Sunday, September 29, 2019

Episode 116: American Terrorist in Britain

Last week I discussed some of the trouble Silas Deane had in France trying to get military supplies and French officers to America.

The Offer

Around the same time Silas Deane was trying to get the first ships out of port in November 1776, a man named James Aitken knocked on his door.  Aitken told Deane he had fought for the British under Lord Dunmore in Virginia the year before.  He had been treated poorly and now wanted to work for the patriot cause.  The 25 year old seemed dishevelled and tended to ramble on, but offered an interesting plan.

Aitken had developed a device that would allow the user to set it, then after a delay of several hours, it would burst into flame.  Aitken proposed to enter British dockyards, set multiple devices, and escape before the fires broke out, destroying the dockyard.  This would cripple British naval operations.

This seemed like a pretty daring and ambitious plan, but the risk really just fell on Aitken.  If he was willing to attempt this massive sabotage campaign on his own, why not let him try?  Deane gave the man travel expenses back to England and told him to contact his friend Edward Bancroft in London if he ran into trouble.

James Aitken

Aitken’s story begins in Scotland.  He was born in Edinburgh in 1752.  As the 8th of 12 children, he probably did not stand out much.  His father was a smith, meaning he had a decent trade, but still had difficulty supporting his large family.  In any event, his father died when James was only seven.  In an age when women did not typically work outside the home, his widowed mother could not support the family.
James Aitken (from Wikimedia)

There was no social safety net at the time, so the family was largely on its own.  Even for intact families, times were tough.  Edinburgh saw several food riots in the 1760s.  Poor harvests had increased food prices to the point where many were starving to death.

At age nine, James caught a break.  He was admitted to George Heriot’s Hospital, which despite the name, was a school.  It had been established more than a century earlier for young fatherless boys whose fathers had been town Burgesses.  A Burgess included craft workers such as James’ father.  The result was that James could get an education and sufficient food.  If he did well at his studies, he might even get a scholarship to the University of Edinburgh.

Unfortunately, James did not do so well at his studies.  He did learn to read and write and listened to many sermons by the Reverend John Erskine, who was a radical whig very sympathetic to the plight of the colonists in America.  By age 14, the administration decided that James was not university material.  Instead, they would apprentice him to a trade.  The school thought he should become a house painter.

Now in earlier centuries, a painter was a craftsman since few people knew how to make paint.  But by the mid-1700’s businesses were producing paint on a larger scale,  House painters did not make their own paint and therefore really need that much training.  There were already more painters than needed.  It does not seem like a good career goal for anyone at that time.  Forcing a boy into a seven year apprenticeship to learn how to paint a house was really more just about forcing him into involuntary labor for a long time.

Finally, at age 20, Aitken finished his apprenticeship and became a journeyman painter.  In 1772, his school gave him five pounds sterling to get him started in life and sent him out into the world.  Aitken showed no interest in working as a painter.  Even if he had, there just wasn’t much of a market for one.  He had expressed interested in becoming a military officer, but there was no way he could afford to buy a commission.  Instead, the young man hit the road and set out for London to seek his fortune.

Londoners, however, were not terribly fond of Scotsmen.  They considered them ill-mannered and as foreigners taking away jobs from Englishmen. Aitken did find a few jobs, but did not make enough to survive.  After a time, he embarked on a new career, highway robbery.  He purchased a pair of pistols and held up coaches on the roads in and out of London.  He also took up shoplifting and burglary.  Even a life of crime did not produce much, and always presented the danger of being hanged.  Continuing in this way would not end well.

The following year, 1773, Aitken decided to try his luck in America.  Since he was broke, he made arrangements to serve as an indentured servant.  A ship would pay for his passage, including food and clothing for the journey.  They would then auction him off for a period of years to someone willing to buy his indenture and pay for the journey.  Of course, conditions aboard ship were pretty terrible.  The food and water were poor and inadequate.  It was not unusual for a fair percentage of passengers to die from the poor conditions during the crossing.

