Revolutionary War Veteran Dies in Prison

Timothy Bigelow Painting

Photograph of a painting of Colonel Timothy Bigelow. Location, age, and artist unknown.

WORCESTER, Mass. — Colonel Timothy Bigelow, 50, was found dead in his jail cell on Wednesday, March 31, 1790.

In regards to the discharge of Colonel Bigelow, the old jail book simply stated: “By Deth.” The Revolutionary War veteran had been imprisoned just six weeks earlier on February 15, 1790 for unpaid debts.

His friend Isaiah Thomas, editor of the Massachusetts Spy (and whose printing press was smuggled out of Boston by Bigelow and hidden in the cellar of the Patriot’s Worcester home just a few days before the Battle of Lexington) had only this to say about the Colonel’s death in the April 7, 1790 edition of the Spy: “DIED. — in this town, Col. Timothy Bigelow aged 50.”

His countenance is not known, save for an unsourced photograph of a painting that has been floating around the internet for many years, attributed to Bigelow but without reference to the artist or location. The painting was rumored to be last seen hanging in the old Worcester District Courthouse before it was boarded up in 2007. Those who remembered him described his “tall and erect, and commanding figure, his martial air, his grave and rather severe countenance, his dignified and earnest address.”

Early Years

Timothy was born in the Pakachoag Hill area of Worcester on August 12, 1739 to Daniel and Elizabeth (Whitney) Bigelow. Prior to his military career, Timothy was a successful blacksmith with a shop located near Lincoln Square, where “he blew the bellows, heated and hammered the iron, shod the horses and oxen, and mended the ploughs and chains for the farms of the country about him.”

tea kettle

Tea kettle made by Timothy Bigelow in his blacksmithing days. Gifted to the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1928 by his great-great granddaughter Louise Bigelow.

He fell in love with Anna Andrews, an orphaned heiress to her family’s fortune, and they eloped on July 2, 1762 in Hampton, New Hampshire, which was the “Gretna Green” of its day.

Military Career

Timothy was known for his eloquent speaking and steadfast convictions. He was a member of the Committee of Correspondence, a delegate to the Provincial Congress, and the organizer of the American Political Society. His military service was lengthy and his dedication unwavering. He trained the Worcester Minutemen on the Common and led them on the alarm of April 19, 1775. He took command of the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment in 1776, witnessed Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in 1777, and he suffered through the winter at Valley Forge in 1778. One of Col. Bigelow’s men stated that “Why, old Col. Tim was everywhere all the time, and you would have thought if you had been there, that there was nobody else in the struggle but Col. Bigelow and his regiment.”

Mistaken for George Washington

In her book Colonel Timothy Bigelow: A Historical Novel great-great granddaughter Louise Bigelow (who said that much of her book was based on old letters, diaries, and the tales of her grandfather) related this story of Colonel Bigelow’s capture in Quebec in 1777:

He was taken to a room with three British officers and repeatedly questioned about his identity. One officer took up the questioning and was so persistent that Timothy was soon greatly irritated.

‘Where did you come from?’ the man asked suspiciously.

‘Massachusetts,’ replied Timothy.

‘I think he came from Virginia,’ another officer interposed. Timothy looked at him witheringly.

‘I came from Worcester, Massachusetts,’ he said with much dignity.

‘Have you any children?’ the first officer continued.

‘Yes,’ Timothy answered proudly, ‘I have five.’

‘Washington hasn’t any children, has he?’ the man asked his companions in an undertone.

‘How tall are you?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Six foot three and a half,’ Timothy replied.

‘He’s taken off half an inch,’ the officer laughed sneeringly, ‘the last I heard, he was six foot four.’

‘Come on now, you might as well admit it, General,’ he demanded, suddenly curbing his laughter. ‘We know who you are. What’s the use in lying about it?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Timothy said in bewilderment. ‘I am not lying. I have told you the truth in everything I have said.’

