Monday, September 25, 2017

Updated Post

  I have updated yesterday's post to reflect additional information concerning Maj Cane and John Fleeming.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Who is Major Cane and Why was Church sending a letter to his Brother-in-Law through him?

   Why was Benjamin Church attempting to send a letter to his brother-in-law, John Fleeming, in Boston, through Newport via a Major Cane?  It would seem that the siege lines around Boston were not so tight that letters couldn't be passed back and forth without that much difficulty. And we know that they were. So why did Church choose this rather round about way of getting a letter to his brother-in-law? Because that's how Fleeming instructed him to do it. Here is Church's own account of how he came to write and send the letter while under interrogation in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress:

Sometime after my return from Philadelphia I was passing in my chaise towards Mistick , I met with a team conveying household furniture towards Cambridge,. In the team, seated on the bed was a woman with two children; the woman accosted me by name, asking me if I did not know her; her countenance was familiar to me;  I answered yes, and inquired when she left Boston, she informed me the day before, and told me she had a letter for me from Boston from my Brother; she took a small bundle out of her pocket, and, opening it, handed it to the carman, who delivered it to me; it was directed to me; upon breaking the seal I found it to be written in ciphers and signed J.F. I put it in my pocket and rode a few rods; curiosity induced me to turn back and repair to my lodgings, to decipher the letter, and acquaint myself with the contents. This is the letter...
Dear Doctor: I have often told you what the dreams of  your high flaming sons would come to; do you forget my repeated cautions not to make yourself too obnoxious to Government? What says the psalm-singer and Johnny Dupe to fighting British troops know? They are at Philadelphia, I suppose plotting more mischief where, I hear, your high mightiness has ben ambassador extraordinaire; take care of you nob, Mr. Doctor - remember your old friend, the orator; he will preach no more sedition[Dr Joseph Warren]. Ally [ Church's sister Alice] joins me in begging you to come to Boston. You may depend on it, Government is determined to crush this rebellion; a large re-enforcement of troops is hourly expected, when they are determined to penetrate the country; for God's sake, Doctor, come to town directly, I'll engage to procure your pardon; your sister is unhappy, under the apprehension of your being taken and hanged for a Rebel, which God grant may not be the case. You may rely on it, the Yankees will never be a match for the troops from Great Britain. The Yorkers have behaved like damned fools in robbing the King's stores, as Government had intended to grant them some executive privileges in trade had they continued loyal. It will now be a rendezvous for British troops. We know ell enough that you are divided; your people are discouraged; that you want discipline, artillery, ammunition; and Government has taken effectual care that you shall not be supplied by other Powers. I have wondered that we have not heard from you.; difference of politicks has not cancelled my friendship for you. Let me entreat you not to take up arms against your rightful King, as your friend Warren did, for which he has paid dearly. I cannot send your sulky and other matters you sent for; you may thank your own people for that, who first set the example, by preventing anything from being brought to town. I think you might have sent us some fresh pork now and then. You see Hancock and Adams are attained already. If you cannot pass the lines, you may come in Captain Wallace, via Rhode Island; and if you cannot come immediately, write me in this character, and direct your letter to Major Cane. on his Majesty's Service, and deliver it to Captain Wallace, and it will come safe. We have often head your people intend to attack the town. By God I believe that they had such a dose on Bunker's Hill as to cool their courage. Your sister has been for running away. Kitty [Church's niece] has been very sick We wished you to see her; she is now picking up.
          I remain your sincere friend and brother.
          P.S. Don't fail to write me soon. 

   John Fleeming, the husband of Church's sister Alice, a native Scot, was a very prominent Loyalist newspaper publisher and printer whose activities on the part of the Crown forced him to leave Boston, with his family, virtually penniless, in April 1773. He returned to Boston in 1774, probably May 1774, as some kind of civil official with the British Army. ( I have been unable to determine precisely what his job was.)

   Historians have traditionally identified Major Cane as Lt Col Maurice Cane of the 6th Regiment of Foot. But Maurice Cane, a Lt Colonel with a date of rank of May 1772, never got close to Boston. Major Cane is, in fact, Edward Cane, a captain in the 43rd Regiment of Foot, who was promoted to Major on July 12, 1775.

   Captain Cane was appointed to the post of Town Major for Boston in November 1774. In the British Army, a Town Major, usually a Captain's position, is an officer responsible for good order in an occupied city during military operations. Captain Cane was promoted to Major after his predecessor, Major Spendlove, died of the wounds he suffered during the second charge at Bunker Hill.

   I now suspect that John Fleeming was serving as an agent for one of the British Regiments, probably the 43rd. In the British Army system, a Regiment was really the property of its colonel and much of his income came from what he could derive from the running of his regiment, legitimately. However, the number of financial tasks, commercial transactions, finance, pay, etc. required the appointment of a civilian agent to handle these matters. The term for this individual was regimental agent. The agent was paid by the deduction of two pence in the pound from the pay of the entire regiment. This resulted in a tidy sum and often the Colonel of the Regiment would sell the position to the highest bidder. Professional Agent offices were established in London but representatives had to be dispatched with a Regiment when it was posted to an overseas detachment. It is possible that John Fleeming was serving as one of these agent's representatives. It would also help to explain why he wasn't on the list of civilians evacuated from Boston. He would have been considered part of a regiment. But I can't definitively establish that.

