Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Curious Case of Dr Benjamin Church Jr's Elegant House and Extravagant and Disreputable Life

    Historians writing about Dr Church's "treason" have relied on various statements made at the end of 18th century and in the mid to late nineteenth century that the most significant factor driving Dr Church to furnish information to the British was his insatiable need for money to finance an elegant mansion he built in Raynham Massachusetts and where he, as one late nineteenth century historian put it in A History of New England, lived an "extravagant and locally disreputable life". As we shall see later, just how one lives such a life in a backwater like Raynham in the 1760s and 1770s is a good question.
   To my knowledge, however, no historian has done the research or examination of the records to determine if Dr Church did indeed build an extravagant mansion in that location and that it forced him into such a desperate need for cash that, some ten years later, he would sell out the patriots to the British.

   Let's trace the origin of these beliefs and see if we can establish that Dr Church did build an elegant mansion and that it drove him into financial diffculties.
  The Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the Year 1794, Vol III, contain a monograph titled , "A Topographical Description of Raynham in the County of Bristol, Feb 6, 1793 by the Rev Peres Fobes LLD." that gives a history of the town of Raynham, incorporated in 1731 on lands purchased from Massassoit. Dr Fobes, the third ordained minister in Raynham, relates that the town is bordered on the north by Nippaniquet Pond ( modern day Lake Nippenicket), a pond where "alewives in millions annually resort and leave their spawn." Dr Fobes goes on to relate that "allured by the pleasures of fishing and the beauty of the prospect , that curious political character, Dr Benjamin Church of Boston, came here and in the year 1768 built an elegant house upon one of the elevated sides of the pond."

Lake Nippenicket

    Dr Ezra Stiles, a legendary President of Yale from 1778 to 1795, graduated from Yale in 1746 with a degree in theology, and after practicing law for a few years, returned to the ministry and took a position, in 1755, as the pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport R. I. and remained in that position until 1771. Dr Stiles kept a literary diary, from January 1769 until his death in 1795, which was subsequently published in three volumes and is a valuable resource for his day to day writings on various aspects of colonial life and the events leading up to and culminating in the revolution. It also contains some valuable entries regarding Dr Church's arrest, trial, incarceration and fate. In an itinerary which is in his papers at Yale, but has never been published, Dr Stiles has the following entry for May 26, 1767 :

" Dr Church bot a home of 70 acres on Ninkytusset {?} Pond in Bridgewater L200. LM Hired a house large built for L200. Lm + Nippimidett {?}"

   Dr Stiles was certainly well acquainted with Dr Church but the degree of his personal relationship with him is uncertain. Residing in Newport, he would have been very aware of the prominence of the branch of the Church family started in Rhode Island when Church Jr's great-grandfather, the famous Col Benjamin Church of King Phillip's War fame married and moved from Plymouth Colony to Rhode island. ( Historians, I believe, have not appreciated the prominence and fame of this branch of the Church family in southern New England.) Dr Church was often in Rhode Island and specifically in Newport. His mother, in fact, lived for a time in Providence during the siege of Boston. So, it is certainly understandable for Church to have used Newport in an attempt to smuggle his ciphered letter to his brother-in-law in Boston. In April 1775, Stiles mentions that he read a letter from Dr Church that evening. Whether the letter was addressed to him or he was reading one sent to somebody else is unclear. There are also several entries in which Stiles discusses Church with friends who have a personal relationship with Church.
    On the two occasions in which Stiles mentions Church's "mistress", he refers to her as a "Woman of Pleasure" and "Dr Church's concubine. " It should be noted that the first x-rated English novel, more commonly known as "Fanny Hill" was published in 1748-1749 in England under the title " Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure." It's encouraging to realize that the minister was up to speed with his literary and moral references. One last little curiosity concerning Dr Stiles. While pastor in Newport , he developed a great interest in Hebrew, so much so that he became Yale's first Professor of Semitics and required all students to study Hebrew. Alas, he met with resistance from the student body and was forced in 1790 to make Hebrew study voluntary. The Second Congregational Church and Dr Stiles' home across the street still stand in Newport and are on the National Register of Historic Places. Dr Stiles' home is a private residence.

