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, May 23, 2019

“‘Nae Luck aboot the House” in Braintree

Gwen Fries at the Massachusetts Historical Society highlighted how Abigail Adams came to love a particular Scottish song while her husband John was far away in France.

On 13 Dec 1778, after describing lonely winter nights, Adams wrote:
I cannot discribe to you How much I was affected the other day with a Scotch song which was sung to me by a young Lady in order to divert a Melancholy hour, but it had a quite different Effect, and the Native Simplicity of it, had all the power of a well wrought Tradidy. When I could conquer my Sensibility I beg'd the song, and Master Charles has learnt it and consoles his Mamma by singing it to her.
The song, identifiable from the lines that Adams wrote down, was “There’s Nae Luck aboot the House.” It’s traditionally attributed to Jean Adam (1704-1765), a Scottish poet, teacher, and housekeeper. The song had only recently become popular in London, judging by publications.

“There’s Nae Luck aboot the House” was about a wife yearning for her husband to come home from the sea, so no wonder Abigail Adams felt it keenly. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, including the lines she quoted:
And are ye sure the news is true?
And are ye sure he’s weel?
Is this a time to talk o’ wark?
Ye jades, fling by your wheel!
Is this a time to think o’ wark,
When Colin’s at the door?
Gie me my cloak! I’ll to the quay,
And see him come ashore.
Chorus
For there’s nae luck about the house,
There’s nae luck ava’;
There’s little pleasure in the house,
When our gudeman’s awa’.
. . .
Sae true his words, sae smooth his speech,
His breath like caller air,
His very foot has music in’t,
When he comes up the stair:
And will I see his face again?
And will I hear him speak?
I’m downright dizzie wi’ the thought,
In troth I’m like to greet!
John Adams responded that he, too, was touched by the song, and it looks like Benjamin Franklin asked to copy it as well.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dr. Franklin and the Volcano

In May 1784, Benjamin Franklin published an essay titled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.”

In it Franklin observed that “the winter of 1783-84, was more severe than any that happened for many years.” Though he was writing in and about Europe, such American planters as George Washington and James Madison also complained about that season.

Franklin attributed the harsh winter to “a constant fog over all Europe” in the summer of 1783, though those months had been unusually hot. As for the nature of that haze in the atmosphere, Franklin saw different possibilities, including meteors and
the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer from Hecla, in Iceland, and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island, which smoke might be spread by various winds over the northern part of the world
The eruptions on Iceland and the ensuing livestock deaths and crop failures reportedly killed a fifth of the population on that island. Even in Britain, people blamed the unhealthy atmosphere for thousands of deaths. But Franklin was apparently the first person to suggest that a volcanic eruption might affect the winter months later.

In 2011, as reported by the website phys.org, Geophysical Research Letters published a paper by Rosanne D’Arrigo and colleagues which concluded the “1783-84 weather was most likely the result of a rare confluence: A warm tropical eastern Pacific Ocean—El Niño—combined with a strong negative pressure in the North Atlantic Ocean.” The same effect occurred in 2009-10, the team wrote. They therefore didn’t think the volcano was a necessary part of the explanation (and no one talks about Franklin’s meteor hypothesis).

However, this month a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research with Brian Zambri as lead author took another look at the eruption, which was huge:
The eight-month eruption of the Laki volcano, beginning in June 1783, was the largest high-latitude eruption in the last 1,000 years. It injected about six times as much sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere as the 1883 Krakatau or 1991 Pinatubo eruptions…
Using computer models, these authors tried to isolate the volcano’s effect. They concluded that it didn’t make the summer of 1783 unusually warm; in fact, “It would have been even warmer without the eruption.” But the following winter was definitely colder because of Laki, as Franklin had guessed.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Somos on the “State of Nature" in Boston and Quincy

Mark Somos, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow and Senior Research Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, is visiting the Boston area this week to speak about his book American States of Nature: The Origins of Independence, 1761-1775.

The event description:
The “state of nature” refers to mankind’s pre-political condition; interstate relations; nudity; hell; or innocence. The term appeared in these senses thousands of times in juridical, theological, medical, political, economic, and other texts produced in the British American colonies between 1630 and 1810.

By the 1760s, a coherent and distinctively American state of nature discourse started to emerge. It combined existing meanings and sidelined others in moments of intense contestation, such as the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66 and the First Continental Congress of 1774. In laws, resolutions, petitions, sermons, broadsides, pamphlets, letters and diaries, the American state of nature, where the colonists’ natural rights became collective rights, came to justify independence as much as formulations of liberty, property, and individual rights did.