Aitken reached Jamestown, Virginia he was auctioned off to a plantation owner.  The details of Aitken’s time in America are rather sketchy.  Much of what we know comes from his own accounts, in which he tried to appear much more impressive than was probably the case.

He went to work as a common field hand, working alongside black slaves.  In many accounts, slaves received better treatment than indentured servants.  This was because they represented a larger investment for the owner.  An owner could invest the time to train slaves in more skilled work since the slave would be around for life.  The indentured servant would only be around for a few years, meaning one had to get as much labor out of him as possible during the indenture period.

Hard work as a field laborer was not something Aitken would tolerate.  He spent his first few weeks in America sick, perhaps from his journey, or more likely from a range of diseases on the plantation.  Almost as soon as he was well though, Aitken ran away from his indenture.

This was no easy task.  Most of Virginia was set up to prevent slaves and servants from escaping.  Aitken’s clothing and accent would have identified him as a servant, meaning he would have to have a pass from his master.  Since he was literate enough, he could have forged such a pass.  Even so, most who tried to escape were unsuccessful.  It is impressive that he did make his escape on his first try in a strange land.

However, he did it, Aitken says that he found his way to Philadelphia, but could not find work or anything else to support himself there.  After a few months, he traveled to Perth Amboy, New Jersey and then New York City.  Aitken claims he then traveled to Boston in time to participate in the Boston Tea Party.  This is highly unlikely.  He likely made the claim only to enhance his reputation and association with the patriot cause later in life.  I’ve seen no good evidence that he made it to Boston at all, let alone participated in the Tea Party.

By early 1775, anti-Scottish sentiment swept over most of colonies.  Scots tended to be Tories, who became very unwelcome in the months leading up to war.  As I mentioned, Aitken also makes the claim that he fought for Lord Dunmore, the loyalist Governor of Virginia.  This could be as part of the force that fought the Indians in Lord Dunmore’s war of 1774, or perhaps with the loyalists fighting for the Governor in 1775.  Again, though, it is not clear at all whether Aitken was just making up his participation in events that he read about in the newspaper.

Whatever his actual activities, by 1775 Aitken found himself in North Carolina along with a number of Scottish loyalists looking for a friendlier location.  There was already a large Scotch population in the colony.  Once he arrived, though, Aitken decided to head back to England.  As ship captains were hard up for crewman, it would have been rather easy to find a job on a ship, even without experience.

Once back in London, Aitken chose a new profession: bounty jumping.  The army was looking to recruit soldiers following the news of Lexington and Concord.  Aitken signed up at least three times that year, each time using a false name.  He collected a signing bounty each time, then deserted a few days later.  This sort of thing could get you hanged if caught, but Aitken seems to have become comfortable with risking the hangman’s noose in order to get by.  He spent the rest of 1775 and 1776 engaging in a series of street robberies and burglaries across southern England, never staying in one place too long.

Adopting the Patriot Cause

Aitken, however, wanted to be more than a common criminal.  He supported the cause of the colonists in the war with Britain.  During this time, Aitken claims to have overheard a conversation in Oxford that changed his life.  Several men in a tavern were discussing the war.  One of them noted that the war depended on the British navy, and that the navy greatly depending on a few dockyards that dotted the coast of southern England.  If something happened to those dockyards, the navy would be devastated.

From that, Aitken finally saw his path to fame and fortune.  He would burn down all the main navy yards in Britain: Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham, Woolwich and Deptford.  Britain would end the war. Aitken would slip away to America where he would be hailed as a hero of the Revolution, perhaps even receiving a commission as an officer in the Continental Army.

Aitken with his
incendiary device
(from Wikimedia)
In early 1776, Aitken found work as a journeyman painter near the Portsmouth docks.  He spent much of his time drawing sketches of the dockyard defenses and designing devices that would start a fire after a time delay.

The idea of causing a fire in a dockyard was a realistic one.  While the navy had defenses against an enemy attack, they were not prepared for saboteurs.  Anyone could enter the dockyards without being searched.  Bringing in equipment to start a fire was quite possible.  One would have to start multiple fires all at once all over the dockyards to be successful though.  Otherwise, bucket brigades would probably douse the fire relatively quickly and limit its damage.

