The Incendiary

The Misadventures Of John The Painter, First Modern Terrorist

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
In 1776 and 1777, during the American Revolution, a young Scot known only as John the Painter took his war to England by committing acts of terror in the dockyards of the mighty British navy.

This is the first full-length biography of that brilliant but disturbed young man. His story offers chilling parallels to the present – and insights into why certain young men are driven to commit unspeakable crimes. Warner has written a book of history that reads like a picaresque novel, but always with a modern twist. Its hero travels to France and receives the blessing of the American envoy there. King George III offers a reward for his capture. Bow Street Runners are sent out inpursuit. Newspapers print sensational stories. A bill to suspend habeas corpus is rushed through Parliament and American privateers – the unlawful combatants of their day – are held without being charged. The Incendiary takes readers on a fascinating journey from Europe to colonial America and finally to the gallows at Portsmouth.

In this atmospheric and deftly researched tale of a young man who tried to bring down a superpower, Warner has crafted a popular history with contemporary implications.

From the Hardcover edition.


The fact is that we do not know why Aitken became passionately pro-American. There was no inkling of this during his days in America. The timing of the revolution was as big a factor as any, with the war becoming news in England just as Aitken’s life had hit rock bottom. Even so, he was not an immediate convert. The...
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“A fine story about an eccentric subject… The Incendiary is an accomplished balance between research and storytelling, fact finding and original thought, and pays an immense tribute to its poor, peculiar subject.”
Quill & Quire’s

“Jessica Warner's John the Painter shows you just how good history can get: a tour de force of original thinking; deep immersion in a lost world (or in this case, underworld); prodigious empathy with its hapless anti-hero and exhilarating, knife-sharp writing that concedes nothing to fiction writers at the top of their game. Don't be fooled by its modest size and ostensibly eccentric subject; this is rich, ambitious history, executed in literary fireworks: a small glory and a joy to read.”
–Simon Schama

“This is a fascinating tale of a bizarre incident of the American Revolution. George the Third’s England, it seems, was as susceptible to terror panic as George Bush’s twenty-first-century America. Jessica Warner writes history carefully and well.”
–Russell Baker, Pulitzer-winner, author or editor of seventeen books

“Jessica Warner spins a riveting tale of the night side of the American Revolution: the story of the poor, ambitious, unscrupulous, unlucky man who tried to decapitate the British war machine.”
–Richard Brookhiser, author of America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918, Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution and Alexander Hamilton, American

From the Hardcover edition.