Doctor Benjamin Church
American Revolutionary War Rebel Patriot and English Spy
Born in Massachusetts in about 1710, Dr. Benjamin Church became a physician, graduating from Harvard and then traveling to England to study medicine. Before returning to America, with an English bride, he also traveled through Europe. Once home in Boston, Church had a large extravagant summer home built for himself. Thereafter, while becoming a well respected citizen and one of the foremost physicians in Europe, Church became known for a lavish lifestyle filled with luxury and attendant expenditures of large sums of money. Dr. Church also became known for his Whig, or patriotic, writings in the 1760's and early 1770's. He was a friend to such patriot luminaries as John and Sam Adams and Dr. Joseph Warren. Later, he was among the leaders of the Boston Tea Party.
Elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Dr. Church partook in pre-rebellion patriot affairs including the making of war plans and the buying and secreting of arms, munitions and supplies. He was, however, also a spy in the service of the British General Gage, sending him ciphered messages containing Rebel secrets. The reasons for this apparent change of heart are not certain. He clearly was a man who needed funds to support his lifestyle, and indeed there were observances of times where he had monetary shortages and others where he had an excess of funds. He may, therefore, simply have sought to transform his position into capital gain. Or his English wife may have affected his political opinions. It is also likely that while being a friend to the idea of a more independent American Colonies, he balked at the thought of Treasonous armed conflict with the King and the motherland England. Whatever his motivation, sometime during the winter of 1775, Dr. Church began a correspondence with General Thomas Gage, the English General in charge of putting down the Rebellion before it began.
Dr. Church thus became one of the numerous spies which supplied the British with intelligence as to the whereabouts of Rebel munitions during Gage's search for these crucial arsenals in the opening months of 1775. This information together with local reconnaissance by British Officers disclosed Rebel caches in Worcester and Concord, setting the scene for the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the opening of the American Revolution.
One can only wonder what crossed Dr. Church's mind at the Battle at Lexington where he stood at the side of patriots who trusted him implicitly. Presumably he even attended to the American wounded after the Battle. He certainly attended to Rebel wounded thereafter and served as the patriot surgeon general. The Doctor even rode to meet General George Washington at Springfield when he arrived to take command of the Rebel Army. Washington soon came to have complete faith in Church. Yet Church continued throughout this period to send intelligence on Rebel affairs to Gage, apprising him of Rebel defenses as late as May 15, 1775. A great opportunity for such intelligence came in June of 1775, when Church was sent to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress.
Upon his return Church made three failed attempts to report to Gage what he had learned on his trip to Philadelphia. All failed in their direct attempts at crossing the front-lines, though Church's messages were not revealed. His fourth attempt in July, however, was intercepted and eventually reported in September to Washington. Stunned, Washington ordered Church's arrest.
When questioned by Washington, Church denied treason but the breaking of the letter's cipher on October 3, 1775 left no doubt as to his guilt. The letter detailed numerous Rebel secrets. Church was court-martialed and convicted.
Fortunately for Church, Congress had not yet authorized the hanging of spies. Church was therefore merely imprisoned. He served this sentence in solitary confinement without window, comfort or visitation. In January of 1776 Church wrote to Congress seeking leniency, stating that the severity of his treatment had caused him to suffer from asthma and threatened his life. He was moved to another jail as a result.
Church was greatly hated among patriots for his treachery. He was forced to jump from a window of his prison to save himself from a mob intent, no doubt, of giving him the hanging Congress had failed to legislate. He was quickly recaptured and returned to prison. His home, too, was raided and his property destroyed. His wife, without so much as a change of clothes or bed to sleep in, eventually was forced to sail home to England.
In 1780 Congress ordered Church exiled to the West Indies, not to enter America again upon pain of death. Presumably this was an attempt to be lenient and in response to his apparent ailments. Unfortunately the schooner which Church was put upon suffered some disaster at sea. The schooner, her crew, and Doctor Benjamin Church never reached their destination and were not heard from again.
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Sources: Spies of The Revolution, Katherine and John Bakeless, Scholastic Book Services, 1962, New York, NY; The Standard American Encyclopedia, Standard American Corporation, 1937, Chicago