Book Review: Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero by Christian Di Spigna (Crown Publishing: 2018).
As a fan of Dr. Joseph Warren and having researched him thoroughly for my own two Revolutionary War books, I was interested to see what new research was offered in Founding Martyr. The book’s introduction repeatedly declares this is Warren’s “untold story,” that “Warren has largely escaped attention,” and the back cover proclaims that “Little has been known about . . . Warren.”
In fact, much is known. Di Spigna’s book is the now the fifth Warren biography, with the most recent one extensively researched by Samuel A. Forman and published at the end of 2011. (Full disclosure: in the course of researching my own books, I’ve become well acquainted with Forman. He did not, however, play any role in producing this review.)
While there are a few eyebrow-raising claims in the short introduction, the book is overall well written. The book moves chronologically and runs through Warren’s life as you would expect: from boyhood, to Harvard student, to his rise as a successful Boston physician, and then to influential political and Revolutionary leader. A few episodes are glossed over, such as Warren’s possible struggle with money prior to the Revolution, and his suspected engagement to Mercy Scollay. Yet the book also adds a few new minor details to Warren’s life, based on new research. For example, there is new scholarship on that argues Warren’s house in Boston was not where other books have claimed.
The book therefore does a good job giving a survey of Warren’s life. It flows nicely and presents a narrative style better than other biographies on the subject. But the problems with this book are not readability. It is the content’s accuracy that is most vital in any nonfiction book. And a good nonfiction must present its subject objectively, which leads to the first problem.
Bolstering Warren’s importance
There are many cases of this, but here are three examples just from the introduction alone, each of which attempt to conflate Warren’s importance to the war with that of George Washington.
On page 3 (note that page numbers may be slightly different in the final publication): “Warren . . . was also an icon of military heroism. The newly appointed general George Washington admired and longed to emulate his battlefield heroics.” Warren was not a military icon but a political one, though he died a martyr in battle. Washington had no such longing.
On page 4: Di Spigna claims Warren “operated an intricate spy ring,” though no source, including his own book, supports this. Di Spigna adds that “Warren mastered this dangerous chess game of intrigue and deceit before General Washington’s famous spy network.” In three other places, Di Spigna labels Warren a spymaster. Yet Warren had no spies. Sure, Boston did have what is the modern equivalent of “If you see something, say something,” but the moniker of “spymaster” implies the utilization of espionage and intelligence tradecraft, trained undercover operatives in the enemy’s ranks, etc. Warren was no spymaster, and Di Spigna provides no evidence to support the claim.
On page 5: Di Spigna calls Washington’s “martial exploits to that point  to be questionable at best. . . . By contrast, Warren had fought in several battles.” Warren had done little fighting in the opening battle of April 19, 1775, was only witness to a few skirmishes afterwards, and played a volunteer role at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, where he died. Meanwhile, Washington fought in several battles in the French and Indian War. He was on the losing side of most of them, but he led men into battle, and at Monongahela, saved the retreat. Washington’s martial experience was unquestionably much greater than Warren’s.
This is just the introduction, and these sorts of poor comparisons are repeated in various places in the book. Consequently, it demonstrates that the author’s passion for his subject has rendered him unable to remain objective. It colors the entire book’s perspective, and may very well be the source of the next problem.
Undeserved bias against the British
Revolutionary War books of the early 1800s commonly follow the maxim “history is written by the victors.” That is, they are unabashedly pro-American to a fault while turning the British into one-dimensional villains and emphasizing dubious claims to make them appear more villainous. Modern histories are generally pretty good at being balanced. Di Spigna’s book is not.
While this perspective colors any mention of the British, the strongest examples are around acts of violence. For instance, for the Boston Massacre, it is well documented that the British did not take deliberate aim and fire into the crowd (despite what Paul Revere’s famous propaganda engraving depicts). Yet Di Spigna, in his quick summary of the event (p. 108), perpetuates the myth: “The soldiers retaliated by firing into the crowd.” This is not an accurate portrayal.