The founding generation deliberately transformed this flexible concept into a powerful theme that shapes US constitutional and international law to this day. No constitutional history of the Revolution can be written without it.
On Wednesday, 22 May, Somos will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. That event begins with a reception at 5:30 P.M., and the lecture is scheduled for 6:00. Admission is $10, free to M.H.S. Fellows and Members and E.B.I.T. cardholders. Register here.

On Thursday, 23 May, Somos will speak in the carriage house at Adams National Historical Park, 135 Adams Street in Quincy. That event will start at 7:00 P.M. This talk is free and doesn’t require reservations.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Two Prisoners of War Who Escaped

This series about redcoats in captivity after 19 Apr 1775 concentrated on the two men who gave depositions to provincial magistrates a few days after the battle.

One of those men, Pvt. John Beaton, died in captivity and was buried in Concord. The other, Pvt. James Marr, might have joined the Continental Army and entered American society. Some of the other soldiers held in the Concord jail with them did likewise.

But I left a couple of men still in the Concord jail at the end of 1775. The Rev. William Gordon talked to them in the spring. They signed a petition to the Massachusetts authorities seeking warmer clothing on 13 December, as shown above.

Fortunately, Dan Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution can come to the rescue again. He’s written blog entries about both men.

About Pvt. William McDonald, Don wrote:
McDonald was still in Concord’s jail on 6 December, when a list of the prisoners was made that indicated that his wife was still in Boston. This gave him strong incentive to get away. . . . Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,
A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt.
As Don’s posting reveals, McDonald’s story intersects with that of another British soldier, a man who had deserted from the army before the war, then tried to get back into besieged Boston and was confined by the provincial government. When he finally escaped with the help of Sgt. Matthew Hayes, another prisoner from 19 April who signed the petition above, the British army tried the man for desertion. McDonald was a witness at that trial.

And here’s the story of Pvt. Evan Davis who had been moved from Concord to Ipswich:
At dusk on 7 May 1777, after two years as a prisoner of war, Davis escaped with two fellow prisoners. It was almost three full weeks before they were advertised in the newspapers:
Deserted from the town of Ipswich, on Wednesday the 7th inst. between day light and dark, three prisoners of war, viz. Donnel McBean, a highland volunteer, of a sprightly make, dark hair, and ruddy countenance, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high. Ewen Davis, of slim stature, has lost the sight of one of his eyes, about 5 feet 10 inches high. And one Lile, a Highlander, a shoemaker, dark complexion, about 5 feet 6 inches high. Whoever shall take up said prisoners, and convey them to any goal within this State, shall have Five Dollars reward for each of them, and all necessary charges paid by Michael Farley, Sheriff.
[Boston Gazette, 26 May 1777]
Somehow, Evan Davis made his way back to his regiment. Most likely he was able to get to the British garrison in Rhode Island and from there sail to New York, but we have no details on his journey. On 24 August he was placed back into the grenadier company, just in time for British campaign to Philadelphia.
Thanks, Don!

I’ll leave off talking about prisoners of war for a while, but sooner or later we’re going to circle back to Sgt. Hayes.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

“The said Marr further declared…”

As Don Hagist showed yesterday, it’s unlikely that Pvt. John Bateman was close enough to the Lexington common on 19 Apr 1775 to see the first shots there. As a grenadier of the 52nd Regiment, he was probably in the middle of the British column, not up front.

Multiple people nonetheless reported hearing Bateman as a prisoner blame the regulars for shooting first, which was definitely what his provincial captors wanted to hear. Whether he was speaking honestly, or planning to defect, or felt he had to curry favor with the local doctors to get his wound treated, that’s what he said.

However, another captured redcoat, Pvt. James Marr of the 4th Regiment, almost certainly was at the common at the crucial time. The light infantry company of the 4th was near the front of the British column. What’s more, Marr told the Rev. William Gordon that he was part of “the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal.”

Marr told Gordon:
They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.
That matches the report of Lt. William Sutherland, riding at the head of the column. He wrote:
I went on with the front party which Consisted of a Serjeant & 6 or 8 men, I shall Observe here that the road before you go into Lexington is level for about 1000 Yards, Here we saw Shots fired to the right and left of us, but as we heared no Whissing of Balls I conclude they were to Alarm the body that was there of our approach. On coming within Gunshot of the village of Lexington a fellow from the corner of the road on the right hand Cock’d his piece at me, burnt priming…
Sutherland and Lt. Jesse Adair of the marines reported this encounter to Maj. John Pitcairn, who in turn informed Gen. Thomas Gage a few days later:
When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels advanced from those that were assembled, had presented his musket and attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan.
Pvt. Marr thus confirmed a Crown talking-point about the battle, though he probably didn’t know Gage and his officers were making a big deal about that early shot. (It’s also striking that Gordon wrote down Marr’s remark and had it published within a few weeks of the battle, even though it didn’t help his side of the conflict. He left that detail out of his History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of America, however.)

