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, May 20, 2012

“Hung! Up by the Neck!”

A few days back I quoted Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble’s diary entry for 8 Sept 1775 about an American soldier who deserted into Boston:

another Rifle Man came in, a fine fellow, an Irishman, from Kings County, says…that a report has been spread that one of their Deserters, a Rifle Man, had been Hanged, which checked the spirit of their People coming over to us.
That report of a hanging body appears in the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby, stationed in Roxbury, on 2 August:
One of Genl. [George] Washington’s riflemen was killed by the regulars to day & then hung! up by the neck! His comrades seeing this were much enraged, & immediately asked leave of the Genl. to go down and attack them. He gave them permission to go and do as they pleased. The Riflemen marched immediately & began operations. The regulars fired at them from all parts with cannon and swivels, but the Riflemen skulked about, and kept up their sharp shooting all day. Many of the regulars fell, but the riflemen lost only one man.
Some authors, most notably David McCullough in 1776, have treated this report as true.

However, Bixby appears to be the only diarist or letter-writer on either side of the siege lines who reported a rifleman or his body being strung up this way. In fact, Lt. Paul Lunt wrote that the British “killed none upon our side” in skirmishing that day.

Most telling, less than two weeks later Washington complained to Gen. Thomas Gage about the treatment of American prisoners of war but said nothing of a man being hanged or a corpse displayed.

It therefore seems likely that Bixby heard an unfounded rumor. Americans may have deliberately spread the story to incite resentment against the British, or to discourage defections, or both. Or the report could have been a natural exaggeration of the Pennsylvania riflemen’s concern about a comrade captured on 29 July, Cpl. Walter Cruise.

Kemble wrote that the American soldier taken that evening was “an Irish Man from Virginia; says he was forced into the service.” But claiming coercion got Cruise nowhere. The royal authorities put him into the Boston jail, where on 1 August fellow prisoner Peter Edes wrote, “the rifle corporal, Cruise, kept close confined, and allowed nothing but bread and water.”

Cruise was shipped to Nova Scotia as a prisoner during the evacuation and not released until around the start of 1777 in New York. (The rest of his military career mentioned here.) But at least he wasn’t hanged.

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