(died 28 June
) was a Continental Army
soldier who was executed
early in the American Revolutionary War
after the conclusion of the Boston
campaign, General George
Washington and the Continental Army marched to New York City and prepared for an anticipated attempt by the
British Army to occupy the city.
Governor of New York
, had been driven out of the city by American Patriots
and was compelled to
seek refuge on a ship in New York Harbor. Nevertheless, the city
had many residents who favored the British side, known as Loyalists
Thomas Hickey was a private in the Commander-in-Chief's Guard
unit formed on 12 March 1776
, to protect General Washington, his official
papers, and the Continental Army's cash. That spring, Hickey and
another soldier were arrested for passing counterfeit money
. While incarcerated,
Hickey revealed to another prisoner, Isaac
, that he was part of a wider conspiracy of soldiers who
were prepared to defect to the British once the expected invasion
came. Arrested by civilian authorities, Hickey was turned over to
the Continental Army for trial. He was court-martialed
and found guilty of mutiny and
sedition. He was executed before a crowd of 20,000
Hickey was the only person put on trial for the conspiracy. During
the trial, David Mathews
, the Mayor of New York City
, was accused
of funding the operation to bribe soldiers to join the British.
Although the charge was never proven, Mathews and twelve others
were briefly imprisoned. The conspiracy became greatly exaggerated
in rumor, and was alleged to include plans to kidnap Washington,
assassinate his officers, and blow up the Continental Army's
ammunition magazines. The false rumors greatly damaged the
reputation of Loyalists throughout the nascent United States.
Although Hickey was jailed for counterfeiting, and charged with
sedition and conspiracy while in prison, William Spohn Baker
, the great
late-19th-century Washington expert, believed that the real reason
for his execution was involvement in a plot to kill or kidnap
"Thomas Hickey, one of Washington's Guard, was tried by
a court-martial and sentenced to death, being found implicated in a
plot to murder the American general officers on the arrival of the
British, or at best to capture Washington and deliver him to Sir
The plot had been traced to Governor Tryon, the mayor
(David Matthews) having been a principal agent between him and the
persons concerned in it.
Baker obviously was wrong about the specific crimes of which Hickey
was convicted, but in 1776, the rumor of an assassination plot
seems to have been real:
"[June 24, 1776.] A most infernal plot has lately been
discovered here, which, had it been put into execution, would have
made America tremble, and been as fatal a stroke to us, this
Country, as Gun Powder Treason would to England, had it
The hellish conspirators were a number of Tories (the
Mayor of ye City among them) and three of General Washington's Life
The plan was to kill Generals Washington and Putnam,
and as many other Commanding Officers as possible."
"[July 13, 1776.] I suppose you have heard of ye execution of one
of the General's Guards, concerned in ye hellish plot, discovered
here some time past. There was a vast concourse of people to see ye
poor fellow hanged."In 1870, the antiquarian Benson J. Lossing
introduced a housekeeper into
"The guardsman was tried by a court-martial, and on the
testimony of the housekeeper and one of the corps, whom the culprit
had unsuccessfully attempted to corrupt, he was found guilty of
'mutiny and sedition and of holding a treacherous correspondence
with the enemies of the colonies' and was sentenced to be
[*] "These facts were related to a friend of the writer (Mr. W.J.
Davis), by the late Peter Embury, of New York, who resided in the
city at the time, was well acquainted with the general's
housekeeper, and was present at the execution of Hickey."Lossing's
information was third-hand (as he freely admitted). The story is
undermined by the trial minutes of Hickey's June 26, 1776
court-martial, which contain no housekeeper's testimony.
In the January 1876 issue of Scribner's Monthly
Magazine, John F.
Mines gave a name to Lossing's housekeeper:"A daughter of "Black
Sam," Phoebe Fraunces, was Washington's housekeeper when he had his
headquarters in New York in the spring of 1776, and was the means
of defeating a conspiracy against his life. Its immediate agent was
to be Thomas Hickey, a deserter from the British army, who had
become a member of Washington's body guard, and had made himself a
general favorite at headquarters. Fortunately, the would-be
conspirator fell desperately in love with Phoebe Fraunces, and made
her his confidant. She revealed the plot to her father, and at an
opportune moment the denouement
came. Hickey was arrested
and tried by court-martial."Mines listed no sources for the
information in the magazine article. It was nationally read in the
patriotic build-up to the Centennial celebration.
Henry Russell Drowne (great-grandson of the 1776 chronicler above)
repeated the Lossing-Mines legend in his history of Fraunces Tavern:
"His [ Samuel
Fraunces's] daughter Phoebe was Washington's housekeeper in the
Mortier House on Richmond Hill, occupied by the Commander-in-Chief
as Headquarters, in June, 1776, and it was she who revealed the
plot to assassinate Generals Washington and Putnam, which led to
the apprehension of her lover, an Irishman named Thomas Hickey, a
British deserter, then a member of Washington's bodyguard, in
consequence of which he was promptly executed on June 28,
There is no record of Samuel Fraunces having had a daughter named
"Phoebe". The name does not appear with those of his children in
the baptismal records of Christ Church, Philadelphia, or Trinity
Church, New York. His will, dated September 11, 1795, does not
mention a "Phoebe"; nor does a family history written by one of his
descendants. It is well-documented that Fraunces's nickname was
"Black Sam", but the 1790 U.S. Census for New York lists him as a
white man and a slaveholder. If a "Phoebe" ever existed, she may
have been a woman enslaved or employed by him, rather than his
In an effort to wish
the Lossing-Mines legend true,
amateur historians have recently declared that "Phoebe" was the
nickname of Samuel Fraunces's eldest daughter, Elizabeth. No
documentation, such as letters or even family lore has been
presented to support this new assertion. If the "Phoebe" of the
Lossing-Mines legend had been Elizabeth Fraunces, she would have
been rather young for espionage or a clandestine wartime romance.
Her birth date of December 26, 1765, means that during the week of
Thomas Hickey's June 28, 1776 execution, Elizabeth turned
documents from the The American Archives, published online
by the Northern Illinois University
- William Spohn Baker, Itinerary of General Washington from
June 15, 1775, to December 23, 1783 (Philadelphia: J.B.
Lippincott Company, 1892), p. 41.
Solomon Drowne to his sister Sally Drowne, New York, June 24,
1776; quoted in Henry Russell Drowne, A Sketch of Fraunces
Tavern and Those Connected with Its History (New York:
Fraunces Tavern, 1919), p. 8.
Drowne to his brother William Drowne, New York, July 13, 1776;
ibid., p. 10.
- Benson J. Lossing, Washington and the American
Republic (New York: Virtue & Yorston, 1870), vol. 1, pp.
- Hickey Court-martial Minutes
- John F. Mines, "New York in the Revolution," Scribner's
Monthly, vol. XI, no. 3 (January 1876), p. 311.
- Drowne, A Sketch of Fraunces Tavern, p. 8.
- Manuscript at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- "At first we supposed it was only a sham, /Till he drove a
round ball thro' the roof of black Sam-" The Poems of Philip
Freneau, Written Chiefly During the Late War (1786) p. 321.
This refers to an August 23, 1775 incident in which Fraunces Tavern
was hit by a cannonball.
- Elizabeth Fraunces as "Phoebe"
- Christ Church, Philadelphia, records her baptism on January 27,