While preparing a timeline of important events in Newburyport's history for our friends at Revolution 250, we came across an interesting account of Bridget Phillips, wife of British officer “Captain Phillips”.
The nerds are still trying to identify exactly who Captain Phillips was. All we know is that he was an officer who served under General Gage during the Siege of Boston.
It appears that Mrs. Phillips was en route from Ireland to join her husband in Boston when fighting broke out in Lexington and Concord. Although it is not exactly known how she was captured, records confirm that by June of 1775, she was a prisoner of the Massachusetts rebel government.
Following her capture, Phillips was taken to Newburyport, Massachusetts and held as a hostage. On June 22, 1775, she wrote to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and begged for permission to join her husband in Boston. According to her petition “To the Honorable Provincial Congress at Watertown, June 22, 1775. The petition of Bridget Philips humbly showeth that she hath lately arrived from Ireland and is desirous of going to her husband now in Boston. She therefore prays the Honorable Congress that they would give her a permit to go into the town of Boston & your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray. Bridget Philips.”
Two days later the Provincial Congress summarily rejected Phillips’ petition. Worse, the Newburyport Committee of Safety was ordered to keep her under constant guard to prevent her escape. “Resolved, that General Ward do not suffer or permit Bridget Phillips, wife to an officer under General Gage, to go into Boston, nor any other person whatever, without leave first obtained of this Congress, or some future house of representatives and that an express be forthwith sent to the committee of safety for the town of Newburyport, to order them to take the most affectual measures to prevent the said Bridget from going out of this province, or to Boston.”
While held in Newburyport, Phillips stayed at a local tavern as the guest of the owner. Many of the seaport’s residents felt the Provincial Congress’ orders regarding her confinement “to be very harsh.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Phillips never behaved in any manner that would create “suspicion in us that she would take pains for her escape.”
Following General George Washington’s arrival in Cambridge in July, 1775, Bridgett Phillips approached the Newburyport Committee of Safety and sought permission to travel to Cambridge to seek Washington’s permission to return to Boston. In response the committee noted “upon the arrival of the New General at Cambridge she seemed to flatter herself, her case might be more tenderly considered by them & that upon application they would permit her going to her husband. This she mentioned to several of the committee but was told she must not go to Cambridge without Consent of the Majority of them.”
Perhaps sensing that the majority would never issue a pass, Phillips fled Newburyport in the middle of the night. According to a July 26, 1775 letter from the Newburyport committee to the Provincial Congress, town officials were completely caught off guard. Worse, “it was not for a day or two known by us that she was gone.” According to the tavern keeper, a Mr. Greenleaf, he was completely fooled and thought she was merely travelling throughout town. “She left here two Trunks supposed to contain valuable apparrell which might prevent in Mr. Greenleaf the apprehention of her intending to go off.”
According to period accounts, the British officer’s wife simply boarded “a Chaise with Capt John Blake (formerly of Boston) from hence to Salem, giving out she was going to Head Quarters at Cambridge.”
Once in Salem, Phillips changed course to throw off Greenleaf, who had been sent to bring her back. “Upon enquiry we find that she hired a Chaise & Boy at Salem & in company with Benj. Jenks (who is said to belong to Casco Bay) she went the next day to Haverhill & the next to Portsmouth:by the assistance of this Jenks procured herself to be put on board the Scarborough Man of War there.”
The HMS Scarborough had been operating off the New Hampshire coast since May 29, 1775.
Of course, the incident proved to be quite an embarrassment for the Newburyport Committee of Safety. Naturally, the organization quickly moved to divert blame away from itself. “As she was a Woman & appeared of Some Fashion, we did not think it expedient to put her under close Confinement neither did we suppose bv the Order it was intended . . . Upon this occasion give us leave to remark what we hinted formerly to the Committee of War at Cambridge, the ease with which an escape may at any time be made to the stationed ship at Portsm'th as things are now ordered.”
Ultimately, Phillips was reunited with her husband in Boston. Once there she sent word to Mr. Greenleaf to have “her Trunks to be sent to Boston.” In response, the Newburyport Committee of Safety sought instructions from the Provincial Congress. “We beg your Order about the delivery of 'em.”
The entire incident enraged the Provincial Congress and representatives clammored to have those who helped Phillips escape arrested.
On August 5, 1775, the legislative body declared “Whereas one Bridget Phillips who said she was a wife to one of the officers in Genl Gages Army was by the late Congress of this Colony put under the care of the committee of safety of Newburyport, has since made her escape from them (as by a letter from said committee may appear and has left some effects behind). Therefore, Resolved, that the committee of safety of Newburyport take into their custody the trunks and other effects which belonged to the said Bridget Phillips and them safe keep and detain until the further order of this Court. Also further Resolved that the committees of safety or correspondence of any of the Towns in this Colony are hereby directed to take into Custody one John Blake (formerly of Boston) with whom the said Bridget Phillips made her Escape from Newburyport, and one Benjamin Jenks (said to belong to Casco Bay) in whose Company the said Bridget went to Portsmouth and by his assistance was secured on board the ship Scarborough then in that Harbour, and the said Committee of any town where the said Blake or Jenks may be taken or found are directed to Hear & examine the above charge against the said Blake and Jenks or either of them according to the evidence which they may have of either of them or of their crimes & if it shall be made to appear to the Committee, on said trial, that the said Blake & Jenks, or either of them, are guilty of the charge alleged against him or them that then they cause him or them to be kept in safe custody until the further order of this court, and its Recommended to the several committees in seaport towns to take such measures as shall appear most effectual to warrant any other person who may be Inimical to their Country- making their Escape, in such manner, for the future.”
What became of Bridgett Phillips (or her trunks) after she returned to Boston remains a mystery.