William Cunningham: Jailer of Revolution Martyrs

William Cunningham, Jailer of New York “Revolution Martyrs”

“FOLK of fashion do complain right grievously that the groanings and lamentable cries of the rebel prisoners (both here in New York and in the prison ship on the Breucklen shore) disturb their slumbers. And they pray that Master Cunningham, our provost marshal, will devise some means to keep the poor wretches quiet of nights.”

So runs an old letter written in New York during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The British had captured New York and Philadelphia. To both cities — but chiefly to New York — they brought thousands of patriot soldiers, captured in battle, and many non-combatants who had risked freedom and life to help the cause of liberty by money, gifts or by patriotic speeches.

These unlucky captives were not treated like prisoners of war. They were housed and fed — or, rather, starved — in a way the law nowadays would not permit for cattle or swine. And the man in charge of them was a blackguard whose own countrymen loathed him, William Cunningham.

Cunningham was the son of British dragoon and was born in the regimental barracks at Dublin. In 1774 he came to America and settled in New York, where he made a living for some time by “breaking” colts and by giving riding lessons. When the Revolution broke out, in 1775, he became involved in a political row with some local patriots and was forced to flee to Boston, there to seek the protection of the British army.

His noisy loyalty to King George III, got him into trouble there and attracted the notice of Thomas Gage, the English general. Gage appointed him provost marshal to the royal army. His chance for “revenge” had come.

Image from Frances Hunter’s American Heroes Blog

Cunningham was sent back to New York and was put in charge of the Revolutionary prisoners there and in Philadelphia. There were several impromptu prisons in New York where the patriot captives were lodged. One was the city hall, another the famous old “Sugar House,” another, King’s (now Columbia) college; another the “new gaol” (the old hall of records in City Hall park, torn down only a few years ago) and — worst of all — the “prison ship ‘Jersey,’” moored on the Brooklyn shore. Churches were also turned into jails.

In the prison ship the captives were herded by hundreds in dark, foul pens, destitute of pure air and sunlight. They were given such food as a dog might well scorn, and in such tiny quantities as would not suffice to keep a dog alive. The water they drank was filthy. No medical care or chance for cleanliness or exercise was granted them. Prison fever and other maladies scourged their ranks. They died like so many flies. To such fearful condition were they reduced that the lowest city outcasts were touched by pity and secretly sent them food.

The fate of the captives in the new gaol, or hall of records, was little better. Here is an extract from Pintard’s account of their sufferings:

“So closely were they packed together that when they lay down at night to rest, on the hard oak planks, and they wished to turn, it was all together, by word of command — ‘right’ — ‘left’ — being so wedged as to form almost a solid mass of human bodies.”

All war is cruel. But such torture as this was inexcusable. And (though the British government might perhaps have bettered matters had they chosen to) the lion’s share of the blame was Cunningham’s. Here is a portion of his sworn confession, made in 1791, just before his own execution:

“I shudder to think of the murders I have been accessory to, both with and without orders from government, especialy while in New York, during which time there were more than two thousand prisoners starved by stopping their rations (which I sold). There were also 275 American prisoners executed. A guard was despatched to forbid people to look out from their doors or windows on pain of death, after which the prisoners were conducted, gagged, at midnight, just behind the upper barracks, hung without trial and then buried.”

Cunningham went back to England after the war and took to riotous living. Being short of money to squander on dissipation, he forged a draft. For this crime he was tried, condemned, and, on August 10, 1791, was hanged.

He is said to have been responsible for the shameful death of nearly 2,500 American patriots. Nor could mere hatred for the colonists account for this wholesale slaughter, since he dishonestly sold for his own profit the provisions allotted to them.

The Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) Sep 19, 1912

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