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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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Truth Comes Out about Dr. Benjamin Church

The disappearance of suspected double agent Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., at sea in 1776 left a lot of unanswered questions for his contemporaries. Massachusetts hadn’t been able to convict him of spying for the British authorities. The state therefore had no information about when Church might have begun collaborating, what information he gave up, and how else he might have undercut the Patriot cause.

In the same 1798 letter in which he described his famous midnight ride, Paul Revere wrote that he’d seen reasons to wonder about Dr. Church’s loyalty before the war. However, there’s no evidence the silversmith spoke up at the time, so the doctor’s actions probably appeared more suspicious in hindsight.

Based on the evidence available through the nineteenth century, people could still have a little doubt about Dr. Church’s cooperation with the Crown. The letter he was caught sending into Boston in mid-1775 could indeed be read as the doctor insisted he meant it: as a back-door attempt to convince the British authorities to back down. That possibility informs this article by Tara Dirst and Allan Kulikoff from Common-place on using the American Archives website to explore the case. (Unfortunately, the article’s links to that database no longer seem to function.)

However, in the early 1900s we got a new source of information. A wealthy American manufacturer named William L. Clements bought the papers of Gen. Thomas Gage, as well as those of several other prominent Revolutionary War figures, and donated them to the University of Michigan. Instantly the Clements Library made Ann Arbor one of the centers for Revolutionary research. The novelist and historian Allen French examined those files, and his book General Gage’s Informers offered, as its subtitle promised, “New Material upon Lexington and Concord, Benjamin Thompson as Loyalist, and the Treachery of Benjamin Church, Jr.”

Gen. Gage’s files turned out to contain:

  • A letter that Dr. John Homans, a young surgeon working for the provincial army, wrote to his mentor, Dr. Joseph Gardner, on 22 Apr 1775 and sent into Boston with Dr. Church. I wrote about this document in an article in New England Ancestors. It describes casualties and prisoners after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
  • A letter that Rachel Revere wrote to her husband, Paul, and gave to Dr. Church to take out of Boston. The University of Michigan offers an article about that document, as well as the image above.
  • An anonymous letter to Gen. Gage on 24 May saying that the writer had been ordered to go to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, just as we know Dr. Church ordered to go to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
In short, we know much more about Dr. Benjamin Church’s correspondence with Gen. Gage than was available to Revere, George Washington, or other Patriots. There’s no longer any reason to doubt that Dr. Church was collaborating with the British, and did so since shortly after the war began.

Indeed, Gage’s intelligence files also show that the general suddenly knew a lot more about decisions by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety right after Church became a member of that committee in early 1775. I think we can therefore push the doctor’s collaboration that far back. However, I’ve seen no strong evidence that Church worked for the British even earlier.

COMING UP: One more wrinkle about the Dr. Church case and the quest for liberty.


The Sagacious Dodger said...

This blog kicks major posterior!

Anonymous said...

Great job on Dr. Church, always wanted to learn more about him.

Where do you continue to find all this information?

J. L. Bell said...

With Dr. Church, almost all the spadework was done by Allen French back in the 1920s.

As for other things, I'm very lucky to have started research in a period of computers and computer networks. Just running a keyword search can bring up astonishing connections and sources.