Article

Traitor! Decoding Benjamin Church

Black and white drawing of man in powdered wig, ruffle collar and black jacket.
Posthumous portrait of Dr. Benjamin Church

National Library of Medicine

Dr. Benjamin Church was one of the prominent leaders of the Sons of Liberty, trusted by Joseph Warren, Sam Adams, John Adams, and Paul Revere. By early 1775, he began selling information to General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British forces in America, in the form of coded letters. One of those letters was found and brought to the attention of General George Washington. On October 3, 1775, General Washington and his leading advisors met at headquarters – now Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site – to discuss the suspected treason of Church. Dr. Church admitted to writing the coded letter but claimed he did it to get intelligence from the British army for the Continental Army. Was Dr. Benjamin Church a traitor?

Decode Dr. Church’s letter to find out what he wrote to the British army and decide for yourself if he was a traitor!

Supplies:

  • Coded messages #1-6
  • Code cipher
  • Pencil
  • Optional: download the Activity Guide for background information

Steps:

  1. Pick a line of Dr. Church’s letter to decode.
  2. Match letters from the alphabet to the symbols used by Dr. Church using the cipher.
Dr. Benjamin Church was put on trial and imprisoned across the street from headquarters. Eventually, he was banished from the colony and presumably set sail for the West Indies. However, the ship disappeared and he was never heard from again!
Cipher code
Cipher used by Benjamin Church to code his secret messages

NPS Photo

coded message
I hope this will reach you; three attempts have I made without success
coded message
I counted 280 pieces of Cannon from 24 to 3 pounders
coded message
18 thousand men, brave and determined, with Washington & Lee at their Head, are no contemptible Enemy.
coded message
A view to Independence grows more & more general
coded message
Should Britain declare War against the Colonies, they are lost forever.
coded message
Make use of every precaution or I perish.

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Last updated: April 24, 2020