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, January 20, 2021

Probing the Tale of Warren and Jeffries

I’ve just shared the two versions of the story of Dr. Joseph Warren sneaking across the siege lines in early June 1775 to try to talk Dr. John Jeffries into heading the provincial medical corps.

Both versions present Dr. Jeffries as a badass: so skilled that Warren was eager to recruit him, so proud that he refused to work under anyone else, so good a friend that he didn’t tell the royal authorities about Warren’s mission until he was dead.

Of course, one of those stories came from Dr. Jeffries’s family, and the other probably did. There’s no version of the tale from Warren’s side, nor any contemporaneous documentation.

Dr. Jeffries’s notes on young smallpox patients on Rainsford Island, now digitized from Harvard’s Countway Library, offer a little more information about this period in his life. I wondered what journal might say about when Jeffries was available to meet Warren on a dock in the North End and/or to treat Bunker Hill casualties on the morning after the battle.

Neither of those possibilities can be ruled out. Jeffries’s first journal entries are dated 6 June, 7 June, 10 June, 11 or 12 June, 14 June, 16 June, and 20 June. (It’s quite possible he missed recording the date of 15 June; his entry for patients after 14 June went through the whole cycle of patients twice before he wrote another date.) Jeffries was probably not on the island on the missing dates, and therefore could have been in the North End one of those nights, and on the Charlestown peninsula on 18 June.

At the same time, the notebook shows us that Jeffries was on Rainsford Island many times in the week before the battle. Rainsford is in the bottom right corner of the map above, well out in the harbor. That distance is why the town put the smallpox hospital there.

If Warren wanted to talk with Jeffries privately, with minimal chance of being taken prisoner, wouldn’t it have been wiser to take a boat from Dorchester out to Rainsford Island?

According to the Jeffries story, they met at the Charleston ferry landing, a place where the British army was patrolling, which Warren could reach only by crossing a river where the Royal Navy had stationed warships. That would be a very risky rendezvous.

Then there’s the question of Dr. Warren making this trip himself. With John Hancock off in Philadelphia, Warren became the presiding officer of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He was still on the important Committee of Safety. And as of the afternoon of 14 June, he was being made a major general of the Massachusetts army. Basically, in the late spring of 1775 Dr. Warren was the single most important leader of the New England resistance.

To believe the Jeffries story, then, we have to believe that Dr. Warren decided to risk being captured or killed rather than ask someone else to carry a message into Boston. Which we know people were doing at this point in the siege.

What’s more, Dr. Jeffries wasn’t just an ordinary medical colleague. He had taken an appointment as a Royal Navy surgeon in 1771. So Warren was supposedly putting his life and the cause in the hands of a man who had already pledged loyalty to the enemy military.

Another detail that makes me go “hmmm” appears in the first version of the story. Allegedly on 18 June Dr. Jeffries told Gen. William Howe about how Warren had “ventured over to Boston in a canoe to get information” a few days earlier. Why didn’t the general ask why Jeffries hadn’t mentioned that before? The Crown made a wave of arrests in the days after Bunker Hill, including Samuel Gore, Peter Edes, James Lovell, and John Leach—the latter two on suspicion of being in contact with Warren. Yet Dr. Jeffries supposedly set up a secret meeting with the local leader of the rebellion, kept quiet about it, and wasn’t detained.

To be sure, none of those questions makes Warren’s trip to talk with Jeffries impossible. But the tale seems increasingly unlikely. Much less likely than that Dr. Jeffries, back in Boston after 1790, made up a story for his American-born son about how he’d been friends with the heroic Dr. Warren, who had really wanted him to join the team.

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