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, April 28, 2010

The Near-Death and Death of Samuel Whittemore

Earlier this month at an event in Arlington, a nice lady suggested that Boston 1775 feature the story of Samuel Whittemore of Menotomy (now known as Arlington). Five years ago the Massachusetts legislature named Whittemore an official state hero; that bill was sponsored by a legislator from Arlington.

The earliest detailed source about Whittemore that I’ve found is his obituary in the Essex Journal on 13 Feb 1793; I believe most of the text came from Boston’s Columbian Centinel newspaper a week earlier:


At Menotomy, the 2d inst. [i.e., this month] Capt. SAMUEL WHITTEMORE, Æt. 99. The manly and moral virtues, in all the various relations of brother, husband, father and friend, were invariably exhibited in this gentleman. He was not more remarkable for his longevity, and his numerous descendants, (his progeny being 185; one of which is the fifth generation) than for his patriotism.——

When the British troops marched to Lexington, he was 81 years of age, and one of the first on the parade [i.e., for militia duty]; he was armed with a gun and horse pistol; after an animated exhortation to the collected militia, to the exercise of bravery and courage, he exclaimed; “If I can only be the instrument of killing one of my country's foes, I shall die in peace,”

The prayer of this venerable old man was heard—for on the return of the troops, he lay behind a stone wall, and discharging his gun, a soldier immediately fell; he then discharged his pistol, and killed another—at which instant, a ball struck his face, and shot away part of his cheek-bone; on which a number of the soldiers ran up to the wall, and gorged their malice on his wounded head: they were heard to exclaim, “We have killed the old rebel.”

About four hours after, he was found in a mangled situation; his head was covered with blood, from the wounds of the bayonet, which were six or eight; but providentially none penetrated so far as to destroy him; his hat and cloaths were shot through in many places, yet he survived to see the complete overthrow of his enemies, and his country enjoy all the blessings of peace and independence.
Lucius Paige reported in his 1877 History of Cambridge (which once included Menotomy) that Whittemore had been born on 27 July 1696. That means he was actually 78 years old in April 1775, and 96 when he died rather than 99. But sometimes very old people and their family lost track of their exact ages. (George R. T. Hewes is another example; his portrait was once labeled “The Centenarian,” but he died at age 98.)

Even if Whittemore was only a septuagenarian, his military actions on 19 Apr 1775 are impressive. Indeed, this death notice almost seems beyond belief—particularly that exclamation to his fellow militiamen. Yet it was printed well within the lifetime of many Revolutionary veterans, and reprinted often and as far away as Philadelphia (in the 29 February Gazette of the United States) with no apparent objections that it was inaccurate. So this account appears to be generally reliable.

But apparently Whittemore’s tale wasn’t quite impressive enough for the following decades because later authors enhanced the details.

TOMORROW: Samuel Whittemore and “memory creep.”

(Picture above from Arlington Historical Society.)

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