Eight Decades of Unrest
Dr. Joseph Warren’s life has often been reduced to the afternoon of June 17, 1775 when he was killed at the battle of Bunker Hill and catapulted to martyrdom status. Although appointed a major general in the Provincial Army, Warren chose to fight as a volunteer alongside his patriot brethren. He was killed in the last seconds of the battle as he was covering his retreating men, when a musket ball struck him in the face. After Crown soldiers stripped his clothes and his possessions, they mutilated Warren’s body with bayonets and tossed his corpse into a shallow ditch. British Lt. Walter Laurie, in charge of the burial detail, wrote, “Doctor Warren, president of the Provincial Congress…and next to [Samuel] Adams in abilities, I found among the slain and stuffed the scoundrel with another rebel, into one hole, and there he and his seditious principles may remain.” Nine months later British forces evacuated finally ending the siege of Boston. John Warren, Joseph’s youngest brother, was one of the first people given permission by General George Washington to enter the besieged area of Breed’s Hill in Charlestown: “This day I visit Charlestown, and a most melancholy heap of ruins it is…When I consider that perhaps…I might be standing over the remains of a dear Brother, whose blood had stained these hallowed walks…how many endearing Scenes of paternal friendship [were] now past and gone forever.”
A local Church sexton claimed to know the vicinity of Warren’s temporary grave and on April 4, 1776, he led two of Warren’s brothers to the area. They began to carefully dig until “a corpse began to appear” less than three feet underground. With Warren’s body horribly decomposed, both brothers—distressed and emotional—left the scene. The remains were verified by the two artificial teeth that had been “fastened in with gold wire” just prior to his death. Warren’s remains were brought to the old statehouse where they lay in state for several days. On April 8, Warren’s body was carried to King’s Chapel where hundreds of mourners paid their respects. Warren was then laid to rest in the Old Granary Burial Ground surrounded by Boston’s finest dignitaries as well as the five victims of the Boston Massacre.
Almost 50 years later, Warren’s nephew, Dr. John Collins Warren removed his uncle’s remains from the Old Granary Burial Ground to an underground vault at St. Paul’s Church. Yet Warren’s postmortem journey didn’t end there. Dr. John Collins Warren had purchased a 500 square foot family plot in the garden cemetery of Forest Hills in Roxbury and began to reinter the remains of his closest family members including General Warren. In 1855, Joseph Warren’s remains were recovered from St. Paul’s Church and daguerreotype images were taken of his skull before he was moved to his final resting place in Forest Hills Cemetery in August 1856, where they currently rest. Warren’s fascinating eight-decade post-mortem journey has rightfully earned him the title as one of the most migratory corpses of all the founding founders.