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, July 28, 2020

“Safe no where but in his house”

On the evening of Wednesday, 1 Mar 1775, Henry Barnes opened the door of his large house in Marlborough (shown above, even larger after nineteenth-century expansion).

Two strangers from England stepped inside. They apologized to Barnes “for taking the liberty to make use of his house” and revealed that they were British army officers in disguise–Capt. William Brown and Ens. Henry DeBerniere.

Barnes wasn’t surprised. His Patriot neighbors had actually expected these spies to arrive in Marlborough the previous day. Alerted by Timothy Bigelow of Worcester, “a party of liberty people” had gone to [Abraham] Williams‘s tavern to meet them. Marlborough “was very violent,” Barnes warned the officers, and they “could be safe no where but in his house.”

The merchant asked Brown and DeBerniere if they had spoken to anyone on their way into town. The officers mentioned telling a baker where they were headed. “A little startled,” Barnes explained that the baker “was a very mischievous fellow, and that there was a deserter at his house.”

Indeed, the three men soon determined that that deserter, Drummer John Swain, was from Capt. Brown’s own company in the 52nd Regiment. Swain had certainly recognized his officer and confirmed everyone’s suspicions that these visitors were military spies.

There was another knock at the door. Leaving the officers in an interior room, Barnes went to see who it was. A doctor—local historian Charles Hudson later guessed that this was Dr. Samuel Curtis (1747-1822)—had come for supper. Barnes knew that Dr. Curtis:
  • hadn’t been invited for supper that evening.
  • hadn’t visited the house for two years.
  • was a member of Marlborough’s committee of correspondence.
The merchant told the physician that because there was company he “could not have the pleasure of attending him that night.”

Dr. Curtis then turned to a child in the room. (Ens. DeBerniere believed this girl was Barnes’s daughter, but other sources say Henry and Christian Barnes had no surviving children but raised a couple of nieces.) The doctor asked the girl who Barnes “had got with him.” Presumably all the other adults in the house held their breath.

TOMORROW: Leaving Marlborough behind.


Don Carleton said...

Gage might have just as well have sent out the Thom(p)son twins from Tintin given the level of competence in undercover ops exhibited by DeBerniere and Brown!

J. L. Bell said...

Brown and DeBerniere made two trips out into the Massachusetts countryside looking for weapons—this one and another to Concord a few weeks later.

They were immediately recognized as British officers during their first stop in Watertown and then at other locations. They burned two Loyalists who offered them shelter—Henry Barnes and Daniel Bliss of Concord. (Their favorite innkeeper in Weston, Isaac Jones, simply waited out the start of the war and then started contracting for the Continentals.)

At the same time, Brown and DeBerniere did actually confirm the location of the cannon that their commander, Gen. Thomas Gage, was seeking. And they were able to lead troops to that place, James Barrett’s farm in Concord, on 19 April, though by that date the ordnance had been removed. So they did actually carry out their assignment.

Mike said...

It's as if they learned spycraft from Nathan Hale.

Don Carleton said...

Yeah, but they still seemed pretty inept at the "undercover" part of their business!