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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Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Holes in Thomas Machin’s Biography

Yesterday I quoted the biography of Thomas Machin, military engineer for the Continental Army, as it was published in 1845. It linked the man by blood to one of England’s most prominent mathematicians, by employment to one of England’s finest engineers and a duke, and by history to a famous British military victory fought when Machin was just fifteen years old.

Despite such prominence, the details of that life are impossible to confirm. Sometimes the information is just too vague. For example, “He was born March 20th, 1744, O. S., four miles from Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.” I’ve looked at birth records from parishes that fit the description and haven’t found Machin’s name, but of course I might have missed the right register.

As for Machin’s father being “John Machin, a distinguished mathematician,” I can rule that out. John Machin (1686?-1751, shown above) was the most distinguished man in eighteenth-century England with that surname. He was secretary of the Royal Society from 1718 to 1748 and professor of astronomy at Gresham College.

Gresham College is in London. Prof. Machin had no connection to Wolverhampton, more than a hundred miles away. He never married, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that when he died “his only relative was a second cousin, Mary Tasker.”

The biography says Thomas Machin’s first military experience was in “a corps of English cadets,…or fencibles, as called,” in the Battle of Minden in 1759. “Fencibles” meant militia troops raised to defend the British homeland, so they didn’t fight in Germany.

Was Machin clerk to James Brindley (1716-1772), the canal engineer? In the mid-nineteenth century, legend had it that Brindley was “practically illiterate” and kept no records, which would have made it impossible to test that statement. Now we know that some of Brindley’s records did survive, but without specific dates it’s hard to know where to look.

The biography says Machin arrived in America in 1772 and was “one of the celebrated Boston tea party of 1773.” That was a secret, risky operation, and it’s extremely unlikely that the Boston radicals would have shared their plans with a new arrival from England. I haven’t spotted Machin’s name in any of the records of pre-Revolutionary Boston, particularly those of political activity.

The capsule biography goes on to say that Machin “was engaged and wounded (in one arm) in the conflict on Bunker’s hill, while acting as lieutenant of artillery.” But Thomas J. Abernathy’s study of Col. Richard Gridley’s artillery regiment in 1775 says that Machin’s name doesn’t appear on its records until his commission as a second lieutenant in January 1776.

TOMORROW: Which is not to say Machin wasn’t in the army during that battle.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Invalid pension claims by him, his wife, and his son are all detailed in "Donderburg's Pumpkin Vine" by Kenneth B. Lifshitz (2010). Read most of it through free Google Books preview!

Ken Lifshitz said...

Hi This is Kenneth B. Lifshitz, Author of the book mentioned above, 'Donderburg's Pumpkin Vine'. I have read some of your research on Machin with great interest. He was unquestionably a flawed man but as I point out in the book, also one of great ingenuity and energy, which genius Washington was quick to recognize and employ. While you are correct that Machin was not related (at least not closely) to the mathematician of that name, he was almost certainly from Staffordshire and associated with Brindley. Brindley had done some work for Machin's father and young Thomas was probably indentured to Brindley subsequently. That much of his early history I have been able to document. As for his deserting from the British Army rather than coming thru the West Indies this certainly bears some further research but it should be noted that his is not all that uncommon a name so I would not jump to conclusions. The engineering job on which he was employed immediately after the siege of Boston on Cape Cod, cutting a shipping canal, certainly bespeaks an individual of considerably more training and expertise than a private in the British army would have acquired and also tends to substantiate the previous apprenticeship to Brindley. Thanks again for your mention of my book.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. I haven't seen Donderburg's Pumpkin Vine, and am curious about what evidence exists on Thomas Machin's life in England. The record of his joining the 23rd Regiment is the earliest I've found, and those muster rolls show his continuous presence with the regiment until July 1775, when he deserted. After that, there are mentions of him in American sources for a few months, and then his commission in the Continental Army provides a solid record for the next several years. I kept my eyes open for another man of the same name and haven't spotted any other Thomas Machin in contemporaneous records from Boston. So if there were multiple men of that name, one disappeared from those records just as the other appeared.