by Jim Meehan
“Do You Know About Thomas Hickey?”
“I noticed that you’re from Wethersfield, Connecticut.”
I was standing, empty-plate-in-hand, in the breakfast buffet line at an Elderhostel Golf program and the person talking to me was Sol Henner, a self-described retired Revolutionary War historian. He continued, “Do you know about Thomas Hickey?”
I ran quickly through my mental Rolodex of friends, acquaintances, and names I might have heard – but I came up empty. “No — I don’t think I do.”
“Well he was a well known Revolutionary War traitor who lived for a short while in your town.”
“Well I guess then that we wouldn’t have any streets named after him — would we?”
“No, I would think not. He was a member of George Washington’s Guard and took part in a plot to kidnap him.” Later that week he gave me a piece of paper with the words Traitors, Turncoats and Heroes by John Bakeless written on it. “You might find it interesting.”
“Well, we do belong to the Wethersfield Historical Society — so I’ll probably check it out there when we get back home.”
But before I went to the society, I thought I would search the World Wide Web and see what I could find there about Thomas Hickey. I had recently read a review of Public Television’s History Detectives program that questioned why the investigators needed to travel any further than their personal computers in order to research the events they were checking up on – and I wondered the same thing myself.
I Googled “Thomas Hickey traitor” and was provided with a list of several websites and books, including the Bakeless one, that talked about the subject. I would return to Google several more times during my research to refine or expand the booklist, and in the process discover Google Books which allows the viewer to electronically search through and even see actual portions of a book online.
But at that moment I was more excited about reading “The Plot to Kidnap Washington” on the Internet in Newsday.com’s New York History section.
“A miserably bungled plot to kidnap George Washington and assassinate his chief officers led to the hanging of one of his special guards, the jailing of the mayor of New York, and a stepped-up search for Loyalists on Long Island.”
Among these “Loyalists” (American colonists who supported the British) were William Tryon the Governor of New York, and former Governor of North Carolina, and New York Mayor David Matthews.
“A weak link in the plot, however, was one of Washington’s trusted Life Guard…Thomas Hickey, who has been described as ‘a dark-complexioned man of five feet six, well set … an Irishman and hitherto a deserter from the British Army.’ Hickey was himself jailed by American authorities for attempting to pass counterfeit notes, and he unwisely talked of the plot with a cellmate, another counterfeiter named Isaac Ketcham, who was from Cold Spring Harbor.
“Ketchum, seeing an opportunity to be set free, squealed on Hickey. The ex-guard was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny and sedition. On orders of Washington, and with 20,000 Continental soldiers as spectators, Hickey was hanged on June 28 in a field near Bowery Lane. (`We are hanging them as fast as we find them out,’ a correspondent wrote to a friend in Boston.) Although other Life Guard members were also implicated, Hickey was the only one of the plotters to be executed.”
This was even easier than I thought it would be. Now I figured I would just Google “Thomas Hickey Wethersfield” and find out when he lived in town and where. Then I’d have the whole story.
Nothing! Well Google actually never gives you “nothing”. It tries its best, but sometimes what it comes up with isn’t exactly what you might be looking for. For example here is some of what my “Wethersfield Thomas Hickey” query generated.
“Design Review Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes – May 18, 2005
ESS queried whether there were any issues to be concerned with regarding the Wethersfield Historic District. Joe Hickey responded that while the site is not …
“2003 Salem 3 Mile Road Race
… 12, Colchester, CT 23:26.6 7:49 154 86 19 Izard, Thomas, 48, Wethersfield, …. Norwich, CT 26:25.6 8:49 318 144 31 Thomas Hickey, 46, South Windsor, …
“Manchester Road Race – Timing
… AVERY JONATHAN GRANBY CT06035 AYRES JR THOMAS WETHERSFIELD CT06109 AYSON …. ALICE PARKERSBURG WV26104 HERNANDEZ LOUIS HICKEY CHRISTOPHER MANCHESTER …”
I tried various other combinations of searches such as “Wethersfield Revolutionary War” which seemed to bring back a list of pretty much every Internet article concerning that conflict; and “Wethersfield Traitors” which pointed me to Silas Deane after whom our village’s main road is named and whose treasonous activities are, from my parochial small-town perspective, at best dubious –he was exonerated after all! In frustration I input “Wethersfield 1760” and was directed to “Wethersfield, CT Vital Records 1634 – 1868 – From the Barbour Collection as found at the CT State Library”. There were no “Hickeys” listed.
I was at a digital dead end. So I ordered the book that Sol Henner had recommended through interlibrary loan and went to The Wethersfield Historical Society to do some old fashioned brick-and-mortar research.
Putting on the White Gloves
“We’ll have to put on the white gloves for this one.” said Assistant Director Melissa Josefiak.
Melissa had looked through the usually productive sources on census, property ownership, and births with no success. Now she was going through an index of material in the vault and found an indication that something about Thomas Hickey was contained in the financial accounts of Samuel Hanmer, a local merchant. She went into the secured storage room and came out with an original document that was created in a time when the Internet was comprised of the Olde Towne Crier and the closest thing to “Google” was what some people mistakenly called the gang of geese that many families raised on their property.
