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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Monday, April 04, 2016

Remembering John A. Nagy

I was saddened to learn that author John A. Nagy had died on the first of this month.

John was an expert—really, the current expert—on Revolutionary War espionage. He had several books to his name, including Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution and Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution.

I never met John in person, but over the last several years we had a steady correspondence by email about spying during the siege of Boston. We exchanged sources and leads. Every couple of years I would receive a barrage of messages signed just “John” asking about various individuals in colonial Boston, and I knew he was working on a new manuscript.

In Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution, John presented contemporaneous documentation for the espionage activities of Lydia Darragh. I sent him congratulations because I’d been so skeptical about her legend, which arose in dramatic form a generation or two after the war. John vacuumed up all the stories and evidence about Revolutionary espionage he could find, and he spotted a period document pointing to Darragh’s family.

In his biography Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, John endorsed my conclusion about the identity of the doctor’s mistress. Convincing John Nagy gave me confidence in my interpretation of the evidence.

John was a stalwart of Philadelphia’s American Revolution Round Table, which he helped to found and run. Every year he asked me whether we had a similar group here in Massachusetts, and eventually Dr. Mel Bernstein started one up. I hoped that John and I would finally meet at a Round Table meeting this year, either in Middlesex County or in Philadelphia, but that won’t happen now.

There’s a new John A. Nagy book scheduled to come out this fall: George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster. It’s bound to be based on the most thorough assembly of evidence about the commander-in-chief’s intelligence and counterintelligence work.


Michael Newton said...

Looks like it could be a valuable addition to the literature on the subject. Can't wait for it to come out.

usdad said...

Dr. Nagy wrote about Benjamin Church. A new paper talks about the life of Dr. Church, spy and also eye surgeon. The paper also talks about a bunch of other really interesting eye surgeons, including one named Francis Mercier, who was accused of mass murder of American prisonsers, and who was also executed for an unrelated murder. The paper is here:

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you, Dr. Leffler.