John Fell's Prison Diary
August 03, 2018
Founding Father John Fell is best known for the historic house named for him in Allendale -- he owned what is now the Celery Farm as well.
Fell was arrested at the house in April 1777 and taken to the notorious Provost Jail in Lower Manhattan. While he was there, for nearly a year, he kept a secret diary that documented the terrible treatment he and the other prisoners received.
I wrote an Op-ed article for The Record several years ago, but it is no longer online, alas.
I am posting it below so it is again accessible on-line.
(You can read the posts about Fell's Continental Congress journal here and here.
Uncovering the secret prison diary
of Bergen’s unsung Founding Father
By Jim Wright
“Last night I was taken prisoner from my house by 25 armed men…”
Thus begins the Revolutionary War prison diary of John Fell of Allendale, the leader of the Bergen County insurgency against the king of England and his local sympathizers.
Fell’s 16-page diary, written in secret in the Provost Jail in Lower Manhattan from April 1777 to January 1778, is one of the most significant documents chronicling the horrific treatment of American prisoners of war in British-held New York City during the Revolutionary War.
The journal, written in black ink on now-Sepia-tinted thick paper, can be seen at the Brooklyn Historical Society by appointment.
With George Washington’s birthday just around the corner and our Founding Fathers on our minds, My wife Patty and I recently made the trip to Brooklyn to view and photograph the document, which John Fell titled “Memorandum in the Provost Jail.”
The diary is a reminder of what the founders of our nation endured in the name of liberty.
Although few Americans know of John Fell, he was feared by northern New Jersey’s loyalists during the Revolution. As head of the Bergen County Committee of Safety, Fell was known as “the great Tory hunter.”
My wife and I live across the street from Fell’s house, which still stands atop a low hill on the Franklin Turnpike. My wife has been involved in the efforts to prevent this historic house from being demolished and replaced by 11 townhouses, and now that it looks likely that the house and property just might be saved, we thought we should see the historic diary first-hand.
We felt a small adrenaline rush as we approached the Brooklyn Historical Society, an 1881 red-brick and terra cotta building in Brooklyn Heights.
When we got to the library on the second floor, the journal was waiting for us. The diary, stored in an archival box, was much smaller and thinner than we had envisioned. When I carefully placed the diary in a special cradle to be photographed, I felt as though I were reaching back 232 years to actually hold history in my hands.
The diary, weighing no more than a few ounces, contains all sorts of priceless historical data, all hand-written in tiny letters –cramming so much material onto each page that no space is wasted.
The last two pages are nearly blank – an indication that Fell did not know how much longer he might be imprisoned. As Fell later scrawled on the first page, he was held for “8 months, 15 days.”
On the cramped pages, each measuring four inches by six inches, are lists of Americans imprisoned with him and the horrid conditions they endured – from whippings and dungeons to starvation and fatal illnesses.
I got to see, with my own eyes, John Fell’s actual signature on the first page of the slender diary – a document that would have meant torture and perhaps even death if his British jailers had ever found it.
In his preface to Forgotten Patriots, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edwin Burrows writes that the number of Americans imprisoned by the British in New York City during the Revolutionary War may actually have “exceeded 30,000 and that 18,000 (60 percent) or more of them did not survive – well over twice the number of American soldiers and seamen who fell in battle, now believed to have been around 6,800.”
Of Fell’s diary, Burrows writes: “His terse notations, squeezed onto each page in a minuscule script, log the emotional ups and downs of the prisoners there as they struggled with overcrowding, hunger, sickness, appalling squalor and petty, capricious cruelties.”
When I returned to Allendale and saw the Fell House once more, I viewed it with new eyes.
Northern New Jersey was caught in the crossfire between the British and George Washington’s patriots in the Revolutionary War. John Fell’s house is but one of the many testaments to our nation’s early history that stand in our midst – so long as we remember and protect them.
Jim Wright, a former staff writer for The Record, wrote an essay on John Fell’s prison diary for the recently published book “Revolutionary Bergen County: The Road to Independence” ($21.95, the History Press.)