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, October 20, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren's Body: the photographs?

CSI: Colonial Boston comes to a close with my favorite question from last month, sent by Boston 1775 reader Brian Self. He asked what I knew about a photograph that Esther Forbes wrote was taken of Dr. Joseph Warren’s remains in 1855. Not much at all, in fact, but the beauty of email is that I had time to look things up before answering.

As I’ve been discussing, Warren was first buried by the British army on the Bunker Hill battlefield in Charlestown, in the same grave as a farmer. About a year later, Americans dug up those corpses. Warren was reburied with full Masonic honors in the Granary Burying Ground. In 1824 his brother’s family moved him again, to their vault under St. Paul’s cathedral. But that wasn’t the end of his body’s travels.

We now turn to Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, shown above courtesy of the University of Miami Medical School. (Curiously, his given names trace back to the uncle and employer of the first man to identify Dr. Warren’s corpse.) The Memoir of Jonathan Mason Warren, M.D., by Howard Payson Arnold (published privately in Boston in 1886), quotes this entry from its subject’s journal, dated 6 May 1859:

The remains of General Joseph Warren were removed from St. Paul’s to Forest Hills [Cemetery] on Aug. 3, 1855, when my father, Sullivan [the diarist’s brother], William Appleton, and myself put them into a stone or earthen urn, like those of John Warren, Mrs. Warren, and my mother.

The place was quite moist where they were put, and the hole in the head of General Warren was becoming enlarged by the crumbling of the margin. I had a photograph made of it in three positions.
So what’s happened to those photographs? Robert Shackleton’s The Book of Boston, published in 1916, said of Old South Meeting-House:
A few relics of Revolutionary days are shown in this building, and there are photographs, to suit the taste of such as care for such a thing, of the skull of General Warren, showing the fatal bullet-hole: an exhibition which perhaps might have been spared.
Those prints are no longer on display, but are they still in the Old South’s collection?

There are at least three prints of these photographs in the collection of the Harvard Medical School. They’re described this way:
  • “Profile of Joseph Warren’s skull, showing the bullet hole.”
  • “The back of Joseph Warren’s skull, showing the bullet hole.”
  • “The front of Joseph Warren’s skull.”
Those descriptions imply that there is no bullet hole in the front of the skull, confirming reports that Dr. Warren was shot in the back of the head as he left the redoubt atop Breed’s Hill. (Some later accounts said he was shot from the front, perhaps because Americans didn’t like the idea of a hero walking away from the fight, even when there had been an order to retreat.)


mleblanc said...

I can speak on behalf of Old South Meeting House on this topic as the skull controversy has long been a macabre interest of mine. In looking at our collections records, it appears Old South had more of a collage of images of Joseph Warren's skull, not the original prints. The images are apparently no longer in our collection and if they were still around in the 1970's, they were probably deaccessioned at that point.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the word from Old South!

J. L. Bell said...

It’s a couple of months later, and Brian Self has written back to say that Handbook for Dental Identification: Techniques in Forensic Dentistry by Dr. Lester L. and Phyllis Luntz (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1973) reproduces photos of Dr. Warren’s skull early in the book.

Unknown said...

Does anyone know the whereabouts of these photos, or the reproductions that were published?

Anonymous said...

I believe there are photos of Warren's skull at the Countway Library of Medicine/ Harvard Medical School. These may not be the original photos, but I believe they do have copies. The Warren Anatomical Museum located at the library is named for Joseph Warren's descendant, also a physician.

Anonymous said...

hello, I had a question about something I had read in wikipedia concerning the day that Dr. Joseph had died and the whereabouts of his 4 children. On 3 different ocassions, wikipedia said that the children were with Abigail Adams and had witnessed the battle from Penn's Hill with her. I am thinking this is wrong, as A.A. writes to John Adams, she never mentions the children when she does mention Dr. Warren and his death.
Does anyone know why wikipedia thinks his children were with AA?

J. L. Bell said...

The ways of Wikipedia are strange, but it’s clear that the Warren children were not with Abigail Adams during the Bunker Hill battle.

John Quincy Adams wrote about watching that battle with his mother from a Braintree hill, hearing that Dr. Warren had died there, and recalling how the doctor had treated one of his injuries; if Johnny had been with the Warren children at the time, he would certainly have said so.

According to John Cary’s biography of Warren, he had put his children in the care of a young woman named Mercy Scollay. Cary also suggests that Warren and Scollay would have married if he hadn’t been killed. Here’s a letter about the children’s education in 1777.

