The Rev. Samuel Abbott Smith included a stirring rendition of Samuel Whittemore’s story in his 1864 address West Cambridge on the Nineteenth of April, 1775. Unfortunately, that telling exaggerated the old man’s actions:
He lay under cover of a wall near where the Russell school-house now stands, and fired some half dozen shots at the enemy. He had just loaded his gun, when he heard the wall rattle and saw five soldiers of the flank-guard approaching him shoulder to shoulder. Beside being eighty years old he was lame, and knew that it was of no use to attempt to escape.So in a single second both Whittemore and a soldier fired their guns, Whittemore’s ball hit a soldier who grabbed his chest, and a soldier’s ball hit Whittemore on the head and knocked him out. And someone who remained in Menotomy to speak to Smith saw all that. Wow!
With his musket he shot one of the soldiers, and, instantly drawing his pistol, fired at another. He aimed the second pistol and discharged it just as they fired at him; one of the soldiers was seen to clap his hand to his breast. As he fired the third time a ball struck him in the head, and he fell senseless.
The soldiers beat him with their muskets, bayoneted him, and left him for dead. After the British had passed by, our people, finding that there was some life left in him, carried him to Cooper’s tavern, where the surgeon, Dr. [Simon] Tufts of Medford, said that it was useless to dress his wounds, for he could not live. He dressed the wounds however, and the old hero lived eighteen years after this, dying in 1793 at the age of 98.Smith gave his source for at least part of the story as “F. H. Whittemore,” apparently a descendant. But the obituary I quoted yesterday said he shot two soldiers, not three. That death notice must have come from Samuel Whittemore’s immediate family and friends, and they had no reason to downplay or conceal flattering details.
The people of that time accounted for his longevity by saying that “He bled like an ox” from his wounds, and through the new blood formed got a new lease of life.
Smith’s account displays what I call “memory creep,” in which stories become slightly better as they pass from one teller to another—at each stage a bit more exciting and the stakes more important.
The next version of Whittemore’s tale appeared in an 1870 family history and an 1880 History of Arlington by Benjamin and William R. Cutter. They also gave the old man two pistols, and wrote that his surgeons dressed “one shot wound and thirteen bayonet wounds.”
Strangely, the Cutters started their account by quoting a version of Whittemore’s Centinel obituary, which said he had been stabbed “6 or 8” times with a bayonet. How did eight wounds grow to thirteen between 1793 and 1870? Memory creep.
In 1893 B. B. Whittemore published a genealogy of the Whittemore family (published by “Francis P. Whittemore, Book and Job Printer” of Nashua). He included Samuel Whittemore’s birthdate in 1696, and said he was 96 years old when he died. Yet that book also said he was “At the age of 80” during the battle in 1775. Memory creep even overcame mathematics.
Are we doing better today? Well, the problem doesn’t seem to be getting worse—I haven’t found any tale of 90-year-old Samuel Whittemore firing a cannon at a company of redcoats before he’s shot through the head, only to be revived through leeches. This webpage by the Arlington Historical Commission combines the most solid information from the most reliable sources. On the other hand:
- This stone marker in Arlington follows the Rev. Mr. Smith’s address by saying Whittemore killed three British soldiers and died at 98.
- The 2005 Massachusetts law naming Whittemore as official state hero repeated the errors in his obituary, saying he was “over 80 years old” during the battle and 99 when he died.