The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, by John Trumbull (1786) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
By Dolly Stolze / 07.04.2017
Paul Revere inadvertently became America’s first forensic dentist when he was given the gruesome task of identifying the body of Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who sent him on his famous “midnight ride.” Warren was struck down by a British bullet during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 and his corpse was buried in a mass grave. When Warren’s family unearthed the grave nine months later, visual identification of the bodies inside was near impossible because they had decomposed. So Revere, the man who crafted the slain officer’s false teeth, was asked to locate Warren’s remains by finding the ivory dentures he crafted and wired to Warren’s jaw.
Although, Paul Revere (January 1735-May 10, 1818) was a trained silversmith and engraver, he had a brief career as a dentist before the American Revolution.
Paul Revere’s ad in the Boston Gazette (1770) publicizing his dental prosthesis business. / Public Domain
During the 1760’s, an English dental surgeon named Dr. John Baker taught him how to make and fit patients with artificial teeth. Revere set up his own practice in Boston and advertised his services in the Boston Gazette in 1770. The National Museum of Health and Medicine notes that Revere fitted Dr. Joseph Warren (June 11, 1741 – June 17, 1775), a Harvard trained physician and fellow patriot, with a set of ivory dental prosthetics to replace his upper left canine and first premolar.
As tensions mounted between the colonialists and the British government, Paul Revere became involved with the resistance against King George III’s rule. He was one of the ringleaders of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, crafted engravings for rebel publications, and kept tabs on the movements of the British military.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Warren, who had informants amongst the British forces, sent the silversmith and Warren Dawes on a mission to warn American patriots that the British intended to raid the rebel arsenal in Concord, and were about to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, leaders of the resistance, in Lexington. Revere and Dawes were supposed to ride from Boston to Lexington then Concord. But Revere never completed his ride. He was arrested outside of Lexington and Samuel Prescott had to complete the last half of the journey to Concord. Dawes, however, made it all the way to Concord unscathed. Despite having been captured, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chose to immortalize Paul Revere as the one to utter the famous phrase “British are coming!” in his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
The first shots of the American Revolution were fired the next day, on April 19, 1775, at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The American militias fell back after these early conflicts and surrounded British-held Boston in a siege that lasted from April 19, 1775 to March 17, 1776.
In June of 1775, the rebel forces heard that the Red Coats planned to occupy the hills overlooking Boston, Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, so they fortified the area first. The British army marched attacked the Americans here on June 17, 1775. This skirmish became known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, also called the Battle of Breed’s Hill. Despite having suffered twice as many casualties as the Americans, the British defeated the colonial militias.
Dr. Warren, who was appointed a major general of the Massachusetts militia by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, was amongst those killed in action at the Battle of Bunker Hill and his body was dumped in a mass grave by the British. Warren’s family wanted to give him a proper burial but had to wait until British left the area at the end of the siege, in March of 1776, to recover his remains.
Warren’s family and friends, including Paul Revere, dug up the Bunker Hill mass grave nine months later. The decayed soft tissue rendered the Major General’s body unrecognizable and indistinguishable from the others buried with him. Thankfully Revere spotted the set of ivory artificial teeth he had attached to Warren’s jaw with gold wire a few years earlier.
Identification of a person based on their teeth was an unconventional technique in the 18th century. Paul Revere’s use of simple forensic dentistry is described by the National Museum of Health and Medicine as “one of the earliest cases of forensic evidence used to indentify a fallen American soldier.”
Dr. Joseph Warren’s grave in Forest Hills Cemetery. / Photo by Biruitorul (talk), Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Joseph Warren was reburied a few times over the last 250 years. His family buried him in the Granary Burying Ground, in 1825 he was reburied at St. Paul’s Church, and in 1855 he was moved to a family vault in Forrest Hills Cemetery.