On May 6, 1815, William Linnen, a tailor in Charleston, stood behind the columns of St. Michael's Church, watching intently as Dr. David Ramsay walked home. Linnen was notorious for making frequent threats against lawyers, judges and jurors, so the court asked Ramsay, the city's preeminent physician, to evaluate his mental state. Declaring him insane, Ramsay recommended that Linnen be confined in prison, the only institution available for mentally ill patients at the time. When his behavior improved, he was released, redoubling his threats, including ones against Ramsay.
As Ramsay approached the church that Saturday afternoon, Linnen made good on his threats. Stepping into the street, he drew a horseman's pistol from under a handkerchief and fired three times into Ramsay's back. Passersby carried Ramsay to his home - only a few steps from the scene - where Ramsay reportedly absolved Linnen, reiterating that he was mentally disturbed and therefore "free from guilt." He lingered for two days then finally succumbed to his wounds on May 8, 1815.
With Ramsay's death, the state lost one of its greatest supporters and one of the first historians of America. Born in Pennsylvania in 1749 to Irish immigrants, Ramsay studied medicine at the College of Pennsylvania under Benjamin Rush, the most prominent American surgeon and physician of the period. In 1773, he moved to Charleston, where he set up a large medical practice.
When the colony broke from England, Ramsay became an ardent patriot, serving in the state legislature during the entire war and traveling with the militia as a field surgeon. On the second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence - in perhaps the first Independence Day speech in America - he boldly declared: "Our present form of government is every way preferable to the royal one we have lately renounced." After the 1780 fall of Charleston, the British imprisoned him in St. Augustine, Florida, for 11 months. There, he started writing his "History of the Revolution in South Carolina," eventually published in 1785.
At war's end, Ramsay read copious public and congressional records and collected information from Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and notable figures to compile his best-known work, "History of the American Revolution" (1789). The brief remainder of his life was devoted to practicing medicine and writing history, including "The History of South Carolina" (1809); "A Eulogium on Dr. Rush" (1813), delivered at the funeral of his former mentor; and "A Brief History of the Independent or Congressional Church in Charleston." He is buried in the graveyard at Charleston's Circular Congregational Church.
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