As for the shots on the Lexington common, Gordon went on:
The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.
Marr’s account agrees with what a lot of British eyewitnesses described—but not with the testimony that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress published in April 1775. Those depositions, collected from provincials and Pvt. Bateman, chorused that Maj. Pitcairn had ordered the regulars to fire the first shots. In contrast, Marr said Pitcairn yelled something else, and he didn’t know which side fired first.

Marr was at the front of the British column at Lexington and thus had an excellent view of what happened. He cooperated with the magistrates collecting evidence for the congress, but his description was of no value to those Patriot authorities. As a result, they published a deposition from Marr—but about the first shots at Concord instead.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Where Was Pvt. John Bateman?

Back when I quoted the April 1775 deposition of Pvt. John Bateman about the shooting at Lexington, I said I was more interested in analyzing the circumstances of that document than its content.

But Don Hagist, chief editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, noticed something about the content that’s worth considering. So I asked to run his message as a “guest blogger” posting.

We’ll start with a reminder of Bateman’s testimony:

I, John Bateman, belonging to the fifty second regiment, commanded by Colonel [Valentine] Jones, on Wednesday morning, on the nineteenth day of April instant, was in the party marching to Concord. Being at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex, being nigh the meeting-house in said Lexington, there was a small party of men gathered together in that place, when our said troops marched by; and I testify and declare, that I heard the word of command given to the troops to fire, and some of said troops did fire, and I saw one of said small party lie dead on the ground nigh said meeting-house; and I testify, that I never heard any of the inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.
And here’s Don:

Reading the testimony of Pvt. John Bateman of the 52nd Regiment, I realized something that calls the veracity of his testimony into question. Bateman was a grenadier. As such, he was probably pretty far away from the first shot on Lexington green, not in good position to know who fired it.

There is no disputing that the light infantry got to Lexington first, and that the companies of the 4th and 10th Regiments went onto the green first. This accords well with typical British formations that put the most senior units on the flanks when in line. A number of period maps show that grenadier and light infantry battalions formed in the same way. Formed in a line by seniority, the light infantry companies on April 19, 1775, would be arranged with the 4th on the right, the 5th on the left, the 10th next on the right, 23rd, next on the left, and so forth working inwards. Marching by column from the right puts the 4th and 10th as the first two companies, making them first on Lexington green.

With this formation, Bateman's company from the 52nd Regiment would be near the middle of the grenadier battalion, in column behind the light infantry. Only if they had proceeded partway past the green by the time the first shot was fired would Bateman have been in a position to see who fired it.

This assumes that Bateman was with his company and not with an advanced party. Lt. William Sutherland of the 38th Regiment wrote that, before arriving at Lexington, the column halted “in order to make a Disposition, by advancing men in front & on the flanks to prevent a surprise.” He himself was not a grenadier or light infantry officer, and “went on with the front party which consisted of a serjeant & 6 or 8 men” who could have been chosen from any company in the column. And Lt. Jesse Adair of the Marines said that he was at the head of the column, even though the Marines were between the 38th and 43rd in seniority, and so should have been in the middle of the column.

We don’t know where John Bateman was when the shooting started on April 19, but it doesn’t seem likely that he was in a good position to see who fired the first shot.

Thanks, Don!

I agree with this analysis and think it also reflects the reality of what Bateman said. He claimed to have heard the command to fire, but he didn’t describe seeing those shots or their immediate aftermath. He saw only one dead body, and we know that several men died on Lexington green. Because, most likely, Bateman marched by the scene after the shooting was over.

TOMORROW: But you know who was in a position to see the first shots at Lexington?

[The image above shows a detail from the muster roll of the 52nd Regiment, supplied by Don. It shows how Bateman’s commanders gave him up as dead as of 21 April—two days before his deposition and probably two weeks or more before he died.] 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Whatever Happened to James Marr?

As quoted yesterday, in 1835 the Revolutionary War veteran Thaddeus Blood told Ralph Waldo Emerson that he doubted the deposition published over the name of Pvt. John Bateman really came from that prisoner.

Bateman, Blood said, was too badly injured on 19 Apr 1775 to give testimony. He believed instead that “It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.” But there’s no one named Carr or Starr in this story.

