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, June 30, 2019

“Letters were found in the Doctor’s pocket”

On 29 July 1775, the Middlesex Journal, a newspaper published in London, reported this tidbit about the Battle of Bunker Hill:
The day after the late battle in America, some of the Regulars searched the pockets of Dr. [Joseph] Warren, who was killed, and found three letters sent to him from some spies at Boston, which were immediately sent there, and the writers being soon discovered were sent to prison. 
On his blog about Warren, biographer Sam Forman quotes two more London newspapers running versions of the same news. From the 29 July Morning Chronicle:
A gentleman is arrived in town, who was present at the action on the 17th of June, at Charles Town, between the Provincials and the Regulars. . . . He further says, that the celebrated Dr. Warren, who commanded the Provincial trenches at Charles-Town, while he was bravely defending himself against several opposing Regulars, was killed in a cowardly manner by an officer’s servant, but the fellow was instantly cut to pieces; six letters were found in the Doctor’s pocket, written from some gentlemen in Boston, who were immediately taken into custody, and whose situations when he came away, were so perilous and critical, that their friends every moment feared their executions from some arbitrary and illegal sentence of the new adopted law martial.
And a number of early September newspapers reported this news from a recently arrived merchant vessel:
She sailed from Boston the 29th of July, but has brought no newspapers, and, we are well informed, that everything remained quiet, and would continue so till an answer was received by this ship. By the above ship we learn, that two persons have been taken up in consequence of some papers found in Dr. Warren’s pocket.
Those “two persons” were the schoolteachers James Lovell and John Leach, arrested on 29 June as described yesterday.

Only a month after those arrests, the London press was reporting on the letters in Warren’s pocket. Whatever ship first brought the news must have made a very fast passage—as fast as John Derby had sailed the Quero across the Atlantic in May to carry the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s report of Lexington and Concord to London. An average voyage was closer to five weeks or more, as with the merchant vessel that left on 29 July and arrived in early September.

That speed suggests some captains were sailing as fast as possible to bring news from the new war to the Crown, and getting lucky with the weather, too.

TOMORROW: How the letters implicated Lovell and Leach.


Jim Padian said...

Why did Dr. Warren carry letters on his person that would incriminate others? Have always doubted this tale. Planted letters more likely.

J. L. Bell said...

I did entertain the possibility that the British command released the story of the letters to cover a more sensitive source.

James Lovell’s father John was supporting the Crown. His brother Benjamin was a commissary for the British artillery. His brother John, Jr., sought to be secretary to Joshua Loring, though perhaps not this early in the war. And of course one of his sisters was mistress to the British artillery commander, Samuel Cleaveland. So it‘s conceivable that one of Lovell’s own family turned him but asked the military authorities to conceal that.

But that doesn’t fit with the army arresting John Leach on the same day and keeping him locked up for months. In addition, the report about the letters on Warren's body appeared in the British press but doesn't seem to have circulated in Boston, the only place such a cover story would have value.

So I accept the story of Warren carrying those letters into battle. That was reckless, but let’s face it—Warren was acting recklessly that day.

Another possibility is that Lovell’s captured letters looked innocuous to Warren before the battle but seemed incriminating to Gage and Howe afterwards, when they were feeling bitter and suspicious.