By Barbara Emory Moseley
For many years the income from the Polly A. Lee Cemetery Fund has appeared in the Vernon Town Report. Possibly a few people have a faint memory of the existence of the cemetery itself, in the area of today’s Breezy Acres, off Newton Road. No traces of it remain today. Its secrets unfold with the story of Polly’s father, John Jacob Peeler.
During the American Revolution, he was among the 29,000 Hessian mercenaries bought by the British Army. They had been purchased like cattle, at so much per head. The money maintained the Grand Duchy of Hesse, an area of Germany near today’s Frankfurt.
As an oppressed person himself, Peeler hated the British. Instead, he felt a great admiration for the Americans fighting so bravely against tyranny. He wanted to fight alongside them, and at the first opportunity, he deserted. Before reaching American lines, he was captured, and given 39 lashes, a punishment common in the British Army. The lashes were administered using the cat-o’nine tails, a whip with nine lashes of knotted cords.
Almost immediately, he deserted again, was recaptured and received 99 lashes, the usual penalty for a second offense. He was warned that a third offense would result in his being flogged to death, for no one was expected to survive the “thousand lashes save one” inflicted in such cases.
However, his stubborn determination to join the Americans did not waver. Learning the Army of King George III was preparing for a major battle, he deserted once more. He was discovered by John Hare, a British soldier whom he knew well. Hare had the opportunity to let Peeler escape and was offered five pounds by him. Hare scoffed, saying he could get five pounds for Peeler’s return, adding that he wasn’t confident Peeler would survive another whipping and be able to pay him back. At that point, Peeler made a promise to himself that he would survive, and one day would find Hare and kill him.
Peeler was taken back to camp, tried by a court-martial and, with two others, whipped “one thousand lashes save one.”
One of the three died before the 999 strokes were complete, but the strokes were continued just the same, even in his dying moments. All three were placed into a hut. It had only a bed of straw for comfort, and a small bowl of gruel was the daily food ration. Peeler urged his companion to exercise, but he wouldn’t, dying the third day. His death was kept secret by Peeler, who at the man’s portion of gruel.