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Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Understanding the Old Photos (Part 2 of 4)

This post is part 2 (read part 1) of a 4-part series delving into the particulars of the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, which includes posts by guest contributor Dr. Sam Forman, author of the forthcoming biography Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty (pictured to the right), due out December 1. –Derek

I am happy to be a guest blogger, addressing the facts and legends of the foundational early Revolutionary period. Not only are its personalities and tales compelling, but these comprise the story and defining issues of our country, issues that resonate today.

In the course of writing the upcoming definitive biography Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty, I too encountered the old pictures of Joseph Warren’s skull. They are so macabre as to invite doubt of their validity. Derek Beck’s, J.L. Bell’s and my research, all approached from different directions, reveal that these relic pictures are exactly what they purport to be. So what kind of pictures were the originals, who took them, exactly when, and why?

Warren's Tomb at Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston

Warren’s Tomb at Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston

Standard histories state that Joseph Warren was buried four times: once into a hasty battlefield grave by the British, again in April 1776 in the Granary Burial Ground in the Minot family crypt, a third time in 1825 in the Warren family crypt at St. Paul’s Church in downtown Boston, and a fourth time in 1855 at Forest Hills Cemetery. Photography, introduced to the world in 1839, could only have been associated with the last of the re-interments.

Further, a photograph taken around 1855 would most likely have been a daguerreotype, taken in a photographic studio or under very bright natural lighting conditions. The firms of Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes, and that of John Adams Whipple and James Wallace Black, were the two dominant photographic studios in Boston in the 1850’s. Southworth and Hawes took the famous Ether Dome photographs of the first use of anesthesia during surgery in 1847. Joseph Warren’s influential and quirky medical professor nephew was associated with those ground-breaking medical photographs. John Collins Warren I (1778−1856) was the same person, according to his journals archived at the Massachusetts Historical Society, who had his uncle’s remains dis-interred on August 3, 1855. John Collins Warren’s son, Jonathan Mason Warren (Joseph Warren’s grandnephew), probably had the photos taken sometime prior to the final reburial of their ancestor’s remains at Forest Hills Cemetery on August 8, 1856.1

1856 Photos of Dr. Joseph Warren's Skull from Three Directions
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.3 Re-use of these images require permission!

Why would Warren’s physician descendants go out of their way to take pictures of the head of Joseph Warren? They did not write of their motivations, but we can make an educated guess. The Victorian era Warrens were proud of their Revolutionary War heritage. Additionally, phrenology, a quasi-science asserting that skull contours explained personality traits, was all the rage in both medical and pop culture circles. Given the medical proclivities of the family, it is understandable that the Harvard Medical School professors, father and son, would want to capture images of their illustrious ancestor’s skull on film. John Collins Warren I was an odd duck, who liked all kinds of specimens and body parts around his home, ostensibly as teaching specimens. Among them was a full skeleton of an Ice Age mastodon, the best specimen discovered anywhere up until that time (it is now on display as a prized exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.) Regardless of the motivations for their creation, the pictures of Warren’s skull were some of the earliest medically-oriented and human anatomic photographs made anywhere in the world.

The pictures we see today are copies from photos once exhibited as a poster at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, themselves copies of the original photographs. So what were those original photographs like? Can inferring their properties somehow help us understand Joseph Warren’s story?

Daguerreotypes were direct positive photographs on metal. Silver-halide-covered light-sensitive silver plates or silver-plated copper plates were loaded, one at a time, into a camera. The photographer then exposed them. Images were developed in a dark room by metallic mercury vapor. The remaining light sensitive material was washed off with sodium hyposulphate solution. Shutter speeds were typically several seconds long. Bright light was required. Only direct sunshine would do in the 1850’s. The resulting images are metallic silver on metal. They must be viewed at a favorable angle, otherwise they appear as mirrors.

Daguerreotypes had the advantage of producing much sharper images than the rival (and little used) Talbotype paper process, and were less bother and expense than oil painters’ portraits. A major problem daguerreotypes presented was that they could not be reproduced unless engraved into printing plates.

Photographs employing the wet collodion method, using glass plate negatives, while just a tad less cumbersome than  daguerreotypes, could reproduce many prints from one negative, and shortened exposure times down to under a second. Wet collodion photography was introduced by 1860 and quickly displaced daguerreotypy. Readers may be familiar with Matthew Brady and his photographs of grisly Civil War battlefields. Brady used wet plate collodion photography.

