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, October 10, 2007

The Myth of Provost William Cunningham

Boston selectman Timothy Newell took note of events large and small in his journal entry for 10 Oct 1775, but they had one theme in common: complaints about the British authorities’ treatment of locals.

A negro man belonging to [blank] wheeling a barrow load of [blank] in the Streets, the Provost came up to him and caned him to a great degree. The negro conscious of his innocence asked him why he did so—he was told it was for wheeling his barrow at the side of the street and not in the middle.

General [Thomas] Gage sailed this day for London and left several thousand Inhabitants in town who are suffering the want of Bread and every necessary of life.
Newell may have left out the name of the person who was keeping that black man in slavery because he didn’t know it. I’m pretty sure he left the contents of the wheelbarrow unnamed because it was full of dung. The town had a lot of horses, after all.

The “Provost,” or Provost Martial, was a man named William Cunningham. He worked for the British military administration in occupied Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and made enemies among Americans wherever he went. Cunningham was in charge of prisoners of war, so it wasn’t hard for Continental sailors and soldiers to resent him. But several little episodes of unnecessary meanness like this one made him especially unpopular.

In early 1792 an article appeared in many American newspapers stating that Cunningham had been “executed in London, the 10th of August, 1791,” for financial crimes. The report then went on to quote the former Provost’s “life, confession, and last dying words,” a standard literary genre in those days of public executions. That document said Cunningham was born in Dublin in 1738, raised in a military family, and came to New York at the head of a shipload of Irish immigrants in 1774.

However, British historians later reported that there is no record of a William Cunningham being executed anywhere in Britain in 1791. The Old Bailey Proceedings of London criminal trials include no case against Cunningham. Revlist members Bart Reynolds and Bob Vogler found evidence that the man was still receiving a half-pay pension as a retired British army officer in 1792. A Philadelphian named John Binns reported meeting Cunningham in 1799 in Gloucester, England, where he was once again serving as a prison warden.

Furthermore, the New York historian Ferdinand S. Bartram wrote that Cunningham had been in New York well before 1770; he was part of the city’s Sons of Liberty movement, helping to buy land for the massive Liberty Pole. He broke from the Patriot movement by early 1775, when he got into a fight near that pole and was badly beaten. Then he left to join the British army administration in Boston.

In short, the “life, confession, and last dying words of captain William Cunningham” was a hoax, eagerly swallowed by resentful Americans but not credible in any detail. Even though its most basic statements can’t be confirmed, however, American authors have continued to rely on what that document said about Cunningham’s birth and background.

According to Binns, Cunningham had an American wife. A former prisoner remembered he had a brother who wasn’t so nasty. Contemporary British military records supplied by author Don Hagist say that he had at least one son, Capt. Ralph Cunningham, serving in the British army during the war. If anyone else has information to share about Provost Martial William Cunningham, I’d be delighted to hear it.

(It would be so much easier if William Cunningham were a less common name. The Provost Martial is not, for example, the Loyalist captain who became notorious in the southern theater of the war. Nor is he the Boston militia captain and painter.)


J. L. Bell said...

Damn. I just realized I could have titled this posting "William Cunningham and a barrow load of [blank]."

J. L. Bell said...

Here's a genealogy site listing the principal inhabitants of Gloucester in 1791, including “Governor of the County Prison and Penitentiary House, William CUNNINGHAM, Gent.”

J. L. Bell said...

More mystery: In 1836, the Gentleman’s Magazine ran a death notice for “Major Thomas Cunningham, for 45 years Governor of Gloucester gaol.” That would have put him in the job starting in 1791. Perhaps the magazine mixed Thomas up with his predecessor—and father?

Binns estimated that the prisoner governor he knew as a former Provost Martial was "about fifty years of age" around 1800. Thomas Cunningham would have been forty.

J. L. Bell said...

The online catalog of the National Archives of the U.K. mentions a “letter to William Cunningham, Keeper of County Gaol, Gloucester, denying that Caleb Evans, charged with manslaughter, is a Quaker, 1805.” I don’t know what that’s all about, but it looks like the Provost Martial survived until that date, and the Gentleman’s Magazine was wrong about Thomas Cunningham’s tenure.

