The Circumstances of the Death of Dr. Joseph Warren

Joseph Warren, circa 1765, by John Singleton Copley (95.1366), courtesy of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

As noted in the previous post, Dr. Joseph Warren was one of the most important and influential Revolutionary War heroes, once more famous than George Washington, now largely forgotten given his untimely death in the American retreat from the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Ever since, historians have debated the contemporary stories of the death of Warren, whether he was shot in the face as he valiantly rallied some retreating Yankees to a final volley against the oncoming British, or whether he was shot in the back of the head as he ran from the field. At last we have the answer.

Following the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren was buried on the field of battle, which remained under the control of the British until their forced Evacuation of Boston, March 17, 1776.

It was on this date, 235 years ago, April 4, 1776, that Dr. Warren’s burial spot was discovered by two of his brothers, Ebenezer Warren and Dr. John Warren, along with Paul Revere. Though Paul Revere was known as a silversmith, his trade had its uses in dentistry as well. Joseph Warren’s unborn nephew would decades later specify that the body was recognized “from the circumstance that the left upper cuspidatus, or eye-tooth, had been secured in its place by a golden wire.“1 Whether the eye-tooth was the false tooth, or whether the false tooth was secured to it by the wire, is unclear. Revere’s use of dentistry to help identify Warren’s remains is oft cited as the first known use of dental forensics.

In the decades following, Warren’s body would be re-interred three more times. The final was on August 3, 1855, when the remains were moved to Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery, where his tomb remains today.2 Joseph Warren’s grandnephew, Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren, participated in this fourth and final burial. He wrote in his journal:3

The remains of General Joseph Warren were removed from St. Paul’s to Forest Hills on Aug. 3, 1855, when my father [Dr. John Collins Warren], Sullivan, William Appleton, and myself [Dr. John Mason Warren] put them into a stone or earthen urn, like those of John Warren, Mrs. Warren, and my mother. The place was quite moist where they were put, and the hole in the head of General Warren was becoming enlarged by the crumbling of the margin. I had a photograph made of it in three positions. — Journal, May 6, 1859.

Alas! Photography now existed, and Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren had the foresight to take such photographs. The whereabouts of those photos have sadly long been forgotten. Fortunately, Dr. Lester L. Luntz, D.D.S., in writing his 1973 dental forensics Handbook for Dental Identification, photographed those lost originals when they were still to be found at the Old South Meeting House (they are no longer there) and included them in his book. That dental handbook has long been unknown to most historians, and thus the debate on the particulars of Warren’s death continued. Dr. Luntz placed the copies he made, his “photos of photos”, in the Center for the History of Medicine, part of the Countway Library of Medicine (under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School), where they have remained forgotten—until now. Below, with kind permission of Dr. Luntz’s heir, they are published here, online, for the first time ever. (These photographs will also appear in my forthcoming book, 1775.)

1856 Photos of Dr. Joseph Warren’s Skull (revealing a shot entered from front and exited the back of skull). These copies courtesy of the family of Lester L. Luntz, D.D.S., refined by the author. Third generation skull photos taken of the lost originals by Dr. Luntz for his 1973 Handbook for Dental Identification, published by J. B. Lippincott Co, Philadelphia. The Luntz copies are now in Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine, Boston. Original daguerreotypes probably taken on May 6, 1856. Re-use of these images require permission!

The authenticity of the photos is evidenced by the metal wire placed by Revere, barely visible between the eye-tooth and the first pre-molar in the frontal view. It is upon examination of these copies that the particulars of Warren’s death become apparent. The photos reveal a musket-ball sized hole just between the left nostril and left eye on Warren’s left side. There is a much larger exit wound at the back of the skull’s base, just right of center when looking at it from behind. This exit wound must have been the one Dr. John Mason Warren described as “crumbling at the margin.” Due to the low muzzle velocity of the musket, as evidenced by their extremely limited range, one can deduce that in order for a ball to pass entirely through the skull, the fatal shot was fired from close range.4

With these long-lost photos, we now have visual proof to answer the particulars of the fatal shot. Dr. Joseph Warren was shot in the face, looking at his assailant, and given the exit wound, he undoubtedly died instantly. He made no final speeches. He was not shot in the back of the head while retreating. Whether he rallied a few steadfast Yanks to give a final volley into the oncoming British is unknown, but Dr. Warren certainly died facing the swarm of redcoats as they poured over the Breed’s Hill redoubt toward him.

