Israel Potter, a Revolutionary War POW, spent 50 years in exile in England, where he met King George III, Benjamin Franklin and a founding father imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The British had captured Potter shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill and took him to England aboard a prison ship.
After returning home in 1825, he published his amazing story, which sold for 28 cents throughout New England. He wrote it to persuade Congress to grant him a pension in his old age.
Herman Melville then picked up the story and wrote a fictionalized version of it, adding encounters with Ethan Allen and John Paul Jones.
In his book, Israel Potter wrote he couldn’t return home because he couldn’t afford the voyage for the wife he married in England or their children. The story made some sense: the U.S. government did pay for prisoners of war. But historians have uncovered another reason for Israel Potter’s long stay in England, one he conveniently left out: He probably spied for the British.
He claimed he was born in Cranston, R.I., on Aug. 1, 1744, to reputable parents who loved and indulged him – until he turned 18. He then fell in love with a neighbor’s daughter, but his parents forbade him from seeing her. So he ran away from home.
Israel Potter spent the next few years clearing land in Northern New Hampshire, working as a surveyor, hunting, trapping and trading with Indians. After nearly three years he returned home to his parents, who had given him up for dead. They still refused to let him marry the girl he loved, so he again ran away – this time to sea.
But the ship burned, and Israel Potter, a castaway, signed on to two whaling voyages. When he returned to Rhode Island he got a job with a farmer in Coventry in 1774 and enlisted in the local militia.
When he learned of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he marched with his regiment to Boston. There he immediately went to work digging breastworks for the Battle of Bunker Hill. During the battle he fought valiantly and received a musket ball in his hip and one in his ankle.
Meeting the King
He then volunteered to crew aboard the Washington, a tragic mistake that ruined his life. The ship was to patrol Boston Harbor, preventing British ships from bringing supplies to the besieged soldiers. But the British quickly captured the Washington, and Israel Potter ended up in a floating prison in Portsmouth.
He escaped, and ultimately managed to find work with Englishmen sympathetic to the American cause. Then his tale grows completely implausible: He got a job with Princess Amelia, sister of King George III, for three months. Following that, he went to work for King George at Kew Garden. One day he was gravelling a walk when he was
unexpectedly accosted by his Majesty: who, with much apparent good nature, enquired of me of what country I was– “an American born, may it please your majesty, was my reply (taking off my hat, which he requested me instantly to replace on my head) — “ah! (continued he with a smile) an American, a stubborn, a very stubborn people indeed! — and what brought you to this country, and how long have you been here!” “The fate of war, your Majesty–I was brought to this country a prisoner about eleven months since,” –and thinking this a favourable opportunity to acquaint him with a few of my grievances, I briefly stated to him how much I had been harrassed by the soldiers–“while here employed they will not trouble you,” was the only reply he made, and passed on.
Potter concluded the king was less tyrannical and more open-minded to the Americans than he had heard in the colonies. His sympathetic portrayal of King George suggests something else: he had, by then, shifted his loyalties to the British.
Unpacking the Lies
Two centuries later, David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsa grew obsessed with the story of Israel Potter. They found his publisher, Henry Trumbull, had a reputation in his day as a prolific literary liar. Trumbull once published a narrative with 22 chronological errors on a single page.
And so the two men sought to uncover the truth about Israel Potter. They found, first of all, he was not born of reputable parents on Aug. 1, 1744. He was born in 1754, the illegitimate son of Amey Ralph. Eventually the Potter family, prominent Quakers, adopted him, perhaps because Mr. Potter was his real father.
Other, early parts of his tale ring true. Surveying did take place in northern New Hampshire when he claimed he had done that work. He probably told the truth about the ship that burned. But if he had taken the whaling voyages he said he took, he would have returned in 1777 – well after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Kulcsa and Chacko found another problem with his tale of Bunker Hill: No Rhode Island regiments fought in the battle. Not one. They chalked it up as a complete fabrication.
The British did capture the Washington, though Israel Potter left out one important detail: the crew had mutinied on its first voyage. And he probably did end up on a floating prison in Portsmouth, England.
But what of his encounter with King George? Probably another lie.
Meeting Benjamin Franklin
“Curiously, when Potter’s memoir grows most impossible, it becomes, in a hectic sense, most true,” wrote Kulcsa and Chacko.
Israel Potter wrote that he began to think about surrender when he got a message from Squire Woodcock, an English radical sympathetic to the American cause. He went to see him and found two other Yankee sympathizers: John Horne Tooke and James Bridges. They asked him to go to Paris for them, secretly. They gave him a letter to take to Benjamin Franklin in the false heel of a boot.
Israel Potter did visit Benjamin Franklin, who saved the letter he brought. But the letter wasn’t what Potter said it was. He claimed it represented the views of various British ministers.
The letter, wrote Chacko and Kulcsa, was no more than an introduction and an attempt by certain parties to establish a surreptitious contact with the American commissioner. It certainly didn’t come from radical English gentlemen, as it was written in an unintelligible hand and filled with misspellings.
Franklin dismissed the letter as a clumsy attempt to spy on him. At the bottom of it he wrote,
“Israel Potters, pretended Letter from some Gentm. in England.”
Franklin gave Israel Potter money to return home to Rhode Island – but he stayed in England.
Another odd event suggests Israel Potter had worked on behalf of the British until the American Revolution ended: His visit to Henry Laurens in 1781.
Laurens had been vice president of South Carolina and president of the Continental Congress. The British captured him at sea and kept him under close watch in the Tower of London. “No one was permitted to visit him without a warrant from one of the three secretaries of state,” wrote Chacko and Kulcsa. But Israel Potter paid him a visit.
Why? The British wanted to persuade Laurens to defect. He didn’t, though Israel Potter may have had a hand in their efforts. Laurens wrote of a visit by a young man named ‘Bradfille,’ who offered to help him and asked him many questions. His guards later told him ‘Bradfille’ – perhaps Israel Potter – was a British spy.
Israel Potter lived in relative comfort in London until 1783, when the war ended – and the British, presumably, no longer had any use for him.
His life then spiraled downward into poverty and wretchedness. He worked as a coachman, then a brickmaker, then a chair mender and, finally, a rag picker. He married a poor but respectable woman, who gave him 10 children. He buried seven of them under the age of five, two before the age of 20. Then he buried his wife.
That part of his story is probably true, concluded Chacko and Kulcsa. A writer interviewed Israel Potter around 1819 and described him as a scavenger.
Home At Last
Finally he and his surviving son Thomas went to the American consul in London – probably because he learned Congress had agreed to fund pensions for Revolutionary War veterans. Israel Potter was so weak and ill he had to crawl up the steps. The consul cheerfully agreed to help him. On April 5, 1822, he set sail for his native land.
Israel Potter hoped an inheritance awaited him in Cranston. It didn’t. His brothers had sold all his father’s property and divided the proceeds among themselves.
In hopes of getting a pension from Congress, he wrote, or rather dictated to Henry Trumbull, The Life and Remarkable Adventures of Israel R. Potter.
Congress didn’t believe his story either, and denied him his pension. He spent the rest of his days eking out a meager living repairing chairs in Rhode Island. He probably died in 1826, his gravesite unknown.
With thanks to Chacko, David, and Alexander Kulcsa. “Israel Potter: Genesis of a Legend.” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, no. 3 (1984): 365-89. doi:10.2307/1922730. This story updated in 2022.