When Old South Meeting House museum staff copied the daguerreotypes of Warren’s skull in the late nineteenth century, they would have taken glass-plate negative photographs from the then-20-years-old daguerreotypes, returning the originals to the Warren family, and making a poster from their copies.2 This would have been a photograph of a photograph, a necessary compromise resulting in a second generation image losing some detail from the originals.

Unfortunately, even this second generation of the photographs, once at Old South, are now lost. Fortunately, Dr. Lester L. Luntz, a dentist and forensic scientist, made a third generation photograph from those once at Old South, which he published in his Handbook for Dental Identification (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1973). Dr. Luntz then kindly left quality prints (though not the negatives, presumed lost) at the Center for the History of Medicine, part of the Countway Library of Medicine under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School. These remain the best copy known to still exist.

All this sheds light on the story of the skull pictures and the methods used to produce them. But can we learn anything important from these photographs, aside from the obvious evidence of a fatal gunshot to the head? Derek Beck thinks that the bullet wound was made by a projectile smaller than that fired by a British infantry musket. Is that right? If it is true, what does it mean? Warren was killed by the British in battle, right?

Next Monday: Forensic reconstruction helps determine the particulars of Warren’s fatal shot.

  1. Interment Log, Forest Hills Cemetery Archive, Roxbury, MA; and John Collins Warren’s Journal (Aug 8, 1856; entry by Jonathan Mason Warren) v. 96, John Collins Warren MSS, MHS.
  2. A 1901 Boston Globe article documents that the original photos were back in Warren’s descendant hands by then: Corbett, A., “Real Sword of Bunker Hill.” Boston Daily Globe, June 16, 1901: “The Globe prints today the first picture ever made of the genuine sword of Bunker Hill — the weapon which belonged to the immortal Gen. Warren… through the kindness of the general’s great-grand nephew, Dr. John Collins Warren (II) of 58 Beacon St, who has the sword hanging above the mantel in his library… Dr. Warren has many other interesting relics… including a painting by Copley, a little psalm book… books from his library containing his book plate, etc. Bookplate states: ‘The Wicked Borroweth and Returneth Not’. Also in the collection are Dr. Joseph Warren’s account books and manuscripts of several of his famous orations delivered in the Old South or Faneuil Hall during the last years of his life. One of the most striking and interesting relics is a series of three photographs of Gen. Warren’s skull, taken 80 years after his death, showing it from different points of view, the big bullet hole in the back of the head, which was the cause of death, being particularly conspicuous.”
  3. 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.
  4. Arnold, Howard Payson, Memoir of Jonathan Mason Warren, MD, Boston: published privately, 1886. The book quotes a journal entry dated May 6, 1859: “The remains of General Joseph Warren were removed from St. Paul’s to Forest Hills [Cemetery] on Aug. 3, 1855, when my father, Sullivan (another of John Collins Warren I’s sons, a great nephew of Joseph Warren), William Appleton, and myself 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.” Note that this 1859 recollection was in error. Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren returned to Boston from overseas following his father’s death in April of 1856. John Collins Warren I had Joseph Warren’s skull removed from St. Paul’s Church in early August 1855, but it was his son Jonathan Mason Warren who probably arranged for the photos to be made sometime between April and early August 1856. Warren descendants and biographers of the late nineteenth century either glossed over or ‘forgot’ the bizarre one year’s residence of Joseph Warren’s skull outside of the grave. There is a slight chance that Jonathan Mason Warren had the three pictures made, while his father was still alive, between August 3, 1855, and August 29, 1855, before Dr. Jonathan Mason Warren departed Boston for Europe.
  5. Forman, Samuel A. “The Dynamic Interplay between Photochemistry and Photography.” Journal of Chemical Education 52, no. 10 (1975): 629–31.
  6. Lowry, Bates, and Isabel Lowry. “Simultaneous Developments: Documentary Photography and Painless Surgery.” In Young America — the Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, edited by Grant B. Romer and Brian Wallis. New York: I George Eastman House, International Center of Photography, GEH/ICP Alliance, 2005.
  7. Pierce, Sally. Whipple and Black: Commercial Photographers in Boston. Boston Athenaeum, distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1987
  8. Warren, John Collins. Mastodon Giganteus of North America. 2nd ed. Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1855.
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About Sam Forman

Dr. Sam Forman is a fellow historian that is especially interested in Dr. Joseph Warren.

