Saturday, September 11, 2010

Henry Vassall House - Cambridge Massachusetts

Henry Vassall House

  The Henry Vassall House, on Brattle Street in Cambridge, MA may have some portions of it that date to as early as 1636, although the date usually accepted  today for its origin is 1746. In that year, John Vassall Sr., who had purchased it in 1737, sold the home and the seven acres of land surrounding it to his younger brother Henry Vassall. Whether Vassall added to an existing home or built an entirely new home is unclear. The Vassalls were a very prominent and very wealthy family, as well as slave owners.

    The Vassalls were Loyalists at the time of the Revolutionary War and the Vassall House is one of several homes belonging to Loyalists along the section of Brattle Street in Cambridge known as " Tory Row." These homes were either sold by their owners or seized during the Revolution. Henry Vassall had died in 1769 and in 1775 just after the outbreak of hostilities at Lexington and Concord, his widow, Penelope Royall Vassall, fled to Boston and then to her estates in the West Indies where her husband had been born. At the outbreak of hostilities, Mrs Vassall had been a widow for many years and her only child was a daughter.

   Just before sailing ,Mrs Vassall petitioned the Provincial Congress to be allowed to take with her some of her effects. Congress permitted her to take anything that she wanted except “provisions and her medicine chest.” The estate was not confiscated since it belonged to a widow who had taken no active part against the patriots.

  The Patriot Army, at the time, had only one other medicine chest besides the one in the Vassall House; and  all the regimental surgeons had to supply their needs rom these two chests. The fact that the medicines were here, and that there were twenty available rooms, besides halls and out-houses, may have been the reason that this house became the medical headquarters.

   So, after Penelope Vassall fled to Boston, her large, now empty, home with numerous rooms became the headquarters of the medical department of the army under the supervision of Dr Benjamin Church Jr. Here Church and his team of surgeons lived and treated the casualties from the Battle of Bunker Hill. It was probably in this house that Church penned the infamous ciphered letter that led to his downfall. It was in this house that Church was confined after his arrest and it was from this house that he was taken in a chaise (perhaps one owned by Penelope Vassall) and, to the music of a fife and drum and under the guard of a twenty man escort, taken to the place of his trial in Watertown.

   The Henry Vassall House is today in private ownership and has, in fact, been converted into two houses. There is a legend that Dr Church carved his initials into the slats of a windowpane in one of the rooms in this house and that these initials can still be seen there today. In a book entitled "The Cambridge of 1776" and published by the Ladies Centennial Committee in 1877, one of the authors writes: *

Here in this house, we are told by a contemporary letter, was he confined, and contributing evidence is found on the door of this room where I write: "B Church, Jr.," is still visible deeply cut in the wood, though for a century successive coats of paint have vainly tried to conceal or to  obliterate the name of the traitor.
   In "An Historic Guide to Cambridge," by Hannah Winthrop Chapter, 1907, is this statement:

          It is thought that he  [Dr Issac Foster of Charlestown] and Dr Church lived in this house [Henry Vassall House].
          To the patriot army in Cambridge and especially to his brother surgeons came a great blow    when it was discovered, October 3, 1775, that Surgeon General Benjamin Church, one of the medical staff quartered here and a trusted member of the Committee of Safety, was holding traitorous correspondence with the enemy in Boston. He was imprisoned in this house, where in a room on the second floor (middle window of the illustration) may still be read, cut with a penknife, "B. Church, Jr." From this house he was taken, October 27, in a chaise, to the music of a fife and drum playing "The Rogue's March," under escort of General Gates to Watertown where he was tried by the Provincial Congress..."

Illustration of Vassall House from 1907 Guide

Illustration from 1907 Guide

   I hope some day to see this carving.

 * One must be careful in relying on this book. It contains a diary of one Dorothy Dudley, of Cambridge, allegedly compiled contemporaneously with the events of 1775-1776. In actuality it was composed by one of the Cambridge Ladies to recount historical events. It was not intended to deceive but used as a vehicle to set forth the events of the day. In any event, there is no reason to believe that the information concerning the Vassall House or the carving of the initials is fraudulent. Any such misstatement would have been immediately caught by the residents of Cambridge.

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