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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Monday, April 04, 2011

Dr. Warren As You’ve Never Seen Him Before

Way, way back, Boston 1775 stumbled into the seemingly bottomless topic of Dr. Joseph Warren’s body. After the doctor was killed at Bunker Hill, the British forces put his body in a shared grave, and then after the siege of Boston—on 4 Apr 1776, in fact—the Americans dug him up again. At other times people claimed, apparently without foundation, that his corpse had been mutilated and that they were bringing the fatal bullet back to Boston.

Derek W. Beck was seeking information about Warren for his manuscript 1775. Another reader alerted me to a report of the Warren family taking photographs of their collateral ancestor’s skull, and eventually Derek found reproductions of those photos. Go to Derek’s blog today for a third image and more analysis.

Physicians, including Warren’s brother John, examined this skull in some detail in 1776 to be sure the body was actually his; eventually Paul Revere identified his dental work. William H. Sumner later described seeing the remains:

the skull was perforated by a musket ball in the upper part of the head, in such a place, as I am informed by professional gentlemen, would probably have produced sudden, though it might not instant death.
“The upper part of the head” suggests the larger hole in the back, rather than the smaller one below the left eye. Sumner, not being a “professional gentleman,” or doctor, might have mistaken that larger hole for an entry wound rather than an exit wound, and thus become the source of mid-1800s statements that the British had shot Warren from behind.

11 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

Hard to tell in the photos, but the entry wound looks a little small for a musket ball.

I'll have to check when I get home, though.

Daud said...

Depends on the size of Dr. Warren's head!

Looks pretty close to the size of the replica ball I have, though a little smaller, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

A minor quibble: there's no such thing as a "collateral ancestor." A person is either an ancestor or not (just as one is either a descendant or not; there's no such thing as a collateral descendant either).

Robert S. Paul said...

Yeah, on second look, it's about right. A Brown Bess is .75 caliber, but the balls were typically slight smaller.

So that's 3/4" roughly.

J. L. Bell said...

As I typed the phrase “collateral ancestor,” I thought of Ambrose Bierce making the same point as Anonymous above. But I kept the phrase because the descendants of Dr. John Warren treated his big brother Joseph almost as if they were descended from him, too.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

For those interested, there is a supposed musketball at the New England Historical and Genealogical Society that the donor claimed, with dubious evidenced provided, was the ball that slew Dr. Warren. From the photos, it seems quite unlikely. I always thought it suspicious... If the ball had not smashed through him and into the dirt (as it most likely did, given the photos), then the existences of such a ball would have required that some patriot or redcoat had dug into Warren's dead body for it before the remains were buried a day or two after the battle. Sort of hard to believe. With the photos, I'm convinced the ball that slew the doctor was buried into the hillside somewhere, perhaps later found, but no way could it be recognized as THE bullet. And thus the ball at NEHGS is almost certainly a fake.

Thanks to JL for posting a link back to my humble blog. -Derek

JQuig said...

I thought that Dr. Warren was a very dashing man and had a false tooth made to fix an otherwise perfect smile. That skull doesn't appear to have many teeth.

J. L. Bell said...

This is Warren’s skull after being dug up for, I believe, the third time. (So hard to keep track.) That was several decades after the doctor’s death, so we have to expect it wasn’t looking its best.

DWB said...

Exactly as JL said. This was the skull 80 years after the fact. Also, we cannot know if Warren had other false teeth, and whether this was the reason the skull is missing more teeth, we only know about the one because of Revere's dental work. Certainly, we've never seen Warren smiling in his portraits, so we've just assumed he had nice and pretty teeth.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Sorry... was signed in with the wrong account... that last post was mine.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Part of the value in sharing this bit of research is the feedback. Based on some careful measurements, just as some of the comments above suggested, I am now convinced the ball entry is approximately 0.47 inches, thus suggestting a ball that would fit inside a small gun of 0.5 inches caliber. There's little doubt this kind of hole was made artificially... that is, by an impact. Could this have been an officer's pistol that shot Warren? Any reader knowledgeable about such things?

More discussion, and details on the measurement of this, at Derek's blog.