The Tragic Case of Dr. Benjamin Church, M.D.

All modern clandestine organizations employ psychologists.  They do this as a measure of self-defense because it is often the psychologist who is most capable of ferreting out a traitor or identifying a candidate for the secret service who may later become a double agent.  It is all very confusing, you see.  We can argue that a traitor is one who betrays another’s trusted or is false to an obligation or duty — which means that a patriot is someone who loves and supports their country — but our definitions are always subjective, along with our accusations.  To whom did our colonial fathers owe their loyalty?  Is it wrong to become a traitor to traitors?

Actors call what they do for a living “an art form,” and it probably is.  Art form when combined with poetic license allows actors to manipulate their audience so that they, the actors, can achieve their desired result.  They can make us laugh, for example — or cry.  If the actors are telling us about an event that did happen, about actual history, then sometimes poetic license or elaboration completely changes the character, the setting, or even the event itself.

That’s what has happened to the telling of the story of Dr. Benjamin Church.  Entertainers (videographers) present him to us as an elderly man, set in his ways, grouchy and contemptible, a no-good traitor to the United States of America, and a thoroughly despicable individual who deserves no fond memory.

Poppycock.

In 1776, Ben Church was 42 years old.  The real Benjamin Church was one of the most knowledgeable, highly trained, and capable physicians in the Massachusetts colony.  He was also a refined writer — even poetry, which suggests that he had a certain way of looking at life.  Perhaps fanciful.  He loved to argue, especially in matters of politics, but he was jovial about it, not mean-spirited or vengeful.

Benjamin Church (1734 – 1778) was named after his father, a Boston merchant, and deacon.  The family descended from Richard Warren, a Mayflower passenger.  Benjamin attended the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1754.  He studied medicine under Dr. Joseph Pynchon, later continuing his medical training in London.  While in England, Benjamin married Hannah Hill of Ross, Herefordshire.  After returning to Boston, he established and maintained the reputation of a talented physician and a skillful surgeon.  During this early period, Dr. Benjamin Church performed cataract surgery and treated the eye ailments of John Adams.

As everyone knows today, the people living in the American colonies were citizens of Great Britain.  They were, for the most part, Englishmen.  What many people may not know is that Englishmen are a quarrelsome lot.  They will argue about anything and everything — and if there is one tradition among Englishmen, it is that they complain, gripe, and argue about politics more than anything else (after football).

Friction between the colonies and the motherland in England didn’t suddenly manifest itself in 1763; it had been going on since around ten minutes after the first Pilgrims arrived in the New World.  In fact, arguing is how the Pilgrims and Puritans ended up in North America, to begin with.

Life in the colonies was no walk in the park.  Farmers worked from sun to sun — the work of women was never done — s true statement for most of America’s human history.  Note: a New England farm laborer in 1775 earned 34 pence (symbol d) per day.  That would be 2.8 shillings (20 shillings to a pound).  With only pennies a day in income — taxes, no matter how little they were, would be difficult to pay.  For a perspective on this, if a colonist owed a tax of one British pound, £1 in 1775 = £179.55 today.

Taxation would be one thing that Englishmen would complain about — regularly.  Today, some scholars accuse Dr. Church as someone who outwardly supported the rebels but secretly supported the Tories.  It is a simplistic point of view because Church was one of those Englishmen who variously supported both the home country and colonial points of view — depending, of course, on the argument at the time.

Historians make an issue of the fact that Dr. Church examined the body of Crispus Attucks[1] and treated some of the wounded in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre (1770); a physician would have done that no matter what his political beliefs.

A note about the “massacre.”  Following the Townshend Acts, the so-called Sons of Liberty began a program designed to enrage colonists, urging them to commit violent acts against lawful authority.  In the absence of any meaningful community security forces, General Thomas Gage dispatched troops to occupy Boston town.[2]

On 5 March 1770, a gang of thugs descended on a lone British sentry (who was doing no more than standing guard in front of the customs house) and assaulted him.  The sentry called the corporal of the guard, who notified the guard officer, who led a relief force at the customs house.  The mob surrounded them, as well.  In their own defense, the soldiers fired their weapons killing five mobsters, and wounding six others.  The soldiers were defended in court by John Adams.

In 1773, Church delivered an oration at a gathering to remember “the massacre.”  In Dr. Church’s own words, it was a “commemoration of the bloody tragedy of the fifth of March 1770.”  It was bloody, and it was a tragedy, but of course, it was the Sons of Liberty (including Attucks) who precipitated the “massacre” to begin with.

