This Day in History: The man who betrayed the Sons of Liberty

On this day in 1775, George Washington’s army gets a new Surgeon General. Unfortunately, that man would turn out to be a traitor. What a terrible blow! Dr. Benjamin Church had long been a trusted member of the Sons of Liberty.

When you think “traitor,” you probably think of Benedict Arnold. Well, it turns out that Dr. Church beat Arnold to the punch. Needless to say, Church’s treachery took everyone off guard. He was then a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and he had been entrusted with many responsibilities. But he’d also been spying for British General Thomas Gage for quite a while.

As early as 1774, information about the Sons of Liberty was being leaked to Gage. Church seems like the probable culprit. Moreover, in the weeks before Lexington and Concord, Church provided Gage with information about colonial plans and supplies. Yet still Church managed to keep the trust of Patriots.

Perhaps they should have focused more on how much his finances were improving during this time!

After Lexington and Concord, Church insisted upon going to Boston to obtain medical supplies. Paul Revere later learned that Church had been seen leaving Gage’s residence in Boston. Church claimed that he had been taken a prisoner and then released, but (at least as he told the story many years later) Revere was doubtful.

Church gained a new position as chief physician of the new Continental army at about this time. He was sent to Philadelphia and seems to have lost contact with Gage. Church attempted to re-establish contact. It proved to be a mistake.

Church wrote a letter in code and asked his mistress to deliver it to one of several people. Unfortunately for Church, his mistress did not follow the instructions she’d been given. She instead delivered the letter to a baker named Godfrey Wainwood (or Wenwood). Wainwood was suspicious and never delivered the letter. Several weeks later, the mistress wrote him about it. Wainwood became even more suspicious and he turned the letter in to local officials. The letter was decoded. Dr. Church’s mistress was questioned and revealed that Church was the author.

A court martial was held on October 4, 1775. Church claimed that he’d been trying to help the Patriot effort by “impress[ing] the Enemy with a strong Idea of our Strength & Situation in order to prevent an Attack at a Time when the Continental Army was in great Want of Ammunition.” The court of inquiry was unimpressed. It found that Church was guilty of “criminal Correspondence with the Enemy.” Washington wrote Congress the next day, seeking direction on what to do next.

Congress had not yet enacted the death penalty for spying. Instead, it resolved that “Dr. Church be close confined in some secure gaol in the colony of Connecticut, without the use of pen, ink, and paper, and that no person be allowed to converse with him. . . .”

Church’s health suffered in confinement. He was eventually paroled and set sail for the West Indies in the hopes that he could restore his health. That did not go so well for him, either. His ship was lost at sea and Church was never seen again.

Presumably, some people thought that his fate was justified.