As for Wikipedia, its ways can be strange.

Danelle@gatcombe.com said...

I've long been an admirer of Dr. Joseph Warren, and have also pondered this question. But here's another one: What sort of "urn" were his remains interred in? When I think of an urn, I think of something fairly small-ish -- certainly not big enough to contain the many bones of a skeleton. So, how did the get the bones to fit into such a smallish vessel?

J. L. Bell said...

Urns come in different sizes, it appears. Adding a bit to the mystery here is that a Masonic source speaks of Warren’s “precious ashes” even though his relatives here describe bones decayed because of moisture. But I haven’t tried to visit the Warren tomb to find out!

Danelle@gatcombe.com said...

Thank you, J.L. Bell! I've visited Dr. Warren's grave in Forest Hills (and it was sadly neglected), but there's not much to be learned there.

Joseph Huegel said...

Hello all,

Dr/General Joseph Warren is my Great, Great, Great Grandfather.... And I will be making a trip to see his grave... I would like to know as much about him.. and his ancestors.. as I can, and am in the process of studying his history... Any info would be appreciated.. as far as research resources.. etc.. Thanks !
Joseph V. Huegel

J. L. Bell said...

John Cary’s biography Joseph Warren is a good starting-point if you can find it in a library. It sometimes attributes to the doctor what were group efforts, but it’s solidly researched.

Rhoda Truax’s The Doctor Warrens of Boston also looks at the doctor’s brother John and his descendants, who were very influential in Boston medicine.

Janet said...

I have been fascinated by Dr. Joseph Warren for a long time -- in fact wrote a work of biographical fiction on him entitled Liberty's Martyr. When I first visited Forest Hills Cemetery I inquired at the office if their records indicated Warren's skull was with the remains -- I did explain how the skull was reportedly on display in Boston at one time. A woman looked up the record of the grave and stated, 'the family does not want this information shared.' I was surprised! Perhaps she was joking -- perhaps not. Joseph Warren was very involved with Freemasonry, holding the title of 'Grand Master of North America'. It is said that one of the rituals in Freemasonry involves drinking wine from a skull. What better skull -- and Warren would certainly approve. Dr. Warren was also adamant about teaching anatomy to his students. Again, seems he would approve his skull being used in such a teaching environment. In the earliest editions of Esther Forbes' Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, there is a photo of 'Warren's skull'. A hole is clearly seen in the front cheek of the skull -- left side as I recall. A musket ball -- with cartridge paper still attached and a blood stain thereon is at the New England Geneological Society -- it has been there for well over a century and is documented to have been taken from Warren's body on Breed's Hill.

J. L. Bell said...

I discussed the musket ball reportedly taken from Dr. Warren’s body in a couple of postings starting here. Note also other stories of the Rev. William Montague.

I’m not sure whether Dr. Warren’s skull was ever on display, or just the photographs his medical descendants made of that skull.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

It is worth adding to this old post a link to the previously lost photographs referred to in the post: http://www.derekbeck.com/1775/info/circumstances-of-warrens-death/

Unknown said...

The children were with Mercy Scollay and all were confirmed to have been at the house by additional research since. The Adams and Warren family were more like one big family, as noted by Perez Morton during his eulogy for Dr. Warren at King's Chapel. Once the news that Warren had fell in battle reached the house, the children and Scollay then fled from the house for safety from the British.

J. L. Bell said...

This blog post appeared in 2007. Since then, two new biographies of Dr. Joseph Warren have been published—Sam Forman’s Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty and Christian Di Spigna's Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution's Lost Hero. Both unearthed a lot of new evidence about Warren and his household.

Anonymous said...

I live in the shadow of Bunker Hill all my 70 years and have always been proud of my Towns great History. OLD IRONSIDES also around the corner.. I just finished reading Christian Di Spignas "Founding Martyr" about Dr.Warren. Fabulous read about a true American Hero. I have seen frontal views of Warrens skull and see he was shot below his left eye which excited the rear. The Google search I saw determined that it was close range from a pistol. Dr. Warren was covering for the soldiers retreat from Breeds Hill and was not hiding or shot while retreating. His colorful garb worn with white britches and waistcoat made him a marked man as the British knew him well as the fervent, incendiary Patriot that he was. There are not to many American Heroes one could place above this man.His actions, writings and involvement in every battle or skirmish up until his death reveal his courage, calmness and orations as well as his belief that Liberty and Freedom are more important than life itself..