Dr. Joseph Warren’s tomb at Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, taken April 2009, from the author’s private collection.

  1. John Collins Warren’s A Genealogy of Warren with some Historical Sketches (Boston: Printed by John Wilson and Son, 1854) 47.
  2. Richard Frothingham’s Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1865) 525 and Arnold 245 (for citation, see next note). I am indebted to J. L. Bell for leading me to the latter source.
  3. Howard Payson Arnold’s The Memoir of Jonathan Mason Warren, M.D. (Boston: 1886) 245 n. 1.
  4. Smoothbore muskets had a lethal range of only about 100 yards at best. Non-uniform, handmade balls, imprecision in the manufacture, etc, make determining actual muzzle velocities difficult. Thank you to Mr. Paul O’Shaughnessy for his private discussion with me on this matter.
 Derek
 Derek’s Book

About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.
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40 Responses to The Circumstances of the Death of Dr. Joseph Warren

  1. Pingback: Dr. Warren As You’ve Never Seen Him Before | Boston 1775

  2. Pingback: Long lost photos reveal Bunker Hill hero | Universal HUB

  3. That is absolutely amazing! Was he the guy who said “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”?

    http://bostoncab.org

  4. Chris Dowd says:

    Amazing detective work! Side note regarding the grave of Warren. Shouldn’t there be a New England flag on his grave as well? Warren fought under the red flag pine tree banner of New England pictured in Trumbull’s famous painting of the battle of Bunker Hill. There was no American flag at that point. Massachusetts was alone at Bunker Hill in 1775. I think the man should have the flag he fought for and died under on his grave as well.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for the comment. On the pine tree flag: perhaps it never existed: see the comments on my last post regarding Warren, where Mr. Peter Ansoff touches on this subject. I will ask Peter to add to the discussion a bit more here. He is the former president of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), and in case you are unfamiliar with the word Vexillological (as I was), it is the scholarly study of flags.

      As for the participants in the Battle of Bunker Hill: four colonies were represented. Of course most were men of Massachusetts, but there were quite a few from Connecticut (most under Israel Putnam, see the picture in the last post), and New Hampshire (men under John Stark). The Rhode Islanders were also just arriving, though their role was probably limited to the diversionary tactics from Roxbury against Boston Neck Gate.

      • Chris Dowd says:

        Interesting! I was dimly aware of some controversy over what flag flew at Bunker Hill. Is there an consensus among the experts of what flag was flown, if any, by the the New Englanders at Bunker Hill?

  5. Pingback: The Death and Reinterment of Dr. Joseph Warren | Rag Linen | Online Museum of Historic Newspapers

  6. Adam D says:

    It appears that the ball would have largely missed the cerebral cortex, but passed through the upper part of the brain stem and the cerebellum. I mention this because of the claim, noted in your previous post, that Warren said “I am a dead man, fight on.” The thought and speech centers were not damaged — it’s not impossible he said something like this.

  7. Pingback: The Death of Dr. Joseph Warren « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  8. Pingback: The Reinterrment of Joseph Warren | Vast Public Indifference

  9. Tay Nguyen says:

    That’s great historical detective work Derek!

  10. Pingback: Bunker Hill: A hero, his painter, and a mystery | The Boston Globe

  11. Pingback: Bunker Hill: A hero, his painter, and a mystery | Comments | The Boston Globe

  12. Mark Jacobson says:

    Fascinating detective work. Imagine how well [known] Joseph Warren would have become if he hadn’t been killed at Bunker Hill. Not unfathomable to believe he could have risen to the prominence of John Adams. One of purest patriots in our fight for independence.

  13. Larry M says:

    Absolutely fascinating! Congrats on your work, Derek and I will be looking forward to reading your book. Had he lived, Dr. Warren would have left quite an imprint on the forging of a new nation — yet, he did in a short time help prep the baby for future delivery.

