A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery

The man sentenced to die in a field beside the Bowery was Thomas Hickey.

Hickey was an 18-year-old private, described as a “dark-complexioned” Irish deserter of the British army who then signed up to serve on the American side as the Revolutionary War was heating up.

In spring 1776 he was part of the personal “life guard” George Washington put together before the British were expected to occupy New York City.

The 50 or so men in the life guard protected Washington and his headquarters. Decked out in stylish coats (below left) and hats with a blue and white feather, they were “made up of the most physically fit and best performing soldiers,” states Henry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers.

But in June, Washington got word that Hickey and another life guard member were part of a much wider treasonous plot.

Hickey “was implicated in a scheme to sabotage the Continental Army that was reportedly coordinated by royal governor William Tryon,” states Cruel & Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders’ Eighth Amendment, by John D. Bessler.

After an investigation, 20 or so more men were accused of being in on the sabotage scheme—including the city’s Loyalist mayor, David Matthews. The scheme may have included a plan to kidnap or kill Washington.

Hickey wasn’t the only member of the life guard to be accused—but he was the one who was made an example of.

“At the subsequent court-martial proceeding, [other accused men] 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,” states a 2002 article on Hickey in the Irish Echo.

“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.”

In any event, a jury found Hickey guilty of mutiny, sedition, and “holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy.” He was sentenced to die the next day.

“Handbills went up all around the city announcing June 28 as the date of Hickey’s execution,” states the Irish Echo. “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.”

Sources place the site of the hanging at today’s Bowery and Bayard Street as well as Bowery and Grand, both well out of the city and in the Manhattan countryside, as the above illustrations show.

It was the first execution by the Continental Army; Washington signed the death warrant. He also insisted that every soldier not on duty attend the execution as a warning “to avoid those crimes and all other so disgraceful” to a soldier.

[Second image: Ratzen map, NYC 1767; Last image: Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783, Evacuation Day]

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9 Responses to “A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery”

  1. Zoé Says:

    Wow. They didn’t teach us *those* words from Washington in grade school.

    One wonders if every person executed then was guilty – as now. That has to be the most desolate feeling known to man – tens of thousands cheering your death in your ears… tragic…

    Thank you Ephemeral – for telling us what’s happened under our feet as we rush around…

  2. petey Says:

    great selection of pics and maps!

  3. Bob Says:

    At least we know with greater precision where Hickey was hanged than where Nathan Hale was hanged by the British: https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/where-was-nathan-hale-really-hanged/

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  5. David H Lippman Says:

    In those days, executions were public festivities. When the Marquis de Lafayette came to America in the 1820s, he was the honored guest at the simultaneous hanging of 21 highwaymen in what is now Washington Square Park. One lever. He was offered the chance to yank the lever, but declined it. There were vendors and fair attractions. The 21 crooks were brought out before a huge crowd, who threw rotten fruit at them and jeered the losers. The crooks jeered back and hurled obscenities. The big moment came, the 21 crooks danced on air, and everyone cheered. After that, there was music and dancing, while the bodies remained hanging into the night. Today, I suppose, “Monday Night Execution” sponsored by Con Ed and Remington Arms, would be a smash hit reality show….

  6. Gail E. Says:

    Do you know where I can get a print of the pic above, “Washington on his triumphant return to Manhattan in 1783”? Thanks, Gail

  7. kiss918.best Says:

    kiss918.best

    A Revolutionary War hanging near the Bowery | Ephemeral New York

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