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Sergeant Thomas Hickey Court-Martial: 1776

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Defendant: Sergeant Thomas Hickey
Crimes Charged: Mutiny and sedition
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutor: None
Court-Martial Board: Colonel Samuel Parsons, presiding officer
Place: Richmond Hill, New York
Date of Court-Martial: June 26, 1776
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: The case reflected the uncertain, ill-defined state of American governmental affairs, particularly the chaotic state of the courts. Because New York's courts were "as yet held by authority derived from the Crown," the Provincial Congress handed soldiers accused of treasonous activities over to General George Washington, whose authority derived from the Continental Congress, the country's one unifying quasi-legal institution. The status of 13 civilian conspirators, although charged, seemed unsure. They were sent to Connecticut temporarily.

Expecting the British army to attack New York, George Washington's Revolutionary army prepared for battle in a city uneasily divided in its loyalties. In June 1776, a Tory conspiracy was discovered. Wild stories circulated. One said Washington was to be murdered. Stripped of exaggeration, the basic "plot" was to stage a combined uprising of Loyalists and secret turncoats in Washington's army timed to coincide with the landing of British forces.

William Collier, an alert waiter, notified a city official of a conspiracy involving Gilbert Forbes, a gunsmith, Royal Governor William Tryon, hiding in a warship anchored offshore, and David Mathews, the mayor. A businessman informed authorities that a former employee, James Mason, had said he was receiving money from the British. Mason, when questioned, implicated several soldiers, including members of Washington's guard. One of those named was Sergeant Thomas Hickey, then under arrest on suspicion of counterfeiting.

In jail, Hickey spoke too freely. According to fellow prisoner Israel Young, Hickey and prisoner Michael Lynch said they would never again fight for the American cause and boasted that "there were near seven hundred men inlisted [sic] for the King." Another prisoner, Isaac Ketchum, testified Hickey had tried to enlist him and that Hickey and Lynch had bragged of their involvement in a conspiracy against Washington.

A secret committee investigated the charges, then issued warrants for the arrest of several people, including the mayor. The soldiers involved were turned over to General Washington, who ordered a courtmartial for Hickey.

William Greene, a soldier named by Mason, testified before the courtmartial that he had bribed Hickey to enlist in the king's service after having himself been bribed by the mayor. Greene said that both his and Hickey's names were on a list in Tryon's possession. The gunsmith, Forbes, corroborated Greene's testimony, adding that Mayor Mathews had given him 100 pounds, supplied by Tryon, with which to bribe Continental soldiers. Ketchum reported Hickey had said American soldiers were ready to fire on their compatriots once British forces landed.

Hickey, pleading not guilty, defended his actions, saying he:

engaged in the scheme at first for the sake of cheating the Tories, and getting some money from them, and afterwards consented to have his name sent on board the man-of-war, in order that, if the enemy should arrive and defeat the army here, and he should be taken prisoner, he might be safe.

Hickey, an Irishman, had deserted from the British army several years earlier.

Hickey was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Washington ordered that all men not on duty be present at Hickey's execution in the hopes that Hickey's "unhappy fate" would "be a warning to" all. On June 28, 20,000 people watched as Hickey, minus stripes and buttons, having refused a chaplain (he claimed clergy were all cutthroats), mounted the scaffold and died. The following day, British warships sailed into New York Harbor.

Hickey was the only conspirator executed. The 13 sent to Connecticut were never tried. Several conspirators, including Mayor Mathews, escaped. By fall the British had taken New York. The secret investigative committee had accused one man, James Clayford, of plotting to kidnap George Washington. But there seems to be no surviving record of what eventually happened to him.

Teddi DiCanio

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