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, December 05, 2012

Did John Binns Meet Provost William Cunningham?

One of the mysteries of Provost William Cunningham’s career has been the description of him that John Binns (1772-1860) left in his memoirs, published in 1854.

During the Revolutionary War, Binns was still a lad—not to mention three thousand miles away in Ireland. As a young man, Binns was a radical journalist, part of the United Irishmen movement. In mid-1799 the British government confined him to the Gloucestershire jail at Littledean.

Binns later wrote:
I was received at the gate of the jail by the governor; that is the title bestowed upon the principal keeper of the prison. His name was Cunningham, a retired half-pay officer in the army of his Britannic Majesty. He was well known in Philadelphia in 1777, while it was in possession of the British army. At that time, and in that service, Cunningham was Provost Marshal at Walnut Street prison. He married an American lady. She was an intelligent, good-looking, well-bred woman, younger than he was some years. She was living with him in the governor’s apartments, at the time I was confined.

He was, at the period at which I am writing, about fifty years of age, five feet seven inches high, well made and well mannered. So long as I was in the prison, which was until February, 1801, I never had an angry word with him, nor any reasonable cause of complaint against him.
The histories of the Gloucester jail that I cited yesterday show that Binns was mistaken. The governor he met was not a “Provost Marshal” during the Revolutionary War—that was William Cunningham. The governor at Gloucester in that period was William’s son Thomas.

Most of the other details Binns recalled about the governor—the pension from army service, the American wife, even the lack of anger toward printers disliked by the government—match what the record says about Thomas Cunningham. He apparently looked older than he really was; he was only in his early forties, about the same age as his wife, when Binns knew him.

After being released from Cunningham’s house of correction, Binns emigrated to the U.S. of A. Eventually he settled in Philadelphia and became a significant newspaper publisher on the political left. And in that city he must have talked with people who remembered provost martial Cunningham as a villain. Binns assumed they were speaking about the same man he’d met in Littledean Jail, but he was one generation off.

Thomas Cunningham’s wife Rachel died in Philadelphia in 1814, according to her family’s genealogy. Did she cross paths with Binns again in America?

TOMORROW: A remaining mystery about William Cunningham.

(The thumbnail above shows an engraving of the Declaration of Independence that Binns published in 1819, courtesy of Monticello. Read the story of its publication here.)

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