But the most egregious failure in this bias against the British is in the telling of the death of Warren. And to paint the British in the worst possible light, Di Spigna also resorts to another major failing.
Lack of scholarly judiciousness
At the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, Warren was killed by a gunshot to the face, which blasted out the back of his head. On this, Di Spigna fails to draw upon the wealth of new research in Forman’s biography and thus gives little attention to the fatal shot. That fatal shot, it turns out, was likely from an officer’s pistol. I assume Di Spigna did use photographs of Warren’s skull as a reference, but even these are not cited.
Di Spigna is more interested in what supposedly happened after Warren was dead, claiming (p. 187) “a British solider stormed up to him and ‘immediately [stabbed] him through the body’ with his bayonet.” Di Spigna’s only citation is the London Evening Post, July 13-16, 1776. The battle was in 1775. Such a source, an ocean away, a year later, from no eyewitness, is exceptionally dubious.
It gets worse (p. 188 ff.): “a small group of seething redcoats circled the body of the ‘murdered worthy . . . Doctr. Warren’ . . . . His Majesty’s executioners repeatedly bayoneted his corpse in a violent butchering. Lt. James Drew of the Royal Navy, it was later claimed, returned to the redoubt, walked over to Warren’s body, and spat in his face before cutting ‘off his head and commit[ing] every act of violence upon his Body.’” Di Spigna adds that Warren was tossed in a shallow grave then dug back up so British officers could see “physical proof of his death” and that Warren’s body was continuously mutilated for some time thereafter. Other bodies were buried quickly, lest they “fall prey to rats, which were already gnawing voraciously at the slain.”
That’s one sensationalized story! But it is all likely false, rats included.
There are no citations to substantiate the repeated mutilations of Warren. And nothing to support Warren being buried and then dug back up for the officers. Only the quote about a navy man cutting off Warren’s head is indeed cited, but it comes from a rumor reported to John Adams a month and a half later. Since no credible sources report such a beheading, the rumor must be deemed dubious.
But let’s look closely at the source of the rumor. It’s Abigail Adams’s July 31, 1775 letter to John Adams in the Massachusetts Historical Society, which reads: “the [sav]age wretches call’d officers consulted together and agreed to sever his Head from his body, and carry it in triumph to Gage.” Di Spigna used only part of the rumor, ignoring that the head was supposedly taken to Gen. Gage in Boston. He ignores it because it makes no sense. Certainly, the burial detail led by Lieutenant Laurie makes no mention of this, as Laurie recognized Warren, presumably by his face. (Laurie’s private letter, in which he had no reason to avoid such details, is even cited by Di Spigna.) And Warren’s head was present when he was exhumed and identified by his teeth a year later.
Simply put, Di Spigna cherry-picked sources to make a sensational but fictional account of Warren’s demise and to paint the British in the worst possible light. Since part of the rumor is false, all of it is likely so. Without other support, it should have been excluded.
Having researched the latter part of Warren’s life for my own two books, there were many other minor claims that I immediately thought unlikely. To name a few: Warren wore a wig (p. 122; unlikely and unsupported: Washington did not, many others did not); Warren carried pistols and a Bible to the Battle of Bunker Hill (p. 15, 183; uncited, except for the pistols, which is wrongly cited to a different event in 1774); Warren’s wife wore a bracelet woven from his hair (citing an 1857 newspaper); and Warren had five children rather than the four all other history books report, claiming that one died.
Di Spigna’s introduction concludes (p. 8) that his is “the first completely nonfiction book writing about Dr. Joseph Warren in almost sixty years.” When I read this, I rushed to the bibliography: Di Spigna ignores Samuel Forman’s extensive 2011 biography Dr. Joseph Warren. With only four previous biographies, how can one ignore the most comprehensive study to date? But Di Spigna’s words aim to deceive (“first completely nonfiction”), because Forman’s book has a single chapter (15) that gives a hypothetical interaction. Forman is twice explicit that that episode is fiction, and the remainder of Forman’s book is nonfiction and richly researched. But Di Spigna (p. 222), in his only explicit reference, dismisses Forman’s book because he claims it “shifts between nonfiction and fiction.”
