How a Motley Crew of Counterfeiters Saved George Washington, the Continental Army, and the USA
Henry Dawkins was always a bit of a scoundrel. In the spring of 1776, he finished a long prison tenure and was let back onto the streets. Although free, he was not a changed man. Dawkins continued committing crimes. His knack for law breaking, however, inadvertently saved the USA.
After leaving prison, the ex-con rented a room on Long Island. He told his landlords, Isaac and Israel Youngs, that he was going to start a printing business. (He left out what he’d be printing—counterfeit money.) The brothers loaned Dawkins some dough for a printing press. Dawkins bought the machine under a fake name and hid it in the Youngs’ attic. In mid-May, Dawkins asked his friend Isaac Ketcham to buy rolls of currency paper. Ketcham purchased the paper, and a suspicious salesman reported him to the authorities. Days later, Dawkins was back behind bars. This time, Ketcham and the Youngs brothers were with him.
Ketcham was assigned to a cell brimming with loyalists—Americans who supported the monarchy. Ketcham befriended some of the Tories and eavesdropped on their conversations. The prisoners treated him to the freshest British intelligence, and he learned about multiple plots to capture Manhattan.
Ketcham was desperate to get out of jail, and he knew that digging up dirt on the Brits could be his ticket out. He secretly petitioned the Provincial Congress—the same people who convicted him—and asked to be freed. “I…have something to [tell] to the hounorable house,” he said. “It is nothing concerning my own affair, but entirely on another subject.”
Congress took the hint. Ketcham was quickly called in for questioning, but was sent right back to jail. This time, however, he wasn’t there as a prisoner. He was now a spy.
On June 16, two soldiers, Michael Lynch and Thomas Hickey, had been placed in Ketcham’s cell for counterfeiting. Both men were George Washington’s bodyguards. The duo asked Ketcham and Israel Youngs why they were in jail. The two spun a yarn about being diehard loyalists, and Lynch and Hickey began boasting that they secretly enlisted in the King’s army. They said the Royal Navy was soon going to invade New York, and American defectors like themselves were going to blow up Kings Bridge—the only route to mainland. Other traitors would raid munitions stocks and destroy American supply depots. Washington and his 20,000 troops would be trapped on Manhattan Island, surrounded by Royal navy men and loyalists. A bloodbath was inevitable.
The next morning, Ketcham wrote again to the Provincial Congress. “I have (last night) received intelligence from Israel Youngs that he discovered a plan from whence he did not expect it…he is not willing to explain it to any other person but your Honour. Sir, as to my own liberty, I think I have clearly earned it.”
The Provincial Congress acted quickly. On June 22, a witch-hunt ensued, and every known conspirator was caught. Hickey confessed that eight of Washington’s trusty bodyguards were Tories, and they were just days away from kidnapping the famous General.
Making an Example
The news made Washington furious. He targeted his old bodyguard, Thomas Hickey, and made an example out of him for all traitors. Hickey was court-martialed on June 26, and three of his fellow conspirators were forced to testify against him. The court charged Hickey with “mutiny, sedition, and treachery,” and decided that he must “suffer death for said crimes by being hanged by the neck till he is dead.”
Two days later, a crowd of 20,000 people gathered around a wooden scaffold near New York’s Bowery. Hickey was slowly escorted to the gallows by 200 Continental soldiers. At 11:00am, the noose tightened its grip, and Hickey became the first American executed for treason.
Washington warned his men: “[I hope this] 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.”
Two months later, Ketcham and the motley crew of counterfeiters were pardoned.
This post originally appeared in 2012.