Remembering The Death of Nathan Hale
Saturday will be the 242nd anniversary of the execution of Nathan Hale, who is considered to be America's first spy.
While many versions of the events of that day exist, there is no doubt Hale's story, and his sacrifice, belong to the ages.
In my novel "Washington's Wild Rose," which is a historical romance, I created a fictionalized version of events as my heroine, Sarah Carrington, witnesses her longtime friend's life being taken by the British. And while this is a fictional account, like all historical fiction, it is based on some modicum of truth. Here is Sarah's account:
We drove until the city fell away, and we were surrounded by apple orchards. The trees were bursting with fruit. Much of it was unpicked and had fallen, making the wagon bump along as it caught underneath the wheels. The humid air mixed with the apples made their sweet aroma heavy and sickish.
As we approached, I could hear the noise of a crowd. About 100 or so people had gathered around one of the larger trees. As we got closer, I could see a black man throwing a rope over the tree and tying a noose on it as Nathan stood by.
The wagon stopped. The crowd turned, gaping at me. “Is that his lover?” someone said.
“Yes,” said another voice. “That is the girl he was arrest with. She is a traitor too.”
“Then why don’t they hang her with him?” someone yelled.
I stood to get out of the wagon. When I tried to walk to where Nathan was, the guard grabbed my arm. “This is as far as we go,” he said.
“But we are so far away. He will not know I am here.”
“Can’t take the risk of somebody helping you escape, miss. This is as far as we will go.”
Oh, come on,” said someone. “Let her come up close. Let the traitor see her lover hang.”
“Please, sir,” I whispered to MacKenzie. “Let me say goodbye.”
He sighed. “Oh, alright.” He took my arm again and pushed me through the crowd.
I was now at the front of the tree with the noose. Nathan stood tall and proud as the Redcoats tied his hands behind his back. But when he looked at me, I could see the sadness in his eyes.
The crowd fell silent. “I love you, Nathan,” I yelled. “All that live for the cause love you. Your sacrifice will go down in infamy”
A slight smile can over his lips. “Thank you, Sarah,” he said, his voice shaky. “I love you. Stay strong.”
A cheer went up through the crowd. A large man with brash red hair and a bulbous alcoholic’s nose spoke. “Be quiet now,” he yelled. “Let us proceed,” He turned to Nathan. “Captain Nathan Hale, you are hereby convicted of being a traitor to the crown on this day, the twenty-second of September, Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six, for which you shall suffer the punishment of death. “Any last dying speech or confession?” he asked Nathan.
He stood proudly, his head high. His voice sailed over the crowd. “If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down for my country, which I know will prevail in the end.”
The black man tightened the noose. Nathan climbed the ladder. He looked up at the sky, as if opening himself up for his maker to receive him.
The sobs of women irritated the red-haired man, who people said was named Cunningham. “Stop your cryin’ you stupid bitches,” he yelled. “Why are you cryin’ for this traitor? If ya don’t shut it, you all will come to the same.”
It grew quiet. I fixed my eyes on Cunningham’s ugly face. “What are you looking at?” he spat at me. “I know you. You’re that Carrington woman. A spying slut. You should be up here too, you rebel whore.”
I glared back at him. “To victory!” I yelled. “To America!”
Several in the crowd followed my lead.
He sneered angrily. “Let the prisoner swing off,” he yelled. as the ladder was removed.
Women cried and screamed, running away with their hands to their faces. Nathan bounced and thrashed. Sounds of broken breath gurgled from his throat.
MacKenzie tried to pull me away. “Come, now, miss.”
“No,” I said. “I will bear witness to his death. I will not go until he has passed.”
The crowd ebbed away. Soon only my guard and I stood there, with Cunningham, the black man and a few Redcoats.
It took a few more minutes before Nathan stopped moving. “I think he’s dead, sir,” said the black man, who turned out to be Cunningham’s slave. “Shall I cut him down and bury him?”
Cunningham pondered for a moment. “No,” he said, staring at Nathan. “It’s a nice hot day. The heat will make him rot faster.” He looked over at me. “Let him be an example to traitors.”
“You bastard,” I screamed. “You are Satan himself. You will meet a worse fate than Captain Hale, I assure you.”
He laughed. “Get her out of here,” he said.
“Come, miss,” MacKenzie said gently. “Come now, it is over.”
The smells of Nathan’s body were hitting the air now. I put my hand to my nose. I leaned on MacKenzie, afraid my legs would betray me. I would not give that ugly bastard Cunningham the satisfaction of seeing my pain. He would see my defiance. That is what Nathan would have wanted.
You might be wondering why Nathan did not say his famous "I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country" in my account. That is because those words are words of myth. No one knows for sure that is what he said. There were many accounts of what was said, and as Hale's legend grew over two centuries, that line was the one that stuck. But there are other accounts of his last words. Some are just paraphrases and others are quite different. For more on the myths of Hale's life and death, see my May 31, 2017 blog post "The Myth of Nathan Hale."
What we do know is Hale was executed on September 22, 1776 on the orders of General William Howe. He was turned over to the British by the infamous mercenary Robert Rogers, who had been following him from the time he left Norwalk, Connecticut and crossed into Huntington, NY on Long Island.
Accounts of where the execution took place are also debated. Some say it was 66th and Third Avenue in Manhattan, others say it was in City Hall Park, others again say the site was Grand Central Station. Of course New York City was not what it is now, and there was much pastureland and fields around the city. According to a Daniel Waddell, who witnessed the execution when he was 13 and interviewed about it at age 98, Hale was hung in an apple orchard belonging to a Henry Rutgers, which was just north of the city.
Another true part of my version concerns Provost Marshall William Cunningham, who was chosen to carry out the execution. He was chosen specifically for this task because of this reputation of cruelty to American prisoners. It was Cunningham who refused to allow Hale to write to his family, or let him have access to a Bible which he requested.
Whatever is believed, Nathan Hale's courage and conviction is remembered, and I hope his story will be told in classrooms all over America 100 years from now and beyond.
If you would like to read the first two books of "The Patriot Trilogy," in which Nathan Hale and many other real people from the era of American independence are portrayed, they are available on my website at www.girlwiththebook.com.