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Schoolmasters with the Initials “J.L.”

As quoted yesterday, in the summer of 1775 London newspapers reported that letters found on the body of Dr. Joseph Warren after the Battle of Bunker Hill implicated some people in Boston as “spies.”

The newspapers disagreed on how many letters the royal authorities had found on Warren’s body—three or six. I don’t believe the text of any letter survives. But those documents prompted the arrest of schoolteachers James Lovell and John Leach on 29 June, twelve days after the battle.

This article from the Essex Institute Historical Collections shows James Lovell writing to friends outside the siege lines throughout May and June. In a 10 May letter, Lovell even told Oliver Wendell about the dangers of sharing sensitive information:

You must however give us no State Matters; for ’tis but “you are the General’s Prisoner,” and whip! away to the Man of War; as is the Case of poor John Peck. I carry’d him Breakfast to the main Guard yesterday, and again this Morning but he was carry’d off last Evening and put on Board Ship. Inquisitorial this!

The royal authorities released John Peck in a prisoner exchange on 6 June. However, the heavy losses at Bunker Hill made the royal authorities far less forgiving.

Lovell was a strong Patriot, known for orating on the memory of the Boston Massacre back in 1771. On 3 May he told Wendell that he was trying to get his wife and children out of Boston, but

I shall tarry if 10 Sieges take place. I have determined it to be a Duty which I owe the Cause & the Friends of it, and am perfectly fearless of the Consequences. An ill Turn, a most violent Diarhea, from being too long in a damp place, has confirm’d Doctr. [Joseph? Silvester?] Gardners advice to me not to go into the Trenches, where my whole Soul lodges nightly. How then can I be more actively serviceable to the Friends who think with me, than by keeping disagreeable post among a Set of Villains who would willingly destroy what those Friends leave behind them.

Lovell was probably writing in a similar vein to Dr. Warren and perhaps indeed sending out information useful to the provincial military. He took elementary precautions. As Sam Forman notes and the E.I.H.C. article shows, Lovell already often signed his letters with just his initials. In addition, he asked Wendell to be sure to seal all their correspondence. But there was no protection for the documents that Dr. Warren chose to carry onto the battlefield.

As for John Leach, he appears to have been dragged into this situation simply because he had the same initials as Lovell. It’s also possible that the letters mentioned teaching school. Boston had three schoolteachers with the initials “J.L.” One, John Lovell of the South Latin School, was a staunch Loyalist. The other two got hauled off to jail.

Then Leach’s specialty as a teacher of navigation became a liability. Lovell taught Latin and Greek—hardly sensitive subjects. But royal officers found “Drawings” in Leach’s home when they arrested him. Those probably included detailed nautical maps and sketches of the harbor.

On 19 July, after three weeks in jail, the schoolteachers and other prisoners were taken into a military court presided over by Maj. Thomas Moncrieffe. According to Leach, the proceeding confirmed how little evidence the authorities had on them:

Till this Time we did not know our Crimes, on what account we were committed, but now we found Mr. Lovell was charged with “being a Spy, and giving intelligence to the Rebels.” And my charge, “being a spy, and suspected of taking plans.” When Capt. [Richard] Symmes appeared, he knew so little of us, that he called me Mr. Lovell; he knew so little of us, that instead of being a just Evidence [i.e., witness], he appeared ashamed and confounded, and went off.

Nevertheless, Leach wasn’t released until 3 October.

In late August, Lovell told a friend “that he expects to be out soon, tryumphant over his Enemies,” and was ready to give up “idlely schooling the children of a pack of Villains” in Boston. Instead, the royal authorities kept him locked up through the end of the siege and then carried him off to Halifax. Eventually he was exchanged.

Lovell never did go back to teaching school. Instead, he became a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he managed the correspondence with America’s diplomats—this time using a code.

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