Thomas Hickey – Spies


Thomas Hickey (hanged 28 June 1776) was a Continental Army soldier in the American Revolutionary War, and the first person executed for treason against what would become the United States. Born in Ireland, he came to America as a soldier in the British Army, but deserted to the other side. He became part of the Life Guard, which protected General George Washington, his staff, and the Continental Army’s payroll. Hickey was jailed for passing counterfeit money, tried and executed for mutiny and sedition, and may have been involved in an assassination plot.


In April 1776, after the conclusion of the Boston campaign, General Washington and the Continental Army marched to New York City and prepared for an anticipated attempt by the British Army to occupy the city. The Royal Governor of New York, William Tryon, had been driven out of the city by Patriot forces and was compelled to seek refuge on a ship in New York Harbor. Nevertheless, the city had many Loyalist residents who favored the British side.

Thomas Hickey was a private in the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, a unit formed on 12 March 1776, to protect General Washington, his official papers, and the Continental Army’s cash. That spring, Hickey and another soldier were arrested for passing counterfeit money. While incarcerated, Hickey revealed to another prisoner, Isaac Ketchum, that he was part of a wider conspiracy of soldiers who were prepared to defect to the British once the expected invasion came. Arrested by civilian authorities, Hickey was turned over to the Continental Army for trial. He was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny and sedition. He was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 spectators. {Where?|date=July 2013} Hickey was the only person put on trial for the conspiracy. During the trial, David Mathews, the loyalist Mayor of New York City, was accused of funding the operation to bribe soldiers to join the British. Although the charge was never proven, Mathews and twelve others were briefly imprisoned. The conspiracy became greatly exaggerated in rumor, and was alleged to include plans to kidnap Washington, assassinate his officers, and blow up the Continental Army’s ammunition magazines. The rumors greatly damaged the reputation of Loyalists throughout the nascent United States. {Citation needed|date=July 2013}

===Private or Sergeant?===

In the transcript of Court Martial for the Trial of Thomas Hickey and Others on 26 June 1776, Hickey is referred to as a “private sentinel” in Washington’s Life Guards, under the command of Major Gibbs. There is reason to suspect this transcript is a copy made shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War, when many official papers were being copied for preservation. In Harry Ward’s George Washington’s Enforcers (2006), Ward gives Hickey’s rank as Sergeant, and notes that Captain Caleb Gibbs was not promoted to Major until 29 June 1778, two years after Hickey’s trial. When enlisted soldiers are convicted, it is normal for their punishment to include reduction to the lowest rank, private. A post-war transcript would explain why Hickey is listed at his lowest rank and Gibbs is identified at his highest rank. {Citation needed|date=July 2013}

==Assassination plot==

Washington’s headquarters in May–June 1776 was at Richmond Hill, a suburban villa outside the city. Samuel Fraunces, a tavernkeeper whose establishment was about two miles away, provided meals for the general and his officers. Washington employed a housekeeper, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson.

Although Hickey was jailed for passing counterfeit money, and then charged with sedition and conspiracy while in prison, William Spohn Baker, the late-19th-century Washingtonian, believed that the real reason for his execution was involvement in a plot to kill or kidnap Washington:”Thomas Hickey, one of Washington’s Guard, was tried by a court-martial and sentenced to death, being found implicated in a plot to murder the American general officers on the arrival of the British, or at best to capture Washington and deliver him to Sir William Howe. The plot had been traced to Governor Tryon, the mayor (David Matthews) having been a principal agent between him and the persons concerned in it.”

Baker was wrong about the specific crimes of which Hickey was convicted, but in 1776, there was a real rumor of an assassination plot:”[June 24, 1776.] 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. The hellish conspirators were a number of Tories (the Mayor of ye City among them) and three of General Washington’s Life Guards. The plan was to kill Generals Washington and Putnam, and as many other Commanding Officers as possible.” “[July 13, 1776.] I suppose you have heard of ye execution of one of the General’s Guards, concerned in ye hellish plot, discovered here some time past. There was a vast concourse of people to see ye poor fellow hanged.”Two other contemporaneous references to an assassination plot have been published. A garbled account of an assassination attempt appeared over two years later in a provincial English newspaper, The Ipswich Journal, 31 October 1778:Advise is received from America that two persons, a man and a woman who lived as servants with General Washington, have been executed in the presence of the army for conspiring to poison their master.

