William Cunningham, The Provost Marshal

“His hatred of the Americans found vent in torture by searing irons and secret scourges to those who fell under the ban of his displeasure. The prisoners were crowded together so closely that many fell ill from partial asphyxiation, and starved to death for want of the food which he sold to enrich himself.” – The Old Martyrs’ Prison pamphlet

We will condense all that we have to say of this man, whose cruelty and wickedness are almost inconceivable, into one chapter, and have done with the dreadful subject. As far as we have been able to learn, the facts about his life are the following.

William Cunningham was an Irishman, born in Dublin Barracks in 1738. His father was a trumpeter in the Blue Dragoons. When he was sixteen he became an assistant to the riding-master of the troop. In 1761 he was made a sergeant of dragoons, but peace having been proclaimed the following year, the company to which he belonged was disbanded. He afterwards commenced the business of a scaw-banker, which means that he went about the country enticing mechanics and rustics to ship to America, on promise of having their fortunes made in that country; and then by artful practices, produced their indentures as servants, in consequence of which on their arrival in America they were sold, or at least obliged to serve a term of years to pay for their passage. This business, no doubt, proved a fit apprenticeship for the career of villainy before him.

About the year 1774 he appears to have embarked from Newry in the ship Needham for New York, with some indentured servants he had kidnapped in Ireland. He is said to have treated these poor creatures so cruelly on the passage that they were set free by the authorities in New York upon their arrival.

When Cunningham first appeared in New York he offered himself as a horse-breaker, and insinuated himself into the favor of the British officers by blatant toryism. He soon became obnoxious to the Whigs of that city, was mobbed, and fled to the Asia man-of-war for protection. From thence he went to Boston, where General Gage appointed him Provost Marshal. When the British took possession of New York he followed them to that city, burning with desire to be revenged upon the Whigs.

He is said to have compassed the death of thousands of prisoners by selling their provisions, exchanging good for spoiled food, and even by poisoning them. Many also fell victims to his murderous violence. About two hundred and fifty of these poor creatures were taken out of their places of confinement at midnight and hung, without trial, simply to gratify his bloodthirsty instincts. Private execution was conducted in the following manner. A guard was first dispatched from the Provost, about midnight, to the upper barracks, to order the people on the line of march to shut their window shutters and put out their lights, forbidding them at the same time to presume to look out of their windows on pain of death. After this the prisoners were gagged, and conducted to the gallows just behind the upper barracks and hung without ceremony there. Afterwards they were buried by his assistant, who was a mulatto.

This practice is said to have been stopped by the women along the line of march from the Provost to the barracks. They appealed to General Howe to prevent further executions, as the noise made by the sufferers praying for mercy, and appealing to Heaven for justice was dreadful to their ears.

It would seem from this account that, although the wretched men were gagged as they were conveyed along the streets, their ferocious murderer could not deny himself the pleasure of hearing their shrieks of agony at the gallows.

Watson, in his “Annals of New York,” says that Cunningham glutted his vengence by hanging five or six of his prisoners every night, until the women who lived in the neighborhood petitioned Howe to have the practice discontinued.

A pamphlet called “The Old Martyrs’ Prison,” says of Cunningham: “His hatred of the Americans found vent in torture by searing irons and secret scourges to those who fell under the ban of his displeasure. The prisoners were crowded together so closely that many fell ill from partial asphyxiation, and starved to death for want of the food which he sold to enrich himself.”

They were given muddy and impure water to drink, and that not in sufficient quantities to sustain life. Their allowance was, nominally, two pounds of hard tack and two of pork _per week_, and this was often uncooked, while either the pork, or the biscuit, or both, were usually spoiled and most unwholesome.

Cunningham’s quarters were in the Provost Prison, and on the right hand of the main door of entry. On the left of the hall was the guard room. Within the first barricade was the apartment of his assistant, Sergeant O’Keefe. Two sentinels guarded the entrance day and night; two more were stationed at the first and second barricades, which were grated, barred, and chained.

“When a prisoner was led into the hall the whole guard was paraded, and he was delivered over to Captain Cunningham or his deputy, and questioned as to his name, age, size, rank, etc., all of which was entered in a record book. These records appear to have been discreetly destroyed by the British authorities.

