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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Thursday, December 01, 2016

John McMurtry: “He did not know it was loaded”

On 1 Dec 1775, Pvt. Aaron Wright, stationed in Cambridge, wrote in his diary about a fellow rifleman:
John M’Murtry, in Capt. [James] Chambers’ company, killed John Penn, by his rifle going off, when, he says, he did not know it was loaded. He was cleaning the lock, and put it on and primed it to see how she would “fier.” It shot through a double partition of inch boards, and through one board of a berth, and went in at Penn’s breast, and out at his back, and left its mark on the chimney. Penn put his hand on his breast, and as he turned round, fell down dead, and never spoke more.
I haven’t been able to find out anything more about John Penn.

John McMurtry was in his early twenties. He grew up in Somerset County, New Jersey, but went to Pennsylvania to sign up with a rifle company after the Continental Congress started to raise troops for its newly adopted army in June 1775.

After the shooting, McMurtry reenlisted in the Continental Army for the following year. In fact, he was promoted to corporal on 1 July 1776. According to his pension application, he saw action at White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown.

McMurtry recalled becoming a sergeant major and then an ensign on 1 Oct 1779. He resigned from the army on 1 Aug 1780. But then, he said, he went to Philadelphia and signed aboard a privateer named the Fair America under Capt. Stephen Decatur.

McMurtry and his new wife settled in what became Tennessee. He died in 1841. His pension application did not mention John Penn or any other event of note during the siege of Boston.


Anonymous said...

Do we know for sure that he knew he/his gun had killed someone?

J. L. Bell said...

The diary entry stating, “he says, he did not know it was loaded,” doesn’t leave much doubt that McMurtry knew.