I am thankful that William Tyron, the Royal Governor of New York, was a little too sure of himself. Although American “patriots” had chased Tyron out of town, he was still lurking, like a spider, a few hundred yards off shore, spinning his loyalist webs aboard the 74 gun “HMS Dutchess of Gordon”. Each day the sailors and royal marines from the "Dutchess" and the two other Royal Navy ships in the harbor, would row to shore for fresh water, to buy food, to even have their shoes repaired and to exchange communications with the loyalist mayor, David Mathews and his many agents. Perhaps, too many agents.New York City in 1776 was a crowded town of 25,000 at the very southern tip of Manhattan. Tyron’s web of spies was strung between the city’s many taverns; “The Highlander” at Beaver Street and Broadway, “The Sergeant At Arms” run by conspirator Alexander Sinclair, and most significantly “The Corbie”, near Spring and Wooster Streets, which was just a few yards southwest of General Washington’s isolated headquarters on Richmond Hill. At his own establishment on Broadway - “The Sign of the Sportsman” - gunsmith Gilbert Forbes, “a short thick man”, waited patiently to buy ale for weary Continental soldiers and listen to their complaints. And in exchange for five gold guineas, he swore them in as members of the Governor’s conspiracy. It was Forbes who first swore in eighteen year old Sergeant Thomas Hickey, a member of General Washington’s personal guards.The 180 officers and men of the Life Guards were as formed on March 11, 1776 out of the regiments laying siege to Boston, as a personal guard for General Washington and his baggage. Washington’s orders called for “…good men, such as they can be recommended for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior " They were also handsome and "well made”We know that Sergeant Hickey was a “black Irishman” who must have been very handsome because he was neither sober nor honest. He had deserted from the British Army, and had for some years lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut. And we know he was a man who wanted money. Hickey claimed he got involved with the conspiracy only “…for the sake of cheating the Tories and getting some money from them”. We also know that Forbes put Hickey on an allowance of 15 shillings a week. We know that Hickey brought with him into the conspiracy four other members of the Life Guards, and that he was paid a bounty for bringing them each into the conspiracy. And we know that on June 15th Hickey and Private Lynch were both arrested for passing counterfeit continental dollars.To finance the revolution two million Continental Dollars were printed on thick rag paper by Hall and Sellers of Philadelphia. And immediately counterfeiters began copying the sad little notes. An advertisement in the journal “Rvington’s Gazette” openly promised, “Persons going into other colonies may be supplied with any number of counterfeit Congress notes ….They are so neatly and exactly executed…it being almost impossible to discover that they are not genuine”. Once locked in the crowded three-story city jail, Hickey was warmly greeted by his fellow inmates.One of those inmates was a professional counterfeiter, Isaac Ketcham, and he appealed to the patriot colonial council to release him in the name of his “six poor children”. And in case that did not work he added he had “…something to observe…entirely on another subject.” In private Ketcham told the council that he had heard Hickey’s drunken boasts (liquor seems to have been in ample supply in the jail) that “…there were near seven hundred soldiers and civilians enlisted for the King" . Ketcham insisted Hickey said he "would he never again fight for the American cause.”
Washington could now compare Ketcham’s story with the warning from businessman William Leary, that one of his employees, James Mason, had boasted about the same loyalist plot. And there was also a warning from William Collier, a waiter at The Corbie. Putting all these sources together, Governor Tyron’s plan was clear.
Just before the British Army was to land on Long Island, loyalists would blow up or capture the Kingsbridge over the Harlem River at the far end of Manhattan Island, 13 miles north of the city. This would sever the only land connection into New York and trap the Continental Army. In addition Loyalists militias were to screen the British landings. And most dastardly of all, Mayor Mathews later told a Royal Commission, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard, prisoners…”At one in the morning of Saturday, June 22nd colonial troops surrounded Mayor Mathew’s house in Flatbush near the village of Brooklyn on Long Island. Mathews was arrested, and over the next several hours hundreds of other loyalist conspirators were taken into custody. On the 27th Sergeant Hickey faced a court martial and was quickly found guilty and condemned to death.
At eleven o’clock the following morning, June 28th, a crying Hickey was marched to the scaffold with a clergyman at his side. As the clergyman stepped away Hickey, “With an indignant, scornful air” wiped away his tears and “...assumed a confident look.” He muttered that one of the witnesses against him should be the next to hang. The blindfold was tied over his eyes, and Thomas Hickey then slowly chocked to death at the end of a rope in front of 20,000 spectators.The very next day, July 29th, four new British warships dropped anchor in New York harbor. They were the vanguard of 130 ships carrying 34,000 troops which would arrive over the next week. In the face of that fleet the patriots of New York might have been more willing to listen to the siren song of Governor Tyron. But he had recruited too many agents too quickly. There were too many rumors swamping the city. And General Washington was too competent not to have paid attention to them. And in that the citizens of the young nation (the Declaration of Independence would not be voted on for another week) were very fortunate.
- 30 -