Further, even if he could destroy one dockyard, that would almost certainly put the others on alert.  These heightened defenses would prevent similar attacks in other dockyards.  The only way to pull off this sort of destruction would be to have a team of saboteurs hit all the dockyards on the same night.  However, Aitken had no ability to plan such an aggressive coordinated attack.  He planned to do everything by himself.

At first, he hoped he might get to Philadelphia to get the Continental Congress to back his plan.  But he had no money to get to America, even if that was possible given the trade embargo.  Instead, he opted to go to Paris to meet with Silas Deane, the American agent.  Aitken found a small sailboat that took him across the British Channel.  After several attempts he obtained an audience with Deane.  By this time, British agents were watching Deane’s residence at all times.  His valet was also a British spy.  None of them seemed to see Aitken as anything more than a commoner who was no threat to anything, or even worth reporting.

Deane was also skeptical.  Still, after two meetings and reviewing Aitken’s sketches for a time delayed firebomb, he sent Aitken back to England without any real assistance, but with the view, that sure, maybe this guy can destroy something.  He gave Aitken the equivalent of about three pounds stirling and a French passport so that he could return to Britain.  He also gave him the name of a local contact in Britain, Edward Bancroft.  Aitken claims that Deane gave him a promissory note for £300, though there is no good evidence of this.

The Attacks

Although Deane may have seen some small chance that Aitken might do some damage with his time delay devices, the execution of the plot was shockingly amateurish.

Aitken attempted to get several of the devices built to set his fires.  The device itself was rather simple.  It was a candle inside a tin box with small holes to let in air. When the candle burned low enough, it would open a lower compartment filled with turpentine or other combustibles to the open flame.  This would cause the box to explode and set on fire anything within a few feet of it.  Aitken attempted to have several built, but only ever got one of them completed.

On December 6, 1776, Aitken entered the main rope house of the Portsmouth dockyard, planning to set the time delayed fire there.  Since he only had equipment to start one fire, he planned to light the candle, then rush back to town and set his rented room on fire.  That way, firefighters would be busy putting out that fire when the alarm for the dockyard fire came.

Portsmouth Dockyard (1760 plans) (from Portsmouth Royal
Dockyards Historical Trust
He spent too long putting the combustibles in place, and soon found himself locked inside the rope house for the night.  After trying to find a way out, he eventually had to bang on the door until someone could get a key and let him out.  He had not set the fire and simply claimed to be a curious visitor who got stuck inside.  The guards apparently bought his story and let him go.

The next morning, Aitken tried again, but this time tried to set his room on fire before leaving for the dockyard.  His landlady immediately smelled smoke and confronted him.  After some argument, he left his room for the dockyard.  He spent the day having a few drinks and buying more matches.  In the early afternoon, he entered the rope house, which was already empty for the day.  He started three small fires, then walked out before they grew large enough for anyone to notice.

His fire damaged the rope house but did not spread beyond that. Aitken fled town hitchhiking to London over the next 24 hours.  Once there, he headed straight to the home of Edward Bancroft, Silas Deane’s agent in London.  Now you may recall from last week, Deane had been using Bancroft to send him information from London.  But Bancroft was a double agent, sending virtually useless information to Deane, and keeping British officials informed of everything that happened in France.

Aitken arrived at Bancroft’s door, telling him that Deane had promised him that Bancroft would give him a safe house and £300 to complete his missions in the other dockyards. This put Bancroft in a difficult position. If he helped Aitken, British officials might convict him of being part of this American plot.  If he did not, the Americans might suspect him of being the British agent that he was.  Bancroft sent him away but agreed to meet later.  At that other meeting Bancroft informed Aitken that he would be no part of this scheme.

With that, Aitken left, still determined to complete his self-appointed mission.  Without money, he had to turn back to petty theft to support himself.  He held up in Bristol for a while and began casing the Plymouth dockyards.  All the time, he was certain that a national manhunt would track him down and hang him.

