Posted by: Democratic Thinker | April 17, 2010

Benjamin Chruch—Traitor

Benjamin Chruch—Traitor (Three Accounts)

For some years, the Committee of Saftey in Boston had been aware that their innermost conversations were being reported to the British, but had no idea who the informant was. Finally a coded message from Doctor Benjamin Church was intercepted from a courier—a lady companion not his wife—who eventually identified him.

. . . at that period it was not rare, nor is it at the present accounted an extraordinary spectacle in the moral world, to see the enemies of freedom among its most noisy advocates, and exclusive pretenders to publick virtue pursuing, with undivided regard, their own private interest.


Chapter VI.
—Treason in the Camp.—Arrest of Dr. Church.—His Trial and Fate.—

ABOUT this time there was an occurrence, which caused great excitement in the armies. A woman, coming from the camp at Cambridge, applied to a Mr. Wainwood of Newport, Rhode Island, to aid her in gaining access to Captain Wallace, or Mr. Dudley, the collector. Wainwood, who was a patriot, drew from her the object of her errand. She was the bearer of a letter from some one in camp, directed to Major Kane in Boston; but which she was to deliver either to the captain or the collector. Suspecting something wrong, he prevailed upon her to leave it with him for delivery. After her departure he opened the letter. It was written in cipher, which he could not read. He took it to Mr. Henry Ward, secretary of the colony. The latter, apprehending it might contain treasonable information to the enemy, transmitted it to General Greene, who laid it before Washington.
A letter in cipher, to a person in Boston hostile to the cause, and to be delivered into the hands of Captain Wallace the nautical marauder!—there evidently was treason in the camp; but how was the traitor to be detected? The first step was to secure the woman, the bearer of the letter, who had returned to Cambridge. Tradition gives us a graphic scene connected with her arrest. Washington was in his chamber at head-quarters, when he beheld from his window, General Putnam approaching on horseback, with a stout woman en croupe behind him. He had pounced upon the culprit. The group presented by the old general and his prize, overpowered even Washington’s gravity. It was the only occasion throughout the whole campaign, on which he was known to laugh heartily. He had recovered his gravity by the time the delinquent was brought to the foot of the broad staircase in head-quarters, and assured her in a severe tone from the head of it, that, unless she confessed every thing before the next morning, a halter would be in readiness for her.
So far the tradition;—his own letter to the President of Congress states that, for a long time, the woman was proof against every threat and persuasion to discover the author, but at length named Dr. Benjamin Church. It seemed incredible. He had borne the character of a distinguished patriot; he was the author of various patriotic writings; a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives; one of the committee deputed to conduct Washington to the army, and at present he discharged the functions of surgeon-general and director of the hospitals. That such a man should be in traitorous correspondence with the enemy, was a thunderstroke. Orders were given to secure him and his papers. On his arrest he was extremely agitated, but acknowledged the letter, and said it would be found, when deciphered, to contain nothing criminal. His papers were searched, but nothing of a treasonable nature discovered. “It appeared, however, on inquiry,” says Washington, “that a confidant had been among the papers before my messenger arrived.”
The letter was deciphered. It gave a description of the army. The doctor made an awkward defence, protesting that he had given an exaggerated account of the American force, for the purpose of deterring the enemy from attacking the American lines in their present defenceless condition from the want of powder. His explanations were not satisfactory. The army and country were exceedingly irritated. In a council of war he was convicted of criminal correspondence; he was expelled from the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and the Continental Congress ultimately resolved that he should be confined in some secure jail in Connecticut, without the use of pen, ink, or paper; “and that no person be allowed to converse with him, except in the presence and hearing of a magistrate or the sheriff of the county.”
His sentence was afterwards mitigated on account of his health, and he was permitted to leave the country. He embarked for the West Indies, and is supposed to have perished at sea.

—Washington Irving, Life of Washington, Vol. II. (1860).


Chapter XXII.
British Spies.


§ 205. Benjamin Church, whose name occasionally appears in the following pages, was, according to Sabine, equally “distinguished as a scholar, physician, poet, and politician, and among the Whigs he stood as prominent and was as active and popular as either Warren, Hancock, or Samuel Adams. He graduated at Harvard University in 1754. About 1768 he built an elegant house at Rayuham, which, occasioned pecuniary embarrassments, and it has been conjectured that his difficulties from this source caused his defection to the Whig cause. However this may be, he was regarded as a traitor, having been suspected of communicating intelligence to Governor Gage and of receiving a reward in money therefor. His crime was subsequently proved, Washington presiding, when he was convicted of holding a criminal correspondence with the enemy. After his trial by a court-martial he was examined before the Provincial Congress, of which body he was a member, and though he made an ingenious and able defense was expelled. Allowed to leave the country, finally he embarked for the West Indies, and was never heard of afterwards. Sarah, his widow, died in England in 1788.”
As early as January 29, 1772, as we learn from a letter of Governor Hutchinson of that date, Church was paid for preparing anonymous papers for the government.
“The Congress ordered Church to the Massachusetts council to be let out, upon bail. It was represented to them that his health was in a dangerous way, and it was thought he would not now have it in his power to do any mischief. Nobody knows what to do with him. There is no law to try him upon, and no court to try him. I am afraid he deserves more punishment than he will ever meet.” (John Adams to Benj. Kent, June 22, 1776; 9 J. Adams’ Works, 402.)
As to Church see further, Tarbox, Putnam, 285; Wells’ Adams, i, 33, 211,458; ii, 51, 52, 250,278, 333, 334; 1 Washington’s Official Letters, 36; Appleton’s Cyclop. of Biography, title “Church.”
Church’s statement, “from my prison in Cambridge, November 1, 1775,” is in volume 49 of the Sparks Collection at Cambridge.

—Francis Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (1888).


The Monthly Anthology
Boston Review

Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the Year 1792. Vol. I. Boston. Apollo Press. 8 vo. pp. 288.

WE notice likewise “the account of the examination of Dr. Benjamin Church, written by himself, whilst he was in prison at Cambridge, November, 1775.” He was charged with holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy. The evidence of his guilt consisted in a letter, written in cyphers, containing a state of the army, stores, &c. He defends himself with ingenuity, and pretends that, in writing the letter, he assumed the character of a royalist, the more effectually to serve the common cause. He was at that period condemned as a traitor. Dr. Church was a flaming patriot at the commencement of the revolution. But at that period it was not rare, nor is it at the present accounted an extraordinary spectacle in the moral world, to see the enemies of freedom among its most noisy advocates, and exclusive pretenders to publick virtue pursuing, with undivided regard, their own private interest.