Monday, October 14, 2013

Hugh Fraser, 76th Regiment, takes a blow to the gut

John Sinclair and Hugh Fraser were soldiers in the 76th Regiment of Foot. One afternoon, on the deck of a transport ship near the bow, Sinclair's wife Sophia approached Sinclair and grabbed his collar; they apparently had some sort of joke between them that she was playing upon, but something went wrong.

The 76th was a new-raised regiment, recruited in Scotland in late 1777 and 1778, one of several such regiments created for the duration of the American war and disbanded after hostilities ended. Being new-raised didn't mean that all of the soldiers were new to military service; an unknown portion of the men had reinlisted after having served in the army previously. But the regiment's recruiting instructions directed that recruits be between the ages of 18 and 30, so in absence of other information we assume that most of them were.

The regiment sailed for American in 1779. It was on board one of the transports, the Kingston, that Sophia Sinclair grabbed Hugh Fraser's collar. For reasons we'll never know, Fraser didn't take it lightly, he turned on Sophia, putting her hands around her throat, and shouted “You will not do that, I am not afraid of you!” She struggled with him, apparently trying to free herself, but his arms were longer than hers. Her husband John sprang to her aid, punching Fraser once on the left side of the head and once in the stomach. Fraser collapsed immediately, without a sound, and almost without movement. A crowd gathered; someone swore that Fraser was dead, and Sinclair, still agitated by the apparent assault on his wife, responded, “If he could he would give him more.”

Hugh Fraser was, in fact, dead; after receiving the two blows he went immediately silent and barely moved again. The regimental surgeon was called for, but had to come from another transport. By the time he got there to examine Fraser, the lower part of his stomach had become discolored. It was nighfall, so the surgeon waited until the next morning to examine Fraser's body, by which time "the Putrefaction had so suddenly taken place, that he was prevented seeking further into it."

A few months later, after the regiment had arrived in New York and gotten settled in, John and Sophia Sinclair were put on trial for murder. They were tried together; it was not unusual for military courts to try several offenders of a single crime in one case, hearing each witness testimony only once and then pronouncing a verdict against each defendant. Although no one had see in detail the beginning of the scuffle, several had seen John Sinclair strike Fraser, including one man who had been "looking over a Corporal’s Shoulder who was reading" when the noise on deck caught his attention. Everyone agreed that Fraser had been in good health, that there'd been no previous sign of animosity between him and Sophia Sinclair, and that they'd "seen people engage in a fiercer manner without such a fatal accident happening."

John Sinclair pleaded in his defence that he'd had no intention of taking Fraser's life; Sophia indicated that all she'd done was grab Fraser's collar. Two officers testified to their good character, including one for whom John Sinclair had been a servant for a year before the crime occured; "he should not have parted with him, but for this late unhappy affair," and his wife "always behaved herself exceedingly well."

John and Sophia Sinclair were acquitted of murder. It is, unfortunately, impossible to trace their subsequent lives because there are gaps in the 76th Regiment's muster rolls, there were two men named John Sinclair in the regiment in in 1778, and only one remained in 1782, but there's no way to know which one was which. There was only one Hugh Fraser on the rolls in 1778, and of course he's no longer there in 1782; although he never even got to America and met an ignominious end, at least we know what became of him.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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