The cover was leather – aged and stained by several years of day-to-day usage followed by a few centuries of family passing down and utilization as an historical resource. The paper was brown, brittle and terrifying to touch. And the handwriting, ornate and studied in the style of the time, was difficult to decipher – sometimes due to its faintness but mostly because the shapes of the letters which, while presumably of the same alphabet, nonetheless were unfamiliar to my modern eye.
“Writing in colonial America was also a predominantly male skill, tied strongly to occupation and class. Lawyers and their clerks, scholars, physicians, clergy, and business people needed to be able to write
“Different hands were considered proper and appropriate according to style, class, gender, and occupation. For example, 18th century females used the Italianate hand, which was considered easier to learn and more feminine in appearance. Men in commerce were expected to use a hand that inspired confidence and demonstrated self-assurance.”
Using a pile of white computer paper, Melissa constructed a prop onto which the book could be opened, and instructed me to lightly grasp each page at the upper right hand corner and turn gently. The first two sheets were a chronological index of customers with accompanying page numbers pointing to their accounts. We both made several passes over the list of names before I spotted something that looked like it said “Thomas Hickey”. Melissa affirmed my interpretation and I leafed excitedly, but slowly, up to page fifty-three where, after several uncomprehending visual trips up and down the page, I found:
“February 25 1775
Then settled all just accounts with Mister Thomas Hickey as written our hand
I began tracing backwards, slowly turning each page from the its mattress of modern vellum to an uneven placement on its aging original bed, looking for a mention of what “all just accounts” were being settled but found nothing.
Melissa speculated that Thomas Hickey may have been apprenticed to someone in whose name the account would have been, but her search in the records of apprenticeships of that time showed nothing about him. Nor does it seem likely that Samuel Hanmer, being a successful businessman and apparently an accurate bookkeeper would have omitted such a third party name from his statement of settlement.
Nonetheless, touching the paper and seeing the signature of possibly the convicted attempted kidnapper of our first President made me feel as if we had made substantial progress in our investigation.
An Earlier inquiry
Melissa continued looking though the society’s files found a folder labeled “Thomas Hickey” in the archives of inquiries received by the organization. Inside was a typewritten letter dated May 9, 1958 and addressed to D.C. Willard, Esq. – the organization’s director at that time. It was sent by John Bakeless who was “just finishing a book on the espionage of the Revolutionary War and. …making a final study of the plot of June 1776, either to kidnap, poison or stab George Washington…” That book became Traitors, Turncoats and Heroes – the one that Sol Henner had referred me to. It would arrive from the library a few days later.
Bakeless’ letter continued, “The subsequent court-martial record and various other documents show that Sergeant Thomas Hickey, of the general’s Life Guard was a ring-leader in this. They also show that he lived in Wethersfield for some time before 1775.
“I am wondering: (a) whether you know of any local records that might list him, tax lists, lists of householders, or anything of the sort; (b) and also whether you can suggest where I might make any further inquiries.”
The letter had been annotated “ans 6/19/58”. There was no copy of a return letter but the word “over” inscribed at the bottom-right corner directed me to two columns of hand-written notes on the backside by what appeared to be the same author. Although more modern than the penmanship of Samuel Hanmer, the interpretation was equally difficult for me who I realized had been somewhat spoiled by having read (or written) little other than machine-printed lettering for probably the last two decades, if not longer.
The back page notes said such things as: “N.Y. City during the Am. Rev Mercantile Library Assoc. of NYC 1861”, “Proceeding of the Comm for the Hearing, June 22, 1776 Minutes of Gen Court martial which tried Thos Hickey etc.”; and “Mayor of N.Y. David Matthews one of 13 Jail at Hartford moved in a week to Litchfield – (other 10 to Norwich)”. But there is no mention of Thomas Hickey as a Wethersfield resident in any of the annotations.
While I was looking at the Bakeless inquiry, Melissa continued her search and found another Thomas Hickey folder. It had just one item – a 2/22/1967 article from what was then one of Hartford’s two daily newspapers – the Times. The author was William Keifer and bore the headline “Washington, Wethersfield and the Poisoned Peas.”
“It is a known fact of history: George Washington stopped at Wethersfield.
“An almost unknown fact of history is this: An infamous Wethersfield resident almost stopped Washington forever with a plate of peas.
“The peas were poisoned and Thomas Hickey – listed in the old histories as a resident of Wethersfield almost succeeded in assassinating George Washington.”
The article goes on to tell of Hickey’s conviction and hanging “on charges of mutiny, sedition and ‘treacherous correspondence with the enemies of the Colonies.” And cites as a source Benson J. Lossing’s “History of the American Revolution” (1906) which describes Hickey’s crime as a “hellish plot” and a “foul conspiracy”.
“The book also describes Hickey as a ‘dark-complexioned Irishman, a deserter from the British Army ‘several years before’, and a resident of Wethersfield ‘where he bore a good character and was selected (to be Washington’s bodyguard) from the ranks of Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers.
