In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”
The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.
Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.
Shot by order of
Nov. 5 1864
Our Confederate Dead
Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular — sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
Cartoon on the cover of Life magazine’s May 22, 1902 issue (click for larger image) shows colonial European powers chortling, ‘Those pious Yankees can’t throw stones at us any more’ as they watch Americans apply the water cure to a Filipino captive. Torture by water cure was widespread during the Philippines-American War.
“The native is tied down flat on the ground and his mouth forced open with sticks or a string,” one soldier described it (pdf source; it’s on page 23). “Water is poured down his throat through a bamboo tube, which is nearly always handy. The native must drink the stuff, and it is poured down him until he can hold no more. As much as a gallon can be forced into a man that way. Then the water is pumped out of him by stamping on his stomach or rolling him over. When he comes to the native is always ready to talk.”
Apart from guerrillas in the field, Filipino insurgents opposed the occupiers’ superior firepower with the nasty asymmetrical tactics of assassination and terrorism, and that’s what brings us to today’s post.
Filipino terrorists known as Ducots, Mandoducots, or Sandathan on August 28, 1900 murdered a wealthy Los Banos landowner named Honorato Quisumbing who served as a town “presidente” under the American occupation.
A U.S. military court found that nine prisoners at the bar (in combination with “other natives whose names are unknown”) made “an assault upon the said Honorato Quisumbing with clubs, knives, bolos, and daggers, and did then and there wilfully, feloniously, and with malice aforethought kill and murder the said Honorato Quisumbing by striking, cutting, and stabbing the said Honorato Quisumbing with the said clubs, knives, bolos, and daggers.”
The decedent was a Visayan doing business as a merchant at Santa Cruz and Los Banos … formerly loyal to the Spanish Government and transferred his loyalty, active assistance, and cordial good will to the succeeding Government of the United States … Because of his friendshipfor, and willingness to aid, the forces of the United States, he was made a marked man, and the order went forth from the insurgent chiefs that he should be secured, dead or alive; and, as the sequel shows, a money reward was offered for his life.
Honorato Quisumbing’s widow was compensated by American authorities to the tune of $1,500. One of the victim’s seven sons, Eduardo, grew up to become his country’s leading botanist.
Further north on Luzon that same date, the pueblo of Mexico witnessed the hanging of insurgent captain Isabello del Rosario, also by authority of the American military government.
He’d been convicted of various depredations as what his prosecutors called “a notorious outlaw,” the most shocking of which was buring alive a man who had been reported to have made suspicious inquiries as to the whereabouts of the guerrillas. (He was also convicted of rape, extortion, and the most egregious war crime, fighting out of uniform.)
The Truk Atoll, in Micronesia, is more commonly known today as Chuuk. It’s a hot diving location notable for the many sunken World War II Japanese hulks to be explored there — the legacy of its once-pivotal position in the Pacific War.
Japan used Truk as forward naval base in the South Pacific, and armored up its little islands like an armadillo.
Rather than capture it outright, the U.S. Navy bombed Truk right out of the war in February 1944, leaving that enormous warship graveyard and a stranded stronghold of starving soldiers who were left to wither on the vine. At war’s end, it was just a matter of circling back to collect 50,000 surrenders.
Unfortunately, the castaway Truk garrison did not pass the last months of the war with sufficient care for its foreseeable postwar situation.
According to testimony given the postwar Guam war crimes tribunal, 10 American prisoners were murdered on Truk in 1944 “through injections, dynamiting, tourniquet applications, strangling and spearing.” (Source) Hiroshi Iwanami was executed for these gruesome experiments/murders in January of 1949.
Ueno, a lieutenant surgical commander, hanged for two other killings that read quite a bit murkier.
Five American POWs were being held in a temporary stockade that was hit by an American bombing raid in June 1944 — killing three of those prisoners.
The surviving two were severely injured, eventually leading Dr. Ueno on June 20, 1944, to perform what he characterized as a legitimate exploratory surgery on one of those men. His prosecutors framed it instead as a fiendishly gratuitous vivisection.
During that procedure, an order arrived for the execution of both the prisoners. The other guy, the one Dr. Ueno wasn’t operating upon, he never had in his care at all; that unfortunate fellow ended up being bayoneted to death. The man on the table (both men’s names were unknown to the prosecuting court) Dr. Ueno stitched back together well enough that subalterns could stretcher him out to a swamp and chop off his head.
Here’s the difficult part: Ueno actually gave the immediate order to execute his ex-patient.
As described in the National Archives’ Navy JAG Case Files of Pacific Area War Crimes Trials, 1944-1949, the physician’s barrister mounted a quixotic philosophical defense of this deeply indefensible order, noting the principled acceptability of euthanasia in Japanese hospitals (so he said), the inevitability of the prisoner’s approaching execution via superior orders, and the agony the man was already in from his wounds.