  14. Bill says:

    Great stuff! I look forward to the book.

    From the photos I found it interesting that the entrance wound appears to have a diameter smaller than the standard 75 caliber ball a brown bess would have fired. This may suggest that he was shot by a smaller caliber ball from a pistol or officer’s fusil. Maybe someone who is familar with anatomical statistics can provide a range of possible wound diameters based on an assumed range of likely skull sizes.

    • Derek Beck says:

      On another site discussing my research, Robert S. Paul thought as you did on the size of the hole. Another respondent noted that we cannot be sure how big the hole is as we cannot be sure of the skull’s size. Mr. Paul replied again and added: “Yeah, on second look, it’s about right. A Brown Bess is .75 caliber, but the balls were typically slight[ly] smaller. So that’s 3/4″ roughly.”

      I have seen a supposed ball at the New England Historical and Geneaological Society that was purported to be the ball that slew Warren, and got to hold this ball in my gloved hand. As noted above, that ball was not the ball that killed him. But as a specimen, it was about the same size as the hole appears.

  15. Bill says:

    Hmmm, I’m not convinced regarding the ball being from a brown bess. Just for yucks, I measured the approximate distance between my cheek bones. I’m 47 and my head is probably slightly larger than average. The approx. distance between my cheek bones is 5″. If the distance between Dr. Warrens’ cheekbones is also 5″ then the hole diameter is 0.45.” Alterntively, if you assume the hole diameter is approximately 0.75″ that would result in the distance between his cheekbones having to be approximately 8.25,” which is truly an Andre the Giant sized noggin. We can’t be sure of the skull’s size, but unless there is a contemporary account of Dr. Warren having an unusually small or unusually large head, it is probably safe to assume it was of average size.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Interesting detective work. I had to try this myself, using careful measurements in photoshop using the ruler tool. I found similar results:

      On the picture:
      edge of eye socket to the other: 22.8mm
      vertical measure of entry hole: 2.2mm
      horizontal measure of entry hole: 2.6mm
      average diameter of entry hole: 2.4mm

      Thus, the average entry diameter to eye socket ratio: 2.4÷22.8 = 0.1053 or 10.53%

      My edge of eye socket to the other is about: 4.5inches = 114.3mm

      With the same ratio above, the hole on my skull would be: 114.3mm * 0.1053 = 12.0mm = 0.47inches, or in round terms, about half an inch, just as you found.

      So what do you think? The hole is clearly one that was artificially induced. Were pistols around the size of 0.5 inch caliber? (of which their balls would be slightly smaller)

  16. Peter Ansoff says:

    Humble apologies for taking almost a month to reply to the question about flags at Bunker Hill. This has been a topic of discussion among vexillologists for some time, and NAVA actually did a study of the question that was published in “Flag Bulletin” back in 1978. The consensus seems to be that the Americans did not fly any flags during the battle. None are mentioned in any first-hand account. At least one British account, purported to be written by 1st Lt John Clarke of the Royal Marines, states positively that “… both officers and soldiers wore their own clothes; nor did I see any colors to their regiments on the day of the action.” The origin of this account appears to be somewhat suspect, however.

    The red flag with the pine tree in the canton did exist in some form in the 17th century, but was obsolete after the union in 1707. However, both it and the mythical blue version continued to appear in flag books and flag sheets as the “New England Flag.” I suspect that Trumbull wanted to include a flag as a dramatic element in his painting, and used one of them as his source. Carington Bowles published a book with color illustrations called “Bowles’s universal display of the naval flags of all nations of the world” in London in 1783; maybe this was the one that Trumbull used as his reference.

    Of the four colonies whose troops were present at Bunker Hill, only Connecticut appears to have provided colors for its units. However, they had not been delivered yet at the time of the battle. The earliest example of a flag intended to represent the American forces as a whole appears to have been the pine tree flag with the “Appeal to Heaven” motto, which did not make its appearance until the Fall of 1775.