It is entirely acceptable to write a book without referencing another book on the subject, and would make sense for a biography on, say, George Washington, given the hundreds of books that have come before. It involves replicating the research of course. Yet, to position a new biography as the most definitive while dismissing another as fiction, and to declare no biographies have been published for sixty years is not true. And it appears to be an intentional decision to deceive, as it is repeated in various forms in several places, including the marketing material.
Beyond this dismissal, there is quite a bit of overlap between Di Spigna’s book and Forman’s, and while Di Spigna’s Amazon page claims he worked on his research for twenty years, there appears to be some instances where Di Spigna draws upon Forman’s work without citation.
The one that I am certain of is in the notes (p. 273-274), where Di Spigna writes at length about Sally Edwards, a possible mistress of Warren’s. The first wide publication of this is in Forman, 185. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill (Viking, 2013) cites Forman’s work and furthers the argument that Warren did indeed have such a mistress, and that Warren got her pregnant. Di Spigna spends almost a page refuting this argument and is clearly responding to this discussion by Forman and Philbrick, but refers to them only generically in his last line: “neither side of the argument has irrefutable proof.” Why does he not cite their work, if only to refute it?
While DiSpigna’s Founding Martyr is well written and gives a very good survey of its subject, it also contains a number of errors that seem to be an overt attempt to make Warren more important, more the hero, and make Warren’s death more tragic than it was. This heavily tilts the book’s perspective and weakens the portrayal. DiSpigna’s description of Warren’s death is especially problematic and would have benefited greatly by consulting Forman’s previous biography Dr. Joseph Warren with its convincingly detailed forensic analysis of Warren’s demise. But to be fair, Forman’s book is not perfect either, given its jarring fictional section amid an otherwise nonfiction book in particular, as well as some other debatable information. Consequently, neither the Forman or DiSpigna biography is truly definitive or the final word of Dr. Warren. I would therefore encourage any serious reader to look at both books, and if a scholar, to follow the sources carefully. Perhaps the ideal telling of Warren is somewhere in between, and the definitive book has yet to be written.
Last updated 12/17/18.
Alexander Everett’s Life of Joseph Warren edited by Jared Sparks (New York: Harper and Bros., 1856), republished in James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds. Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 10:91 (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888); Richard Frothingham’s Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1865); John Cary’s Joseph Warren: Physician, Politician, Patriot (Urbana Ill.: Univ of Illinois Press, 1961); and Samuel A. Forman’s Dr. Joseph Warren (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 2011).
There is one other report of the rumor: Benjamin Hichborn to John Adams, November 25 and December 10, 1775, also in the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. It too is unsubstantiated and appears a half a year later, but was perhaps worth an endnote. The real problem is that Di Spigna utilizes no judiciousness in considering the rumor, and simply declares the rumor as fact. There were many false rumors in the Boston Revolution story that ended up being.
The fifth child argument is different than the occasional theory that Warren had a secret love child with Sally Edwards, proposed as possible in Forman 185, then championed in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill (Viking, 2013) 102, who cites Forman. In Di Spigna (pp. 76, 90, 114, 126, 129), he argues that the children were Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary who dies early, Richard, and another Mary. This is the first claim of a Mary who died to my knowledge, and Di Spigna fails to make any case. He cites the Brattle Street Church baptismal records, which I am well versed in. Previous historians have all agreed that, since the other children are listed in those records but Mary is listed twice and Richard is not, that the second one must have been a typo and was Richard. This seems most likely. Di Spigna does not back up his claim, assuming that since Mary was listed twice, there must have been two of them, but without comment on why there was no Richard listed, particularly given his baptism should’ve been around the time of that second Mary entry.
Forman also maintains an online repository of Warren primary sources.