“At the bristling of arms, unbolting of locks and bars, clanking of enormous iron chains in a vestibule dark as Erebus, the unfortunate captive might well sink under this infernal sight and parade of tyrannical power, as he crossed the threshold of that door which probably closed on him for life.

“The north east chamber, turning to the left on the second floor, was appropriated to officers of superior rank, and was called Congress Hall. * * * In the day time the packs and blankets used by the prisoners to cover them were suspended around the walls, and every precaution was taken to keep the rooms clean and well ventilated.

“In this gloomy abode were incarcerated at different periods many American officers and citizens of distinction, awaiting with sickening hope the protracted period of their liberation. Could these dumb walls speak what scenes of anguish might they not disclose!

“Cunningham and his deputy were enabled to fare sumptuously by dint of curtailing the prisoners’ rations, selling good for bad provisions, etc., in order to provide for the drunken orgies that usually terminated his dinners. Cunningham would order the rebel prisoners to turn out and parade for the amusement of his guests, pointing them out with such characterizations as ‘This is the d—-d rebel, Ethan Allen. This is a rebel judge, etc.'”

Cunningham destroyed Nathan Hale’s last letters containing messages to his loved ones, in order, as he said, that “the rebels should not know that they had a man in their army who could die with such firmness.”

From Elias Boudinot’s “Journal of Events” during the Revolution we extract the following account of his interview with Cunningham in New York. “In the spring of 1777 General Washington wrote me a letter requesting me to accept of a Commission as Commissary General of Prisoners in the Army of America. I waited on him and politely declined the task, urging the wants of the Prisoners and having nothing to supply them.”

Washington, however, urged him not to refuse, saying that if no one in whom he could trust would accept the office, the lot of the prisoners would be doubly hard. At last Boudinot consented to fill the position as best he could, and Washington declared that he should be supplied with funds by the Secret Committee of Congress. “I own,” he says, “that after I had entered on my department, the applications of the Prisoners were so numerous, and their distress so urgent, that I exerted every nerve to obtain supplies, but in vain–Excepting £600 I had received from the Secret Committee in Bills of exchange, at my first entrance into the Office–I could not by any means get a farthing more, except in Continental Money, which was of no avail in New York. I applied to the General describing my delicate Situation and the continual application of the Officers, painting their extreme distress and urging the assurance they had received that on my appointment I was to be furnished with adequate means for their full relief. The General appeared greatly distressed and assured me that it was out of his power to afford me any supplies. I proposed draining Clothing from the public stores, but to this he objected as not having anything like a sufficient supply for the Army. He urged my considering and adopting the best means in my power to satisfy the necessities of the Prisoners, and he would confirm them. I told him I knew of no means in my Power but to take what Monies I had of my own, and to borrow from my friends in New York, to accomplish the desirable purpose. He greatly encouraged me to the attempt, promising me that if I finally met with any loss, he would divide it with me. On this I began to afford them some supplies of Provisions over and above what the Enemy afforded them, which was very small and very indifferent.

“The complaints of the very cruel treatment our Prisoners met with in the Enemy’s lines rose to such a Heighth that in the Fall of this Year, 1777 the General wrote to General Howe or Clinton reciting their complaints and proposing to send an Officer into New York to examine into the truth of them. This was agreed to, and a regular pass-port returned accordingly. The General ordered me on this service. I accordingly went over on the 3rd of Feb. 1778, in my own Sloop.”