In fact, though his fire at Portsmouth had destroyed the rope house, the damage was limited.  Investigators had no clue who did it, and were leaning toward it being accidental.  They had interviewed over a dozen suspects.  The investigation was leading nowhere.

Aitken though, saw himself as a one man destruction force.  In mid-January, he tried to set fires on three merchant ships and a warehouse in Bristol.  The fires did not work, but discovery of combustibles on the three ships alerted the town that they had an arsonist.  A few days later, Aitken set another fire which managed to burn several warehouses before locals could extinguish it

Once everyone realized there really was a serial arsonist, panic set in.  The government offered a £1000 reward, then doubled it to £2000.  Eventually the reward reached almost £3000  Witnesses started to put together the behavior of this strange Scotsman who had been lurking around Portsmouth and Bristol before the fires.  He became known as “John the Painter” as officials tried to track him down.  Lord Germain used the panic to push a bill through Parliament allowing officials to imprison suspected American combatants without trial.  The bill was aimed primarily at privateers, but the panic over arson helped shephard this bill through Parliament.

Within a couple of weeks, Aitken was in jail.  His luck ran out after he robbed a local shop. The owner tracked him down.  When caught, Aitken had several of the stolen items on him, as well as various tools for use in his acts of arson.  The owner suspected he might be the arsonist.  While in jail, several witnesses identified him.  Officials were confident they had their man.  But they still did not know why he did it or whether he had accomplices.

The Trial

Because Aitken refused to talk, authorities tricked him into providing the information they needed.  They introduced a man as a possible witness who could not identify Aitken.  Afterwards, the man struck up a conversation with the prisoner and showed him some kindness.  He offered to come visit him in jail to talk more.  In their discussions, Aitken bragged about his visits to America, his meetings with Silas Deane and Edward Bancroft, and his work for the American cause.  The man he trusted turned out to be an informant working for the prosecution.

Aitken's trial
(from Wikimedia)
The trial began on March 6, 1777 and was by local standards a very long one, taking nearly seven hours.  The prosecutors indicted him for three offenses related to the fires in Portsmouth.  They did not indict him for the Bristol fires.  Some have said this was to avoid having to pay the rewards offered for the capture of the person convicted of those crimes.  The court had five prosecutors and nineteen witnesses.  Aitken was not entitled to a defense lawyer and had no information before the trial started about the evidence to be used against him.  The jury deliberated for about a second before finding him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to hang.

After his trial, Aitken figured that if he was going to hang, he might as well hang as an American hero rather than a common criminal.  He spent the next few days giving his story to men who would publish biographies of his life and sell them on the streets of London.  He told them he was an American agent, working for Deane and Bancroft.  Although Deane was safely in Paris, Bancroft was in London.  Of course he denied knowing anything about this, but the public now thought he might be an American spy.  The main thing that saved him from arrest was that the British government knew he was a double agent and still wanted to use him.  They ended up allowing him to “flee” to Paris where he could keep tabs on Deane and continue to provide intelligence to the British government.

On March 10, 1777, four days after his trial, officials took Aitken back to the Bristol dockyards, where they had assembled a gallows.  It was over 60 feet high, made from a ship’s yardarm, the tallest ever used in Britain.  After the hanging, they gibotted his body, which meant covering it with tar for preservation, then putting it in a cage and hanging it on public display.  There he would remain as a warning to anyone else who would try to interfere with the British war effort.

Next Week: We return to American as Washington’s Army begins its retreat across New Jersey with the British Army in close pursuit.

- - -

Next Episode 117: Retreat Across New Jersey

Previous Episode 115: Congress and French Diplomacy

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Further Reading


Jack the Painter:

Hedbor, Lars D. H. “John the Painter, Terrorist for America” Journal of the American Revolution, May 1, 2016:

George Heriots School:

Death of an 18th Century Terrorist: John the Painter

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Aitken, James The Life of James Aitken Commonly Called John the Painter, John Wilkes Publisher, 1777 (Google Books).

Dean, Silas The Dean Papers, Vol. 1, New York Historical Society, 1887.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009.

Warner, Jessica John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution, Thunder's Mouth Books, 2004 (book recommendation of the week).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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