===Fraunces’s Petition to Congress===

In a 5 March 1785 sworn petition to the U.S. Congress, Samuel Fraunces claimed that it was he who discovered the assassination plot, that he was falsely accused of being part of it, and was jailed until his name was cleared. He wrote (in the 3rd person): “That he [Fraunces] was the Person that first discovered the Conspiracy which was formed in the Year 1776 against the Life of his Excellency General Washington and that the Suspicions Which were Entertained of his agency in that Important Discovery accationed [sic, occasioned] a public Enquiry after he was made a Prisoner on which the want of positive Proof alone preserved his Life.”Congress’s response to Fraunces’s petition downplayed the plot, but accepted his role as “instrumental in discovering and defeating” it. For debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, Congress awarded him £2000, a later payment covered accumulated interest, and Congress paid $1,625 to lease his tavern for two years to house federal government offices.

==Phoebe Fraunces Legend==

Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, died in 1857. Two years later his daughter, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, posthumously published his memoirs, to which were added extended notes by the antiquarian Benson J. Lossing. One of these notes told the story of an attempt by Hickey to poison Washington:”When Washington and his army occupied the city, in the summer of 1776, the chief resided at Richmond hill, a little out of town, afterward the seat of Aaron Burr. [Samuel] Fraunces’s daughter was Washington’s housekeeper, and she saved his life on one occasion, by exposing the intentions of Hickey, one of the Life-Guard (already mentioned), who was about to murder the general, by putting poison in a dish of peas prepared for his table.”

Custis’s actual memoirs did not contain the story, it was added by Lossing, but this distinction is easy for the reader to miss. Lossing repeated the story in an 1870 book, claiming that Washington’s housekeeper had testified at Hickey’s court-martial:”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.[*] [*]”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.”

Lossing’s information was third-hand (as he freely admitted). This story is undermined by the trial minutes of Hickey’s 26 June 1776 court-martial, which contain no housekeeper’s testimony. In the January 1876 issue of Scribner’s Monthly, John F. Mines repeated Lossing’s story and identified the housekeeper. This was more than 99 years after Hickey’s execution, and was the first time that the name “Phoebe Fraunces” appeared in print. Mines listed no sources for the magazine article. It was nationally read in the patriotic build-up to the Centennial celebration:”A daughter of “Black Sam”, Phoebe Fraunces, was Washington’s housekeeper when he had his headquarters in New York in the spring of 1776, and was the means of defeating a conspiracy against his life. Its immediate agent was to be Thomas Hickey, a deserter from the British army, who had become a member of Washington’s body guard, and had made himself a general favorite at headquarters. Fortunately, the would-be conspirator fell desperately in love with Phoebe Fraunces, and made her his confidant. She revealed the plot to her father, and at an opportune moment the denouement came. Hickey was arrested and tried by court-martial.”

In 1919, Henry Russell Drowne (great-grandson of the 1776 chronicler above) repeated the Phoebe Fraunces Legend in his history of Fraunces Tavern:”His [Samuel Fraunces’s] daughter Phoebe was Washington’s housekeeper in the Mortier House on Richmond Hill, occupied by the Commander-in-Chief as Headquarters, in June, 1776, and it was she who revealed the plot to assassinate Generals Washington and Putnam, which led to the apprehension of her lover, an Irishman named Thomas Hickey, a British deserter, then a member of Washington’s bodyguard, in consequence of which he was promptly executed on June 28, 1776.”

===Legend Refuted===

There is no record of Samuel Fraunces having had a daughter named “Phoebe.” The name does not appear with those of his children in the baptismal records of Christ Church, Philadelphia, or Trinity Church, New York. His Will, dated 11 September 1795, does not mention a “Phoebe.”

It is well documented that Fraunces’s nickname was “Black Sam,” but the 1790 U.S. Census for New York lists him as a “Free white male” and a slaveholder. New York tax records list both slaves and indentured servants in his household, and he advertised the sale of a slave in a New York newspaper. If a “Phoebe” ever existed, she may have been a servant employed or enslaved by Fraunces, rather than his daughter.

Self-published author Charles L. Blockson states that “Phoebe” was the nickname of Fraunces’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, but provides no evidence to support this claim. If the woman in the legend had been Elizabeth Fraunces, she would have been rather young for wartime espionage or a clandestine love affair. Elizabeth’s birth date of 26 December 1765 means that at the time of Hickey’s execution, she was ten-and-a-half years old.

==In popular culture==

* Hickey is the villain in the 1977 children’s book Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin.
* Hickey is briefly mentioned in the 2008 historical novel Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.
* Hickey appears as an antagonist in the 2012 video game Assassin’s Creed III. He is voiced by Allen Leech.