Since Fleeming apparently had some type of civil service position with the British Army, he may have been familiar with Major Cane, and he with him.

   I find it interesting that neither Fleeming nor Church established some type of relationship with the woman who brought him the letter and to funnel a reply through her back to Boston. But there could have been all kinds of reasons why that wasn't practicable.

 Just for the record. I believe Church's account as to how he received the letter from his brother-in-law.

  Church used the same cypher as his brother-in-law used which is not surprising. And it should not be surprising that people communicated in cypher in the mid 18th century. It was quite common.

  For the most comprehensive biography available on John  Fleeming see my three part biography of him:


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Dr Benjamin Church Jr's Mistress

   Since George Washington chose, for whatever reason, not to identify the woman who named Dr Church as the person for whom she attempted to smuggle a letter into Boston, historians have had no first hand, reliable information upon which to identify her. That her identity was well known to a number of individuals in Washington's Headquarters and the camps of the Continental Army besieging Boston is quite obvious. She was seen, obviously, as a quite minor character in the drama of Dr Church's alleged treachery. So then, other than curiosity, why is  her identity important? For one reason, there has been a widely held belief for over 240 years that Dr.  Benjamin Church, Jr "betrayed" the revolutionary effort in order to finance his relationship with his mistress, not to mention the purchase of an expensive mansion in southeastern Massachusetts. ( see my post dated August 10 2010 )

   The key to determining the identity of this woman lies with the "Mr. Wainwood" mentioned in Henry Ward's letter to Nathanael Greene. According to the letter, Wainwood was approached by a woman with whom he had been acquainted in Boston, and she asked him to perform what could be considered a treasonous act. Are we to believe that this woman approached Wainwood with such a task based on a casual acquaintance some years earlier in Boston? Or is there more to this relationship than Wainwood is admitting? If Wainwood was such a committed patriot, why did he do nothing upon being first approached by this acquaintance, but only acted after this woman persisted in her efforts. Indeed, he only acted after another party was witness to the affair.

  So, then who was this "Mr. Wainwood"?

   Godfrey Wenwood, as he styled himself in the 1770s , was a baker who emigrated to Newport, R.I. from London, in 1764, at the age of 25, describing himself as a "native of the Kingdom of Prussia." He became a naturalized citizen in the early 1770s. In January 1765, soon after arriving in Newport, Wenwood married a woman named Mary Butler. In September 1774, Wenwood obtained a divorce from Mary Butler stating that Mary "had absented herself from his Bed and board, committed adultery and cohabitated with other men." Mary had apparently fled to Boston after stripping her home of "sundry articles." Mary appears to have retuned to Newport several months later because her ex-husband posted this notice in the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in January 1775:

Wheras a certain pretended Lady, now known and called by the name of Mary Wenwood, formerly called Mary Butler, a Native of Marblehead, a very lusty Woman much pitted with the Small-Pox, who generally wears the best of Cloathing, did some time past, take, steal, and carry away from my Dwelling House in Newport, a Woman's red Broad cloth Coat and Head, a Muff an Tippet, a Silk Shirt, and sundry other articles, - I do hereby offer a Reward  of the said Sum of Twelve Dollars to any Person or Persons who will apprehend the said Mary and confine her in his Majesty's Goal in Newport, exclusive of all reasonable Charges, that he or they may be reasonably at in performing the same.

   Now that's a bitter divorce.

   But why then why should we identify Mary Wenwood nee Butler as the woman who was Dr Church's mistress?

   On 1 October 1775, James Warren, the President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, who Washington immediately notified of the Church letter, wrote John Adams as follows:

The history of the whole matter is this. The Doctor having formed an infamous connection, with an Infamous Hussey to the disgrace of his own reputation, and probable ruin of his family, wrote this letter last July, and sent it by her by Newport ... She not finding an opportunity very readily, trusted it with a friend of hers to perform the orders and came away and left it in his hands.

   Dr. Ezra Stiles ( see my August 10, 2010  post) of Newport, although not always reliable, was involved peripherally and gives some additional, conflicting details concerning Wenwood and the woman who brought him the Church letter, in his diary. Dr Stiles has the advantage of knowing Mr. Maxwell.  In a 2 October 1775 entry, he writes:

Some weeks since he [Church] sent a letter privately by a woman who brought it in her stocking on her leg, with orders to deliver it to either to Mr Dudley the Collector or & so as to go on board Captain Wallace & so thru his hands into Boston. She was a Girl of Pleasure, & one Wainwood a Baker in Newpt had known her in Boston, & they now fell into compt together in Newport. And she inquiring how she might get a letter on board Wallace, he offered to do it. She confided in him & told him who it came from. He afterwards suspected & opened it....Wainwood applied to Schoolmaster Maxwell to decipher it. He could not - but I remember some weeks ago Mr Maxwell  ask me whether I could decypher characters - & said he believed there could be some occasion for a decypherer  to detect an illicit correspondence in the Army. The Saturday before last [ September 23 ] I dined with Mr Maxwell & he spake more of the matter as a fact & advised me as to going to the Army with the man tha had the letter. I desired him first to let me have a line of it - he said he would persuade him to suffer it. Master & Wainwood went to the Army last week and opened the matter to Gen Greene with whom Master was intimate. Thus the matter came before Washington. The Girl was first arrested, she denied but at last own'd & disclosed the whole....