    Peter Ansoff

  17. George Warren says:

    Great work.….I will keep following your progress. My Grat– Great Grandfather James M. Warren was born in 1820.….Shelby, Kentucky.

    Not sure We are a downline of Joseph. My daughter has been working with Ancestry.Com We seem to have trouble finding James M. Warren’s father.

    I was born in Decatur,Illinois 1947. James M. Warren was a 2nd Lt.41st INF.and Mexican War. He lived in Decatur,IL after the war died in 1888.

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks, glad you found it useful! I’m going to someday soon, when I have the time to put a fine polish on it, put on this website some Warren family research. It is a bit esoteric, so it will not take the form of a blog post. But it might help you in your research.

    • Shelly Tupin Hagle says:

      I’m doing some family research and came across your name. I am a decedent of Dr.Joseph Warren and would like more information. Please contact me.

  18. Dena Olson says:

    We recently spent a week in Boston tracing ancestors (my mother is a Warren) so we started with the Mayflower and Richard Warren in 1620. Following the Freedom Trail, bumped into statue and legend of Dr. Joseph Warren at Bunker Hill. Therefore, we got interested in revolutionary war history and stories.…can’t wait for your book to be published after reading David McCullough’s ‘1776’. An interesting sideline is (our dad’s name is Larkin)Paul Revere rode a borrowed horse provided by Deacon Larkin from his father, Samuel Larkin. Previous geneology searches had located an ancestor in Massachusetts in 1730’s, but unable to determine if origination was from England or Ireland.…intriguing history, for sure. Thanks for sharing!!

    • Derek Beck says:

      Thanks for your interest! Yes, I am quite familiar with Deacon Larkin, and he has a few references in my book. Thanks for the well-wishes as I seek a publisher.

  19. Pingback: Dr. Joseph Warren’s Letter – Stolen but Now Found « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  20. Emily C says:

    Fascinating!! Just when one might think the trail is cold, new clues are discovered. Dr. Warren was an amazing man. It’s a tragedy that he died when he did.

  21. Janet Uhlar says:

    Hello Derek!
    Congratulations on finding pictures of Joseph Warren’s skull! Fantastic work! When I was doing my research on Warren, and first went to Forest Hills Cemetery, I asked those in the office if they could tell me whether or not his skull was buried with his remains. The woman went to the file and pulled out a card. After studying it for a moment, she looked up at me and said, ‘the family does not want that information revealed.’ I thought this a very strange response. Never followed up with it, as I wanted to respect the family’s wishes — but always wonder why this simple question could not be answered. If the skull is not there, I have my theory.
    Positive thoughts and wishes are being sent your way for publication and filming. (I have a screenplay on Joseph Warren. His is a story that must be told!)
    Keep up the excellent work, Derek.
    Janet Uhlar
    Author of:
    Liberty’s Martyr: The Story of Dr. Joseph Warren
    Freedom’s Cost: The Story of General Nathanael Greene

    • Derek Beck says:

      Hi Janet, thanks for your comment. I was unaware of your book, so thanks for sharing that. You might be aware of another Warren book coming out soon, by Sam Forman. My next blog posts will be a series about Warren and be a joint venture between myself and Sam, and through those posts, I will also note his forthcoming book.

  22. Pingback: Dr. John Warren’s Revolutionary War Kit for Sale « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  23. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Stories of his Death (Part 1 of 4) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  24. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Understanding the Old Photos (Part 2 of 4) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  25. Tracy Tebo says:

    Hi. I’m fascinated by Colonial history and greatly admire Dr. Joseph Warren. I’m working on a manuscript on him and the other Boston area patriots.I have questions about the family tomb. It’s bizarre.Ii’d expect to see something like that commemorating an ancient Israelite or an Himalayan explorer. Are the Warrens buried in traditional graves around the cairn or within the cairn itself? His nephew’s description of Dr. Warren’s final reburial made it sound like he was either cremated or had his skeletal remains dumped in an urn ( box?).It just seems like a sad final resting place for such a great man.

  26. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Understanding the Old Photos (Part 2 of 4) - Derek W. Beck

  27. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Stories of his Death (Part 1 of 4) - Derek W. Beck

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