On this date in 1778, Revolutionary War-era bandit James Fitzpatrick was hanged — very badly — at Chester, Pennsylvania.
Fitzpatrick was then, and still is now, a legendary character in Chester County. He’s better known as “Captain Fitz” or, with a bit more flair, “Sandy Flash”.
Born to Irish immigrants in Chester, Fitzpatrick joined up with the Continental Army when the Revolutionary War broke out.
But after being subject to the commonplace but brutal punishment of flogging for some failure of military discipline, Fitzpatrick deserted, swimming off Long Island in the dead of night and eventually returning home. There, he was recognized as a deserter and clapped in jail until he agreed to fight again.
All this built up a terrific grudge in the young man’s heart, and he “agreed” just long enough to get out from behind bars and abscond again. After warding off yet another press gang sent to retrieve him, Fitzpatrick vengefully took to the road.
This was not necessarily out of bounds for Fitzpatrick’s milieu. As detailed by Rosemary Warden (“‘The Infamous Fitch’: The Tory Bandit, James Fitzpatrick of Chester County,” Pennsylvania History Summer 1995):
Fitzpatrick’s bold outlawry must be seen against the background of many Chester Countians’ lack ofsupport for the Revolution, ranging from passive neutrality to outright loyalism. Forty percent were Quaker, settled most heavily in the eastern township. Only a small number actively supported the Revolution or the British cause … Fitzpatrick’s two favorite targets, militia recruiters and tax collectors, often met violent opposition in Chester County during this period, and not always from loyalists …
It is not surprising that revolutionary General Anthony Wayne wrote to Council President Thomas Wharton in the spring of 1778, to suggest that he stop recruiting troops in Chester County, a wasted effort, and concentrate on raising men in Berks, Lancaster, York, or Cumberland Counties. Nor is it surprising that a loyalist bandit who particularly targeted militia officers would find clandestine support and safe hideouts in Cheser County.
Playing to the hilt the part of “Tory highwayman,” Captain Fitz targeted Chester County Whigs, and especially agents of the revolutionary government. And he did not neglect the opportunity to inflict with the flog the suffering he had once endured himself. Still,
Despite his many crimes, there was a rough chivalry in the character of the man which exhibited itself in his marked gallantry towards women, in his open, generous disposition to aid them on when ill fortune bore heavily; indeed, he was never known to rob a poor man or ill-treat a female. Many are the instances related when he bestowed upon the destitute that which he had taken from those in good circumstances, and the weak or defenseless never suffered at his hands. On one occasion an old woman, who made a meagre living by peddling from house to house odds and ends of female apparel, encountered Fitzpatrick in the neighborhood of Caln Friends’ meeting-house. She was at the time on her way to Philadelphia to buy goods, and all the money she possessed was on her person. She had never seen Capt. Fitzpatrick, and she informed, the tall, handsome stranger that she was told that the outlaw had made some demonstrations in that neighborhood a short time before, and she was afraid that she might fall in with him and be robbed of all her money. Fitzpatrick, by a few questions, drew from her the particulars of her business, and her difficulty in winning an honest livelihood. He then good naturedly told her she need be under no apprehension, Fitzpatrick never warred upon the weak or defenseless, that she was talking to that personage; and taking a purse from his pocket containing several gold pieces, he gave it to her to aid her in increasing her scanty stock of goods. Then, wishing her a safe journey, he turned into the woods and disappeared.
What a guy.
His prey among the Whig well-to-do not being constrained to treat Fitz with any similar measure of gallantry, the bandit was at length captured when, in the course of raiding a household, he briefly set down his weapons — and his hostages jumped him. (The hostages in question had an argument with each other afterwards over who should get the reward.)
“Sandy Flash” is a prominent character in Bayard Taylor‘s portrait of revolutionary Pennsylvania, The Story of Kennett, where, Turpin-like, he’s “transformed” (the author’s own words) “from a living terror into a romantic name.” Here, Bayard dramatizes an allegedly real exploit, in which Fitzpatrick boldly presents himself at a public inn* where a posse hunting him has holed up.
All eyes, turned towards the crossing of the roads, beheld, just rounding the corner-house, fifty paces distant, a short, broad-shouldered, determined figure, making directly for the tavern. His face was red and freckled, his thin lips half-parted with a grin which showed the flash of white teeth between them, and his eyes sparkled with the light of a cold, fierce courage. He had a double-barrelled musket on his shoulder, and there were four pistols in the tight leathern belt about his waist.
Barton turned deadly pale as he beheld this man. An astonished silence fell upon the group, but, the next moment, some voice exclaimed, in an undertone, which, nevertheless, every one heard,—
“By the living Lord! Sandy Flash himself!”
There was a general confused movement, of which Alfred Barton took advantage to partly cover his heavy body by one of the porch-pillars. Some of the volunteers started back, others pressed closer together. The pert youth, alone, who was to form the third party, brought his musket to his shoulder.
Quick as lightning Sandy Flash drew a pistol from his belt and levelled it at the young man’s breast.
“Ground arms!” he cried, “or you are a dead man.”
He was obeyed, although slowly and with grinding teeth.
“Stand aside!” he then commanded. “You have pluck, and I should hate to shoot you. Make way, the rest o’ ye! I’ve saved ye the trouble o’ ridin’ far to find me. Whoever puts finger to trigger, falls. Back, back, I say, and open the door for me!”
Still advancing as he spoke, and shifting his pistol so as to cover now one, now another of the group, he reached the tavern-porch. Some one opened the door of the barroom, which swung inwards. The highwayman strode directly to the bar, and there stood, facing the open door, while he cried to the trembling bar-keeper,—
“A glass o’ Rye, good and strong!”
It was set before him. Holding the musket in his arm, he took the glass, drank, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and then, spinning a silver dollar into the air, said, as it rang upon the floor,—
“I stand treat to-day; let the rest o’ the gentlemen drink at my expense!”
He then walked out, and slowly retreated backwards towards the corner-house, covering his retreat with the levelled pistol, and the flash of his dauntless eye.