Here to return to
VERY few old houses retain at the present time so large a share of the dignity and picturesqueness originally theirs, as does the homestead whose chief interest for us lies in the fact that it was the Revolutionary prison of Doctor Benjamin Church, the first-discovered traitor to the American cause. This house is on Brattle Street, at the corner of Hawthorn. Built about 1700, it came early into the possession of Jonathan Belcher, who afterward became Sir Jonathan, and from 1730 till 1741 was governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Colonel John Vassall the elder was the next owner of the house, acquiring it in 1736, and somewhat later conveying it, with its adjoining estate of seven acres, to his brother, Major Henry, an officer in the militia, who died under its roof in 1769.
Major Henry Vassall had married Penelope, sister of Isaac Royall, the proprietor of the beautiful place at Medford, but upon the beginning of hostilities, this sprightly widow abandoned her spacious home in such haste that she carried along with her, according to tradition, a young companion whom she had not time to restore to her friends! Such of her property as could be used by the colony forces was given in charge of Colonel Stark, while the rest was allowed to pass into Boston. The barns and roomy outbuildings were used for the storage of the colony forage.
It is highly probable that the Widow Vassall's house at once became the American hospital, and that it was the residence, as it was certainly the prison, of Doctor Benjamin Church. Church had been placed at the head of an army hospital for the accommodation of twenty thousand men, and till this time had seemed a brave and zealous compatriot of Warren and the other leading men of the time. Soon after his appointment, he was, however, detected in secret correspondence with Gage. He had entrusted to a woman of his acquaintance a letter written in cipher to be forwarded to the British commander. This letter was found upon the girl, she was taken to headquarters, and there the contents of the fatal message were deciphered and the defection of Doctor Church established, When questioned by Washington he appeared utterly confounded, and made no attempt to vindicate himself.
The letter itself did not contain any intelligence of importance, but the discovery that one, until then so high in the esteem of his countrymen, was engaged in a clandestine correspondence with the enemy was deemed sufficient evidence of guilt. Church was therefore arrested at once, and confined in a chamber looking upon Brattle Street. Some of his leisure, while here imprisoned, he employed in cutting on the door of a closet:
"B CHURCH, JR."
There the marks still remain, their significance having after a half century been interpreted by a lady of the house to whom they had long been familiar, but who had lacked any clue to their origin until, in the course of a private investigation, she determined beyond a doubt their relation to Church. The chamber has two windows in the north front, and two overlooking the area on the south.
Church's fall was the more terrible because from a height. He was a member of a very distinguished family, and he had been afforded in his youth all the best opportunities of the day. In 1754 he was graduated at Harvard, and after studying with Doctor Pvnchon rase to considerable eminence as a physician and particularly as a surgeon. Besides talents and genius of a sort, he was endowed with a rare poetic fancy, many of his verses being full of daintiness as well as of a very pretty wit. He was, however, somewhat extravagant in his habits, and about 1768 had built himself an elegant country house near Boston. It was to sustain this, it is believed, that he sold himself to the king's cause.
To all appearance, however, Church was up to the very hour of his detection one of the leading patriots of the time. He had been chosen to deliver the oration in the Old South Meeting-House on March 5, 1773, and he there pronounced a stirring discourse, which has still power to thrill the reader, upon the massacre the day celebrates, and the love of liberty which inspired the patriots' revolt on that memorable occasion. Yet two years earlier, as we have since discovered from a letter of Governor Hutchinson, he had been anonymously employing his venal pen in the service of the government!
In 1774, when he was a member of the Provincial Congress, he was first suspected of communication with Gage, and of receiving a reward for his treachery. Paul Revere has written concerning this: "In the fall of '74 and the winter of '75 I was one of upwards of thirty, chiefly mechanics, who formed themselves into a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British soldiers and gaining every intelligence of the Tories. We held our meetings at the Green Dragon Tavern. This committee were astonished to find all their secrets known to General Gage, although every time they met every member swore not to reveal any of their transactions except to Hancock, Adams, Warren, Otis, Church, and one or two others."
The traitor, of course, proved to be Doctor Church. One of his students who kept his books and knew of his money embarrassment first mistrusted him. Only treachery, he felt, could account for his master's sudden acquisition of some hundreds of new British guineas.
The doctor was called before a council of war consisting of all the major-generals and brigadiers of the army, beside the adjutant-general, Washington himself presiding. This tribunal decided that Church's acts had been criminal, but remanded him for the decision of the General Court, of which he was a member. He was taken in a chaise, escorted by General Gates and a guard of twenty men, to the music of fife and drum, to Watertown meeting-house, where the court sat. "The galleries," says an old writer, "were thronged with people of all ranks. The bar was placed in the middle of the broad aisle, and the doctor arraigned." His defence at the trial was very ingenious and able: – that the fatal letter was designed for his brother, but that since it was not sent he had communicated no intelligence; that there was nothing in the letter but notorious facts; that his exaggerations of the American force could only be designed to favour the cause of his country; and that his object was purely patriotic. He added, in a burst of sounding though unconvincing oratory: "The warmest bosom here does not flame with a brighter zeal for the security, happiness, and liberties of America than mine."
These eloquent professions did not avail him, however. He was adjudged guilty, and expelled from the House of Representatives of Massachusetts. By order of the General Congress, he was condemned to close confinement in Norwich jail in Connecticut, "and debarred from the use of pen, ink, and paper," but his health failing, he was allowed (in 1776) to leave the country. He sailed for the west Indies, – and the vessel that bore him was never afterward heard from.
Some people in Church's time, as well as our own, have been disposed to doubt the man's treachery, but Paul Revere was firmly convinced that the doctor was in the pay of General Gage. Revere's statement runs in part as follows:
"The same day I met Doctor Warren. He was president of the Committee of Safety. He engaged me as a messenger to do the out-of-doors business for that committee; which gave me an opportunity of being frequently with them. The Friday evening after, about sunset, I was sitting with some or near all that committee in their room, which was at Mr. Hastings's house in Cambridge. Doctor Church all at once started up. 'Doctor Warren,' said he, 'I am determined to go into Boston to-morrow.' (It set them all a-staring.) Doctor Warren replied, 'Are you serious, Doctor Church? They will hang you if they catch you in Boston.' He replied, 'I am serious, and am determined to go at all adventures.' After a considerable conversation, Doctor Warren said, 'If you are determined, let us make some business for you.' They agreed that he should go to get medicine for their and our wounded officers."
Naturally, Paul Revere, who was an ardent patriot as well as an exceedingly straightforward man, had little sympathy with Church's weakness, but to-day as one looks at the initials scratched by the prisoner on the door of his cell, one's heart expands with pity for the man, and one wonders long and long whether the vessel on which he sailed was really lost, or whether he escaped on it to foreign shores, there to expiate as best he could his sin against himself and his country.
Click the book image to continue to the next chapter