“Hickey’s signature can be found in one old Wethersfield storekeepers book, now in the Wethersfield Historical Society.”
The remainder of the article tells of the attempt by Thomas Hickey, as a part of a conspiracy, to poison the General with the cooperation of Washington’s housekeeper, the unnamed daughter of Samuel Fraunces, “proprietor of New York’s historic Fraunces Tavern where Washington later bade farewell to his troops.” Hickey managed to place the poison in the peas however the housekeeper told Washington of the plot. The General ordered that the lethally laced legumes be fed to some backyard hens, which subsequently were observed to become sick and die. Hickey and others were then arrested.
“But of all the conspirators only Thomas Hickey made his mark – however small – in our national history”
Melissa’s continuing search came up with no other references to Thomas Hickey in the WHS archives. So I ended that day’s research with potentially a more complicated and more colorful plot against Washington but no firsthand evidence that the Thomas Hickey actually lived in our ancient town.
But there were also more sources to check out. In addition to the Bakeless book there was now also Lossing’s History of the American Revolution mentioned in the Hartford Times article, and one other totally unexpected possibility. The Education Director for the Society Mary Pat Knowlton joined in our hunt and, when she saw the newspaper piece, left immediately to go home and check through her personal copy of Knowlton’s Connecticut Ranger source material. It wasn’t until I replayed that day’s research activities in my mind that the eponymous relationship between the latest research team member and the subject matter of our latest search sank in.
“Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes”
Meanwhile Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes arrived at the library. It has ten pages devoted to the story of Thomas Hickey, enough to make him eligible to be listed in the index. His story makes up the second half of a chapter entitled “Kidnapping George Washington”. There is no mention of Wethersfield.
I checked the Notes at the back of the book. They are relatively extensive – twelve pertaining to the pages in question, several of that dozen identifying multiple sources. There are also five pages of acknowledgements, one with a subsection called “Connecticut spies”. The word “Wethersfield” does not appear anywhere in either of these sections. I surmise, based upon the apparent thoroughness of Bakeless’ research that he was not able to come up with anything definitive establishing Hickey’s connection to our town and therefore did not include it in his book
The account of the attempted kidnapping is however more detailed than what I had found to date. And Bakeless also talks about the pea-poisoning episode.
“Kidnapping George Washington” begins with the story of Henry Dawkins, “a far from edifying character…[who] got out of jail in New York City in January or February, 1776… jail was the best possible place for that expert, but too enterprising, artist and engraver.
After his release, Dawkins went to Huntington, Long Island, “cheerfully thinking out a scheme whereby he could easily turn a dishonest shilling and a dishonest dollar at the same time.”
He arrived at the home of brothers Israel and Isaac Young whom he convinced to help him to purchase a printing press — specifically a “rolling press”, the kind used to print currency — and set it up on their property. The Young brothers allowed him to install the machine in their attic behind a concealed door.
“Counterfeiting in those days was not really very difficult. Lacking the innumerable protective devices of modern bank notes, the crude currency of the new American states was easily imitated. State and Continental ‘shinplasters’ were produced from ordinary engraved copper plates – perhaps at times from ordinary type; and counterfeiters only trouble was getting the right paper. Even the unsuspicious provincial treasuries of those days knew enough about currency to use a special kind – but alas for them – any printer could buy the same paper on the open market. To get some the Dawkins counterfeiting ring turned to one Isaac Ketcham.
“…Ketcham visited Philadelphia, an early center for the American paper industry, examined paper and asked for prices…..In ordinary times Ketcham’s efforts to buy a little paper would have interested no one save some willing salesman. These times, however, were far from ordinary. Someone suspected a plot to counterfeit; and about May of 1776, Ketcham was arrested. To make matters worse, Dawkins got drunk about this time, made some rash remarks, and was likewise arrested.
“Dawkins, Ketcham and the brothers Young, who presently joined them in jail, where themselves guilty of nothing worse than attempted counterfeiting…But in jail were others, still less innocent than the counterfeiting ring, engaged in dark affairs of state. They talked incautiously of other plots. Isaac Ketcham, hearing of graver matters, saw a chance to save himself.”
There were two Tory plans: one to kidnap General Washington from his New York headquarters, and a second for a secret uprising of armed forces in New York City and on Long Island while the British Army led by General Howe and Admiral Lord Howe leading the Royal Navy attacked.
”Whether there was still a third plot, to stab or poison General Washington – as was firmly believed in New York at the time – is less certain….There was no reason to stab or poison him if he could be kidnapped, for the British government very much wanted the archrebel alive, for trial and execution….In the court-martial that followed [there was not] any mention of plans to poison or stab the general.
“Dawkins and the Young brothers may never have learned anything about the Tory plots; but Ketcham, soon after he had been confined, got wind of the conspiracies, probably from gossip among the prisoners, perhaps from eavesdropping, perhaps in some other way….Ketcham thought he saw a way out and, in early June of 1776, sent a petition to the Provincial Congress.”