‘I could swear he is General Washington,’ the commanding officer said audibly enough for Timothy to overhear. ‘He is certainly tall and powerful enough to be. Well, let’s not take any chances. If he is Washington, we don’t want to put him in the Chateau.’

So Timothy was taken away to large pleasant room overlooking the river . . . excellent food was brought to him and this kindly treatment went on for about two weeks . . .”

According to Louise, once it was realized that he was not Washington,  he was thrown into an English prison ship. He was held for almost a year, a year which took a toll on his health from which he never fully recovered.

After the Revolution

Bigelow returned home from war a broken man, failing in both body and spirit. The government paid him for his years of service by granting him over 28,000 acres of Vermont wilderness, but that did nothing to offset his inability to successfully revive his blacksmithing business. The post-war inflation drove him heavily into debt, and he was subsequently thrown into prison where he died six weeks later.  He left behind his wife, Anna Andrews Bigelow (1747 – 1809) and six children: Nancy Bigelow Lincoln (1765 – 1839 ) Timothy Bigelow Jr. (1767 – 1821), Rufus Bigelow (1772 – 1813), Lucy Bigelow Lawrence (1774 – 1856) and Clarissa Bigelow (1781 – 1846) His son Andrew (b. 1769) predeceased him in 1787.

Bigelow Monument

Like most men of vision, Bigelow’s sacrifices went unrecognized for over 70 years, until his great-grandson Colonel Timothy Bigelow Lawrence erected a monument on the Common in his honor in 1861.

1861

Bigelow Monument in 1861.

WORCESTER SPY
10 APRIL 1861

THE BIGELOW MONUMENT — The remains of the late Col. Timothy Bigelow were on Monday exhumed from their burial place, in the northwest corner of the old cemetery on the Common. They were found in remarkable state of preservation. By direction of the committee having the matter of the monument in charge, they were encased in a metallic casket prepared for the purpose, and deposited in their last resting place, near the old spot, in the center of the lot in which the monument is to be erected.

WORCESTER SPY
17 APRIL 1861

THE BIGELOW MONUMENT — Friday noon, Mr. Hersey, in the presence of Col. T. B. Lawrence, Rev. Dr. Bigelow of Boston, a grandson of Col. Bigelow, Gov. Lincoln, and a large number of other gentlemen, deposited in the cavity made for them on the top of the first marble layer, two boxes full of documents prepared for the purpose of preservation there. The second layer of marble, a huge block weighing nine thousand pounds, suspended over it, was then let down and properly adjusted. The other layers were then put on, and the erection of the whole monument, with the exception of the putting in of the supporting pillars around the sides, completed about seven o’clock in the evening. The large crowd present celebrated the event by enthusiastic cheering.

Daughters of the American Revolution

In 1899, a Worcester chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was formed, and it was decided to name the chapter in honor of Colonel Timothy Bigelow. The mission of the DAR is to promote historic preservation, education, and patriotism.

“I have long since come to the conclusion, to stand by the American cause, come what will. I have enlisted for life. I have cheerfully left my home and family. All the friends I have, are the friends of my country. I expect to suffer with hunger, with cold, and with fatigue, and, if need be, I expect to lay down my life for the liberty of these colonies.” — Colonel Timothy Bigelow.

References:

The Story of Worcester, Massachusetts by Thomas F. O’Flynn c. 1910

The Celebration by the Inhabitants of Worcester, Mass of the Centennial Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence c.1876.

Colonel Timothy Bigelow: A Historical Novel by Louise Bigelow c. 1941

Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Bigelow Monument c. 1861

The Massachusetts/Worcester Spy c. 1790, 1861

Some Historic Houses of Worcester c. 1919

Reminisces of the Military Life and Sufferings of Col. Timothy Bigelow by Charles Hersey c. 1860

Meeting minutes from the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Worcester c. 1898/1899

History of Worcester, Massachusetts by William Lincoln c. 1837

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