- Historic Sites
The Spies Who Went Out In The Cold
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
No one disturbed the spies in Framingham, nor as they walked back to Weston on Tuesday, February 28, “having fine weather and a beautiful country to travel through.” Their spirits were so heightened that when they got to the Golden Ball tavern and their friend Mr. Jones, they ignored “several hints from the family not to go any more into the country.” Perhaps they felt sheepish because a passing horseman had frightened them off the Marlborough road. Perhaps “pot-valour” worked on British officers as well as on American militiamen. They decided that, after all, they should examine the main Boston-Worcester road through Sudbury and Marlborough, to the point where they had left it ten miles outside of Worcester.
The next morning was “very cloudy and threatened bad weather.” March 1 would get a great deal darker and more threatening for Browne and De Birniere before it was over. They put their papers in order and sent John off with them to Boston, “so that if they did stop and search us, they would not get our papers.” This was a wise precaution, of course, but it deprived the officers of John’s common sense and ability to talk to the local people.
At noon it began to snow, but Browne and De Birniere had an early lunch anyway, “in hopes the weather would clear up.” Had they been Yankees, the spies would have recognized the signs of that spectacular phenomenon of New England meteorology, the northeaster. At two o’clock the snow let up a little, so they decided to set out for Marlborough, about sixteen miles away. “We found the roads very bad, every step up to our ankles,” but that at least kept other travellers inside. They passed through Sudbury and over a “causeway … across a great swamp,” and, as it was snowing hard again, escaped notice until a horseman overtook them three miles outside Marlborough. Where were they coming from, he wanted to know. Weston. Did they live there? No. Where did they live? “As we found there was no evading his questions, we told him we lived at Boston; he then asked us where we were going, we told him to Marlborough, to see a friend, (as we intended to go to Mr. Barnes’s, a gentleman to whom we were recommended, and a friend to government;) he then asked if we were in the army, we said not, but were a good deal alarmed at his asking us that question.” After a few more “rather impertinent questions,” the horseman rode off toward Marlborough to spread word of their arrival.
When they entered the town, “the people came out of their houses (tho’ it snowed and blew very hard) to look at us.” A baker asked Captain Browne: “Where are you going master?” Browne replied, “to see Mr. Barnes.” That, if nothing else, would have tipped off their sympathies. Henry Barnes, a prosperous applejack distiller and merchant, was a notorious Tory who had been on the outs with the local patriots ever since he broke the nonimportation agreement in 1770.
At Barnes’s, Browne and De Birniere started to apologize for arriving unannounced and “discovering to him that we were officers in disguise.” Barnes stopped their explanation. Not only he, but everybody else in town, knew who they were. In fact, on Monday night, a hot welcome had been prepared for them by “a party of liberty people” who had been warned by Captain Bigelow, the horseman who had looked De Birniere over so carefully. Was there a safe tavern where they could stay? No, Barnes answered, the town was very violent and his was the only house where they were not sure to meet trouble. Had they spoken to anyone when they entered town? They told Barnes about Browne’s encounter with the baker. That was bad. The baker was an ardent patriot and had a deserter living in his house. Browne asked the deserter’s name. It was Swain, a drummer. That tore it. Browne “knew him too well”; less than a month ago Swain had been Browne’s own company drummer! “We asked Mr. Barnes if they did get us into their hands, what they would do with us; he did not seem to like to answer; we asked him again, he then said we knew the people very well, that we might expect the worst of treatment from them.” Barnes did not have to elaborate; every Tory and redcoat knew about the “modern punishment,” tar and feathers.
At this point Barnes was called to the door. His caller was Dr. Samuel Curtis, a member of the local Committee of Correspondence. Curtis casually said he had dropped by for a bite of supper, though he had not been in Barnes’s house for two years, and a high Son of Liberty was unlikely to be making a social call on the town’s leading Tory. Barnes said he was sorry, but he had company. Then Dr. Curtis asked one of Barnes’s children who her father’s visitors were. “The child innocently answered that she had asked her pappa, but he told her it was not her business.” That was all Curtis needed. He hurried off to tell his fellow committeemen.
Browne and De Birniere decided that Marlborough was too hot for them. They would rest for two or three hours, then sneak out of town at midnight. But just as they were sitting down to supper, Barnes rushed in to tell them that his servants reported a delegation of townspeople on its way. No time even to eat. Snatching up a bit of bread, the spies rushed out the back door past the stables and fled down a back lane that would take them again to the Sudbury road a quarter mile out of town. They had been in Barnes’s house for twenty minutes.