The basis of his plea was his need to care for his “six poor children” but he appended to it “Sir I the subscriber hath something to obsearve to the honourable house if I cold be admitted Its nothing concearning my one affair But intirely on another subgyt.”
Apparently this footnote to his petition served its purpose, for written at the bottom of the document is “The application of Isaac Ketcham And the memorandum which finally ended in the execution of Thos Hickey for High Treason.” Ketcham was offered a “purposual” that he return to prison as an American spy.
On June fifteenth Sergeant Thomas Hickey and Private Michael Lynch, both of Washington’s Guard, were imprisoned for passing counterfeit money. Hickey met Ketcham and apparently bragged of being involved in both of the Tory plots. After two more days of collecting information Ketcham sent word to the Provincial Congress.
The New York authorities received confirmation of Ketcham’s allegations when they arrested James Mason who had confided similar information to his former employer William Leary. He in turn notified the authorities. Mason implicated Hickey and others including New York Mayor David Matthews.
“As usual in wartime, the wildest rumors spread. It was reported that Hickey had instructions to stab General Washington. The story went around that he had poisoned a dish of green peas (of which Washington was specially fond); but that the general’s housekeeper warned him time to send the peas away untasted. Someone, so the story ran, threw the peas into a chicken pen and all the chickens died.”
Bakeless’ footnote on this paragraph says: Lossing in his Washington (I, 176) states that he had the facts from one W.J. Davis, who had them from Peter Embury, of New York, who knew Phoebe Fraunces. [the housekeeper] The story is repeated in Drowne….Freemman, IV, 121-n, believes the whole story a fabrication. The story was certainly widely accepted at the time.”
Hickey was brought before a general court-martial convened personally by General Washington. According to Bakeless there is no evidence that any of the other “equally guilty accomplices” were ever tried or any reason given as to why. Three of the conspirators did however testify against Hickey.
The presiding officer was Colonel Samuel H. Parson. Hickey was charged with “exciting and joining in a mutiny and sedition, and of treacherously corresponding with, inlisting among, and receiving pay from the enemies of the United American Colonies.” These charges were by themselves enough to hang any soldier. Bakeless offers the opinion that the Tory plots were never mentioned in order to keep from “putting bad ideas into people’s heads or causing uneasiness in the ranks.”
Hickey pleaded not guilty. Four witnesses were called against him: William Green, Gilbert Forbes, William Welch, and Isaac Ketcham. Green attempted to convince the court that he and Hickey were involved in a self-concocted plot to detect the Tory’s scheme into which Forbes tried to involve him. Forbes demurred that Green had instigated joining the scheme and that, at Hickey’s request; he (Forbes) had paid Hickey half a dollar. Welch testified that Hickey tried to get him to join promising him ‘he would carry me to a man who would let me have a dollar by way of encouragement.”
Hickey conducted his own defense. “He engaged in the scheme at first for the sake of cheating the Tories, and getting some money from them, and afterwards consented to have his name sent on board the man-of-war [from which the plots were being coordinated], in order that if the enemy should arrive and defeat the army here, and he should be taken prisoner, he might be safe.”
The verdict was unanimous: “that the prisoner Thomas Hickey suffer death for said crimes by being hanged by the neck till he is dead.” Execution was set for eleven o’clock the following morning, June 28th, 1776.
Four brigades (those of Generals Heath, Scott, Spencer and Lord Stirling) were ordered to watch the hanging. Twenty men from each brigade were assigned to guard the prisoner on his walk to the gallows. In all twenty thousand spectators were said to be present.
Hickey was accompanied by a chaplain to the scaffold and cried when the clergyman left him. But then “With an indignant scornful air he wiped ‘em with his hand from his face and assumed the confident look.” At the end he muttered threats against someone named Green “[unless he] was very cautious, the design would as yet be executed against him.” Bakeless feels that Hickey was referring to William Green who testified against him. Then, blindfolded, he was hanged.
Washington’s orders for the day read in part: “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.”
While Wethersfield is never mentioned, there was one Connecticut connection according to Bakeless. Henry Dawkins, the counterfeiter whose actions instigated this chain of events, was back in jail again – in Simsbury, Connecticut.
The files that Mary Pat Knowlton needed to research were not immediately accessible so while we waited, since I had never heard of them, I decided to check out “Knowlton’s Rangers” on the Internet. To my surprise I immediately found an article on the web site of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. There was no author identified nor were any sources cited. But to my amateur eye the organization sounded legitimate (another largely volunteer historical society), and the site looked professional enough – so I read what it had to say.
Born in West Boxford, Massachusetts in 1740, Thomas Knowlton moved to Ashford, Connecticut at eight years of age and nine years later appeared on the muster rolls of Captain John Slapp’s 8th Co, First Connecticut Regiment. He rose through the ranks while serving in several Connecticut regiments and participated in the battle of Havana, Cuba in 1762 – one of twenty of Israel Putnam’s 107-man company to return.
