In June 1776, when the future of the American colonies looked bleak, a plot to assassinate Gen. George Washington was laid bare.
Washington and the Continental Army were in New York, a city described by one historian as “a citadel of Tory sentiment.” Because Loyalist sentiment was so strong, many feared for the safety of their revered leader, Washington. The fears were not unfounded.
Weeks before American rebels would formally declare independence from the British Crown, an assassination plot against Washington was exposed. The conspiracy involved William Tryon, the former governor of New York, the city’s Tory mayor, David Mathews, and a member of Washington’s personal guard, Sgt. Thomas Hickey.
The plot never hatched. American rebels got wind of the conspiracy when Hickey, in jail on a counterfeiting charge, bragged of the plan to his cell mate, a man named Issac Ketcham, who shared the information with authorities. Mathews was placed under house arrest after admitting he had made contact with Britain (though he denied involvement in the plot). Hickey declined to make a defense at his court-martial and was sentenced to death.
On June 28, some 20,000 spectators (virtually everyone still in the city) gathered in a meadow to watch Hickey receive his sentence. He was marched to the gallows, where a hangman waited. When the hangman began to slip the noose around his neck, Hickey, who had put forth an aura of bravado throughout trial and sentencing, wiped tears from his eyes; then his face was covered. Moments later, after a violent drop, spectators watched Hickey’s lifeless body swing slowly from the gallows.
A young Alexander Hamilton, an officer in the army at the time, witnessed the event. He wrote approvingly of Washington’s swift justice, writes historian Ron Chernow: “It is hoped the remainder of those miscreants now in our possession will meet with a punishment adequate to their crimes.”
A similar fate did not await the other “miscreants.” Mathews died in Nova Scotia in 1800, Tryon in London in 1788. No credible evidence could be found connecting either of the men to the plot.
Did Hickey receive justice? Or did he serve as a useful example?
Jon Miltimore is senior editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.