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Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Stories of his Death (Part 1 of 4)

This post begins a short 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. For a recap on the background on Dr. Joseph Warren, see the two previous posts on the subject: (1) and (2). –Derek

To begin our month-long series about Dr. Joseph Warren, let us examine the classic sources and contemporary reports of the death of Dr. Joseph Warren.

The (Death of Joseph Warren at the) Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775The [Death of Joseph Warren at the] Battle of Bunker’s Hill, 17 June, 1775, circa 1815–1831, by John Trumbull (1977.853), courtesy of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The first comes from the Tory Peter Oliver, the earliest written example I could find on Warren’s death:1

Many of your associates have already quitted the field of battle, to appear before that solemn tribunal where the plea of the united forces of all the colonies will be of no avail to bribe the judgment or avert the sentence of the offended Deity. Some of them, in the agonies of death, sent messages to their friends to forbear proceeding any further, for they now found themselves in the wrong; others have repeatedly said, that an ambition of appearing something considerable and that only, led them into rebellion; and the unhappy leader, in the fatal action at Charlestown, (who from ambition only, had raised himself from a bare legged milk boy to a major general of an army) although the fatal ball gave him not a moment for reflection, yet had said in his life time, that he was determined to mount over the heads of his coadjutors and get to the last round of the ladder or die in the attempt: Unhappy man! his fate arrested him in his career, and he can now tell whether pride and ambition are pillars strong enough to support the tottering fabric of rebellion.

By 1781, Oliver was more explicit in describing Warren’s end:2

… The british Troops by repeated Efforts made a Passage through the Fences, & were marching to the Redoubt; but in great Disorder. Mr. Howe, observing it, ordered a Retreat, he was obeyed. He soon formed them, & they marched on again in good Order; & immediately, upon one or two having mounted the Parapet, the Rebels fled from the Redoubt. Major General Warren, who commanded in the Redoubt, exerted himself to prevent their rushing out at the Passage, but all in vain. He was the last Man who quitted it; & while his Men were running off, he very slowly walked away; & at about 20 or 30 Yards distant from the Redoubts he dropped; a Bullet having entered the back Part of his Head, & gone through it so far as to occasion a Prominence on his Forehead.

From perhaps less biased, bona fide historians, we have the following later accounts of Warren’s last moments:

Everett’s Life of Joseph Warren states: “While his face was directed toward the works, a ball struck him on the forehead, and inflicted a wound which was instantly fatal.” 3

Swett’s The History of the Bunker Hill Battle states: “…the fatal ball had sped; eighty yards from the redoubt Warren received a musket ball through the head, which killed him instantly, securing to him immortal fame, and the eternal gratitude of his country.” 4

Frothingham’s History of the Siege of Boston states: “He had proceeded but a few rods, when a ball struck him in the forehead, and he fell to the ground.” 5

Frothingham’s Life and Times of Joseph Warren gives several variations. In one instance, the book states “He fell about sixty yards from the redoubt, being struck by a bullet in the back part of his head, on the right side. Having mechanically clapped his head to the wound, he dropped down dead.” But the very footnotes on that page explain that the author had heard many “confused accounts”, and chose this as the one most likely authentic.6 It should be noted that the likelihood of Warren clasping his head mechanically after a shot through the brain is completely unlikely. Additionally, few other sources reference the claim of Warren clasping his head.7

Another variation in Life and Times is a quote from one Samuel Lawrence: “I saw him when the ball struck him, and from that time until he expired.” This seems to suggest there was at least a moment of apparent life, but if so, it was involuntary movement of the body.8

A third variation in Life and Times is that his body was identified (after the British Evacuation) in part due to the “fatal bullet behind the left ear.” 9

These three contradictions all appear in the same book. Regardless of the inconsistency, Frothingham seems to be the first to attempt to specify the location of the shot to Warren’s head, and he bases it on the varied and “confused accounts”.10

However, it may be that the sentiment prevalent among historians in the 1800s (and even today), that history of the Revolutionary War had been too biased with pro-American heroism, and this swayed Frothingham. For, given his “confused accounts”, he seems to have been inclined to believe those of reporting the shot in the back of the head, a fate that is decidedly not heroic or romantic, as if assuming stories of the shot being from the front were biased with mythology.