The Commandant at this time was General Robertson, by whom Boudinot was very well treated, and allowed, in company with a British officer, to visit the prisons. He continues: “Accordingly I went to the Provost with the Officer, where we found near thirty Officers from Colonels downwards, in close confinement in the Gaol in New York. After some conversation with the late Ethan Allen, I told him my errand, on which he was very free in his abuse of the British. *** We then proceeded upstairs to the Room of their Confinement. I had the Officers drawn up in a Ring and informed them of my mission, that I was determined to hear nothing in secret. That I therefore hoped they would each of them in their turn report to me faithfully and candidly the Treatment they severally had received,–that my design was to obtain them the proper redress, but if they kept back anything from an improper fear of their keepers, they would have themselves only to blame for their want of immediate redress. That for the purpose of their deliverance the British officer attended. That the British General should be also well informed of the Facts. On this, after some little hesitation from a dread of their keeper, the Provost Martial, one of them began and informed us that * * * some had been confined in the Dungeon for a night to await the leisure of the General to examine them and forgot for months; for being Committee men, &c, &c. That they had received the most cruel Treatment from the Provost Martial, being locked up in the Dungeon on the most trifling pretences, such as asking for more water to drink on a hot day than usual–for sitting up a little longer in the Evening than orders allowed–for writing a letter to the General making their Complaints of ill-usage and throwing (it) out of the Windows. That some of them were kept ten, twelve, and fourteen weeks in the Dungeon on these trifling Pretenses. A Captain Vandyke had been confined eighteen months for being concerned in setting fire to the City, When, on my calling for the Provost Books, it appeared that he had been made Prisoner and closely confined in the Provost four days before the fire happened. A Major Paine had been confined eleven months for killing a Captain Campbell in the Engagement when he was taken Prisoner, when on examination it appeared that the Captain had been killed in another part of the Action. The charge was that Major Paine when taken had no commission, though acknowledged by us as a Major.

“Most of the cases examined into turned out wholly false or too trifling to be regarded. It also appeared by the Declaration of some of the Gentlemen that their water would be sometimes, as the Caprice of the Provost Martial led him, brought up to them in the tubs they used in their Rooms, and when the weather was so hot that they must drink or perish. On hearing a number of these instances of Cruelty, I asked who was the Author of them–they answered the provost keeper–I desired the Officer to call him up that we might have him face to face. He accordingly came in, and on being informed of what had passed, he was asked if the complaints were true. He, with great Insolence answered that every word was true–on which the British Officer, abusing him very much, asked him how he dared to treat Gentlemen in that cruel Manner. He, insolently putting his hands to his side, swore that he was as absolute there as General Howe was at the head of his Army. I observed to the Officer that now there could be no dispute about Facts, as the fellow had acknowledged every word to be true. I stated all the Facts in substance and waited again on General Robertson, who hoped I was quite satisfied with the falsity of the reports I had heard. I then stated to him the Facts and assured him that they turned out worse than anything we had heard. On his hesitating as to the truth of this assertion–I observed to him the propriety of having an Officer with me, to whom I now appealed for the truth of the Facts. He being present confirmed them–on which the General expressed great dissatisfaction, and promised that the Author of them should be punished. I insisted that the Officers should be discharged from his Power on Parole on Long Island, as other Officers were–To this after receiving from me a copy of the Facts I had taken down, he assented, & all were discharged except seven, who were detained some time before I could obtain their release. I forgot to mention that one Officer, Lieutenant–was taken Prisoner and brought in with a wound through the leg. He was sent to the Provost to be examined, next night he was put into the Dungeon and remained there ten weeks, totally forgotten by the General, and never had his wound dressed except as he washed it with a little Rum and Water given to him by the Centinels, through the–hole out of their own rations. Captain–and a Captain Chatham were confined with them and their allowance was four pounds hard spoiled Biscuit, and two pounds Pork per week, which they were obliged to eat raw. While they were thus confined for the slightest Complaints, the Provost Martial would come down and beat them unmercifully with a Rattan, and Knock them down with his fist. After this I visited two Hospitals of our Sick Prisoners, and the Sugar House:–in the two first were 211 Prisoners, and in the last about 190. They acknowledged that for about two months past they fared pretty well, being allowed two pounds of good Beef and a proportion of flour or Bread per week, by Mr. Lewis, My Agent, over and above the allowance received from the British, which was professed to be two thirds allowance; but before they had suffered much from the small allowance they had received, and and that their Bread was very bad, being mostly biscuit, but that the British soldiers made the same complaint as to the bread. From every account I received I found that their treatment had been greatly changed for the better within a few months past, except at the Provost. They all agreed that previous to the capture of General Burgoyne, and for some time after, Their treatment had been cruel beyond measure. That the Prisoners in the French church, amounting on an average to three or four hundred, could not all lay down at once, that from the 15th October to the first January they never received a single stick of wood, and that for the most part they eat their Pork Raw, when the Pews and Door, and Wood on Facings failed them for fuel.

