KING’S LYNN: Derring-do of seafarer who ran out of lies after capture by French
At midday, on the 29th of November 1810, a young man from Lynn named Bedford Russell boarded the Flora at Littlehampton, bound for Sunderland.
It was a time of war with France and sea travel, especially in the Channel, was risky. Yet Captain Pettison and his mate, Richard Harrison, were experienced and had made the run nearly a dozen times.
Four hours after sailing from Littlehampton, a French privateer, the Loup Marin, with 16 guns and a crew of 64, captured the little Flora.
The Loup Marin picked up another British prize, the Olive Branch, and led the two into the French port of Dieppe, where the cargo and ship would be sold, and the British passengers and crew would be imprisoned. During the journey, Bedford’s locked box with all of his papers was either stolen or tossed into the sea.
On arrival at Dieppe, Bedford Russell and the others had to give their names, ages and nationalities to the gendarmes. Bedford knew that his British nationality meant certain imprisonment as the enemy. So, he said he was aged 22, a passenger and an American from Boston.
He was imprisoned in the 12th-century fortress, the Chateau de Dieppe, to await interrogation.
Two cold weeks later, he was called before the police commissioner, one Louis
Marie Baudelicque. He repeated that we was 22 and from “Boston in America”.
He added that he was a farmer, married, and had children. When asked the names of his parents, he said: “My father is dead. He was named James from Charlestown. My mother is still alive. Her name is Frances Jerry and she lives in Boston, where she was born. I left Boston about two months ago. I was planning to proceed to Lynn, in Norfolk County, where I have a sister and a brother-in-law, who is not well.”
Baudelicque asked if he knew any Americans who might be in Dieppe at the moment who could vouch for him. “I know many,” Bedford answered, “among them, Captain Holmes.” Baudelicque questioned Benjamin Holmes, captain of the ship Justice, and another American, Isaiah Atkins.
Both men declared – lying through their teeth -- that Bedford Russell was from Boston. Bedford was sent back to the chateau to await the decision on his case.
Bedford Russell had followed the golden rule of liars: to stick as close to the truth as possible. His mother was Frances Jeary. Bedford was her second illegitimate son. He was baptised in Saint Nicholas Chapel in July 1782. When he and his brother were still quite small, their mother married a widower, James Russels, whose surname they then took. Frances and James Russels had a son,
George, and then James Russels, père, died in late 1786. Frances went on to have one more illegitimate child, Mary, born in August of 1789.
Thus, his parents’ names, the fact that his father was deceased, and that he had a sister, were all true. He simply moved them in his story from Lynn to Boston.
A new prisoner arrived at the Chateau of Dieppe toward the end of the month.
D’Arcy Boulton was a 50-year-old lawyer and His Britannic Majesty’s Solicitor General for Canada. He wrote of his imprisonment that he was placed in “Common Gaol without Bed or Fire with the lowest of Prisoners and… even prevented getting the common necessaries of Life.”
He met Bedford Russell, who must have been a very persuasive young man, for he convinced yet another person to lie for him. The Solicitor General wrote more than one letter on his behalf, affirming that he was American and from Boston.
The lies seemed to be working, for the French did not doubt Bedford’s story.
In fact, they believed it too well. His case was discussed at the highest levels.
The Duke of Rovigo, (a man notorious for running the Ministry of Police like a “veritable inquisition” and for the creation of the weekly “Secret Police” reports to Napoleon) thought that even if Bedford Russell were American, he should remain a prisoner of war for having confessed to visiting and planning to do business in Britain. His only doubt was that Bedford might have been related to Jonathan Russell, the chargé d’affaires of the American legation in Paris. One of the many responsibilities of the staff of the American legation at that time was to try to secure the release of the hundreds of Americans taken from British ships, for the United States was considered a neutral country during the Napoleonic Wars. Many British sailors, knowing Americans would be released, pretended – like Bedford Russell – to be American. Suspecting everyone, the French, when in doubt, erred on the side of caution and kept the man locked up. They would, however, accept the word of the members of the American legation as to a man’s nationality.
In early January 1811, Jonathan Russell – who had received D’Arcy Boulton’s letters – wrote to the Duke of Rovigo. He wrote – astonishingly – that he was “fully persuaded that the said Russell is truly a citizen of the United States.”
