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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Friday, October 19, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren's Body: the second identification

The first thing that British army officers did after identifying Dr. Joseph Warren among the corpses on Bunker Hill was to search his body. They discovered letters that had come out of Boston, and soon the men who wrote those letters were under arrest.

One officer noted that Warren had “died in his best cloaths: every body remembered his fine silk-fringed waistcoat.” (In 1780 this man’s letters were published in The Detail and Conduct of the American War, a critical analysis of the conflict by a soldier who had fought in it, of the sort that we’re seeing again now.)

Then it was time to bury the doctor’s corpse. Capt. Walter Sloane Laurie, who had been in command at the North Bridge in Concord, was in charge of the burial detail. On 23 June he wrote that he had “stuffed the scoundrell with another into one hole and there he and his seditious principles may remain.” The fact that Warren had been buried with one other provincial, a detail also recalled by some locals, became significant after the British army left Boston in March 1776 and the doctor’s survivors went looking for his corpse.

William H. Sumner (1780-1861; shown above, courtesy of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society) wrote his “Reminiscences relating to General Warren and Bunker Hill” in two stages: a letter to a newspaper in 1825 and a longer paper in 1857, published in the New England Historical & Genealogical Register for 1858. About the identification of Warren’s corpse in 1776 he wrote:

Gen. Warren’s body had mouldered in the grave for ten months, when it was disinterred. . . . After the evacuation of Boston, Warren’s friends were informed where he was buried. This was not as “Historian” [someone who had written to the Boston Patriot in July 1825, who Sumner thought was Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846)] says it was, “with the promiscuous slain, in the common trench of the dead;” though it was in the same grave with a person with a frock on. Warren’s body was found stripped of its covering, while the other was buried in its common habiliments.

Mr. [Jonathan] Clark,...as well as another soldier whose name I have forgotten, was here on the 17th, who assisted at the exhumation in the presence of the Doctor’s two brothers, who were satisfied of the identity of the body, by many circumstances which they detailed. If stronger evidence of its identity were wanting, that afforded by Col. [Paul] Revere, who set the artificial tooth, (which “Historian” says led to the “mere conjecture” that it was Warren’s body,) and who recollected the wire he used in fastening it in, would afford it.

One thing, however, is certain; that the skull was perforated by a musket ball in the upper part of the head, in such a place, as I am informed by professional gentlemen, would probably have produced sudden, though it might not instant death.
Revere’s identification of Dr. Warren’s corpse is said to be one of the first examples of forensic dentistry in American history. But Dr. John Jeffries claimed to have used the same clue of the false tooth in the same way ten months before.

TOMORROW: Dr. Warren’s corpse moves—but where are the photographs?

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