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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.
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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

74 Responses to The Circumstances of the Death of Dr. Joseph Warren

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