The most dan­ger­ous spy in Amer­i­can his­tory

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture - By Joseph C. Goulden


o less an author­ity than the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion his­to­rian Thomas Flem­ing calls Dr. Ben­jamin Sa­muel Church Jr. “the least known and most dan­ger­ous spy in Amer­i­can his­tory.”

Surely he was in a po­si­tion to do grave harm to the fight for in­de­pen­dence from the Bri­tish. As John Nagy writes, Church was “one of the most ad­mired and re­spected pa­tri­ots in Mas­sachusetts,” on a par with John and Sa­muel Adams and John Hitch­cock. He served “on al­most ev­ery com­mit­tee of im­por­tance” and was the on-site po­lit­i­cal leader in the state.

In terms of po­si­tion, Church inar­guably was the most im­por­tant Amer­i­can spy ever, for his treach­ery could have led to the loss of the war that cre­ated the United States. By com­par­i­son, such spies as Al­ger Hiss of the State Depart­ment, Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI were mere spear-car­ri­ers.

So renowned was Church as a physi­cian that the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress, meet­ing in Philadel­phia in June 1775, ap­pointed him di­rec­tor of the first Amer­i­can army hospi­tal in Cam­bridge, Mass. The po­si­tion “gave him un­lim­ited ac­cess to Amer­i­can mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties and knowl­edge of the readi­ness of Amer­i­can forces.” Much of his value as a spy for the Bri­tish stemmed from this ap­point­ment.

At first blush, Church seemed the ar­che­typal Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Born into a po­lit­i­cally ac­tive Bos­ton fam­ily, Church stud­ied medicine at Har­vard and then in Lon­don, where he mar­ried a Bri­tish woman.

As a young man, he achieved some fame as a pro­lific writer of po­etry and satire while pur­su­ing a med­i­cal ca­reer. His most prom­i­nent pub­lic per­for­mance as a rebel came when he was cho­sen to deliver the ora­tion at a me­mo­rial ser­vice for vic­tims of the no­to­ri­ous Bos­ton Mas­sacre.

Church’s other ac­tiv­i­ties seemed sus­pi­cious, es­pe­cially his close as­so­ci­a­tion with two Loy­al­ists, a re­tired English cap­tain and a cus­toms com­mis­sioner. Church replied that he was try­ing to find their views on new taxes. Per­haps. Mr. Nagy sug­gests they could have been couri­ers for in­tel­li­gence re­ports to the Bri­tish.

The au­thor posits that Church turned traitor be­cause of money. He spent lav­ishly, build­ing an ex­pen­sive sum­mer home, then a house in “an up­scale sec­tion of Bos­ton filled with the el­e­gant homes of the rich.” He ap­pealed to the royal gover­nor, Thomas Hutchin­son, for money for a mar­itime hospi­tal.

Did funds change hands? Mr. Nagy quotes a let­ter writ­ten by Hutchin­son in Jan­uary 1772, “the Doc­tor Church … is now a writer on the side of Govern­ment.” Hutchin­son also in­di­cated that Church was paid for writ­ing anony­mous pa­pers for the govern­ment. He seemed to have a steady sup­ply of Bri­tish gold coin.

Mean­while, through Gen. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, the rebels came to sus­pect that the Bri­tish gover­nor gen­eral, Thomas Gage, was privy to se­crets from their camp, in­clud­ing near-ver­ba­tim re­ports of what was said at meet­ings of an in­tel­li­gence cell at the Green Tav­ern.

At the time, noth­ing pointed to Church, but pa­pers found years later in Gage’s files — most of them la­beled “in­tel­li­gence” — re­vealed the vast scope of Church’s spy­ing. In letters to Gage, Church re­peat­edly ex­pressed his loy­alty to the Crown, all the while pub­licly pos­tur­ing as an en­thu­si­as­tic rev­o­lu­tion­ary pa­triot. “May I never see the day when I shall not dare to call my­self a Bri­tish Amer­i­can,” he wrote in one let­ter to Gage.

Church’s down­fall came when he en­trusted a let­ter to his preg­nant mis­tress, Mary Wen­wood (a some­time pros­ti­tute, as well) for de­liv­ery to a Bri­tish of­fi­cer. Not the most in­tel­li­gent of women, Wen­wood un­wisely asked her for­mer hus­band to help her find the of­fi­cer. When he saw that the let­ter was writ­ten in ci­pher, he be­came alarmed, and in due course it was for­warded up the rebel chain of com­mand to Wash­ing­ton.

A cryp­tog­ra­pher quickly de­ci­phered the let­ter, which con­tained “in­tel­li­gence of a black and treach­er­ous na­ture,” de­tails on rebel re­cruit­ment and sup­plies (not­ing, for in­stance, that “twenty tons of pow­der … are now in camp”).

Wash­ing­ton brought Wen­wood in for ques­tion­ing. As he wrote to Congress, “For a long time she was proof against ev­ery threat and per­sua­sion to dis­cover the au­thor.” How­ever, af­ter four hours, dur­ing which “she was ter­ri­fied by the threats of se­vere pun­ish­ment … she was brought to con­fes­sion.” She named Church as the au­thor, and he was quickly ar­rested.

Brought be­fore a mil­i­tary coun­cil, Church ad­mit­ted writ­ing the let­ter, but he claimed he was in­no­cent, “that he was try­ing to im­press the en­emy of the size of the Amer­i­can army, when it was in great need of am­mu­ni­tion in or­der to pre­vent an at­tack.” He failed. The coun­cil voted unan­i­mously that Church “had car­ried on a crim­i­nal cor­re­spon­dence.”

The news of Church’s treach­ery stunned friends. John Adams scorned a man “who grossly vi­o­lates the prin­ci­ples of morals.” He and oth­ers feared the treach­ery could de­mor­al­ize the revo­lu­tion. James War­ren de­nounced Church for “hav­ing formed an in­fa­mous con­nec­tion, with an in­fa­mous hussy to the dis­grace of his own rep­u­ta­tion, and prob­a­ble ruin of his fam­ily.”

Be­cause of con­fused lan­guage in the ar­ti­cles of war con­cern­ing pun­ish­ment, Wash­ing­ton chose to let the Mas­sachusetts House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives de­cide what to do with Church. Once again, he pro­fessed in­no­cence. Once again, he was con­victed, in Novem­ber 1775. The House voted to hold him in close con­fine­ment in­def­i­nitely.

Af­ter pro­tracted ne­go­ti­a­tions, a deal was struck in 1778 to ex­change Church for Dr. James McHenry, a sur­geon held by the Bri­tish. In Fe­bru­ary, he boarded the sloop Wel­come for trans­port to Bri­tish cus­tody on the is­land now known as Mar­tinique. The ship van­ished at sea, and naught was heard of Church again.

His wife went to Eng­land, where she claimed a pen­sion on the grounds “that her hus­band was a spy.” The Crown granted her 150 pounds a year, later re­duced to 100 pounds.

Mr. Nagy, a pro­fes­sor at St. Fran­cis Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia, has pro­duced a valu­able source book on in­tel­li­gence dur­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion and a good read. Joseph C. Goulden is the au­thor of 18 non­fic­tion books.

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