[Dr. Ueno] had expected that some other person would dispose of this prisoner. But he could not find anyone who looked like the person to carry this out … the thought dominated his mind that all hope is lost to save this prisoner. His fater has been determined. Yet the prisoner is in pain …
He was faced with the predicament of killing by his order the prisoner which he had treated as hiw [sic] own patient. What sarcastic fate was this that he had to face? As the Napoleon, described by George Bernard SHAW, and as McBeth [sic] described by William SHAKESPEARE, the accused, UENO was also “a man of destiny.”
A certain English poet wrote, “Life protracted is protracted woe.” If the life of the prisoner in the present case was protracted one second, he would have so much more suffering to endure. Should it be condemed [sic] so severely to shorten one’s life under such circumstances and shorten his last woe in this world?
There were in all either 10 or 13 official executions of Japanese war criminals on Guam from 1947 to 1949. It’s devilishly difficult to find those 13 enumerated by name and date, but it appears to me that Truk and his boss Admiral Shimpei Asano were the very last to achieve that distinction.**
Shortly after eight o’clock on the humid, tropical evening of March 31, 1949, according to War Department Pamphlet #27-4 Procedure For Military Executions, the 5’6″ Japanese surgeon with extremely strong neck muscles was escorted up the nine steps to the gallows. The handcuffs were removed by a Marine guard and a strap placed to secure his arms to his side and another placed around his legs. A black hood was placed over his head and at 8:26 p.m. the floor panel on which he was standing fell from under his feet and Ueno dropped 94 inches to eternity. He was the last to die, as Rear Admiral Shimpei Asano* had preceded him only moments before. Under the dubious honor that rank has its privileges — the Admiral went first.
* Executed for these same two murders on Truk, as well as two other POWs killed at Kwajalein, in the nearby Marshall Islands.
** Angered by Naval administration of the island, Guam’s Congress had staged a walkout earlier in March 1949. This action did successfully force an end to Naval government.
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.
This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)
Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”
Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:
Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.
According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.
On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.
But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.
Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.
At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.
McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.
A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.
Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.
“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”
A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.
Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.
Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.
The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.
Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.
When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)
Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:
That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.
Very Norman Batesian.
Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.
Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”
On this day in 1864, Private George Nelson of Company F of the 13th United States Colored Troops was hanged for rape in Nashville, Tennessee.
He committed his crime on November 13, 1863. Nelson and two other men were on Nashville Pike outside of the town of Dickson when they encountered an unmarried white woman named, no lie, Indiana Jones.
They asked her where she lived and she said her house was about a mile away. The men claimed they’d been fighting with some rebels near her house and said she must go with them.
Miss Jones refused, and Nelson threatened to shoot her if she did not comply. She went with him for about 250 yards, begging him to release her. Private Nelson put a bayonet to her side and told her to come into the woods with him or he would run her through. Miss Jones started crying then, and he threatened to strangle her with a rope if she did not shut up. They went into the woods together while the other two men held the horse.
As Miss Jones later testified, “I again begged of him to let me go, when he cocked his gun and said if I did not be still he would blow my brains out. He then took hold of me, threw me down, and committed a rape on my person.”
When he was done he robbed her of $1.50, but the other soldiers made him give the money back. Then they let her go.
George Nelson’s accomplices were tried separately, and on cross-examination the victim was asked, “Did you use your utmost endeavors to prevent him from executing his desires, or did you simply cry out, thus yielding a tacit consent?”
As if she could have done anything else with a gun trained on her!
The three defendants were all court-martialed. President Lincoln approved the death sentence for Nelson in August 1864 and he hanged the following month. His partners-in-crime got twelve and ten years in prison respectively.
The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.
For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.
Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.
The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.
In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.
By the end of 1955, everyone knew.
In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacistsenators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.
According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”
The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.
Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched; she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.
A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.
* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till; he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:
Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings
“A most infernal plot has lately been discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it succeeded.”
On this date in 1776, Continental Army soldier Thomas Hickey was hanged before “a vast concourse of people” for a plot that might have strangled the American Revolution in its crib.
That revolution was a highly uncertain venture at this moment, and in a different timeline Thomas Hickey might have been a British hero for squelching it. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” revolutionary firebrand Thomas Painewrote late in 1776. Hickey had to face his trial in the flesh.
George Washington had holed up in New York City in the spring to fortify it against an expected British invasion — an invasion that did indeed arrive and eventually drove the Continental Army all the way to Philadelphia.* As Paine beheld, the wrong turn of events here could have been decisive. The Continental Army was badly outnumbered and afflicted by desertion. The Continental Congress itself had to abandon Philadelphia not long after boldly declaring independence on July 4.
Whatever one might say of the great-man historiographical mood, you’d have to think that knocking out the rebel army’s top general at this juncture would have been a coup for the British.
In June of 1776, New York was tense ahead of the fighting. A British ship of the line sat forebodingly in the harbor, and even as she awaited the coming British force, her crew members rowed freely ashore for provisions. Plots went abroad among the mixed population of “Patriot” and “Loyalist” citizens. Nathan Hale would soon earn his martyr’s laurels in New York, trying to reconnoiter behind enemy lines as Washington staged a series of losing battles and a gradual retreat.