With the Battle of Lexington in 1775 Knowlton rejoined his militia and Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment. He was promoted to Major as a result of his valorous actions at the Battle of Breed’s Hill and “In New York on August 12, 1776 Knowlton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. In September he was put in charge of an elite hand picked independent corps, which was under the direct command of Washington. This unit was called the ‘Rangers’ or ‘Knowlton’s Rangers’. (Captain Nathan Hale was a member of this unit.”)
According to this source Knowlton’s Rangers were not formed until three months after the execution of Thomas Hickey – a contradiction to the Hartford Times article that averred the alleged Wethersfield resident was “selected (to be Washington’s bodyguard) from the ranks of Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers.”. I went back to the Google search results to look for corroboration from other sources. The National Park Service website and (www.nps.gov/revwar/revolution_day_by_day/1776_main.html) and Wikipedia both also agreed that Knowlton’s Rangers had not yet been formed at the time of Hickey’s death.
I also found the full roster of Knowlton’s Rangers listed online in www.army.mil/History and it did not contain anyone named Hickey – Thomas or otherwise.
So if Hickey didn’t transfer to George Washington’s Guard from Knowlton’s Rangers where did he come from? Emboldened by my recent Internet successes, and not having any hard copy leads in hand I decided to look a little more deeply into the Commander-in-Chief Guards
According to “A Brief History of the Commander-in-Chief Guards with Roster” by Donald N. Moran on www.revolutionarywararchives.org/cncguard.html — a website “Dedicated to George Washington and the men of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard who protected him” – Washington issued the following orders on March 11, 1776.:
“’The General is desirous of selecting a particular number of men as a guard for himself and baggage. The Colonel or Commanding Officer of each of the established regiments, the artillery and riflemen excepted, will furnish him with four, that the number of wanted may be chosen out of them. His Excellency depends upon the Colonels for good men, such as they can recommend for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior. He wishes them to be from five feet eight inches to five feet ten inches, handsomely and well made, and as there is nothing in his eyes more desirable than cleanliness in a soldier, he desires that particular attention be made in the choice of such men as are clean and spruce. They are to be at headquarters tomorrow precisely at 12 o’clock at noon, when the number wanted will be fixed upon. The General neither wants them with uniforms nor arms, nor does he desire any man to be sent to him that is not perfectly willing or desirous of being in this Guard. – They should be drilled men.’”
“The next morning Washington selected Captain Caleb Gibbs of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment to command the Guard and George Lewis, his nephew, as the Lieutenant. He entrusted them with the details of organizing the unit.
“The Commander-in-Chief Guard, officially designated ‘His Excellency’s Guard,’ or ‘The General’s Guard,’ was popularly called by the soldiers ‘The Life Guards’, ‘The Washington Life Guards,’ or ‘Washington Body Guard.’ On April 15th, 1777 Congress decreed that these appellations were improper and ordered the practice stopped. Gibb’s frequently signed his correspondence as ‘Commandant C-in-C Guards,’ while Washington referred to them as ‘My Guards.’
“Unfortunately, the first detailed account of the C-in-C Guards involved a plot to assassinate General Washington. Briefly, on May 24th, 1776, The C-in-C Guards set up camp near Richmond Hill on Manhattan Island. Anticipating Washington’s arrival, a group of New York Tories (Loyalists to the British Crown) formed a secret organization on May 13th. Their primary objective was the assassination of George Washington. The plot was uncovered and the Provincial Congress took immediate action. Several Tories, including the City’s Mayor, David Matthews, were arrested. Simultaneously, Washington, with Captain Gibbs and a party of hand-picked men arrested some forty alleged conspirators. Among them were C-in-C Guards Sergeant Thomas Hickey; Drummer William Green; Fifer James Johnson; Privates John Barnes and Michael Lynch.
“At the Court Martial the testimony given was enough to send Hickey to the gallows. Hickey was Irish born, but had deserted from the British Army and enlisted in the Guard. He was hanged on June 28th in front of an estimated 20,000 spectators.”
A roster of “The Known Members of the Commander-In-Chief’s Guard” on this website lists “Thomas Hickey [Rank] Sergeant, [Life] ? – 1776, [Service] 1776-1776 Court martial Treason – hanged 28 June 1776”. Other members have the unit from which they came listed, but not Hickey.
Then, through more Internet searching, I came across a book that might answer my questions about the contingent from which Hickey had transferred – The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard: Revolutionary War by Carlos E. Godfrey Published in 1904.
“Over 350 officers and men formed the personal guard of General Washington, and the rosters and service records contained herein make this work a virtual Revolutionary War honor roll. The first part is a history of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard from its formation on March 11, 1776 to its dissolution on December 20, 1783. The second part contains the service records of the officers and men, alphabetically arranged, and includes basic information such as date and place of enlistment, rank, company, regiment, date transferred to the Guard, battles and skirmishes engaged in, and casualties incidental thereto.”
I now began to hope that this book, along with Benson J. Lossing’s History of the American Revolution, mentioned frequently as a source of the Hickey saga would close the loop on Hickey’s Wethersfield connection.
