in the vault there, who corroborated Dr. Winship’s narrative.

I communicated these particulars to Dr. David Pitcairn; who informed me, on the subsequent day, that he had consulted his uncle, Dr. William Pitcairn; and that it was their joint wish, to have the Major conveyed to London. They had then an interview with Dr. Winship, who undertook this kind office; and when the corpse arrived here, it was interred in a new vault, built purposely by Dr. William Pitcairn, in the burying-grouud of St. Bartholomew, near the Hospital; since which have been deposited the remains of Dr. William himself, the brother, and Dr. David, the son of Major Pitcairn.
In addition, in The Stranger in America, an 1807 travel book, Charles William Janson described a visit to Christ Church in Boston this way:
The tomb in which were deposited the remains of the gallant Pitcairn, was empty. The sexton informed us, that his brother. Dr. Pitcairn, of London, had obtained permission to remove them; but we saw many skeletons, which, we were told, were the relics of some who held commands under the Major.

On one of them hung the remains of regimentals, and a pair of leather breeches, in high preservation. The pipe-clay, with which the latter had evidently been cleaned, probably for the fatal occasion, appeared fresh and white; but the flesh of the body was entirely decayed. Another presented a fractured bone; and the whole formed a painful picture of mortality.

The effect it produces on the spectator is so much the more powerful, as these bodies are not deposited in coffins, but lie exposed one upon another in the vault, without any farther covering.—Gallant, but unfortunate men!
So in that decade people on both sides of the Atlantic clearly believed that Maj. Pitcairn’s body had been returned to his family in London, and reburied there.

TOMORROW: But was that the right body?

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