Dr Ezra Stiles

    Some contemporaries and later historians have concluded from these various references to Dr Church's "elegant home" and the fact that he apparently had been keeping a mistress, of one kind or another for some years, that he led a profligate lifestyle, was someone with a need for money, and it would be logical for him to sell his services to the British.
   Although Raynham and Bridgewater are adjacent to each other, they are located in different counties: Raynham in Bristol County and Bridgewater in Plymouth County. Bristol County records do not contain any records of a land purchase by Dr Church. The records of Plymouth County, however, do contain an entry for January 12, 1767, in which Jonathan Bozworth, Housewright of Plymouth County, sold Dr Benjamin Church approximately 60 acres of land with a dwelling house and other buildings in Bridgewater for 200 pounds (hard). A description of the land sold indicates that it was probably a farm with extensive undeveloped land since it was located northeast of Bozworth's homestead farm. In addition, Church received title to another 12 acres of land adjacent to the original sixty acres, a lot of Cedar Swamp lying on the west side of "Nippinichet Pond ", a lot in the Great Meadow of Bridgewater, and interests in several lots of Cedar Swamp located in Cutting Cove Cedar Swamp. (My title tracing skills were not sufficient to determine precisely where this farm was located and what is presently located on it.)
   There is no reason to believe that the dwelling mentioned in this land sale is the "elegant house" that Dr Fobes mentions. Bozworth lists his occupation as "housewright" so it is entirely possible that he could have contracted separately for another two hundred pounds to build Dr Church a new house. But, that is doubtful. Dr Fobes mentions in his history that there were six saw mills , three grist mills, one furnace, a forge, and a fulling in the early 1790's in this area and there was more pine standing in the settlement than upon its founding despite heavy activity for a number of years. He also mentions that there are three valuable tracts of cedar swamp. In another reference to the area's economy, Fobes mentions that the fish are so plentiful in the ponds in this area that a fishing license in Bridgewater sells for 250 pounds. As difficult as it is to believe, such an expense could only be borne for commercial purposes. This area was also a successful manufacturing area and is believed that small arms manufacture in New England, if not the colonies, began here. A 1764 census lists a population of 3,990 in Bridgewater. In a casual reference in one of the few remaining bits of Church's correspondence, he mentions stopping by the "farm." Bridgewater is equidistant between Boston and Newport and, given Church's association with both cities, would be a logical place to invest for a business venture.
   Although the sale is recorded in January 1767, it probably was executed in late 1766. 1766 was the year that the Stamp Act was repealed and there was a relative lull in the on-again off-again relationship between the colonists and the Crown.
   A review of the petitions Church's widow, Sarah, submitted to the crown to obtain her pension for losses suffered in the revolution, make no mention of this Bridgewater property although she submitted a claim for loss of a freehold dwelling house in Boston valued at 800 pounds. Nor does the petition by her son claim this farm. However, in an affidavit submitted by a Mr Sparhawk in support of Mrs Church's claim, Sparhawk states that Mrs Church lost " home and lands at Bridgewater."
   There still is the possibility that Dr Church could have acquired an elegant house in this area. Logically, there would be some reference to this in local histories, since an elegant house in this sparsely populated area (Raynham only had 1,000 people in 200 families in the 1790's), would certainly be noted and remembered, especially if it belonged at one time to the notorious Dr Church. Searches at the local historical societies and interviews with local historians and appropriate town officials failed to uncover any knowledge of any house, however elegant or inelegant, owned by Dr Church. There is, however, an "elegant house" located on the east side of Lake Nippenicket, on a rise perfectly situated to take advantage of the view and the lake; however, it was built in 1778. Could Dr Fobes have mistaken this home for the Church "elegant house'? 
   We'll never know, for as the more one delves into Dr Church's life, "curiouser and curiouser it gets."


1778 Bridgewater Home
The 1778 House is located at the north end of the drive on the east side of the Lake.
 It should also be noted that Church bought a home from an estate in Boston in April 1771 some five years after he purchased the Bridgewater farm. He was a neighbor of the merchant John Rowe, who played a significant role in the history of pre-revolutionary Boston.

John Rowe's Bedford (Pond) Street Home

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