According to the Wethersfield Library’s Internet catalog search neither History of the American Revolution nor The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard: Revolutionary War was available in any Connecticut Public Library, so I tried the Connecticut State Library website and found them both listed there.
The Connecticut State Library & Museum of Connecticut History is located in the State Supreme Court building in Hartford. There was one very harried looking librarian at the desk and about twenty patrons, most of them sitting at wooden tables looking at their laptops. The man in front of me had the uniform of an H.V.A.C company and was looking for help in finding diagrams of the heating and cooling systems in one of the state buildings.
The librarian, wearing a tweed jacket and a tie that looked like he had pre-tied it and slipped over his head but not quite under one side of his shirt collar, was walking him through a folder of blueprints while at the same time nervously scouting the horizon for incoming information emergencies.
When my turn came I gave him my printout with the catalog numbers I was looking for. He jumped up quickly and said, “Follow me.” as he darted into a hallway behind his desk. I took off in hot pursuit and barely caught sight off him turning into a side room and then again as he went into one of the aisles of books in that room.
“Here they are.” he said as I came running up to him. “Just bring them back to me when you are finished.” And he rushed away back down the aisle. I took the books from the shelves and, with a little luck, retraced my path back to the main room where I found an empty spot at a table and began reading.
The Lossing book was three volumes; Godfrey’s one – so I looked at the smaller one first.
“Hickey, Thomas: Private, Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, commanded by Captain Caleb Gibbs; in arrest New York June 15, 1776; court-martialed June 26, 1776 and found guilty of a breach of the 5th and 30th articles of war, and sentenced to be hanged; sentence approved by the Commander-In-Chief June 27, 1776 to take effect June 28, 1776 at 11 a.m.; hanged June 28, 1776.”
I checked the index for other references to Hickey but there were none.
According to the Lossing book:
“[Hickey] was a dark-complexioned Irishmen, and had been a deserter from the British army several years before. He had lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut, where he bore a good character, and was selected for the guard from Knowlton’s Connecticut rangers. He had the confidence of the commander-in-chief, and was a favorite at Richmond Hill. Having enlisted in the conspiracy, to him was intrusted the work of destroying Washington.”
Lossing then relates the story of the poisoned peas.
“The guardsman was tried by a court-martial, and on the testimony of the housekeeper and one of the corps, whom the culprit had unsuccessfully attempted to corrupt, he was found guilty of ‘mutiny and sedition and of holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemies of the colonies’ and was sentenced to be hanged.”
Lossing seems to be saying Hickey was tried, convicted and hanged for the abortive laced legumes plot. The only footnote for this information reads
“These facts were related to a friend of the writer (Mr. W.J. Davis), by the late Peter Embury, of New York, who resided in the city at the time, was well acquainted with the general’s housekeeper, and was present at the execution of Hickey.”
From its placement the annotation seems to refer to the story of the poisoned peas but not to either the Wethersfield or Knowlton’s Rangers references. Even if it did, because it was provided verbally to the author as hearsay evidence by someone now deceased, it is unverifiable – even more unfortunate if this work, published in 1866, is the first one in which the claim of Hickey’s Wethersfield residency is mentioned.
Interpreting the Evidence
I don’t remember college term papers being this much trouble. However back then during the research phase I didn’t have any preconceived ending in mind – and I pretty much uncritically accepted whatever was being said as long as it led me to some “logical conclusion” in exactly the prescribed number of pages.
So I decided to do some research on doing research and found the following on a site called dianahacker.com/resdoc/history.html.
“Research in history involves developing an understanding of the past through the examination and interpretation of evidence. Evidence may exist in the form of texts, physical remains of historic sites, recorded data, pictures, maps, artifacts, and so on. The historian’s job is to find evidence, analyze its content and biases, corroborate it with other evidence, and use the evidence to develop an interpretation of past events that has some importance for the present. Historians use libraries to
* Locate primary sources (firsthand information such as diaries, letters, and original documents) for evidence
* Find secondary sources, historians’ interpretations and analyses of historical evidence
* Verify factual material as inconsistencies arise
“Many bibliographies can help you identify primary and secondary sources related to a particular topic or historical period. Be sure to examine bibliographies and footnotes in secondary sources as you find them, since they will often lead you to primary sources.”
Except the only primary source I had found was an unverified signature and the secondary sources seemed not to have any bibliographical information on Thomas Hickey – and in some cases no list of reference books at all. In fact one of them actually took pride in this apparent lack of scholarly discipline
Page Smith, in his two-volume work A New Age Now Begins (one of the sources mentioning Hickey and Wethersfield), writes:
“The identifying characteristic or academic history is footnotes…[but] Systematic footnoting would, however, greatly extend the length and cost of this already long and costly enterprise, and it would serve little scholarly purpose. Beyond that I confess to a certain ingrained prejudice against footnotes….Be that as it may, I can say for this work that the primary sources or the history of the era of the American Revolution are well known to historians familiar with the field.”