There was, however, a Pvt. James Marr, another British soldier captured on the first day of the war and held in Concord. Marr also gave a deposition to provincial magistrates and spoke to the Rev. William Gordon. I suspect Blood remembered that man but not exactly.

Blood saw Bateman’s deposition reprinted in “Dr. R’s History”—A History of the Fight at Concord, by the Rev. Dr. Ezra Ripley, first published in 1827. Blood knew Ripley well; the minister provided a character reference when the veteran applied for a pension.

Ripley’s book focused on whether the Lexington militiamen had fired back at the redcoats on 19 April in some significant way. It did not cite or reprint James Marr’s deposition, which was about the fight at the North Bridge.

Bateman thus had no reminder about Marr’s name in front of him. He also didn’t see how every time Patriots recorded Bateman’s testimony in 1775, they took down Marr’s testimony the same day. In other words, there was no motive for them to put Marr’s words into Bateman’s mouth since it would have been easier just to credit those words to Marr.


Blood had a vivid memory of Bateman when he was dying in Concord; “his wounds stunk intolerably,” the old man recalled sixty years later. But before the infection set in, Bateman was probably well enough to testify. Blood also must have remembered Marr, but less exactly, as a cooperative prisoner, the kind who would give testimony against his own army. Why would Blood recall Marr that way?

One clue appears in Lemuel Shattuck’s history of Concord, published the same year that Blood spoke to Emerson. Shattuck listed a James Marr among the men from Middlesex County whom Col. James Barrett enrolled in the Continental Army for three years starting in January 1777.
This may be the same James Marr(s) who is recorded as serving during the 1780s out of Groton, according to documents transcribed in Samuel Abbott Green’s Groton During the Revolution. Volume 25 of the Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquity likewise lists James Marr in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company but doesn’t state a home town.

Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War puts James Marr of Groton in Capt. Sylvanus Smith’s company, Col. Timothy Bigelow’s regiment. He was 5'9" tall and turned 24 years old at the end of 1780, which would make him 18 when the war began. This Marr was even promoted to sergeant. But his name never appeared in the Groton vital records, and there’s no clue about where he settled after the war.
To be sure, the James Marr from Groton might not have been the former prisoner. (There was at least one other James Marr from Massachusetts serving in the Continental Army, a man from Scarborough and Limington, Maine.) But I suspect the James Marr who cooperated with the provincials in April 1775 did even more cooperating in the years that followed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

“Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition”

When the Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners of war in Concord in the spring of 1775, he reported that Pvt. John Bateman was “too ill to admit of my conversing with him.”

Bateman didn’t get any better. In 1835 local historian Lemuel Shattuck wrote that this wounded redcoat “died and was buried on the hill.” That was Concord’s elevated burying-ground, shown in the right foreground of the Amos Doolittle print of regulars searching the town.

In 1825 Elias Phinney’s History of the Battle of Lexington argued that the militiamen of Lexington were the first to shoot back at the redcoats. Two years later, the Rev. Ezra Ripley of Concord published A History of the Fight at Concord to refute that claim; five years later, Ripley brought out an expanded edition.

Both Phinney and Ripley gathered new testimony from veterans of the battle to support their case. Ripley also republished John Bateman’s deposition from 1775, which had said, “I testify, that I never heard any of the [Lexington] inhabitants so much as fire one gun on said troops.”

A few weeks back, I quoted some statements that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote into his diary after a visit from Thaddeus Blood, a long-lived veteran, on 5 Aug 1835. (Thanks to Joel Bohy for alerting me to this latter-day source.) After recording Blood’s recollection of Lt. Isaac Potter, Emerson wrote:
Bateman, he thinks, could not have made the deposition in Dr. R[ipley]’s History. A ball passed through his cap and he cried, “A miss is as good as a mile.” Immediately another ball struck his ear and passed out at the side of his mouth, knocking out two teeth. He lived about three weeks, and his wounds stunk intolerably. It was probably Carr’s or Starr’s deposition.
Evidently Bateman’s wound became infected, and he died in American custody. Don Hagist tells me the muster rolls of Bateman’s regiment, the 52nd, state he died on 21 April, but his deposition was dated 23 April and Gordon encountered him after that. He probably died in early May.

Was Blood correct in saying that Bateman was never well enough to give the testimony published over his name? Probably not. In addition to magistrates Dr. John Cuming and Duncan Ingraham on 23 April, four other people told Gordon that they “heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.” Those four reported witnesses were Bateman’s fellow prisoners in Concord.

I therefore think Bateman’s 23 April deposition was authentic, though he may well have been under the duress of being a prisoner and needing medical care.

