Only the Names and Faces Change

(Or, Strike Two for Anniversaries, Shall We Try for Three?)

Another historical forensics exercise, not entirely unrelated to the previous one.

Regarding Nathan Hale (the inspiration for The Wisp graphic novel script), often referred to as America’s first spy.

Just going to do a list of fact(oid)s. As before, much of this is going on stuff read years ago, so some of it is subject to faulty memory and conflicting historian accounts.

1) Went to Yale 1768-1773. There, he debated ending slavery (almost 100 years before the emancipation). He also did some acting. His performance in Cato was reportedly attended by Washington himself, the play being one of his favorites.

2) Little survives of a physical description. A woman who, despite being very, very tomboyish (yes, very likely a lesbian—believe it or not they existed back then) says he was blond, tan, over or around 6′ tall, and beautiful. One gets the impression she had a crush on him much like Calamity Jane did on Wild Bill; a man she could see herself with. She also noted he much preferred playing sports with the boys to dancing with the girls. (There’s a play about him in which he is engaged to a young woman; as near as I can tell that had no basis in fact, or even if it does, it hardly serves as denial of this other woman’s impression). She also said men much older than him seemed to look up to him. Her entire description made me think of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, 18th century style.

3) Washington, believing that the British settling in Manhattan meant losing, asked Congress for permission to burn lower Manhattan so as to force them elsewhere or at least distract them with harsher conditions than claiming beds within the homes of New Yorkers *. The request was denied.

4) Hale volunteered to go behind British lines on September 8th (at site of the Battle of Long Island, now commonly referred to as the Battle of Brooklyn) and did so on September 12th.

5) On September 21, 1776, lower Manhattan caught fire. Various water buckets either had new holes in the bottom or their ropes were cut, making them far less efficient. However, the fire did not drive the British off the island.

6) Later on September 21, 1776, Hale is arrested by the British for spying and sentenced to hang. They refuse to allow him to write to family for fear he will include coded messages to Washington.

7) His final words (all accounts are suspect as to exact phrasing) included a quote from Cato, which may have been paraphrased. He died at 21.

8) The British left his body hanging as a message and as a psychological attack on Washington, but it mysteriously disappeared after three days.

9) As noted in the previous amateur historian post, when Washington caught his first British spy, his officers asked to spare or shoot him because he was a gentleman. Washington refused on both counts. 

10) Hale’s body has never been found.

11) Washington again asked Congress’ permission, this time for a performance of Cato, by and for the continental army. For some reason, Congress said ‘no’. For some reason, it got performed anyway.

12) On his deathbed, Washington requested to not be buried for three days after he expired.

So, rumors were that it was probably some group of patriots who pulled Hale’s body down and hid it. The question then, why not return it after the war? Could be whoever hid it did not survive. But surely someone who survived could have told Washington what happened.

Unless they had another motive for not doing so. The Pennsylvania Quakers, for example. They opposed the war to begin with, but one imagines the sight of a young man’s body left to rot might also upset conscientious objector types.

What if some group of them decided to teach the British and Washington a lesson? What if they took it down and hid it? What if it was an attempt to frighten a deist into becoming a little more hardcore religiously?

What if Hale’s buried in this cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn?

Wonder if Hale thought he was fighting for all sorts of human rights. Wonder if he ever thought people would have to do so again. Wonder if he ever thought it was time for so many people playing it safe to get off their tushies and do something. Wonder if he ever decided he’d done his part, that he couldn’t do it alone.

* Again, fodder for The Wisp in light of events in New Orleans post-Katrina.