However he did offer possible hope to this neophyte student of colonial history and amateur footnote backtracker.
“I would like to review here the primary source materials used in this work. For anyone interested in the American Revolution from the beginning of the resistance to Parliament down to 1776, one monumental work looms over all others, Peter Force’s ‘American Archives’. This work in nine large volumes is an extraordinary compilation of newspaper articles, public documents, and letters dealing with the period of agitation and the opening episodes of the wars.”
Perhaps this one body of work contained all of the primary source material I would need to settle the question of Thomas Hickey’s Wethersfield residency.
As well as perhaps giving me the key to the Thomas Hickey mystery, Page Smith related something that, while at best peripheral to that story, is nonetheless an entertaining diversion.
In investigating the plot to abduct or assassinate Washington, “A committee appointed by New York’s Provincial Congress took testimony regarding this ‘most wicked and dangerous conspiracy’…They met of June 23 to examine a number of witnesses. [One of whom heard, James Clayford] inform a group of conspirators that a young woman named Mary Gibbons ‘was thoroughly in their interest’. Mary Gibbons, according to Clayford, was a New Jersey girl ‘of whom General Washington was very fond’ and whom he ‘maintained…very genteelly at a house near Mr. Skinner’s at the North River; that he came there very often late at night, in disguise…’ Mary Gibbons, who was also mistress to Clayford, reportedly told Clayford everything that Washington confided to her…
“At this point Peter Livingston called a recess in the hearings to allow the members of the committee to consult with Washington ‘as he was some way affected by the last witness to apprize him of it and consult with him…’ The committee thereupon adjourned until the Third of July…In the meantime, Thomas Hickey…was tried by court-martial…[and]…hanged by the neck.’
“Clayford heatedly denied the charges.
“What will be more striking to the reader are the statements by witnesses that Washington was involved in a liaison with a woman of Mary Gibbons’ character. The action of the committee in adjourning the hearings was testimony that the members believed the statements of the witnesses were serious enough to require ‘many conferences on the subject with General Washington’. We have of course no notion of what Washington said to the committee. We can assume that he did not take any action to hush up the inquiry as it related to Clayford. Clayford was called to the stand and there once more was charged by witnesses with having been involved with Mary Gibbons. Nothing more was said directly of Washington’s own relation with the woman, but the statement was repeated that she had been instrumental in securing papers of Washington’s that Clayford had boasted of possessing and of having copied. It seems reasonable to assume that Washington could have prevailed upon the committee to drop the investigation of Clayford if he had tried to do so….it would thoroughly be in character for Washington to put no impediment in the way of the committee’s completing its investigation. The deliberations were, after all, secret…[although]…the minutes of the committee were not destroyed…. I have been unable to find out what happened to Clayford; was he in fact executed, or was he sent with the rest of the Tories to Connecticut?
“The final word on the matter of Washington’s relationship with Mrs. Gibbons may well be taken from the introduction to an 1865 edition of the minutes of the trial of the conspirators. ‘Respecting the charge against the morality of Washington – often asserted by his contemporaries – whether true or not, and we should be loathe to believe it, it must be recollected, that at that day a laxness of social virtue was not visited with so severe a censure as it is in our own time – and that some of the prominent men of the age were not proof against temptation, we know from the confessions of Hamilton and the intrigues of Burr.’
“Nevertheless, some strange inconsistencies and questions remain…would he have come in disguise with his pockets full of letters and dispatches that Mary Gibbons could have copied?…Could Washington have been ninny enough to confide strategic plans to a woman like Mary Gibbons? If the story of Washington’s involvement with Mary Gibbons was false then, then Clayford’s story was false and he was not guilty…In this case he had only to say so and, presumably, produce Mary Gibbons to corroborate his defense. It is, in any event, a most puzzling episode.”
Now back to the hunt for Hickey.
The book that I was hoping could finally answer the question of Thomas Hickey’s Wethersfield connection — Peter Force’s American Archives — was available at the Connecticut Historical Society.
“Peter Force, printer and document collector, intended to publish rare pamphlets, correspondence, and proceedings relating to the “Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America” that covered the time period 1763-1789. After years of work, the final (but unfinished) result was 9 volumes of material covering the years 1774-1776.”
But even better, in terms of ease of searching, is the fact that this very large opus is also online at “http://dig.lib.niu.edu/amarch/detailed.html” – “American Archives”. Actually touching (albeit through white gloves) the signature of Thomas Hickey was really quite exciting. But reading through nine volumes of small print paper looking for similar occurrences of his name would be pretty tedious – even with an index.
Thanks to modern technology I didn’t have to.
“Since this material is of extreme importance to scholars of the Revolutionary War period, and is collected in this one source, Northern Illinois University Libraries received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to provide free electronic access to Force’s American Archives. Through the use of sophisticated indexing and searching software provided by the University of Chicago, as well as the thematic indexing of this material by a subject expert (Allan Kulikoff, Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities at the University of Georgia), this project is able to provide a uniquely new way to access these documents.”