   In a further entry on this matter on October 23, 1775 Stiles, referring to a deciphered copy of Dr Church's letter writes that:
This letter was brought to Newport by Dr. Church's concubine & she delivered it in Confidence to Mr. Wainwood, her former Enamorato (sic) who promised to deliver it to Wallace on board the Rose.
   The letter that Church's mistress wrote to Wenwood remains in the archives:


   Dear Sir:
         I now sett down to right afeu Lines hoping they will find you in good helth as  they Leave me I expeted (?) you would have arote to me be for this But now Iexpet to sea you hear every Day I much wonder you never Sent wot you promest to send If you did I never reseve it so pray Lett me know By the first orpurtunuty wen you expet to be hear & at the Same time whether you ever sent me that & wether you ever get a answer from my sister I am a little unesey that you never rote that is aserten person hear wants to Sea you very much so pray com as swon as posebell if you righ Direct your Lettr to me Ewerd Harton* Living on Mr. Tapthonges farm in Little Cambrig [Brighton}
Why is it most likely that Mary Wenwood nee Butler was the woman who brought Dr. Church's letter to Wenwood? General Washington's October 5, 1775 letter to John Hancock describes his investigation and subsequent arrest of Dr. Church. The explanations Wenwood gave Washington of his interactions with this woman just don't ring true. Either Wenwood was shaving the truth or Washington was trying to save the man's sensibilities, or both. It just suffers credulity to believe that Wenwood would take this dangerous action for some casual acquaintance from Boston. His account of the discovery of the cypher letter also just doesn't ring true. The account given by Dr Stiles, the one he got from the Schoolteacher Maxwell certainly sounds more plausible. That Wenwood offered to help the woman once she informed him of the letter is more plausible than Wenwood's story to Ward and Washington. Not to over-psychoanalyze, but perhaps Wenwood still held some passion for his wife and saw his helping her as some way to get back together. I think Wenwood panicked when he saw the cypher letter and was desperately trying to find a means to extricate himself from the whole affair. Once Mr. Maxwell got involved there was no turning back. Perhaps Washington sensed this and as repayment for his information decided to save Wenwood.

   The final piece of evidence for me is the letter from the woman to Wenwood asking him why she hadn't heard from him. In it she mentions her sister. There is a level of familiarity that implies a close relationship. And there is little doubt in my mind that the woman writing the letter knew that Wenwood still held a passion for her and she was using that as an allurement to get him to cooperate. This woman had to survive and was undoubtedly playing any angle she could.

   I could well imagine that Dr. Church, desperate to get a letter to his brother-in-law, thwarted, by his own admission, at every turn, would have seized on the fact that Mary Wenwood was from Newport, an area with which he was very familiar and a logical place from which to smuggle a letter into Boston since the British still controlled the port and the ocean route to Boston. If Mary Wenwood informed him that her ex-husband still resided in the city and still yearned for her, Dr. Church would have seized the opportunity. Church certainly would not have used someone with whom he had no relationship and no measure of control.

  Of course, none of this can be proven unless some historical discovery occurs, but the sequence of events, the players involved, lead to the logical conclusion that Mary Wenwood was the woman employed by Church to get his letter to his brother-in-law.

   Finally, if one accepts that Mary Wenwood was indeed the woman attempting to smuggle the letter into Boston, then I have a hard time having her defined as Church's mistress. Undoubtedly there was a relationship, sexual and otherwise. But I don't think we should characterize the relationship in the "classic mistress" sense. Gossip about Church's womanizing goes as far back as the late 1760s. After Lexington/Concord, Church was cut off from Boston and it would be logical to assume that he had certain needs. Perhaps he met Mary Wenwood in Boston in late 1774 or early 1775 and continued a relationship in Cambridge. Or perhaps he met her there. We certainly would know if Church and Mary were cohabitating because we know where Church was residing. Could he have "kept" her? Possibly. But it appears that the woman who wrote the letter was living on a farm in Little Cambridge. Could that farm have been something other than a farm? Perhaps. Let us also not forget that Church was financially stressed since his income had ceased after Lexington/Concord.

   But can one really see Dr Benjamin Church, Jr. America's first great poet, classically trained, who could quote Virgil, in Latin, or Alexander Pope or a dozen other scholars off the top of his head besotted with the barely literate woman who wrote that letter to Wenwood? So yes, I agree that Church had a relationship, sexual and otherwise, with Mary Wenwood, but let's just not get carried away.

  Wenwood remained in Newport after this incident, married a 17 year old in 1776, and died in 1816 at the age of 77, leaving two daughters from this marriage.

   Mary Butler Wenwood disappears from the historical record although a Mary Wainwood of Rhode Island was in out of the alms house in Boston, dying in it in May 1797.