He asked Rovigo “therefore to give the orders necessary for his liberation.” Those orders were not given.
A month later, Bedford was still in jail in Dieppe. In spite of his success in convincing everyone that he was American, he was not released. He must have
been frantic to get home to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in April 1804 in the parish of Saint Margaret, and his small children, Elizabeth and George.
He must have despaired when he learned that the Duke of Feltre, Minister for
War, ordered him to be sent to the prisoner of war camp at Cambrai.
Bedford Russell then took the mad, brave and exceedingly dangerous decision to escape. On the 11th of February, somehow having managed to get his hands on a number of bridles which he used as ropes, he lowered himself out of a window and disappeared into the night.
The Commandant, who had the unhappy job of reporting Russell’s escape wrote: “since Russell said he is related to the head of the American legation in Paris, from whom he has sought protection, it is possible he will try to get to Paris.”
Bedford had never wanted to go to Paris or America; he wanted to get home to Mary and the children in Lynn.
After his miraculous escape, he laid low for a week; no record tells where. He must have learned some French, for he made arrangements with a fisherman, a Monsieur David, promising him 100 guineas, to take him to “any English boat in the Channel”.
At midnight on the 18th, he hid under a sail in the bottom of David’s boat and waited. Four hours later, that is where the police found him. David was rewarded for turning him in.
Back in prison, the indefatigable Bedford immediately restarted his campaign to prove himself American.
He wrote two testimonials asserting he was from Boston: one supposedly from Captain Holmes and Isaiah Atkins; the other from Pattison and Harrison, of the Flora. They are identical in wording, handwriting and paper. Though the French added them to Bedford’s file, these carefully crafted forgeries did him no good.
Bedford’s attempted escape had destroyed any hope he may have had of release, American or not. Rovigo now wrote that Bedford was a “seductive fellow”.
The Minister for the Marine wrote that, as Russell had escaped from Dieppe, he should under no circumstances be released. Feltre wrote that Bedford be watched closely and, if he were to show any signs of planning another escape, to send him to Bitche – the most brutal of the prisons – without delay.
On the 9th of March 1811 Bedford began the hundred-mile tramp, possibly in chains, to Cambrai. Michael Lewis writes in Napoleon and His British Captives, “[Cambrai] was not established…until 1809, but it then became one of the larger prison centres.
Its reputation among the British was always fairly good.”
D’Arcy Boulton was also sent to Cambrai. While there, he wrote again to Jonathan Russell: “There can be no doubt [that he is an American] I know him myself.” Bedford was not released, but did not give up.
With other British prisoners, he was put to work. Sometimes, they worked, under heavy guard, outside the prison walls, well into the night. On the 19th of May 1811, at 11 o’clock at night, Bedford snuck away. The alarm was raised.
The gendarmes searched every house in Cambrai. The guards at all entries to the city were alerted. They did not find him and the Sergeant on guard when he escaped was demoted.
Was Bedford Russell recaptured and sent to Bitche? Did he make his way home to Lynn? Surely, few men showed such inventiveness and determination to gain release. Surely, few can have convinced or beguiled or perhaps merely aroused the sympathies of so many, from ships’ captains and crew to senior American and Anglo-Canadian officials.
After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the French prisons were opened and more than 17,000 British prisoners were simply told to leave. They went to the coast to sail home.
It was a chaotic time and few records remain, so it is unclear when or from where Bedford left France, but he did go home.
On the 5th of March 1817, Bedford and Mary Russell baptised a daughter, Mary-Ann, in Saint Margaret’s. Bedford lived with Mary until her death in 1843. A dozen years later, he married his housekeeper, Elizabeth Cook, in the parish of Saint John. He died at the age of 80 in the summer of 1862 and was buried in the New Burial Ground, where his large, black tombstone lays, broken, on the ground.
Henry J. Hillen, in his History of the Borough of Lynn, said of him: “to the end of his days, Bedford Russell, of Union Street, the sheriff’s officer, was indeed a terror to evil doers.” Perhaps he learned a few tricks of the trade in French prisons?
*I would like to thank the members of the Norfolk Mailing List on rootsweb for their helpful suggestions.”
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