Somewhat below this plane of world-shaping combat and statecraft, a guy named Isaac Ketcham (or Ketchum) found himself clapped in gaol for counterfeiting the easily-counterfeited colonial paper currency. There, Ketcham caught jailhouse scuttlebutt of Loyalist plots afoot in New York. Realizing this could be his ticket out prison, Ketcham wrote New York’s Provincial Congress informing on the schemes.
A fith-column plot against the patriot position in New York, with Loyalist-inclined soldiers set to desert back to the arriving British army.
A plot against the person of George Washington himself.
Ketcham was eagerly interrogated by the Provincial Congress on these matters, and returned to his dungeon in the capacity of an informant. There, he made the acquaintance of the Irish-born Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington‘s personal guards who had on June 15th been committed for doing his own bit of private currency-printing.
Representing himself as a Tory loyalist, Ketcham apparently induced Hickey to boast about something quite a bit more serious than counterfeiting.
“In different conversations he informed me that the Army was become damnably corrupted,” Ketcham told the court-martial that tried Hickey. “That the fleet was soon expected; and that he and a number of others were in a band to turn against the American Army when the King’s troops should arrive.”
The whole scheme went under the pay of Loyalist New York mayor David Mathews, who was also arrested by patriot troops — although Mathews, whose execution might have turned the British very nasty in the various diplomatic conferences ongoing during the New York campaign, was never even tried.** He escaped to British protection shortly after capture.
No kid gloves were available to the treacherous Irishman Hickey, however. Word of the conspiracy against the patriots had also been obtained from a businessman, William Leary, who reported the attempt of his former employee to recruit him into it. The sheer quantity of highly indiscreet men blabbing about it in taverns and jails and the like makes the whole thing seem crazy in retrospect, but if it had succeeded in, say, destroying Kingsbridge, it might have trapped the Continental Army on Manhattan where they would have been easy pickings for the vastly superior British. Someone surely had to pay for this.
Several of Hickey’s accomplices provided evidence against him, and the speedy conclusion of the military commission that tried him was that Hickey should hang in order to, as Washington wrote the Continental Congress, “produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices.” So far as is known, however, Hickey was the only person to suffer this extremity.
The unhappy fate of Thomas Hickey, executed this day for mutiny, sedition, and treachery, the General hopes will be a warning to every soldier in the Army to avoid those crimes, and all others, so disgraceful to the character of a soldier, and pernicious to his country, whose pay he receives and bread he eats. And in order to avoid those crimes, the most certain method is to keep out of the temptation of them, and particularly to avoid lewd women, who, by the dying confession of this poor criminal, first led him into practices which ended in an untimely and ignominious death.
Physician William Eustis (eventually the U.S. Secretary of War), who was among the 20,000 to see Hickey hanged, wrote a friend that afternoon of the execution.
Their design was, upon the first engagement which took place, to have murdered (with trembling I say it) the best man on earth: Genl Washington was to have been the first subject of their unheard of Sacricide: our magazines which, as you know, are very capacious, were to have been blown up: every General Officer and every other who was active in serving his country in the field was to have been assassinated: our cannon were to be spiked up: and in short every the most accursed scheme was laid to give us into the hands of the enemy, and to ruin us. (Source)
The scarcity of original documentation makes it very difficult to say with confidence just how impressive this accursed scheme really was. One can see from Eustis’s letter that it was understood immediately to have compassed the murder of George Washington. This prospective “Sacricide” of America’s founding father par excellence has been worth a good bit of embellishment; one bit of utterly insupportable folklore congenial to vegetable-hating schoolchildren is that Hickey arranged to have General Washington’s peas poisoned with arsenic, but the faithful housekeeper exposed the scheme in the nick of time.
Only a bit more fantastical is the video game Assassins Creed III, whose representation of the death of Thomas Hickey — this version of Hickey is a Templar agent — uses a wacky sequence that begins with the public execution of the game player’s own assassin character, complete with first-person, inside-the-hood perspective.
It might well be that Hickey had been engaged in a plot not to murder but to kidnap the rebel general. David Mathews, the New York mayor, would later tell a royal commission in London autopsying Britain’s Revolutionary War defeat, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected.” It’s been speculated that the Continental Army itself chose to play up the “murder” angle for public consumption in preference to “kidnap” — perhaps because the notion that the Tories had the strength to contemplate the more complex objective of snatching Washington away from his own army, and were in a position to use his very own guards to accomplish it, implied a weakness in the revolutionary cause far too grave to acknowledge openly.
* It’s from this position that Washington would [re-]cross the Delaware amid December ice floes to conduct a morale-salvaging raid on Hessian troops in New Jersey after many long months of reversals. The British, for their part, held New York for the balance of the war, and this helped make adjacent New Jersey a battleground between pro-British and pro-American militias.
** Mathews administered New York until 1783, when the British ceded it to the victorious colonists.