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Henry Laurens in the Tower of London: Casting a dragnet for this American revolutionary

Who was Henry Laurens? The York Daily Record/Sunday News’ Deb Hummel wrote this in 2001: ‘Henry Laurens. Born in 1724 in Charleston, S.C. Successful merchant and planter. A delegate from that southern colony to the Continental Congress. President of the congressional delegates for much of the group’s 1777-1778 stay in York Town, Pa. Signer of the Articles of Confederation. Captured by a British man-of-war while on a diplomatic mission to Holland in 1780. Imprisoned in the Tower of London as a traitor.’ This panel of Henry Laurens is among a group of 16 Revolutionary War-era luminaries painted at the time the 150th anniversary of the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1927. The paintings are part of the York County Heritage Trust’s collection. Also of interest: York: ‘The first capital of the United States?’

Cathey Leitch brought a favorite YDR story to mind: Former YDR staff member Deb Hummel’s piece on American revolutionary Henry Laurens’ detention in the Tower of London.

Laurens is a fascinating figure, relatively unknown despite being the prime force in holding the Continental Congress – America’s government – together in the long nine months it was meeting here in 1777-78.

Here’s an idea of regard for this South Carolinian in his day: He was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis of Battle of Yorktowne fame, the general whose surrendered to George Washington ended the America Revolution.

Cathey wrote:

I am an American who has lived in England for 19 years. I am preparing a talk to give at the Benjamin Franklin House in London and am researching a number of Americans who were in London around the time of the American Revolution. One of these was Henry Laurens. Many years ago (perhaps 2001 or 2002) Deb Hummel wrote an article for the Daily Record about visiting the Tower of London to try to find the exact location where Henry Laurens was imprisoned there. I am trying to get a full copy of her article … .”

We sent her a copy of that article (9/9/01) and share the story of Deb’s quest with you here:

“The city: South Kensington, London, England.

“It was mid-morning, the first day of June, 2001. The skies were overcast as I walked the beat of the city’s bobbies. I boarded the underground at the residential neighborhood’s corner station. Eastbound on the Circle Line.

Exited the subway car at Tower Hill. A long line of tourists queued up ahead. Looked like Americans. Camcorders, guidebooks, belted bottles of water. And high-tech, streamlined running shoes. Nine times out of 10, shoes will give away a Yank.

To the east, the purpose of our pilgrimage. The Tower of London. Not just one tower, but a site fortressed with more than a score of stone and brick turrets. Broad Arrow Tower, Salt Tower, Bloody Tower… each one a place of mystery and intrigue.

Traitor’s Gate on the Thames River. Many a scoundrel and spy climbed its hewn-stone steps to imprisonment or the chopping block. A few kings and queens, too. Visitors can worship in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vinculam on Tower Green. Its pews rest on a stone floor that covers a few of those bodies and heads.

The prisoner I sought didn’t lose his head.

Henry Laurens. Born in 1724 in Charleston, S.C. Successful merchant and planter. A delegate from that southern colony to the Continental Congress. President of the congressional delegates for much of the group’s 1777-1778 stay in York Town, Pa. Signer of the Articles of Confederation. Captured by a British man-of-war while on a diplomatic mission to Holland in 1780. Imprisoned in the Tower of London as a traitor.

For months I had read of his exploits while copy editing “Nine Months in York Town” for Jim McClure, the book’s author and managing editor of my place of employment, the York Daily Record.

I read of Laurens being one of only three delegates to attend each day’s sessions in York Town’s Colonial Courthouse. He shared his thoughts in letters to John, his son and a top aide to Continental Army Commander in Chief George Washington. “Vain, combative and indis creet,” a historian said of the South Carolinian.

But now, in London, it was just the facts. It was just the question: Where was Henry Laurens held while captive in the Tower of London?

I walked through the main tourist entrance, encountered my first Yeoman Warder, aka Beefeater, aka tourist guide. “Do you know where Henry Laurens was held while prisoner?”

A blank stare. “Who? I don’t know him,” he countered.

I proceeded under Byward Tower, spying another black-and-red clothed guide. Again, the question. The Yeoman didn’t recognize the name but told of a written record listing names and charges for all those imprisoned over the centu ries.

The Book of Prisoners in Beauchamp Tower. Beauchamp Tower, a structure dating from 1281. Flower garden at its entrance. Nine times out of 10, a garden will give away a Brit’s hobby.

I climbed its narrow, spiraling staircase. The last step opened into a small, dark room. Here, the imprisoned scratched inscriptions into the walls. Lord Guildford Dudley, the doomed husband of equally doomed Lady Jane Grey, cut “Jane” twice into the yellowish-tan stone.

In a corner sat another Yeoman, the third of my partners. The question. Out came a typewritten copy of the original. A quick search uncovered this entry, perhaps a clue: “Henry Laurens. High Treason. Committed 6 Oct. 1780. Released on parole in 1781. Exchanged 1782.”

The only evidence of Henry Laurens’ prison term. But where? Somewhere, someone had the answer. Two hours of pounding shoe leather had left me thirsty. A Diet Pepsi in the New Armouries Cafe, built in 1663 as a storehouse, now a fast food eatery. In England, I noted, a construction date of 1663 counted as new.

I drank the cold soda and observed hundreds of tourists wandering the grounds.

I could say I reflected on the Tower of London’s parade of history from the ninth century’s William the Conqueror to World War II’s Nazi inmate, Rudolf Hess. I could say I pondered the captivating beauty of the British Crown Jewels, housed in the Waterloo Block. I could say I reveled in the wide and wild sense of free rein a vacation bestows upon the fortunate.

I could say a lot of things about my trip. But what I wanted now was the answer to my question. And this was the fact: After hours of legwork, I was no closer to solving the case than at the start of my investigation.

Here, in the land of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie, I was not even a junior league Columbo. Or a cut-rate Nancy Drew. Here, in London, on a Friday, I was just an ordinary Joe.

I took one last walk on the Green and its scaffold site, and looked at Beauchamp Tower again. What could one last trip up those stairs cost me? My head?

A different Yeoman, number four, sat at the corner desk. The question… and… He talked of Laurens and South Carolina and the Continental Congress. How Laurens was captured and then exchanged for a prisoner-of-war, the British general, Lord Cornwallis. And how he was held in… the Middle Tower.

Yes! At last. On my map, the Middle Tower was… the main tourist entrance, the very first structure I had passed under hours before. Small, built in 1280, renovated in 1717. No other information was available.

So I stood, yards from the Thames. Did Laurens think of the waters of York Town’s Codorus when he peered out the window slits of the tower’s walls? Did he miss the comforts of one of his South Carolina plantations? Was he questioned? Tortured?

A new game was afoot.

Epilogue: A few weeks after my return home, The Learning Channel TV special, “Tales from the Tower,” devoted a segment to the only American ever held within the Tower of London’s walls – Henry Laurens. It told of lengthy interrogations and his silence. Of Laurens’ forced payments for the cell’s rental, the guards’ wages, food, drink, even candles and coal.

He attracted the attention of London’s fashionable crowd and became a celebrity, the toast of the town. The jailer’s teen-age daughter, Elizabeth Vernon, smuggled his writings on American independence out of the Tower in her underwear. Their relationship eventually grew into a full-fledged love affair. After his release, “Tower Laurens” stayed in England, becoming the first American ambassador to London.

Laurens returned to South Carolina in 1786, never to see the jailer’s daughter again. Dying in 1792, he bequeathed Elizabeth a substantial legacy.

Also of interest:

All American Revolution posts from the start

Continental Congress struggled into York, and delegates strutted back to Philly 9 months later