On April 19, 1775, Timothy Bigelow, a Worcester blacksmith, led the Minutemen of his Central Massachusetts town to Cambridge where George Washington personally complimented him on the appearance of his troops.
"This is discipline indeed!" said the commander-in-chief. Bigelow's leadership qualities won him quick promotion, and soon he was colonel of the 15th Massachusetts Regiment. He went on to take part in several important battles.
Yet Bigelow died in the Worcester jail only 15 years after his arrival at Cambridge. Isaiah Thomas, who had been his friend, wrote a curt obituary in his "Massachusetts Spy." "In this town Colonel Timothy Bigelow, aged 50." A note on his jail records stated only "discharged by death." His only crime was that he could not pay his bills; that his business had deteriorated while he was away serving his country.
Timothy Bigelow was born in Worcester on Aug. 12, 1739. His parents were Daniel and Elizabeth (Whitney) Bigelow. Daniel Bigelow was a farmer of some means, but his son did not go to Harvard or Brown like many sons of prosperous colonists. Timothy became a blacksmith. He also began to collect books, starting a tradition in Worcester" The Learned Blacksmiths." Levi Lincoln and Elihu Burritt were part of this group.
Young Timothy fell in love with Anna Andrews, a wealthy girl whose family objected to the young blacksmith because he was poor. After meeting secretly in trysting places near Lincoln Square, the couple eloped in July 1762.
Back in Worcester where Tory aristocrats like the Chandlers, Putnams and Paines had been town leaders, Timothy Bigelow became a prominent Whig and challenged Tory rule as hostility toward Britain grew.
In March 1773, he was elected to the Committee of Correspondence, a group that noted colonists' grievances. He also was Worcester's delegate to the Provincial Congress in Concord and belonged to the Boston Whig Club where he talked politics with James Otis, James Warren and Isaiah Thomas. He gave much of his free time to creating and training a militia.
On April 16, 1775, Isaiah Thomas dismantled his Boston press and Bigelow helped him ferry it across to Charlestown. John Hancock suggested that Thomas move the press to a country town. Probably Bigelow's influence resulted in Thomas's decision to move his press to Worcester. The equipment was hauled to Bigelow's cellar where Thomas claimed it on April 20. By then Bigelow was in Cambridge and the Redcoats had been chased out of Concord. The Revolution had begun.
In 1777 Bigelow gave valiant service in Arnold's march on Quebec. The Worcester officer was captured and held prisoner for 11 months. He spent the winter at Valley Forge with Washington, took part in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga and was present at the Battle of Yorktown.
He returned to Worcester in poor health and in trouble financially. His dedication had not earned any material rewards. He was awarded a grant of land in Vermont where he named the town of Montpeller, the capital of the Green Mountain state. But he made no profit on this honor. His last public act was to join a group of rebellious Worcester citizens who established the First Unitarian Church.
The American Revolution meant freedom for all, poverty for many. During the war merchants, speculators and contractors had prospered. Farmers had many customers who paid well.
Inflation became the new war. Soldiers were paid off in Continental paper money. Since the currency was almost worthless, a common expression was born between 1775 and 1785: "Not, worth a Continental." The dollar had not yet been adopted, English money was still used and sometimes local paper money was issued that often wasn't recognized from state to state. Food supplies had inflated from 110 percent to 3,340 percent over pre-war prices. Shoes cost $40 a pair. A pound of hops sold for $6 --- bushel of malt for $30.
Soldiers returned to rundown farms and a shortage of jobs. By 1785 creditors who had been eager to lend suddenly grew nervous and demanded payment. If a debtor could not pay, everything he owned was seized. If the value of his property was less than his debts, he was thrown into prison until payment could somehow be made.
In 1784 there were seven people in the Worcester jail for unpaid debts. By 1785 there were 86 imprisoned debtors. In addition to the humiliation of such a sentence, one that befell the famous as well as the unknown, the jail itself was a miserable place. One historian called it a pest hole. In 1786 one cell housed 26 men. No one was concerned about recreation or sanitary facilities in the rotting building.
George Washington was inaugurated in 1789. On Feb. 15, 1790, Timothy Bigelow, one of his best officers, was sentenced to jail, a sad exchange for nine years of patriotic service; He must have felt that his sacrifices had been forgotten as he was ushered into a crowded cell. From his cell window he could see his home near Lincoln Square. Levi Lincoln probably served the warrant. Gossip of the day suggests that Stephen Salisbury was a creditor. Bigelow's embarrassment was brief. He died on April 7, 1790.
In 1861 one of his descendants erected a monument over Bigelow's grave on the Worcester Common. Sealed under the tall monument were a lock of his hair, lead-ball cartridges cast in his barn and some Revolutionary gunpowder. Two other memorials perpetuate his name Mount Bigelow in northern Maine, which he climbed as he led a division against Quebec, and the Col. Timothy Bigelow Chapter of the Worcester Daughters of the American Revolution based strangely enough in the former home of a leading Worcester Tory, Timothy Paine.
Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine described men like Timothy Bigelow when he wrote in "Common Sense: The American Crisis" on Dec. 23,1776, "the summer soldier, and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Bigelow's life story reveals how little of that love and thanks he received for his sacrifices.
Geraldine R. Foty of West Brookfield is a free-lance writer.