On September 19, 1774, New England was in a state of alarm. British troops had, on September 1, seized a store of powder from a Boston powder house. Word spread that war had broken out. Militias from across New England streamed toward Boston in what was a false alarm that would look much like the response to the Battle of Lexington and Concord that would play out in just a few months' time.
The Boston Evening-Post published a notice. It purported to be a letter that had been tossed into a British camp, identifying 18 patriots that the British should summarily execute if and when war broke out.
Authorship of the letter has been a matter of considerable debate. Some historians suggest it was a piece of propaganda cooked up by Samuel Adams or the other Patriot pot-stirrers to inflame public opinion against the British and elevate the reputation of certain patriots.
Others suggest it was genuine, written by a loyalist who actually wanted the 18 men named in the letter killed. The notice read as follows:
The following is an authentic copy of a letter, which was lately thrown into the camp, with the following direction: 'To the officers and soldiers of his majesty's troops in Boston.
It being more than probable that the king's standard will soon be erected, from rebellion breaking out in this Province, it is proper that you, soldiers, should be acquainted with the authors thereof, and of all the misfortunes brought upon the Province. The following is a list of them, viz:
Dr. Thomas Young
Dr. Benjamin Church
Capt. John Bradford
Maj. Nathaniel Barber
The friends of your king and country, and of America, hope and expect from you, soldiers, the instant rebellion happens, you will put the above persons immediately to the sword, destroy their houses, and plunder their effects. It is just that they should be the first victims to the mischief they have brought upon us.
(Signed) A Friend To Great Britain And America.
(Take Note) Don't forget those trumpeters of sedition, the printers, Edes and Gill and Thomas.
18 Patriots Condemned to Death
So who were all those patriots? Many names are well known, others less so. It includes some actual rebels and others who weren't. The one thing they all have in common is that none of them were killed by British soldiers. They are:
Samuel Adams – If you had to blame just one person for the American Revolution you wouldn't go far wrong nominating Samuel Adams. Officially he positioned himself as seeking reform rather than independence, but his positions opposing British taxes and military occupation of Boston put him at the political edges of the Partriot cause. He frequently wrote (anonymously) and argued against British policy. And when tensions boiled over at the Battle of Lexington and Concord just a few months after the notice on the newspaper was published, Governor Gage issued a general offer of clemency for any man who would lay down his arms, except two: Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Adams died in 1803 after serving as Massachusetts' governor.
John Hancock – Despite years of wooing John Hancock, with hopes of drawing the wealthy merchant away from Samuel Adams, the British leadership failed to retain Hancock's loyalty. One of the richest men in America, Hancock represented Massachusetts in the Continental Congress and eventually supported the bid for independence. He would serve as an immensely popular governor of Massachusetts and ensure the Commonwealth ratified the US Constitution. He died in 1793 in Boston.
James Bowdoin – James Bowdoin was author of an inflammatory report about the Boston Massacre that infuriated British officials. He would go on to be Massachusetts' second governor, following John Hancock. His son would donate land that would become Bowdoin College in Maine. Bowdoin was unpopular as governor (his policies helped spark Shay's Rebellion), but his funeral in 1790 was widely attended. He died of disease.
William Cooper – William Cooper, brother to Samuel Cooper, confidant of John Hancock and town clerk of Boston for more than 40 years. Cooper was a frequent, anonymous author (along with John Adams) of pro-patriot news stories. He died in 1809 of natural causes.
Dr. Thomas Young – Thomas Young was John Adams' family physician after he relocated to Boston from Albany in 1766. He was a key organizer of the Boston Tea Party. He did not participate in the event, but rather gave a lecture on the evils of drinking tea on the night of the sabotage, probably as a diversion. A poet, writer, philosopher and violinist, Young died in 1777 of yellow fever, probably contracted at the continental hospital in Philadelphia where he worked treating soldiers.
Dr. Chauncey - Charles Chauncey, a leading minister in New England, he preached for 60 years at Boston's First Church. During the run-up to the American Revolution he was a firm believer in the patriot cause, trumpeting the political philosophy of the American Revolution in sermons and pamphlets. He was better known as a theologian than revolutionary and he died of natural causes in 1787.
Dr. Benjamin Church – Benjamin Church was an outspoken patriot supporter and physician who treated soldiers injured at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but after the battle he was found to have been a spy providing intelligence to the British about American forces – most likely because he desperately needed money. After a period of imprisonment, Church was allowed to leave America in 1778. The ship he left on disappeared.
Dr. Cooper – Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister at the Brattle Street Church in Boston, home parish to Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren and other patriot leaders. He died in 1783 of natural causes.
Capt. John Bradford – John Bradford was a protege of John Hancock. He was made continental agent and prize agent for the port of Boston during the revolution. In these roles he was responsible for equipping ships and troops. His job also required he see that ships captured by privateers were sold off and the proceeds divided up properly among the government and the privateers. Bradford earned a commission himself and Hancock was paid because the prize ships were brought to Hancock's wharf. About half the ships captured during the war passed through Boston, and there were a great many disputes over how they should be handled, leaving Bradford subject to a great deal of criticism. He died in 1784 of natural causes.
Thomas Cushing – Thomas Cushing was a long-time Massachusetts politician who rose to the rank of speaker of the house by 1775. He opposed British taxation, but initially opposed the declaration of independence. Even when it was clear he was in the minority Cushing tried to slow Massachusetts' declaring independence. He was probably lumped in with the instigators of revolution because his name appeared on official correspondence between Massachusetts and British officials. Despite his slowness to accept independence, Cushing remained active in politics as an important supporter of John Hancock. He died in 1788 while still serving as lieutenant governor.
Josiah Quincy – Josiah Quincy of Boston was a lawyer and frequently wrote anonymous articles for the Patriot cause. In 1774 he traveled to England to try to dissuade the government from war. He died of tuberculosis on a ship returning home, seven days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
Joseph Greenleaf – Joseph Greenleaf was a printer, publisher and writer who, for a time, published a magazine that promoted the patriot cause. A one-time justice of the peace, he assisted the Boston Committee of Correspondence in its work. He died in 1810 of natural causes.
Maj. Nathaniel Barber – An insurance broker who was militia master of Suffolk County and participant in the Boston Tea Party. Barber was a member of the political clubs that discussed the ideology behind the revolutionary cause. During the war Barber led a militia unit and oversaw Boston’s military supplies. He died at his home in 1787.
William Denning – William Denning stands out as the only patriot on the list without a direct connection to Massachusetts. Denning was a member of New York's Committee of 60 (that later grew to the Committee of 100), which enforced compliance with a trade embargo American rebels put in place in 1774 to protest Britain's punishment of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. When war broke out, Denning served a deputy to New York's patriot legislature, organizing war time finances. He would go on to serve in Congress before he died in 1808 at his Wall Street home in New York City.
William Mollineux – William Mollineux was a hardware merchant known as a man of action, eager to lead public protests and demonstrations against British colonial government. He was well known before the war as uncorruptable, zealous and an outspoken advocate for American liberty. But he died, of natural causes, in 1774 before the outbreak of war.
A final addendum to the list of men to be targeted marked Benjamin Edes anad John Gill, who published the pro-patriot newspaper the Boston Gazette and Isaiah Thomas, publisher of the radical Massachusetts Spy. All three died of natural causes, Gill first in 1785, Edes in 1803, and Thomas in 1831.