8 Responses to Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Understanding the Old Photos (Part 2 of 4)

  1. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? The Forensic Analysis (Part 3 of 4) « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  2. Pingback: An Apple a Day Keeps Dr. Joseph Warren Away « "1775" – a forthcoming history book by Derek W. Beck

  3. DG says:

    Fascinating, but what of the rest of the skeleton? How could a full skeleton fit into a “stone or earthen urn?” Or was it just the skull that was re-buried in an urn at Forest Hills? Was the rest of the skeleton re-buried as well? For that matter, how big was the urn? When I think of an urn, it doesn’t seem big enough to hold a skull…

  4. Sam Forman says:

    Thank you for your interest and incisive questions. And apologies for not getting back sooner. I may be the modern biographer of Dr. Warren, but sadly my computer literacy is not something of the current century.
    Our source for the urns comes from the journals of Dr. John Collins Warren (I, 1778–1856, and Joseph Warren’s nephew), who bought it as one of four in 1855 in anticipation of the reburial; and his son Jonathan Mason Warren, who kept up the journal after his father died in April of 1856. Jonathan Mason Warren noted, and this is corroborated in the Forest Hills Cemetery interment log, that the reburial occurred in early August 1856. None of these sources note the size of the urn nor whether there were any contents other than Joseph Warren’s skull. The remains had been found and reburied earlier, in 1825, at the behest of the same John Collins Warren in a church crypt in downtown Boston from 1825–55. No surviving description of what they found in 1825 remains, except for the identification from the false teeth and description as everything fitting into a box (no dimensions listed). I am inclined to believe, what with careless moving of remains in the Old Granary Burial Ground in the early 19th century, that the skull was the only thing they could identify with confidence. I guess that the skull is the only thing in that urn, that the urn is bigger than what immediately comes to mind, and that we will only really know if the remains are ever again examined.
    The last point is not so macabre, as I make the case in the book that Joseph Warren should be reburied one last time back in Old Granary — where his friends, brothers, and the Province of Massachusetts originally intended, and made readily available to modern patriotic pilgrims visiting the Freedom Trail. If such a solemn return to Old Granary is made, your questions should be answered definitively in the process.

  5. DG says:

    Thank you, Dr. Forman, for your answer … it’s something I always wondered about, even when I made the trip some years back down to Forest Hills just to be able to see Dr. Warren’s grave. You had written:

    “The last point is not so macabre, as I make the case in the book that Joseph Warren should be reburied one last time back in Old Granary — where his friends, brothers, and the Province of Massachusetts originally intended, and made readily available to modern patriotic pilgrims visiting the Freedom Trail. If such a solemn return to Old Granary is made, your questions should be answered definitively in the process.”

    Given that this burial spot was described as being rather “damp” when the urn was interred, is it likely that there are even any remains left? (Speaking of macabre!) By the way, I agree with you … he should be at the Old Granary. (Do you think there’s a chance of that ever coming about?)

    I bought your book some months back and am greatly enjoying it — thank you for writing it … it’s about time that our good doctor got the recognition he deserves.

  6. Sam Forman says:

    DG, thank you for the kind words about the Warren biography. Joseph Warren also plays a significant part in Derek Beck’s ‘1775’ so we can all look forward to that as well. In this fractious election year, the true story of an outstanding patriot who envisioned a bright future for America, is an inspiring one for everyone. Get the word out about Joseph Warren!
    Back to the unfortunate doctor’s head: the damp state was noted by his descendants J.C.W. and J.M.W., who were surgeons and anatomists and knew something about specimen preservation. They treated the skull in some way they did not detail and (maybe) sealed it in the urn. How well did this preserve things for another 160 years? Again, we will only know if and when modern folks can take a closer look. I posted an interesting forensic reconstruction on YouTube — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdggCICMnkU&feature=channel&list=UL
    On the re-interment of Joseph Warren to the Old Granary, the biggest obstacle may be the fact that the ground is managed by the City of Boston, having closed it to new ‘entrants’ since about 1880. And in all fairness there is not much room to do anything and municipal budgets are squeezed in the economic downturn. Warren descendants, whom I have talked to, control the family plot at Forest Hills and might be amenable to a move. My general sense of politics is that this could happen if some civic minded Boston voters take up the cause, who in turn can get serious attention by municipal authorities. Key points here are that Old Granary, though an essential stop on the National Park Service’s Freedom Trail, is owned and managed by the City of Boston; and that the Warren family rather than Forest Hills Cemetery has purview over whose remains go into and out of their resting place there.

  7. Pingback: Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? The Forensic Analysis (Part 3 of 4) - Derek W. Beck

  8. Pingback: An Apple a Day Keeps Dr. Joseph Warren Away - Derek W. Beck

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