J. L. Bell said...

And yet the same British government site mentions a “gaolers’ certificate, Thomas Cunningham, Gloucester,” dated 1793. Perhaps he was already working for the governor (his father?) there. Which would help to explain the Gentleman’s Magazine remark on his long tenure.

The British P.R.O. also offers (for £3.50) an image of the “Will of Thomas Cunningham, Lieutenant on the Half Pay of De Lancey's British American Rangers and Governor of His Majesty's Gaol of Gloucester, Gloucestershire.” Now there’s a lead! In fact, it leads right back to the American war.

Anonymous said...

Rachel Sayre, d/o Loyalist Rev. John Sayre, was the wife of Lt Thomas Cunningham, who at the organization of Delancey's Brigade in 1776 was Ensign in Company 4; his wife's uncle, Rev James Sayre, was the chaplain in Company 8.

In 1784, his wife petitioned for land with her widowed mother and 7 siblings in New Brunswick as "Rachel Cunningham,-wife to Lieut. Thomas Cunningham".

They soon left New Brunswick, for England, apparently.
Could this be your man?
Cordially, JR White

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, JR White. That data seems to fit all the details about Thomas Cunningham. If he was the son of William, then some of the later accounts of the Gloucester jailer may have mixed up the two.

Mike said...

I refer you to a copy of J.R.S. Whiting's "Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820". William was governor of Gloucester Castle Gaol from summer 1790 until early 1792, when he was replaced by his son, Thomas. William was demoted to turnkey because of his overfamiliarity with the prisoners!
His other son, Ralph, aslo worked in the same service.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that source! The son Ralph helps to confirm that this was the same William Cunningham.

wjrobin64 said...

I have the provost as married and living in Tullamore co.

I have the kew widows pension and other records to prove it. he did not get hung he married as an older man. He is burried in Tullamore co. kings in the church of ireland graveyard.

I have direct contact with a relative of him !!


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that news! Someone should put together the information on William Cunningham’s pre- and post-war career.

A.B. said...

Ralph Cunningham served as 2nd Lieut. in the Loyal Irish Volunteers during the British occupation of Boston. After the battle of New York he served as Capt-Lieut. with the 2nd Battalion of Delancey's Brigade and was stationed mostly at Kingsbridge, north of the city.
In early 17778 he served as Adjutant of the Royal American Reformees (a short lived effort by the British to entice Continental soldiers and militia to desert to the Crown) before being commissioned in late 1778 as a Lieut. in the British Legion just as the Southern Campaign began in earnest. Lieut. Ralph Cunningham was killed in action at Hanging Rock, South Carolina in August of 1780.
I am not aware of him ever attaining a Captaincy although he served as Captain-Lieutenant in Delancey's 2nd for most of 1777 and early 1778.
That's all I have. Good luck with your continued search!

kjmaclean said...

Provost William Cunningham is described in historian Kenneth Roberts' 1940 historical novel, Oliver Wiswell, the story of the Revolutionary War from the Loyalist perspective. He is described as cruel and incompetent.

pvtc said...

From the Nova Scotia Provincial Archives:

Nova Scotia Land Papers, 1765-1800
Cunningham, Thomas – 1784 – Annapolis County

Memorial on behalf of himself and two brothers. Thomas had been Deputy Provost Marshal at New York under his uncle Captain Cunningham, who before the evacuation had advised him to go to Annapolis, NS and supplied him with tools to improve the land. Due to an accident, he lost his clothes and tools in Annapolis Harbour. Earned living as a teacher.
Memorial for land at Wilmot or elsewhere. Granted 200 acres at Wilmot, NS.

Copy of original document online at:

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for sharing that link. Based on studies of prisons in Gloucestershire (cited in other postings about the Cunninghams), I’d operated on the idea that William Cunningham was Thomas’s father. This document from Canada suggests William was Thomas’s uncle.

Another possibility is that this Thomas Cunningham was first cousin to another Thomas Cunningham, son of William.