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, January 28, 2010

“The wrong coffin was delivered”?

The quotations I shared yesterday show how in the first decade of the 1800s people on both sides of the Atlantic understood that Dr. Amos Windship had sent the body of Maj. John Pitcairn from the basement of Christ Church in Boston’s North End to his family in London.

However, some folks in Boston suspected otherwise. Sometime between 1816 and 1827, Dr. Ephraim Eliot wrote the gossipy profile of Windship that I’ve been quoting from, and in it he said:

But the probability was that the bones were those of a Lieutenant of the Major’s battalion, who was much like the Major in size & shape. He died of an inflammation of the brain, this is probable from the circumstance of a large Blister plaster upon the head which was in this coffin, & was removed by a friend of the writer. . . . .

Now, I really do not think that he [Windship] had any idea that the wrong coffin was delivered to him, but am fully of opinion that the sexton imposed upon him, as he was as great a villain as ever went unhung.
Eliot’s manuscript wasn’t published until 1924, when it appeared in volume 25 of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts’s Transactions/Publications series. I’ve picked out only about half of its stories about Dr. Windship, so folks interested in the man should definitely read the rest. (And there may be still more to find out; here’s an article on his years in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which I don’t think Eliot mentioned.)

Despite remaining unpublished, the stories Eliot told about Windship circulated in Boston in the early nineteenth century. In 1848 Nathanial Dearborn published a version of the tale in Boston Notions:
when the body was taken from the vault, there was a blistering plaster on the top of its head which indicated that it could not be the body of the Major, and a certain gentleman removed the plaster, and the box was delivered into the hands of the Pitcairn family in London: a Lieut. Shea, belonging to the Major’s Regiment was a large portly man, very much the size and shape of Major Pitcairn, and he died of an inflammation of the brain, for which the aforesaid plaster was applied; but the sexton had often showed these remains to gratify the curiosity of individual friendship, as those of the Major; for the sexton was an unprincipled, low fellow.
There was a Lt. Richard Shea in the Marines’ first company in 1775. But he is listed among the British officers killed at Bunker Hill, always as dead rather than wounded or “wounded, since dead.” Gen. William Howe’s orderly book says that his and another officer’s effects were sold on 14 July. Does that match the story of a brain inflammation?

Samuel A. Drake repeated Dearborn’s tale in Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873), and Charles Hudson did the same in an 1880 paper on Pitcairn for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Hudson added the mistaken detail that the Pitcairn family had re-interred the corpse in Westminster Abbey, and that resurfaced in Edwin M. Bacon’s Historic Pilgrimages in New England (1898) and Rambles Around Old Boston (1914). All those accounts lay the blame on the sexton, though later authors characterized him as “perplexed” rather than duplicitous.

And then the Colonial Society published Eliot’s manuscript. It offers lots of other stories about Windship’s complete lack of reliability. Even when the doctor did his best, his plans had a tendency to collapse around him—and he didn’t always do his best.

So these days, writers suggest that Windship himself was primarily responsible for sending the wrong body to England, either by mistake or not caring if the corpse was actually Pitcairn’s. This Pitcairns website calls Windship “a notorious conman and crook,” and this one says he was a “thief, fraudster and attempted bigamist.” (I told you there was more gossip about him.)

I don’t think Dr. Windship deserves all the blame. There was a trail of lost information. The confusion started when a Christ Church sexton—probably Robert Newman—showed visitors the Marine officers’ corpses, not taking much trouble about who was who. Around 1789 Windship apparently fired Newman, so it’s possible that no one left at the church had direct knowledge of which bodies were laid where in 1775.

Then one of Eliot’s friends removed the only detail that distinguished the corpses of two big Marine officers: the “Blister plaster” that had come off one skull. Eliot didn’t specify when his friend took that bandage, or why. If the man did so before Windship and the new sexton went down to move the body, then they would have only a fifty-fifty chance of picking out Pitcairn.

Dearborn’s later account differs somewhat from Eliot’s. It says the “certain gentleman” took the plaster right off the skull, not from inside the coffin, and did so as the body was being packed to go to London. Those details would suggest that the men were definitely not moving Pitcairn’s corpse, and were hiding evidence of that fact. But the story might have improved by the time Dearborn recorded it.

In any event, Pitcairn’s widow, relations, and friends in London never heard anything about the whispers back in Boston. They could feel satisfied at having the remains of the man they loved back with his family. In gratitude, Mrs. Pitcairn gave Dr. Windship her late husband’s watch, and later a small seal engraved with the words “Je blesse en secret.” According to Eliot, Dr. Amos Windship “fancied it to be a motto taken from Virgil.”

(The photo above comes from Sara L. Brooks’s Flickr set under a Creative Commons license.)


John L. Smith said...

......but after all of the to and fro of documentation supporting the right and wrong body delivered back to England....what are YOUR feelings about the subject, Mr. Bell?

J. L. Bell said...

As to whether the remains of Maj. John Pitcairn moldered away on this continent or that? I don‘t know. I think the odds are about fifty-fifty, maybe a bit more likely that Windship unknowingly sent the wrong body to England.

As to whether it matters? The people who loved Pitcairn were happy, regardless of what actually happened. For the rest of us, the whole story’s a lesson in not fetishizing dead bodies as much as we sometimes do.

DAG said...

I agree with you Mr. Bell, dead is dead. People should remember with kindness people who passed through and touched their lives. We should remember the good in person and be short of memory on their less attractive traits.