TOMORROW: So who was “Carr” or “Starr”?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“The prisoners at Concord in free conversation”

The Rev. William Gordon visited British prisoners in the Concord jail and wrote about it in the form of a letter dated 17 May 1775.

Though from England, Gordon served a meeting in Roxbury and was a strong supporter of the Massachusetts cause. He happily accepted and spread stories that told the provincial side of how the shooting had started on 19 April.

Gordon wrote:
The simple truth, I take to be this, which I received from one of the prisoners at Concord in free conversation, one James Marr, a native of Aberdeen, in Scotland, of the Fourth Regiment, who was upon the advanced guard, consisting of six, besides a sergeant and corporal:

They were met by three men on horseback before they got to the meeting-house a good way; an officer bid them stop; to which it was answered, you had better turn back, for you shall not enter the Town; when the said three persons rode back again, and at some distance one of them offered to fire, but the piece flashed in the pan without going off. I asked Marr whether he could tell if the piece was designed at the soldiers, or to give an alarrm? He could not say which.

The said Marr further declared, that when they and the others were advanced, Major [John] Pitcairn said to the Lexington Company, (which, by the by, was the only one there,) stop, you rebels! and he supposed that the design was to take away their arms; but upon seeing the Regulars they dispersed, and a firing commenced, but who fired first he could not say.

The said Marr, together with Evan Davies of the Twenty-Third, George Cooper of the Twenty-Third, and William McDonald of the Thirty-Eighth, respectively assured me in each other’s presence, that being in the room where John Bateman, of the Fifty-Second, was, (he was in an adjoining room, too ill to admit of my conversing with him,) they heard the said Bateman say, that the Regulars fired first, and saw him go through the solemnity of confirming the same by an oath on the bible.

Samuel Lee, a private in the Eighteenth Regiment, Royal Irish, acquainted me, that it was the talk among the soldiers that Major Pitcairn fired his pistol, then drew his sword, and ordered them to fire…
Most of the prisoners Gordon spoke to were cooperative or even friendly to their captors. Pvts. Marr and Bateman had given depositions to local magistrates back on 23 April, as quoted here.

Pvt. Samuel Lee would end up marrying a local woman named Mary Piper in July 1776. Local tradition says she worked for the Concord physician Timothy Minot. The Lees settled in Concord and raised a family, supported by his skills as a master tailor.

George Cooper was likewise remembered for marrying a local woman, in his case “a woman who lived with Dr. [John] Cuming” as a servant.

That leaves only Pvts. Evan Davies and William McDonald. And they were still left in the Concord jail as of December, shown by another document from the Massachusetts archives that Joel Bohy shared with me.

TOMORROW: How was Pvt. Bateman “too ill to admit of my conversing with him”?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Dr. John Cuming, Justice of the Peace

The other Concord magistrate who collected depositions from captured British soldiers on 23 Apr 1775 was John Cuming according to one printed version and John Cummings according to another.

Dr. John Cuming (c. 1728-1788) was from a branch of an aristocratic Scottish family that had settled in Concord. His sisters Ame and Elizabeth Cumings were shopkeepers and “she-merchants” in Boston. They defied the non-importation boycott of 1769-1770, at one point publicly criticized as “enemies of the country.” The Cumings sisters would remain loyal to the Crown.

John Cuming, in contrast, established deep roots in Massachusetts. He became a Concord selectman, chairman of the committee of correspondence, colonel of the local militia, in 1776 a representative to the state legislature, and in 1779 a delegate to the convention to write a new state constitution. He owned slaves and lots of land. He left substantial bequests to Harvard College and the poor of Concord. Even today there’s a building at the local hospital named for him.

After the battle on 19 April, Cuming treated the wounded, including redcoats. According to Concord historian Lemuel Shattuck, based on an interview with Mary Barrett in 1831, “Eight of the wounded [prisoners] received medical attendance from Dr. Cuming, at the house then standing near Captain Stacy’s.” (I don’t know if that’s the same as the Cuming house shown above, but let’s assume.) Reportedly those men included Pvt. John Bateman, one of the redcoats who gave a deposition.

But Bateman doesn’t appear to have been Cuming’s patient yet on 23 April. That deposition was said to have been signed in Lincoln, not Concord. An invoice from Dr. Joseph Fiske that Joel Bohy found in the Massachusetts state archives shows that on 20 April he dressed two prisoners’ wounds in Lincoln, and one of those men was probably Bateman.

After Pvt. Bateman recovered somewhat, the provincial authorities moved him out to Concord to be held with other British men at the county jail. That’s when Dr. Cuming presumably took over caring for him.

TOMORROW: A visit to the jail.