“But as to my own personal knowledge I found General Robertson very ready to agree to every measure for alleviating the miseries of War and very candidly admitted many faults committed by the inferior Officers, and even the mistakes of the General himself, by hearkening to the representations of those around him. He showed me a letter from General Howe who was in Philadelphia, giving orders that we should not be at liberty to purchase blankets within their lines, and containing a copy of an order I had issued that they should not purchase provisions within ours, by way of retaliation, but he represented it as if my order was first. I stated the facts to General Robertson, who assured me that General Howe had been imposed upon, and requested me to state the facts by way of letter, when he immediately wrote to General Howe, urging the propriety of reversing his orders, which afterwards he did in a very hypocritical manner as will appear hereafter.”

It does not seem that Cunningham was very seriously punished. It is probable that he was sent away from New York to Philadelphia, then in the hands of General Howe. Cunningham was Provost Marshal in that city during the British occupancy, where his cruelties were, if possible, more astrocious than ever before.

Dr. Albigense Waldo was a surgeon in the American army at Valley Forge, and he declares in his Journal concerning the prisoners in Philadelphia that “the British did not knock the prisoners in the head, or burn them with torches, or flay them alive, or dismember them as savages do, but they starved them slowly in a large and prosperous city. One of these unhappy men, driven to the last extreme of hunger, is said to have gnawed his own fingers to the first joint from the hand, before he expired. Others ate the mortar and stone which they chipped from the prison walls, while some were found with bits of wood and clay in their mouths, which in their death agonies they had sucked to find nourishment.” [Footnote: This account is quoted by Mr. Bolton in a recent book called “The Private Soldier under Washington,” a valuable contribution to American history.]

Boudinot has something to say about these wretched sufferers in the City of Brotherly Love during the months of January and February, 1778. “Various Reports having reached us with regard to the Extreme Sufferings of our Prisoners in Philadelphia, I was directed by the Commander-in-Chief to make particular inquiry into the truth. After some time I obtained full Information of their Sufferings. It was proved by some Militia of good Character that on being taken they were put under the care of the General’s Guard, and kept four or five days without the least food. That on the fifth day they were taken into the Provost, where a small quantity of Raw Pork was given to them. One of their number seized and devoured it with so much eagerness that he dropped down dead:–that the Provost Martial used to sell their provisions and leave them to starve, as he did their Allowance of Wood. I received information from a British Officer who confided in my integrity, that he happened in the Provost just at the time the Provost Martial was locking up the Prisoners. He had ordered them from the Yard into the House. Some of them being ill with the Dysentery could scarcely walk, and for not coming faster he would beat them with his Rattan. One being delayed longer than the rest. On his coming up Cunningham gave him a blow with one of the large Keys of the Goal which killed him on the Spot. The Officer, exceedingly affected with the sight, went next day and lodged a formal Complaint of the Murder with General Howe’s Aid. After waiting some days, and not discovering any measures taken for the tryal of Cunningham, he again went to head quarters and requested to see the General, but was refused. He repeated his Complaint to his Aid, and told him if this passed unpunished it would become disreputable to wear a British uniform. No notice being taken the Officer determined to furnish me privately with the means of proof of the Facts, so that General Washington might remonstrate to General Howe on the subject:–I reported them with the other testimony I had collected to General Washington. He accordingly wrote in pretty strong Terms to General Howe and fixed a day, when if he did not receive a satisfactory answer, he would retaliate on the prisoners in his Custody. On the day he received an answer from General Howe, acknowledging that, on Examination he found that Cunningham had sold the Prisoners’ rations publicly in the Market. That he had therefor removed him from the Charge of the Prisoners and appointed Mr. Henry H. Ferguson in his place. This gave us great pleasure as we knew Mr. Ferguson to be a Gentleman of Character and great Humanity, and the issue justified our expectations. But to our great surprise Mr. Cunningham was only removed from the Charge of the Prisons in Philadelphia, and sent to that of New York. Soon after this great complaints being made of our Prisoners being likely to perish for want of Cloathing and Blankets, having been mostly stripped and robbed of their Cloaths when taken, application was made for permission to purchase (with the provisions which the British wanted,) Blankets and cloathing, which should be used only by the Prisoners while in Confinement. This was agreed to, as we were informed by our own Agent as well as by the British Commissioner. Provisions were accordingly attempted to be sent in, when General Howe pretending to ignorance in the business, forbid the provisions to be admitted, or the Blankets to be purchased. On this I gave notice to the British Commissary that after a certain day they must provide food for their prisoners south west of New Jersey, and to be sent in from their lines, as they should no longer be allowed to purchase provisions with us. The line drawn arose from our being at liberty to purchase in New York. This made a great noise, when General Howe on receiving General Robertson’s letter from New York before mentioned, urging the propriety of the measures, issued an order that every Person in Philadelphia, who had a Blanket to sell or to spare should bring them into the King’s Stores. When this was done he then gave my Agent permission to purchase Blankets and Cloathing, in the City of Philadelphia. On my Agent attempting it he found every Blanket in the City purchased by the Agents for the Army, so that not a Blanket could be had. My Agent knowing the necessities of our Prisoners, immediately employed persons in every part of the city and before General Howe could discover his own omission, purchased up every piece of flannel he could meet with, and made it up into a kind of Blanket, which answered our purpose.”

