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226 years ago: Irishman Thomas Hickey executed for plotting against Washington

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Two hundred twenty-six years ago this week, on June 28, 1776, Thomas Hickey went to the gallows in New York City. He had been convicted of mutiny and sedition for his role in a plot to either kidnap or murder Gen. George Washington. That such a plot against Washington existed seems beyond dispute. But Hickey’s alleged role in it remains murky to this day.

In June of 1776, New York City was abuzz with activity and gossip. Commander-in-Chief George Washington had arrived on April 13 from Boston following the British evacuation of that city. He immediately began fortifying the city, knowing the British probably planned to invade New York as part of a grand scheme to divide the colonies. Speculation ran rampant as to when and how the British would invade. There was also talk that the British were secretly plotting a Tory uprising as a prelude to military invasion.

Indeed, there was a Tory plot in the works involving the highest public officials, among them Colonial Gov. William Tryon and Mayor David Matthews. The exact details of the conspiracy are not clear, but it seems to have involved a scheme to either kidnap or murder Washington and other key officials. Then, having already secretly enlisted hundreds of men to take up arms for the king, they would cast out Washington’s rebel force. If successful, it would not only pave the way for the imminent arrival of a British force totaling 30,000 soldiers and several hundred ships, but, more important, it would all but demolish the leadership and morale of the rebel cause. With loyalist sentiment in the New York area strong (with a good many people also remaining neutral), the plotters had every reason to believe they’d succeed.

One of the men enlisted in the plot was Thomas Hickey. Not much is known about him except that he was described at the time as being “a dark-complexioned man of five feet six, well set . . . an Irishman hitherto a deserter from the British Army.” At the time of the plot Hickey was a soldier in Washington’s Life Guard. With such access to Washington, he was an ideal recruit to the conspiracy.

The plot was discovered on June 20 and arrests of more than 20 suspected conspirators quickly followed, including Mayor Matthews. Had they been able to find him, Gov. Tryon would have been arrested as well. Over the course of the next few days, three of Hickey’s accomplices — including fellow Irishman Michael Lynch — agreed to provide evidence against him in exchange for leniency.

At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, they gave sworn testimony that Hickey had joined the conspiracy, accepted small sums of money from a gunsmith named Gilbert Forbes, and tried to recruit additional participants. Even if true, the testimony makes it clear that Hickey was probably on the lowest end of the conspiracy’s hierarchy and that many others were at least as susceptible to the charge of mutiny and sedition. Several testified that the money for paying recruits came directly from Matthews and that most of the recruiting was carried out by Forbes. One man, William Green, even gave evidence that Hickey was not a Tory plotter at all, but rather a man who merely played along with the conspiracy as a way to foil it while also making some easy money.

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Nonetheless, the jury found Hickey guilty as charged and sentenced him to die the next day. Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution. On that day, Hickey was led to a field near the Bowery where a hastily constructed gallows stood. At 11 a.m., before a cheering crowd of some 20,000, he was hanged. No one else arrested in connection with the plot suffered this fate.

The story of the plot against Washington, like so many aspects of his biography, was embellished in the years following the Revolution. Hickey, according to the apocryphal version of events, became the chief conspirator in an attempt to poison Washington. He allegedly recruited Washington’s female servant, who agreed to serve him a dish of peas — one of his favorite foods — laced with arsenic. But unbeknownst to Hickey, she let Washington know of the scheme. When he flung the peas into the yard and a group of chickens ate them and promptly died, Hickey was arrested. It’s a great story, but one based on no evidence. Nothing in the official transcripts of Hickey’s trial make mention of poison or peas.

Although probably guilty on some level of involvement in the plot, Hickey was clearly a scapegoat and the victim of unequal justice. Terrified by the prospect of a Tory conspiracy against Washington and the colonial rebellion, officials wanted to send a message to all other potential conspirators — of which there were many — that all faced the gallows if caught, even those involved at the lowest level. Washington said as much when he wrote to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, after the execution. “I am hopeful this example will produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into like traitorous practices,” he wrote. To another he wrote that he hoped it would be “a warning to every soldier in the Army.” Indeed, every soldier not on duty that day was ordered to attend the execution.

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

June 28, 1922: The Free State Army launches an attack against the anti-Treaty forces at Four Courts in Dublin, starting the Irish Civil War.

June 30, 1936: Margaret Mitchell’s book “Gone with the Wind” is published in New York City.

July 1, 1690: William of Orange triumphs over the forces of James II at the Battle of the Boyne.

HIBERNIAN BIRTHDATES

June 27, 1846: Home Rule movement leader Charles Stewart Parnell is born in Avondale, Co. Wicklow.

June 28, 1844: Nationalist and poet John Boyle O’Reilly is born in Drogheda, Co. Louth.

June 29, 1907: Civil rights lawyer and politician Paul O’Dwyer is born in Bohola, Co. Mayo.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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