In 1774, Church was elected as a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and later served on the Massachusetts Committee of Safety.  It was at this time that British General Thomas Gage began receiving detailed information about the activities of the Congress.  On 21 February 1775, Dr. Church, and Dr. Joseph Warren began a project to create a detailed inventory of medical supplies needed for a large army.  On 7 March, Congress approved £500 for the purchase of needed supplies.[3]

On 14 April 1775, General Sir Thomas Gage received instructions to act against rebellious colonists.  Gage had served as North America’s British Commander-in-Chief since 1763 and as Governor of Massachusetts since 1774.  On 8 May, the Provincial Congress directed that Dr. Church, Dr. Taylor, and Dr. Whiting serve as a committee to determine the proper distribution of medicines for hospitals.  As a member of the Committee of Safety, Church signed off on a report (dated 12 May) that recommended a system of defensive works on Prospect Hill and Bunker Hill.  Shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Bunker Hill, Church was observed conferring with General Gage in Boston.

In late May, Dr. Church traveled to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress about the defense of the Massachusetts colony.  On July 27, Congress authorized a Medical Department of the Army, along with a Director General and Chief Physician — and then appointed Dr. Church to serve as the director.  Meanwhile, on 2 July, General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the colonial forces; Dr. Church was one of the Massachusetts committee appointed to receive him.

Benjamin Church may have been a good doctor, but he was a lousy leader.  Regimental surgeons submitted numerous complaints about the man and Washington was compelled to order an investigation of the Continental Medical Service.  Dr. Church defended himself by claiming that his rivals were jealous of his position — but he asked to leave army service.

In the meantime, in July, Church had sent a cipher addressed to Major Cane, a British Officer in Boston through his former mistress.  The letter, intercepted by one of the woman’s former lovers, was forwarded to General Washington in September.  The deciphered letter revealed that the Church was providing information to the British about the disposition of land and naval forces.  In the letter, Church declared his loyalty to the Crown.

The matter was placed before a court of inquiry made up of flag-rank officers (Washington presiding), to whom Church admitted the authorship of the letter.  Church attempted to convince the court that the letter was written to impress the enemy with the strength of the colonial forces.  Dr. Church, as Surgeon General of the Army, was court-martialed on 4 October 1775.

The court, in not buying Church’s story, sent a letter to Congress for their final determination.  Washington’s report explained the circumstances of Church’s arrest, concluding — “Upon the first examination he readily acknowledged the letter and said that it was designed for his brother, etc.  The army and country are exceedingly irritated.”

Dr. Church was briefly incarcerated in a room of the Henry Vassall House in Cambridge, where his carved name can be seen today.  The Massachusetts Provisional Congress arraigned Church on 2 November and, despite his eloquent appeal in his own defense, the Congress expelled him.  When the matter was taken up by the Continental Congress, a resolution was passed as follows: “That Doctor Church be confined in some secure jail in the Colony of Connecticut without use of pen, ink, and paper, and that no person be allowed to converse with him except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate of the town or the sheriff of the county where he is confined, and in the English language, until further orders from this or a future Congress.”

Continental officials confined Dr. Church at Norwich.  When he became ill, he was released in January 1776 and permitted movement under guard.  In May, he was allowed to return to Massachusetts after posting a bond.  He remained in the state as a prisoner until 1778 and was named in the Massachusetts Banishment Act.  Ordered to leave the state, Dr. Church set sail from Boston for Martinique a short time later.

The vessel was never heard from again.

When modern historians finally obtained access to General Gage’s private papers, they discovered that Dr. Church was responsible for providing the British with significant intelligence about the Continental forces.  The papers included notations that had been entrusted to Dr. Church to carry into and out of Boston.  Until then, historians had a difficult time estimating the degree of Dr. Church’s guilt, but it became clear that Church was spying for the British since early 1775.  According to scholars, Church’s “treachery” had nothing to do with his loyalty to the Crown — it was because Church was deeply in debt and needed the money he received from General Gage.  In time, Church’s widow received a pension from the British government.

Sources:

  1. Archer, R.  The Boston Massacre.  Applewood Books, 2006. 
  2. Nagy, J. A.  Dr. Benjamin Church: Spy, A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution.  Westholm Publishing, 2013.
  3. French, A.  General Gage’s Informers.  University of Michigan Press, 1932.
  4. McCullough, D.  John Adams.  Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Crispus Attucks was a 47-year-old sailor, whaler, and stevedore of African/Native American descent.  Attucks was one of the mobsters threatening an armed sentry.  Some scholars claim that Attucks was the first individual killed in the American Revolution.  This is clearly not true.  That honor goes to Christopher Seider, age 11, killed on 22 February 1770.  The incident in which the boy was killed was instigated by the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams paid for the boy’s funeral.

[2] In those days, there were no municipal police departments.  There was only a “night watch” whose primary duty was to guard against or sound the alarm in case of fire.

[3] I received my commission on that very date, two hundred years later.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Military, Colonial America, History, Massachusetts, Massacres, Revolution, Spies & such. Bookmark the permalink.

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