As a result it took less than two hours at my Mac computer to determine the following.
There are eighteen references in ten separate documents to Thomas Hickey:
1) Court Martial for the trial of Thomas Hickey and others (4 references)
2) Council of General Officers held at Head-Quarters in New-York
3) Letter from General Washington to the President of Congress
4) Warrant for the execution of Thomas Hickey, at Headquarters, New York, June 28, 1776 (4 references)
5) June 28 Directive of the Warrant for the execution of Thomas Hickey
6) General Orders, from June 27 to June 30
7) General Orders, from June 28 to June 30
8) Deposition of Israel Youngs
9) Michael Lynch and Thomas Hickey committed to prison, Letter to General Washington, enclosing Affidavits (3 references)
10) Complaint by Mr. Jay of the handbill published by General Scott
Unfortunately none of the original documents contained any information as to Hickey’s town residence, his past military history, or his desertion from the British Army.
I decided to look into one more reference source and then come to whatever conclusion I could with the information that I had. The work was the Pulitzer Prize winning, seven-volume George Washington, a Biography written from 1948-1957 by Douglas Southall Freeman. The Connecticut State University Library System (CONSULS) tells me that the book is available at the Central Connecticut State University Library and the librarian there tells me over the phone that I do not need to be a CCSU student in order to use the library.
Like the Connecticut State Library, most of the patrons were busily working on their laptops. Unlike that institution, here there were several librarians — all neatly and professionally attired — one of whom guided me slowly through the stacks of books and set me up at a small nearby table.
Volume 4 of the work contained the now familiar Thomas Hickey story, which I quickly read through looking for either new information or, more importantly to me, substantiation of Hickey’s Wethersfield connection.
“The most obdurate suspect was a man Isaac Ketcham had mentioned, namely, Thomas Hickey, one of two continental soldiers jailed for an alleged attempt to pass a counterfeit bill of credit. Hickey was believed to be a former deserter from the royal army who had resided in Wethersfield, Connecticut, for a number of years.”
There was a footnote for the first sentence pointing back to the Peter Force American Archives materials that I had already researched. And, as I’ve come to expect, there was no annotation for the residential history of Thomas Hickey.
So What’s the Real Story?
When I started this project I thought it would result in five or so double spaced pages of clear-cut prose telling the story of one of Wethersfield’s dark little historical secrets. Now, several months later, I find myself on page twenty-eight without a definite conclusion in sight and fresh out of places to look for one.
It’s time for me to put this particular exploration to rest.
The much repeated story of Thomas Hickey seems to have five basic components:
- He was a British deserter
- After which he lived in Wethersfield Connecticut
- And became a member of Knowlton’s Rangers
- From which he was selected to serve in the Commander-In-Chief’s Guard
- While a member of which he was tried, convicted, and executed for a plot to either (a) kidnap said Commander-in-Chief – or possibly (b) to culinarily kill him.
Oh, and 6) “He was a dark-complexioned Irishman” (I’m finding these continual references to Hickey’s swarthy complexion almost amusing. It seems to be a piece of information that could only be provided by someone who actually had known Hickey – or at least had seen him. But nowhere in my research did I come across any such firsthand observations. Was this a technique to make the story appear to be more solid than it really was by providing a tidbit that seems to be a part of an eyewitness description?)
On items #1) and #2) I have not been able to find any first hand sources to prove their truth. There is the signature of a Thomas Hickey in a Samuel Hanmer’s account book at the historical society but no additional evidence to suggest that this was the Thomas Hickey.
I did find information that #3) could not be true because Knowlton’s Rangers were founded three months after Thomas Hickey was hanged, and Hickey is not listed in the roster of that unit. This, in my mind at least, casts some doubt on the whole Wethersfield connection.
Hickey’s name is listed in the roster of the Commander-In-Chief’s Guard (#4) but there is nothing about either his hometown or the unit from which he was transferred.
The transcripts of the Court Martial of Thomas Hickey clearly pinpoints him as the sole person executed in the June 1776 plot to kidnap General George Washington (#5a). These court documents do not mention any attempt to poison the general (#5b).
Does this mean that Thomas Hickey had no connection with Wethersfield? Not necessarily.
The inclusion of the Knowlton’s Rangers tie-in (even though it has proven to be untrue) shows that a good deal of thought and a certain amount of logic went into the creation of the story. The Hanmer Accounts Book signature proves that someone named Thomas Hickey transacted at least one piece of business in the town of Wethersfield. And the fact that the Hickey-Wethersfield link has, for such a long time, been a consistent part of the story that professional historians have told does give it a certain amount of believability.
It is not however, by itself, a guarantee of authenticity.
While I was trying to figure out how to end this article I came across the following quotation in the “Coffee Games” insert of an abandoned tabloid at a local Chinese takeout restaurant – a decidedly non-scholarly publication. Nonetheless, because of my disappointment in the reliance on secondary sources and the lack of systematic footnotes that I found in my own research I think that it has more than an element of “academic” truth to it.
“History does not repeat itself, – historians merely repeat each other.”