Shortly before the American Revolution broke out, an item appeared in a Boston newspaper identifying 18 patriots condemned to death.
On Sept. 19, 1774, New England was in a state of alarm. On September 1, British troops had 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.
It was just a false alarm, but it looked much like the response to the Battles of Lexington and Concord that would play out in just a few months.
A Sam Adams Prank?
The Boston Evening-Post published a notice. It purported to be a letter tossed into a British camp, identifying 18 patriots condemned to death by the British government.
Since then, historians have debated authorship of the letter. Some suggest Sam Adams — or perhaps other patriot pot-stirrers — cooked it up. They think it was meant to inflame public opinion against the British and elevate the reputation of the patriots condemned.
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. They all have one thing in common: None was killed by the British. 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 opposition to British taxes and military occupation of Boston put him at the political edges of the patriot cause. He frequently wrote (anonymously) and argued against British policy. And when tensions boiled over at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Governor Gage issued a general offer of clemency for any man who would lay down his arms. But he made two exceptions: Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Adams died in 1803 after serving as Massachusetts’ governor.
John Hancock – Despite years of wooing John Hancock, 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 wrote 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, confidante 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. A key organizer of the Boston Tea Party, he did not participate in the event. Instead he 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. He probably contracted the disease at the Continental Army hospital in Philadelphia, where he treated 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 firmly believed in the patriot cause, trumpeting the political philosophy of the American Revolution in sermons and pamphlets. Better known as a theologian than a revolutionary, he died of natural causes in 1787.
Dr. Benjamin Church – Benjamin Church, an outspoken patriot supporter, treated soldiers injured at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Afterward, it turned out he provided intelligence to the British about American forces. He probably did it 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.
Writers, Soldiers, Politicians
Capt. John Bradford – John Bradford, a protege of John Hancock, served as Continental Army agent and prize agent for the port of Boston during the revolution. In these roles he had to equip ships and troops. He also had to 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. Hancock also made money because the privateers brought prize ships to Hancock’s wharf. About half the ships captured during the war passed through Boston, and a great many disputes broke out over how to handle them. As a result, Bradford was subject to a great deal of criticism. He died in 1784 of natural causes.
Thomas Cushing – Thomas Cushing, a long-time Massachusetts politician, rose to colonial Speaker of the House by 1775. He opposed British taxation, but initially opposed the Declaration of Independence. He was probably lumped in with the 18 patriots condemned 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.
Lawyer, Printer, Broker
Josiah Quincy – Josiah Quincy, a Boston lawyer, 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, a printer 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, he served as militia master of Suffolk County and participated in the Boston Tea Party. Barber belonged to 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.
One New Yorker
William Denning – William Denning stands out as the only one on the list of 18 condemned patriots without a direct connection to Massachusetts. Denning belonged to New York’s Committee of 60 (that later grew to the Committee of 100), which enforced compliance with a trade embargo. American rebels had put the embargo in place in 1774 to protest Britain’s punishment of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. When war broke out, Denning served as a deputy to New York’s patriot legislature, organizing wartime 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, a hardware merchant, made the list of 18 patriots condemned because of his eagerness to lead public protests against British colonial government. He had a reputation before the war as incorruptible, zealous and an outspoken advocate for American liberty. But he died, of natural causes, in 1774 before the outbreak of war.
And Don’t Forget…
A final addendum to the list of 18 patriots condemned to death targeted Benjamin Edes and John Gill, who published the pro-patriot newspaper the Boston Gazette. It also named Isaiah Thomas, publisher of the radical Massachusetts Spy. All three died of natural causes, Gill first in 1785, Edes in 1803 and then Thomas in 1831.
This story about the 18 patriots condemned to death was updated in 2021.