Wherever General Howe and Cunningham were together, either in New York or in Philadelphia, the most atrocious cruelties were inflicted upon the American prisoners in their power, and yet some have endeavoured to excuse General Howe, on what grounds it is difficult to determine. It has been said that Cunningham _acted on higher authority than any in America_, and that Howe in vain endeavored to mitigate the sufferings of the prisoners. This, however, is not easy of belief. Howe must at least have wilfully blinded himself to the wicked and murderous violence of his subordinate. It was his duty to know how the prisoners at his mercy fared, and not to employ murderers to destroy them by the thousands as they were destroyed in the prisons of New York and Philadelphia.

Oliver Bunce, in His “Romance of the Revolution,” thus speaks of the inhumanity of Cunningham.

“But of all atrocities those committed in the prisons and prison ships of New York are the most execrable, and indeed there is nothing in history to excel the barbarities there inflicted. Twelve thousand suffered death by their inhuman, cruel, savage, and barbarous usage on board the filthy and malignant prison ships–adding those who died and were poisoned in the infected prisons in the city a much larger number would be necessary to include all those who suffered by command of British Generals in New York. The scenes enacted in these prisons almost exceed belief. * * * Cunningham, the like of whom, for unpitying, relentless cruelty, the world has not produced, * * * thirsted for blood, and took an eager delight in murder.”

He remained in New York until November, 1783, when he embarked on board a British man-of-war and America was no longer cursed with his presence. He is said to have been hung for the crime of forgery on the tenth of August, 1791. The newspapers of the day contained the accounts of his death, and his dying confession. These accounts have, however, been discredited by historians who have in vain sought the English records for the date of his death. It is said that no man of the name of Cunningham was hung in England in the year 1791. It is not possible to find any official British record of his transactions while Provost Marshal, and there seems a mystery about the disappearance of his books kept while in charge of the Provost, quite as great as the mystery which envelopes his death. But whether or no he confessed his many crimes; whether or no he received in this world a portion of the punishment he deserved, it is certain that the crimes were committed, and duly recorded in the judgment book of God, before whose awful bar he has been called to account for every one of them.


Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967.

2 thoughts on “William Cunningham, The Provost Marshal”

  1. It is interesting that when describing people of the 18th-19th Century if someone is a hero he is described as “Scots Irish” and if a rouge simply Irish.
    If this individual served in the Blues regiment, Sargent. Note that the Duke of Wellington was also born in Dublin, but few (including himself) consider him Irish; as he noted: “Just because a gentleman was born in a barn does not make him a horse”.

    Secondly the statement “About the year 1774 he appears to have embarked from Newry in the ship Needham for New York, with some indentured servants he had kidnapped in Ireland ” is a non-sequitur. How is someone who is kidnapped an “indentured servant”? A person forcibly impressed into the service of another by legal definition is a slave

    1. Note, some of my comment appears to have been cut off. If this individual served in the Blues regiment, he certainly was not Irish in sympathy and certainly not an Irish Catholic as the Penal Laws of the time barred Catholics in the military and certainly fro,m being promoted Sargent

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