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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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Provost William Cunningham and the Family Business

Yesterday I reintroduced the figure of William Cunningham, the British military’s provost martial in Boston and then New York. He was in charge of policing the streets and housing prisoners, including prisoners of war. Americans came to hate him for what they saw as cruel treatment. The young U.S. of A. was cheered by a newspaper account of his hanging back in Britain in 1792, but later historians found no basis for that report.

What really became of William Cunningham after the evacuation of New York in 1783? Following a tip from a Boston 1775 commenter known only as Mike, last fall I went to the British Library and looked up two books by J. R. S. Whiting: Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (1975) and A House of Correction (1979). [Do I know how to enjoy a vacation or what?]

The hero of these books is Gloucestershire baronet named Sir George Onesiphorus Paul (1746–1820), who sought to reform prisons. Until then, British governments generally locked up sane people only for debt, while awaiting trial, or for short times on minor offenses. Paul felt that longer sentences were more effective against more serious crimes than corporal punishment, but also that current buildings were unhealthy. He put some of the fortune he’d inherited from his father’s woolen manufacturing behind building “houses of correction” for the county, starting with one at Littledean in 1788.

The British Dictionary of National Biography says that prison
had a chapel, a dispensary, two infirmaries, and a foul-ward in the upper story; workrooms were provided for debtors, and those who were unable to obtain work from outside were given it on application to a manufacturer, and were allowed to retain two-thirds of what they earned.
Later there was a treadwheel large enough for adults that operated through the late 1800s, according to a report of a prisoner’s death at the wheel in a magazine called The Interior. (Shown above, the building is now a tourist attraction.)

In 1789 Paul addressed the autumn sessions of the local court, saying that Gloucestershire’s new house of correction needed a governor or keeper who was “honest, sober, humane, and patient,” in Whiting’s words. The magistrates appointed William Cunningham to that post in the summer of 1790 with a salary of £200 per year. His experience as provost martial during the war was undoubtedly a plus.

Within a few years, however, Paul lost confidence in Cunningham. The new keeper was recovering from being “confined for a long time as the result of an accident.” More important, Paul had definite ideas about how to run a penal institution, and he felt that Cunningham was issuing rules too uncertainly. In other words, the notorious Provost Cunningham was not strict enough. Paul wrote that Cunningham suffered from “doubt in himself,” though the real problem may have been doubts about the baronet and his system.

At the start of 1792, William Cunningham’s son Thomas became keeper of a smaller house of correction at Horsley with a salary of £50/year. The older man fell ill that fall, and in October Thomas took over his job temporarily. Soon Paul and the other county magistrates made that switch permanent.

Thomas Cunningham carried out Paul’s system more thoroughly. In 1793 prisoners “tied a scurrilous written paper against him to the neck collar of a Dog” as a protest. But Sir George had his back, and he remained on the job for decades, receiving a £100 raise in 1797. In 1809 Thomas Cunningham was secure enough to object to having state prisoners in his county jail, saying it was “making the county of that prison a party in the war with printers, in which it has no peculiar concern.”

In 1797, William Cunningham was replaced as keeper at Horsley. This time his successor was his other son, Ralph. A couple of years before, Ralph had filled in for his father while his father had filled in for Thomas. In sum, running prisons had become the Cunningham family business. (A Loyalist officer named Ralph Cunningham was killed in 1780; I’m not sure how he might have been related to this clan.)

Father William apparently retired in 1797. I see genealogists stating on the web that he married a woman named Dorinda Robinett that year and died in Killaderry, Ireland, two years later at the age of sixty-three. However, I don’t see any sources being cited for that information.

In 1836 The Gentlemen’s Magazine reported that Thomas Cunningham had died at age seventy-seven (meaning he was born around 1759) after forty-five years of service in the Gloucester jail. His will describes him additionally as “Lieutenant on the Half Pay of De Lancey’s British American Rangers.” He had married Rachel Sayre, oldest daughter of an Anglican minister in Fairfield, Connecticut, who had resettled in New Brunswick. Curiously, the family genealogy says she died in 1814 in Philadelphia.

TOMORROW: Making sense of John Binns’s testimony about Provost Cunningham.

1 comment:

Byron DeLear said...

Wow, what a character arc -- from Sons of Liberty to prison warden.

I suppose 'Liberty' needs prison (and law), but it would be interesting to find out what the dispute was that coerced his transformation.

Good story!