Friday, November 1, 2013


Dr. Eliphalet Downer (played by Matt Damon in my imaginary movie) is holding a pistol as the sailors of two British sloops heavy with rum and sugar are taken aboard the “Yankee,” the privateer on which Downer has served four months as ship’s surgeon. The privateer has captured eight prize ships but not two during a single voyage. The second action had been especially lively. Downer had manned a cannon out of the window closest to his surgeon’s quarters. Watching the prisoners come aboard, Downer recognizes that they outnumber considerably the privateer’s crew, too many of whom are to sail the sloops back to a friendly port. He realizes that those crewmembers who remain aboard the “Yankee” must maintain constant vigilance.

Two hours later, while cleaning his surgical instruments, Downer hears shouts above his quarters. Two or three shots are fired. Heavy feet resound on the deck above. Minutes later he is arrested by two of the prisoners that he had an hour before examined.

Cut to the arrival of the “Mars,” a British prison ship, at Gosport, England, near the British naval base at Portsmouth. It is October 13, 1777. Downer and three Massachusetts seamen are removed from the prison ship and locked inside a filthy cell of Forten Prison, originally a privately owned naval hospital but now a cruel prisoner of war facility. “Expect t’be rottin’ yer bones here, mates!” one of the ship’s guards taunts. “Y’be dead in three months!”

The guard’s declaration is merited. The conditions of life here for prisoners are abominable, as indicated by Downer’s deposition printed later that year in the radical Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper, The American Spy.

“That after he was made prisoner he and his countrymen were closely confined, yet assured that on their arrival in port they should be set at liberty, and these assurances were repeated in the most solemn manner; instead of which, on their approach to land they were in hot weather of August, shut up in a small cabin, the windows of which were spiked down and no air admitted insomuch that they were all in danger of suffocation from the excessive heat. Three or four days after their arrival in the River Thames they were relieved from this situation in middle of the night hurried on board a tender and sent down to Sheerness, where the deponent was put into the “Ardent,” and there falling sick of a violent fever, in consequence of such treatment and languishing in that situation for some time, he was removed, still sick to the “ Mars,” and notwithstanding repeated petitions to be suffered to be sent to prison on shore, he was detained until, having the appearance of mortification in his legs he was sent to Hester Hospital [at Forten], from whence, after recovering his health, he had the good fortune to make his escape. [We must assume that this deposition was taken while Downer was in hiding after his escape] While on board those ships he was informed and believes that many of his countrymen, after experiencing even worse treatment than he, were sent to the west Indies, and many of those taken at Quebec were sent to the coasts of Africa as soldiers."

A biographical sketch of Eliphalet Downer -- taken in part from the Biographical Encyclopedia of Massachusetts, from "Brookline in the Revolutionary War," published by the Brookline Historical Society, and from original letters furnished by his descendants – indicates that soon after his arrival at Forten Prison, Downer was made a hospital assistant. That changed circumstance must have made Downer’s escape less daunting. Unfortunately, this sketch provides no details of his escape. We will leave its depiction to the imagination of our imaginary screen writer and film director.

We will permit the screen writer also to portray how Downer’s wife, Mary, was affected by the news of his capture. She had not yet received a letter from him, would in fact receive only one during his three year absence. Added to her anxiety was the daily burden of feeding her family. The half-pay order that Downer had left with her was worthless. Obtaining necessary food for three sons and one daughter was a daily ordeal. Frequently, Elizabeth did not know where their next meal would come from. The boys helped, catching pigeons in nets, scooping smelts out of brooks, and receiving payment for raising strawberries for the officers sick in Boston hospitals.

We see Downer carrying his bag of instruments onto the privateer “Alliance,” anchored in a French port. “We’ll be cruisin’ the Channel,” its captain has informed him. “Suspect we’ll be needin’ yer sawin’ and yer fightin’. In a year we expect t’be sailin’ home.”

Having captured 18 prize ships, the men of the “Alliance” at last set sail to cross the Atlantic. Two days west of the Azores the privateer is challenged by a 28-gun frigate. The “Alliance” is unable to flee. It must engage. Four hours into the battle, Downer, manning a cannon pointed outside the window next to his quarters, is driven to the floor by a fusillade of grapeshot. Downer cries out in agony. He stares at his right arm. The humerus bone of his right arm has broken through his coat sleeve.