Books of the 1900’s returned to a generic description of the location of the fatal shot, though a few only served to add to the confusion.11 Perhaps the most colorful (but ridiculous) claim is “Warren was struck behind the ear as he turned to call one last time to his countrymen. He flung his hand to the wound and fell without a sound.” 12

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.15 Re-use of these images require permission!

For what it’s worth, John Trumbull, in his 1786 painting The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, pictured above, depicts the good doctor with just a hint of red dripping from behind and on top of his head. His face is intact; his friends surround him, holding back the oncoming British and their bayonets.

But perhaps the most honest account is “The exact manner of his death cannot be known, as too many ‘witnesses’ reported too many different accounts of it, all of them, however, agreeing that he was killed late in the day, that he was among those who were covering the retreat.” 13

What is the truth? Where was Warren shot? In the rear of the head, in retreat? Or in the face, possibly seeing his killer? The proof came when the autopsy photos were taken in the mid 1800’s, when Joseph Warren’s body was again re-interred (the particulars of which are detailed in a previous blog post). The photos were long lost, but now rediscovered, and are shown below.14

The photos reveal a small entry wound below Warren’s left cheek, with a larger exit wound out the back, through the base of the skull. Strangely, to my measurement, it seems that the entry wound diameter is a bit less than the expected 0.75-inch diameter that would have been made had the musketball been one from the common British Brown Bess smoothbore musket, the standard weapon of the British soldier in 1775. 

But the picture is rotated, and there is no scale to draw from. Can we say anything with certainty, based on these old pictures?

Next Monday: Understanding the old photographs and their authenticity.

See the complete bibliography for these abbreviated references.

  1. Oliver, Peter. “An Address to the Soldiers of Massachusetts Bay Who Are Now in Arms against the Laws of Their Country” in Boston Weekly News-Letter, January 11, 1776.
  2. Oliver, Peter. Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View. (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1961) p. 126.
  3. Everett 186 (1902 ed., p. 176 of 1856 ed.).
  4. Swett 43.
  5. Frothingham’s Siege 170–71.
  6. Frothingham’s Life and Times 517.
  7. Ibid. 517–22.
  8. Ibid. 519.
  9. Ibid. 524.
  10. It is interesting to note the reversal here from the Frothingham’s very work just 14 years prior (History of the Siege of Boston). In Life and Times he states the back of the head, though on one page saying it is the back right, on the other saying back left. But in his earlier Siege he says the shot was to the forehead.
  11. For two generic responses, see Cary 221 and Ketchum 177. Interestingly, French’s Siege 283 states “After he had gone a little way in the open field he was shot in the head, and died instantly.” While French essentially used this book to update Frothingham’s Siege, which thus served as French’s primary material for his book, yet even still, French did not adopt Frothingham’s placement of the gunshot wound. In French’s First Year of the American Revolution 250, he does not describe how Warren died. However, he gives indication that the rebels tried in vain to recover the body despite the onslaught of British bayonets.
  12. Fleming 298.
  13. Truax 62.
  14. Esther Forbes is the only author I am aware of to have referenced the photos in making an assessment on the fatal shot. Forbes’s Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (First Mariner Books ed., 1999; orig. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1942) 477 note 36 states: “In 1855 it [Warren’s body] was moved again out to Forest Hills. At that time a photograph was taken. The two teeth Paul Revere wired for his friend seem to have been carved out of one piece of ivory and have outlasted most of the natural teeth. The bullet which killed Warren entered a few inches above them and came out the back of the skull. He made no dying speeches.” However, this little note, tucked in way in the back of Forbes’s book, was left unread or forgotten by most historians.
  15. 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.
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About Derek W. Beck

I write stuff. I film stuff too.

9 Responses to Who Killed Dr. Joseph Warren? Stories of his Death (Part 1 of 4)

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  7. John Murphy. says:

    Great detective work Derek Beck. Based on the bullet trajectory was he shot by someone higher than him; was he kneeling down; or was the bullet deflected by tissue mass ?
    Just some thoughts.

    • Interesting questions! I’m afraid it’s so hard to tell because we don’t know where on the hill he was shot. If he was on the slope going with the retreat, the shot that killed him would’ve been higher, just as a shot would’ve been had he been kneeling down. Without knowing where Warren actually was on the hill makes it impossible to deduce I’m afraid.

  8. Pingback: Episode 33: The Four Burials of Joseph Warren - HUB History

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